Patriots: Why 2021 matchups with Dolphins will be different
The Miami Dolphins have built a defensively-minded team and are a legitimate playoff threat.
When the New England Patriots play the Miami Dolphins in the Sept. 12 season opener for both teams, they will encounter a team building a fundamentally sound defense under head coach Brian Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, although most of their main additions came on offense this season.
Of course, both Flores and Boyer belong to the Belichick coaching tree, so the resemblance to the Patriots defense is not a coincidence. The Dolphins play a 3-4-4 or 3-3-5 defense based on the New England blueprint.
The Dolphins are a sharp contrast to the Buffalo Bills, whose business plan, as described in a previous MusketFire article, seems to assume that they will automatically be assigned first place in the AFC East and have designed their team to defeat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and in the playoffs.
The Dolphins are serious about stopping the run game, and it starts up front. They’re at least three deep at nose tackle with Raekwon Davis, John Jenkins and Patriots defector Adam Butler able to play nose or defensive end. Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler will flank the nose tackle. The five of them average 309 pounds. They’re much more hefty than the Buffalo linemen.
Even outside linebackers Emmanuel Ogbah and rookie Jaelan Phillips are bigger than the Bills defensive ends. Ogbah led the team with nine sacks while Phillips was drafted in the first round out of the University of Miami Hurricanes to do the same thing.
Inside ‘backer Jerome Baker led the team in tackles with 112 and finished second to Ogbah in sacks with seven. Andrew Van Ginkel had only 48 tackles, but also did not have as many snaps (46% versus 84% for Baker). Newcomer Bernardrick McKinney, a former All-Pro, will upgrade the linebacker room substantially.
The secondary will be manned by corners Xavien Howard, Byron Jones and … somebody please tell us what Jason McCourty is doing dressed like a fish? Howard is an emerging superstar, so don’t even think about throwing to the receiver he’s covering. He’s good enough to shut down any receiver on the Patriots’ roster. Cam, do NOT throw his way, please.
The starting safeties last year were Jevon Holland and Eric Rowe, with Brandon Jones often getting snaps in nickel situations. None of them are particularly great in coverage.
So how are the Dolphins going to cover tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, especially if they’re on the field at the same time? Their safeties will need help from the linebackers … but that will create another problem with running backs like Damien Harris, Sony Michel and James White ready to burst through a hole or sneak out into the flat.
So let’s take a deeper look into how the Dolphins match up with the Patriots.
Miami’s offense will go as far as Tua Tagovailoa can carry them
Any discussion of the Dolphins offense can start with Tua Tagovailoa. At the risk of revealing a trade secret, sportswriters exaggerate how much college football they actually watch; mainly everybody forms opinions from the highlight shows and bowl games. However, this writer’s 95-year-old dad is a Bama graduate, so together we have watched almost every game Tua played in college. Our scouting report has two lines on it.
First, he’s unbelievably accurate throwing the football. Second … why doesn’t Tua throw the ball? Was it the offensive system he was in under Chan Gailey? Did he have trouble adjusting to speed at the NFL level? Was his protection not good enough? What about the skill position weapons?
Nonetheless, few people believe Tua earned his opportunity to become the starting quarterback, as Ryan Fitzpatrick had the team at a surprising 3-3 at the time Tua took over. For that reason, it seems a bit suspicious that the team needed to trade up to draft his former teammate, Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle. Was it really just because of his talent, or did the front office feel that it was necessary to elevate the lefty’s game?
In addition to Waddle, the Dolphins added Will Fuller, who has one more game to serve under his PED suspension, so he’ll miss Week 1 against the Pats. DeVante Parker (793 yards in 2020), Jakeem Grant (373 yards) and Preston Williams (288 yards) are still available. The Patriots will counter with an extremely tight secondary, with corners JC Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Stephon Gilmore. They also still have one half of the McCourty twins (Devin) at free safety along with Jalen Mills. The Pats are not going to help Tua develop a quick release.
Dolphins tight ends Mike Gesicki (703 yards), Durham Smythe (208 yards) and Adam Shaheen (150 yards) will see strong safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger, aided and abetted by the inside linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley, Dont’a Hightower, Anfernee Jennings and Terez Hall. Not all of these players are guaranteed to make the Patriots 53-player roster, of course, but in any case, there’s significant talent and experience all over the defensive side of the ball.
Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin had 972 yards from scrimmage while Malcolm Brown, another RB Miami brought in from the Rams, had 581 yards from scrimmage for LA. They will operate behind an offensive line that may start, from left to right: Austin Jackson, the 2020 first-round pick who was IR’d last season; Solomon Kindley, a fourth-round pick from Georgia last season; Matt Skura, who started for Baltimore and also can play guard; Robert Hunt, a six-foot-six, 327-pound strongman from Louisiana-Lafayette who was a second-round pick last season; and Jesse Davis, a fifth-year pro from Idaho. It’s a good offensive line.
They will face a three-man defensive line with Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson, with rookie stud Christian Barmore demanding that youth be served. They will be flanked with outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon. Inside ‘backers, as mentioned above, include Bentley and Hightower as prospective starters. Jennings and Hall will also be part of the rotation.
Last season, Tua and the Dolphins beat the Patriots 22-12, with Miami running all over the New England for an absurd 250 rushing yards and Tua going 20-of-26 for 145 yards. The Patriots did not stop anything at the line of scrimmage.
Over the course of the 2020 season, the Patriots simply did not generate enough sacks and quarterback pressures to bring joy to coach Belichick’s stone-cold heart. Chase Winovich was the leader with only 5.5 sacks. Things will change with the additions of Godchaux, Barmore, Judon, and Van Noy. They will plug up the running lanes and help get more sacks. Judon and Van Noy each had six sacks last season — Judon also had 21 quarterback hits along with nine tackles for a loss. Van Noy produced 10 quarterback hits and 10 tackles for loss. There will be more heat on the way.
On the one hand, the Dolphins are working with Tua on his decision-making. On the other hand, the Patriots have greatly increased the amount of pressure they can bring on him, and they have added major stars on the defensive front.