Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin may have simply been serving up some coach speak, but the fact remains: It takes a perfect game plan, and perfect execution of that game plan, to beat the Patriots.
"I think if last week’s game [against the Cleveland Browns] proved anything, it's if you're going to play the New England Patriots you have to play from the first play to the very last play and you can't let up for one play against those guys," Philbin said on a conference call with New England media.
|Patriots vs. Dolphins, round 1|
|1st half||Points||Yards||Turnovers||Punts||Pen/yds||3rd %|
|2nd half||Points||Yards||Turnovers||Punts||Pen/yds||3rd %|
|NFL.com game book|
Tom Brady has made a career of coming through in clutch situations, but he's doing so at an even more torrid pace than years past; he's led more fourth-quarter comebacks this season than any other season in his career, and leads the NFL in that category with five.
The last time these two teams met, the Dolphins had a good thing going in the first half before things came quickly unraveled in the final 30 minutes of play. What did the Dolphins learn from the previous meeting? What did they do well that could be applied this time around, and what were some things they didn't do well that allowed the Patriots to climb back in the game?
Missed Opportunities and Costly Mistakes
Omar Little from "The Wire" may have said it best: "You come at the king, you best not miss."
You cannot afford to squander opportunities against the Patriots. If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it's that the Patriots have a funny way about capitalizing on their opponent's mistakes.
The Dolphins know all about it, having made a few such mistakes at Gillette Stadium in Week 8.
"I think the things you have to do, you've got to make the plays that present themselves," Philbin said. "For example, we've got to make that field goal as we open the second half. We get a three-and-out, we stop them, we drive the ball down. Obviously we would like to get in the end zone and score a touchdown, but the plays that are there we have to make. We can’t turn people free in protection and get our quarterback hit in the back of the head."
The missed field goal Philbin speaks of, however, may have been negatively impacted by the play before it.
As Philbin mentioned, the Dolphins defense had forced a three-and-out on the Patriots' first possession of the second half, and had marched down the field. On 3rd-and-2 from the Patriots' 19-yard line, the Patriots sent one of their 28 blitzes on the day by rushing the quarterback with five defenders; linebacker Dont'a Hightower (circled in yellow) came looping across the formation from the strong side to the weak side.
The offensive line got their protection wrong, and that allowed the Patriots' rush to break into the backfield.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich was the first one to affect Tannehill, and although Ninkovich didn't bring him down, the damage had already been done, as Tannehill was flustered and brought down by Hightower shortly thereafter.
They would have liked to turn the red-zone opportunity into a touchdown, but the sack pushed the Dolphins back to the 28-yard line, turning a chipshot 37-yard field goal into a 46-yarder that had the distance, but hit the upright.
There was also the sack-fumble by cornerback Logan Ryan off the edge that gave the Patriots new life, and the ball at the Dolphins' 13-yard line.
Whether it was running back Daniel Thomas failing to pick up the blitz or offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie simply getting his assignment wrong, it's inexcusable to allow a free rusher to get into the backfield that quickly and rock the ball out of the quarterback's hands.
The Patriots brought more blitzes against the Dolphins than they have against any team this year. It will be interesting to see if they bring an aggressive defensive game plan with them to Miami this week, or if they scale things back a bit the second time around.
Put a Cornerback On Shane Vereen
Shane Vereen is a matchup nightmare. The Patriots use him in similar ways to how the Saints utilize Darren Sproles, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) he ranks second in receiving yards per route run.
His presence on the field presents a dilemma for an opposing defense. On the one hand, if you put a cornerback on him, that makes you susceptible to Tom Brady checking to a run. On the other hand, if you put a linebacker on him, you can almost expect Brady to find a way to expose the favorable matchup in the passing game.
|Shane Vereen, past 4 games|
|Player||Targets||Receptions||Catch %||Yds||Rec. 3rd conv.||Rush||Yds||YPA|
|Rest of offense||105||70||66.7||883||11||80||313||3.91|
|Pro Football Reference|
The Dolphins didn't face Vereen in the first meeting, but they'd be wise to put a cornerback on him in an effort to minimize the damage—they'd probably rather give up five yards on the ground than 10 yards through the air.
Granted, New England might look to capitalize on a porous Dolphins run defense that's yielded 4.2 YPA to its opponents this season, but if the Patriots elect to run the ball in those situations, the Dolphins could notch that up as a small victory—the defense wins a little bit any time the ball isn't in Brady's hands.
Stick With The Running Game
The last time the Dolphins faced the Patriots, they employed a run-heavy game plan on offense to take advantage of the Patriots' injuries on defense.
|Patriots run defense|
|With Vince Wilfork||4||103||420||4.08||1||19|
|Without Vince Wilfork||9||292||1346||4.61||8||76|
|Pro Football Reference|
Vince Wilfork is just one of the major injuries the Patriots have suffered on defense, as they've also been without defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo for much of the season.
All three players were out of action for the first meeting between the two teams, and the Dolphins were committed to running early in the game, with 22 carries for 103 yards in the first half. But Miami got away from it in the second half as the Patriots climbed into the game (eight second-half rushes for 53 yards), and even more so when the Patriots finally took the lead.
The Patriots were only up by three points in the fourth quarter but the Dolphins were playing like they were down by 30, with three rush attempts from the time the Patriots took their first lead to the end of the game.
The pass-happy tendency of the Dolphins at that stage allowed the Patriots to get more pressure than before; Tannehill was not sacked in the first half, but was brought down a whopping seven times in the second half en route to New England shutting out Miami in the game's final 30 minutes.
Teams have run the ball aggressively up the middle against the Patriots. The Jets piled up 52 rush attempts against the Patriots in Week 7; the Bengals went with 39 rush attempts in Week 5, the week after Wilfork went down. Even the dynamic Denver Broncos' pass attack deemed it advantageous to pound the rock with Knowshon Moreno, and racked up 48 rush attempts that night.
There's always some pressure to put points on the board when Brady is on the sideline, but if the Dolphins can practice some patience against the Patriots they could exploit a porous Patriots front seven.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.