As we try to do every week ahead of the Miami Dolphins' game, I talk to the lead writer from SB Nation's team blog covering the Dolphins next opponent. In this case, with Miami facing the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football to open Week 8 of the NFL's schedule, I spoke with Rich Hill, the editor-in-chief of Pats Pulpit. You can check out my answers to his Dolphins questions over on Pats Pulpit later today.
The Patriots barely tried to run the ball against the New York Jets last week, relying on Tom Brady to do what Tom Brady does best, throwing the ball. Obviously, the Patriots love to re-design their offense each week for the opponent they are facing, and never seem to do the same thing twice. What would you expect the Miami defense to see when the Patriots have the ball Thursday night?
The quality of the opposing defensive line is the key factor that determines the Patriots pass:run mix. The Jets have the most talent on any defensive line in the AFC and the Patriots were willing to ignore the run game and instead attack the poor coverage linebackers in space. The loss of Dion Lewis with an abdominal injury forced the Patriots to change the game plan on Sunday.
With Ndamukong Suh leading a strong defensive line, the Patriots will definitely be more pass-heavy than league average. If Lewis is available, though, look for New England to rush more than they didn't against the Jets.
The strength of the Miami defense, now that it has decided to show up for 2015, is the defensive line. The Patriots are a little banged up along their offensive line. Who should we expect to play on Sunday and how do you think they will match up with Cameron Wake, Ndaumkong Suh, Earl Mitchell, and Olivier Vernon?
Left tackle Nate Solder is out for the season with torn biceps. His replacement, Marcus Cannon, has been declared out with a toe injury. Left guard Shaq Mason missed last week with a knee injury. Center Bryan Stork has missed all season with a neck/head injury and won't be able to return until week 8. This unit is a mess.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has flipped over to the left side while Cannon heals, and the Patriots called up Cameron Fleming from the practice squad to play right tackle. Undrafted free agent rookie David Andrews has played every single snap at center this year. If Mason is unavailable, then Josh Kline will play left guard and rookie Tre Jackson will play right guard. If Mason is able to play, he'll hold down the left side and Kline will flip to play on the right.
This is a very pliable unit, and last week was the first time that the starting line played every single snap (Vollmer, Kline, Andrews, Jackson, Fleming). The injuries have sapped the team of their depth and it doesn't look like much will change this week.
That said, this unit held up far better than I expected they would against the Jets. I think the interior will be fine, but I think that Wake is going to absolutely feast on Fleming. The Patriots will likely use their 310 lbs blocking tight end Michael Williams as a helper alongside Fleming.
The Patriots attack opponents with all kinds of different weapons. LeGarrette Blount out of the backfield, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola all catching passes, the Patriots are loaded - plus Brady making decisions. Dion Lewis, the second leading rusher and third option in the passing game, is questionable for the game, but other than suddenly everyone on New England getting sick, it seems like Miami will be facing the majority of the Patriots' weapons. Clearly, you can't stop everyone for the Patriots. How would you design a defense to limit the attack of New England (or, take the air out of their offense, if you will)? (It had to be done.)
The Cowboys were able to give the Patriots fits because of their personnel. Defenses need to be able to play tight man coverage against the receivers, but also have the agility and ability to stay in position against rub and wheel routes. Bracket Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field and linebackers have to get in Lewis' face the second he leaves the backfield. Generate pressure with just four players, but disguise where the pressure is coming from every single snap. Force Tom Brady to use the sidelines and accept that if he accomplishes that, it just wasn't your day.
That's just half the battle. The offense will have to run long drives that result in touchdowns, not field goals. That's not an exaggeration: the Patriots are averaging more than a field goal every drive. Keep the ball out of Brady's hands as much as possible to limit their scoring potential. If the Patriots get 10 drives, they're going to put up 30 points.
What's the strength of the Patriots' defense? The weakness?
The linebackers are the definite strength of the defense, as Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower combine as the best duo in the entire league. They play complementary games, with Collins better in coverage and Hightower better against the run, but both can be asked to play everything asked of a linebacker. The Patriots favor a 4-2-5 personnel grouping, so the linebackers are responsible for a large region of the field.
The weakness would have to be at cornerback. Malcolm Butler is a competitive #1 corner, but he's not a lock down player. He's just in his second year after being undrafted. The Patriots have 3rd year 3rd round pick Logan Ryan as their #2, and then undrafted rookie Justin Coleman is the #3. Rashaan Melvin, also undrafted, was picked up from the Ravens on waivers. The Ravens are not a good football team to be poaching players from.
The Patriots rely on their pass rush to get home before the weaknesses in the secondary can be revealed. Free safety Devin McCourty also helps out Ryan over the top, while Butler functions on an island. New England does a good job of masking their weakness, but if the quarterback gets out of the pocket, the defensive scheme breaks down and big plays can happen.
The NFL has realized the Thursday Night Football games are not always the greatest, so they have made them divisional matchups now. That should help the game planning as teams are at least familiar with each other, but it does not change the quick turn around from Sunday to Thursday. How do you think this game will be played, and do you think there will be any issues with the Patriots from the quick turn around?
Tom Brady and the Patriots have an 8-0 record in Thursday games. The Brady-led Patriots haven't lost a regular season home game to an AFC opponent since 2006 (other than week 17 of 2014, where the starters all rested). Bill Belichick has won five straight games against interim head coaches, dating back to 2004. The Patriots are in a good position to win.
I think that Thursday games are ugly because teams are worn down and fundamentals get sloppy. Teams with the most natural talent will thrive, but I also think teams with better coaching staffs will be able to stick to their techniques for a longer span of time. This is probably going to end up as a one score game at the final whistle, but I think the Patriots are in a good position to win this one.
A big thanks to Rich for taking the time to discuss the Patriots with us. This will be the first meeting between New England and Miami this year, so we will have a chance to catch up with Rich again when the Patriots head to Miami in Week 17.