The Patriots are not an easy team to beat. In fact, there are days where the opponent has absolutely no chance. Sunday was not one of those days. We saw a miscommunication on a snap that led to a Dolphins touchdown. We saw Tom Brady drop a shotgun snap that led to a sack. We saw Brady uncharacteristically force a low-velocity pass over the middle, resulting in an interception. Brady was a bit off this past Sunday, his normal pinpoint accuracy absent. Luckily for number-12 and New England, they were playing the Dolphins.
Let’s start with Miami’s approach to this particular game. We understand that not all teams are capable of running multiple defensive schemes successfully like the Patriots are. There is a reason for this. Sometimes complexity forces world-class athletes to freeze. Sometimes, adding a few wrinkles or going against tendency can overload the brain and cause paralysis by analysis. Sometimes, it is better to simplify the scheme and let talent take over. However, this is not a good approach against the Patriots. In fact, it is a terrible approach unless you have an extremely talented defense. The Dolphins are not extremely talented. Yet, a simple and straightforward approach is exactly what we saw from Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke on Sunday.
The Dolphins predominantly played zone coverage against the Patriots. They played soft, rarely jamming or re-directing at the line of scrimmage. They gave Patriots receivers free releases and did nothing to disrupt the timing of the passing game. They offered little disguise and really didn’t challenge New England’s offense at all. Sure, the Patriots don’t make it easy for defenses. They use motion and unconventional personnel alignments to force defenders on their heels. But as a defense, you have to at least try to challenge the Patriots in order to have any chance. You can’t just give up short and easy passes, because Brady will take them every time and methodically march his offense down the field. You have to force Brady to make contested throws downfield. He’s a great quarterback so he’ll make some, but he won’t make all of them. The Dolphins did nothing to force contested throws on Sunday.
The point of using simplistic or non-variable schemes is to ensure that defenders understand their responsibilities and fly around the field. Even with Miami’s simplistic schemes, they still blew coverages multiple times against the Patriots. One of those blown coverages led to a 39-yard completion to Phillip Dorsett on New England’s first drive. On this play, the Patriots ran a post-cross combination (a very common route concept) against Miami’s cover-3 defense. The design of the play is shown below.
Here, cornerback Xavien Howard was supposed to go with Brandin Cooks on the post route. On the other side of the field, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley was supposed to pass off Phillip Dorsett and sprint to the deep middle of the field to replace safety T.J. McDonald and defend Brandin Cooks’ post route.
The deep safety, T.J. McDonald, was supposed to jump the crosser.
Instead, all 3 defenders went with the post, leaving a wide-open Dorsett for 39 yards.
Defending post-cross combinations off of play action against cover-3 is something all defenses in the NFL practice. It is a straight-forward concept and one that Miami should not be making mistakes on in Week 12 during the first drive of the game.
Later in the game, on the Patriots’ 4th touchdown of the afternoon, safety Reshad Jones failed to go with Rob Gronkowski while in quarters coverage in the red zone. The Patriots ran a common quarters beater, a post-corner route combination. Jones was supposed to go with Gronk on the corner route, but reacted to the post instead, leaving the hard-to-miss tight end wide open. It’s tough enough to stop the Patriots when Gronkowski is actually covered. It’s impossible when he is left wide open in the red zone.
It wasn’t just the blown coverages that doomed Miami, though. Lack of situational awareness was also an issue. Take this play below. The Patriots were facing a 3rd-and-14. That red line is the first-down marker.
The Dolphins were playing cover 3. On the right side of the field, the Patriots ran Danny Amendola on a clear-out from the slot, and Brandin Cooks ran a deep in or a dig route.
Rob Gronkowksi initially threw a block and then leaked out in front of Brady, roughly 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. Gronk was a long way from the first down marker, and Brady didn’t pump fake or shoulder roll in his direction. Yet linebacker Kiko Alonso and safety T.J. McDonald both drove on him.
With Amendola knocking the top off the coverage, a gaping void was left beyond the first-down marker.
The lack of situational awareness here is stunning. On 3rd-and-long in zone coverage, defenders have to be aware of the first-down marker. Here, Alonso and McDonald jumped a route 9 yards from the first down and left the area near the marker completely uncovered. 3rd-and-14 should not be this easy. The result here was a 37-yard gain.
Aside from the poor execution in coverage on Sunday, the Dolphins could not stop the Patriots’ running game. New England was clearly targeting the inside of Miami’s defense, which is surprising considering that interior D-line with Ndamukong Suh should be somewhat stout. From the get-go, the Patriots ran lead draws, inside zones, dives, and traps. They did so with great success. New England finished the day with 196 rushing yards on 38 carries (That’s an average of 5.2 yards per carry).
Maybe it was the Pats’ running game sucking the defense inside, but the Dolphins also had trouble defending New England’s specialty runs to the edge. By specialty runs, we mean play-designs that are not every-down types of plays meant to sustain a running game. These include end-arounds, jet-sweeps, and even shovel-passes. These are plays meant to either take a shot at a big play or at least keep the defense honest. The Patriots were able to do both. They gained 11 yards on a jet-sweep to Brandin Cooks, 22 yards on an end-around to Rex Burkhead, and then Brady “threw” his 4th touchdown of the day on a shovel-pass that basically functioned as a jet-sweep. Clearly, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels saw something in Miami’s inability to protect the edge against these types of runs heading into the game.
When you can’t cover, can’t play to your assignment, don’t challenge the offense, lack situational awareness, can’t stop inside runs, and can’t stop runs off the edge, most of the time you are going to lose badly. Luckily for the Dolphins, Tom Brady did not have his usual high level of precision. Otherwise, the score (35-17) may have been much worse.