New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has not been playing up to his usual standards this season, but that doesn't mean the Miami Dolphins can come into Gillette Stadium and expect to be given multiple opportunities to put the Patriots away.
The Dolphins—and more specifically, quarterback Ryan Tannehill—need to be on their best behavior when it comes to playing mistake-free football, or as close to it as possible.
When Tannehill doesn't throw an interception, the Dolphins' record is 7-4. When he throws one interception or more, they are just 3-8 as a team. Additionally, the Dolphins have lost all seven games in which Tannehill has thrown more than one interception.
He had two interceptions and three total turnovers in a Week 7 home loss to the Buffalo Bills, and that won't cut it against the Patriots, either.
Well, coming off of the last game, obviously that’s something that didn't go well. Definitely don’t want to turn the ball over in the red zone—taking three points off the board there—and then coming out the first drive of the game, the first third down, a pick-six. It's definitely something I will continue to work on. We evaluated all the turnovers over the bye week and I know there were some that I could help, and a lot of them I couldn't. Definitely those two this last week were squarely on my shoulders.
Both interceptions came in the first quarter, and while the pick-six was certainly more painful for the Dolphins' chances of winning, the interception in the red zone was probably the worse throw.
This one showed that while Tannehill is coming along nicely in his ability to read coverage, there are some things that time just can't teach. Bills safety Aaron Williams has played cornerback recently due to the Bills' myriad injuries in the secondary, and on this play, he lined up in press coverage against tight end Charles Clay on the outside.
This, however, was simply a clever disguise by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, well-executed by Williams. The safety was really dropping into a deep zone, and through Williams' effective disguise, the coverage baited Tannehill into the throw.
Williams was able to position himself under the ball and made the play.
He can't afford to have blunders like this against the Patriots.
In reviewing all seven interceptions, two were bad reads, two were bad decisions, two were bad throws, and his arm was hit by a defender while throwing another. That's six interceptions that fall squarely on Tannehill's shoulders.
One of those interceptions was a pass over the middle that was tipped. Tannehill probably thought he could fit the pass in between the two linebackers, sinking into zone coverage over the middle, but the window between them closed quickly when the linebacker correctly read where Tannehill was going with the ball and broke in that direction.
Tipped balls like that one won't always be intercepted, but Tannehill's mistake was waiting too long to throw the ball; instead of starting his motion before receiver Brandon Gibson entered his break, Tannehill didn't pull the trigger until after Gibson had come out of his break behind the strong-side linebacker. That allowed the weak-side linebacker to break on the ball and tip it in the air.
Another one of his interceptions, this one against the Falcons, provides an example of Tannehill simply sticking to his read too long.
Clay (left side of the screen) was pressed off the line by the linebacker and had a hard time getting around him.
He threw the ball to Clay, who nearly had the catch despite being blanketed in coverage, but Tannehill probably shouldn't have thrown the ball. When the receiver gets bumped off his route like that, Tannehill needs to come off that read and look somewhere else.
Had he done so, he would have found Mike Wallace streaking down the sideline, while Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel stared down the quarterback (as he is wont to do).
The Dolphins have turned the ball over 11 times on the season, the ninth most in the NFL. Tannehill has thrown a pick in four of six games this season.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are riding a 34-game streak of forcing at least one turnover from their opponent. Their specific game plan may change from week to week, but the premise largely stays the same: The Patriots want to outexecute their opponent, winning games by making fewer mistakes—and taking advantage of more opportunities—than the players on the other side of the ball.
Over the past two seasons, the Patriots are 14-2 when they win the turnover battle, while the Dolphins are 6-1.
Tom Brady hasn't been as Terrific recently as he was when he earned that nickname, but he's not suddenly making game-changing mistakes.
He is completing just 55.4 percent of his passes this year, but he's still thrown only five interceptions—that's a perfectly acceptable number across the league, even if it's not up to his normal standards (he's thrown fewer than 10 interceptions in four of his past six seasons as a starter).
There still aren't many game-changing mistakes from Brady—although last we saw him, he threw a pick-six on the second play of the second half that brought the Jets within four points and permanently shifted the momentum of the game.
The Dolphins can't count on gifts like that from Brady this week.
But more importantly, they must be able to count on Tannehill being efficient and protecting the football. Their offensive balance has been skewed heavily to the passing game this year; Tannehill is on pace to attempt 584 passes, exactly 100 more than last season. They have the second-fewest rush attempts per game through Week 7, according to TeamRankings.com.
To better help Tannehill protect the football, the Dolphins would be wise to turn up the heat in the running game against a Patriots defensive front that's without both defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo and could once again be without its second starting defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. The Jets ran the ball 52 times in their Week 7 win over the Patriots.
There's evidence to support an increased focus in running the football.
|Ryan Tannehill, play-action passing|
|Play type||Comp||Att||Comp %||Yds||YPA||TD||INT||Rate|
|No play action||113||186||60.8||1294||7.0||7||7||78.6|
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tannehill has a 108.5 passer rating when the Dolphins run a play-action pass. On standard passes, that number dips to a pedestrian 78.6. It's remarkable that play-action passing has been so effective for them considering how ineffective their running game has been (3.9 yards per carry, 17th in the NFL).
Even despite the difference in favor of play-action passing, the Dolphins have run just 14.9 percent of their passes off play-action this season. That's the eighth-lowest percentage of the 31 qualifying quarterbacks.
The Patriots linebackers have been the focus of much criticism for their struggles in coverage over the middle; catching them out of position with misdirection, such as play-action, seems like the Dolphins' best bet.
In the past, it wasn't as simple as taking care of the football. The Patriots forced their opponents to take chances by lighting up the scoreboard, making it tough for opponents to keep up. This year, however, the Patriots are averaging just 21.7 points per game, the 13th-lowest output in the league.
Whatever game plan is necessary, the Dolphins' strategy Sunday should start and end with being as safe with the football as possible.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.