Miami Dolphins football is officially back as we enter Week 1 of the regular season. The preseason gave us all a taste of competitive professional football for the first time since February. Although it was fun while it lasted, the regular season is so much better.
The Dolphins start the season at home against a familiar foe, the New England Patriots.
Led by Tom Brady, the Patriots are still considered the cream of the crop in the AFC East division. The results of Week 1 will greatly affect a fanbase that is desperate to escape mediocrity, but it is just one of many important games in 2014 for the franchise.
That’s why the Dolphins’ coaching staff needs to have an aggressive game plan that can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses. No matter how good of a coach Bill Belichick is, his roster is no longer the most talented in the league.
That leaves room for the Dolphins to stun the Patriots with their game plan and demoralize their opponent with execution.
After studying the Dolphins’ and Patriots’ preseason performances and reviewing their 2013 Week 15 matchup, the Dolphins have five essential areas that they must focus on when game-planning.
It’s time to jump in and see where the Dolphins must execute on Sunday to walk away from Week 1 with a victory.
Force Brady to Throw to Outside Receivers
It might seem counterintuitive to want a future Hall of Fame quarterback passing the ball more often than not, but for the Dolphins to have successful, they must play to their strength.
Tom Brady said this year is the best secondary the Dolphins have ever had.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) September 3, 2014
Brady’s recent high praise of the Dolphins’ secondary shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The Dolphins replaced the mediocre tandem of free safety Chris Clemons and cornerback Nolan Carroll with the more explosive and playmaking duo of Louis Delmas and Cortland Finnegan, respectfully. The hope is that Finnegan and Clemons will be able to take more risks and force more turnovers than what the 2013 defense did.
Star cornerback Brent Grimes will be able to handle anyone the Patriots can utilize at receiver, so consider one chunk of the field a non-concern. Like Grimes, Finnegan will benefit from being an NFL veteran, and he won’t make the same mistakes that younger secondary members are prone to making.
Brady also feasts when he’s able to get mismatches on slot receivers. In the 2013 Week 15 matchup, the Dolphins had a linebacker matched up with a slot receiver (usually Julian Edelman) 10 times throughout the game. Edelman was the fourth-best slot receiver in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The results were predictable, as Brady targeted the mismatch six times and completed four passes for nearly 100 yards. Starting linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are major liabilities in coverage, and since they are exposed to open-field tackles often, the Dolphins’ defense gets shredded on basic underneath routes.
The Dolphins now have a better option at linebacker than Wheeler and Ellerbe for coverage, but relying on rookie Chris McCain might be a tall task for Week 1.
Another reason the Dolphins must keep the ball going outside of the numbers is the return of Rob Gronkowski. Shalise Manza Young of the The Boston Globe reported that Gronkowski will play against the Dolphins on Sunday, and that’s an issue with Dion Jordan being suspended.
Miami will want to vary its defensive coverages throughout the game and be unafraid to expose its young talent. Second-year cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis had good preseason showings, with Davis finishing as the sixth-highest-graded cornerback in the league by PFF.
This secondary is ready for the challenge of slowing down Tom Brady, and now it must take advantage of the opportunities it forces.
Win the Interior
The one place where the Dolphins have a huge advantage on most teams across the league is their defensive line. Against the Patriots, the Dolphins’ defensive tackles must feast on a vulnerable interior offensive line.
After the Patriots traded away their best lineman in Logan Mankins, Dolphins’ defensive tackle Randy Starks must’ve smiled. Not only has he played well through the preseason, but he now gets to line up against Josh Kline, who earned one of the worst PFF grades of the preseason in Week 5, with a -7.1.
Next to Starks will be Earl Mitchell, who has also shown an explosive first step, and Jared Odrick. Odrick had somewhat of a breakout 2013 season and should again be a highly productive player in his contract year.
If there is one way to disrupt Brady, it’s to pressure him from the inside. Brady’s performance against pressure was terrible in 2013. When pressured, Brady completed just 45.8 percent of his pass attempts and registered a measly 64 QB rating. As you’ll see in the picture below, Brady cannot stand being hit, and he’ll alter his throwing motion to avoid it—so much so that his accuracy has taken a noticeable dip the last few seasons.
On offense, we already looked at why the line is prepared to play well this season, and it has to start Week 1.
Without Mike Pouncey at center, the Dolphins will have trouble establishing the run on inside zone plays because the duo of Samson Satele and Daryn Colledge struggle at run-blocking. So that puts pressure on those two and Shelley Smith to find ways to overcome a tough Patriots defensive line.
As pass protectors, this line is much improved over the 2013 cast, and it's certainly looking to keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill upright. That alone will prove to be beneficial to the offense.
Play Within the Scheme
Comparing the Dolphins’ offense to what the Eagles had success doing against the Patriots in Week 2 of the preseason, there are opportunities to make chunk plays.
In the picture below, you’ll see the Eagles run a play action that has the tight end running down the seam. The highlighted Patriots defender bites on the fake enough to allow Brent Celek to get free for a huge gain.
Now, look at what the Dolphins ran against the Buccaneers in Week 2. Tannehill shows the play fake, which draws the linebackers closer to the line for a split second. Then, Tannehill hits Jarvis Landry for a catch-and-run opportunity.
Tannehill will also have to keep the pace of the offense high to pressure the defense. Get to the line of scrimmage as fast as possible, then make adjustments as the Patriots reveal their coverage. Making quick decisions has been an issue at times for the third-year quarterback, but that’s normal for a young player. Improving in this area is crucial for Tannehill to make the next step happen.
To me, the acquisitions of Delmas, Finnegan, Branden Albert and Jarvis Landry showed the Dolphins want to bring toughness and physicality every play.
The only way to deter Gronkowski, Edelman and Danny Amendola from going over the middle of the field is to make them feel it. Play within the rules, but when hitting someone, use form tackling and deliver a powerful body blow.
Hit Brady early and often. Force Stevan Ridley to fumble the ball, as he’s prone to do.
Getting inside the head of the Patriots is much easier if they aren’t the more physical team. Staying physical is critical.
The 2013 Dolphins were plagued with self-inflicted mistakes like late hits, dropped passes and interceptions, fumbles, missed field goals and missed tackles.
It’s not fair to expect a perfect game every week from every player, but the Dolphins need to greatly reduce all of those issues to win close games.
The linebackers must read plays quickly, react with efficiency and form-tackle in space. On offense, receivers need to focus on the ball, then worry about yards after the catch later. Take care of the assignment for that play, and don’t play out of the skill set you possess. Beating the Patriots takes execution, not trying to put the entire team on one's back.
Keeping wins and losses in perspective can be difficult in the NFL because of how few games there seem to be. The first week of the season will cause overreaction throughout every fanbase, but it’s simply 1/16th of the season.
Still, it’s critical to win the games that clearly favor one team. The Dolphins have very similar, if not better, talent on their 53-man roster than the Patriots entering 2014.
To beat the Patriots, it’ll take execution in the five aforementioned areas. That’s the game plan the Dolphins should use to start the season with a cherished victory.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.