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Previewing Patriots at Dolphins with Pats Pulpit: Brady a cyborg, Gronkowski’s strange season, and coverage sacks

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Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins will host the New England Patriots in the second meeting of the 2018 season between the two AFC East rivals. As the teams prepared to meet in Week 4, the Dolphins were hot on a three-game win streak and sitting atop the AFC East only to have the Patriots demolish them in Foxboro. Fast forward to Week 14 and now the Patriots are heading to Miami atop the AFC East and are looking to clinch the division title with a win.

Can the Dolphins, 6-6 and in the hunt for a Wildcard spot, upset the Patriots and exact some revenge for that Week 4 beat down? Will the Dolphins be able to continue a trend that has the 4-1 in the last five meetings with the Patriots in Miami?

To get a better look at the Patriots, I spoke with Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Pulpit, SB Nation’s Patriots team site. You can check out my half of our conversation, giving him answers about the Dolphins, over on their site.

1. Year-after-year, the Patriots win the AFC East. They are on the verge of doing it again this year, their tenth straight division title if they are able to do it. It also seems that every year we hear this is the end of the Patriots dynasty early in the season, only to have them march their way into the playoffs again. Are there signs that the end is near for this Patriots team, or should we all expect Tom Brady to continue to be immortal and for another 10 years of Patriots dominance?

Until proven otherwise, we cannot rule out that Tom Brady is indeed a cyborg sent from the future to destroy all happiness outside of New England. So, yeah, we might see another 10 years of Patriots dominance. In all seriousness, though, the 2018 season is not unlike past ones for the team: it had some early season issues on both sides of the football and looked incapable of playing playoff caliber football in all three of its losses. Since their week 11 bye, however, the Patriots have looked like the Patriots teams of years past we have all come to love and cherish. [gets booed by audience]

Over the last two weeks, the team had some very good offensive stretches despite still not playing its best or most consistent football. Meanwhile, New England’s defense had its best game of the year last week against the Vikings: it played some tight coverage in the back end against a talented receiving group and also was able to challenge the quarterback and offensive line with constant movement and disguises. All in all, the Patriots have been progressing nicely over the last couple of weeks — so if the end is near, it is still hiding well.

That all being said, every season is different and the most notable difference compared to years past is at quarterback. While Brady is still playing well, he appears to have taken a minor step back when compared to his last three seasons (arguably the best three-year stretch of his career). Physically he looks as good as ever despite being 41 years old, but his decision making has been questionable at times. Part of it was the turnover at the wide receiver position, yes, but he also forced more passes than usual, which in turn led to more negative plays.

2. The Patriots defense is a little confusing. They are 22nd in yards allowed per game (369.2), 24th in passing yards allowed per game (262.5), 13th in rushing yards per game allowed (106.7), and yet are ninth in points per game allowed at just 21.6. How are teams attacking the Patriots, especially in the air, that is allowing these large yardage totals and how are the Patriots shutting down that attack when it comes to points allowed?

New England lives by one fast and harsh rule: bend-don’t-break. Over the years, the Patriots have adapted this approach and while frustrating to watch at times — see the yardage totals — it still served the team very well. The idea behind it is a simple one: opposing offenses need to earn every point as they are forced to string successful plays together and march the length of the field on every given drive (which also means that the kickoff and punt coverage units need to be sound). Even if teams are able to do that, they still need get those final 20 yards — and the red zone is an area in which New England’s is among the best defenses in the NFL year in and year out.

So how do teams create yardage against the Patriots? By having success with depth players. It works as follows: New England will try to take your number one weapon away so you need to look elsewhere to find somebody to make plays, which means that number three wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs often get the call. If they win their matchups against the Patriots’ lesser heralded coverage players — mostly linebackers isolated in one-on-ones — the team has success moving the football. While there are some exceptions (Kansas City, Tennessee) in which the top guys found success, it has mostly been depth players that have created problems for New England’s defense.

3. It feels like it has been a full season since the Dolphins and Patriots met back in Week 4. Since that meeting, the Dolphins have been dealing with injury after injury, including Ryan Tannehill missing five games and players like Jakeem Grant and Albert Wilson landing on injured reserve. What are the biggest differences between the team Miami faced at the start of the season and the team coming to town this weekend?

Considering that we are 13 weeks into the season, the Patriots are relatively healthy on both sides of the football — and arguably deeper than they have been in week 4. How come? For starters, wide receiver Julian Edelman is back. He sat out the first four weeks of the season due to a suspension but has since resumed his role as Tom Brady’s favorite wide receiver target. Alongside him as a starter at the position is Josh Gordon. Gordon played against Miami the last time, but being just recently acquired, only saw a handful of snaps. Over the past few weeks, however, he has grown into an integral member of the Patriots offense. Just look at it this way: New England’s top three wide receivers in terms of playing time in week 4 were Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson. On Sunday, the group will look drastically different with Edelman, Gordon and Hogan serving as the starting trio — while Dorsett is little more than a rotational depth player and Patterson more or less a gadget player.

Defensively, the Patriots look pretty much the same as they did two months weeks ago — at least when it comes to personnel. However, as noted above, the group has improved a lot since then when it comes to consistency and overall performance. There are still two personnel developments that need to be mentioned, though. The role of linebacker and defensive on-field signal caller Dont’a Hightower has increased since week 4, as did the one of undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson: last week, the rook played considerable snaps as New England’s third cornerback. It would not be a surprise to see him on Miami’s number three on Sunday; a matchup to watch.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

4. Rob Gronkowski is always a concern when the Dolphins face the Patriots, but he has been slowed by injuries this year, only averaging 3.9 receptions per game this year, for 58.9 yards per game, and he has just two touchdowns in nine games played. He has been dealing with ankle and back injuries it seems like all season. While he is expected to play this weekend, he does not seem to be the focal point of the offense as much as he usually is. Who is filling that role as Brady’s top option/focal point of the offense?

With Gronkowski being in the middle of a very strange and comparatively unproductive season — his numbers are noticeably down but still solid, all while he is still an outstanding blocker (he is also still attracting plenty of coverage, opening things up for other players) — Tom Brady is looking elsewhere more often. The two main recipients of this development are the aforementioned Julian Edelman, who is catching 5.9 passes a game since returning, and running back James White. White in particular is an interesting player as he is playing the best football of his five-year career: he is excellent in the open field, a huge coverage mismatch against linebackers due to his quickness and terrific route running, and has stepped up time and again. All in all, White caught a 74 passes for 659 yards and six touchdowns, leading the team in each category.

While other players on the roster have also made plays in the passing game — thinks Josh Gordon and Chris Hogan — chances are that Brady (and by extension offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) will look towards Edelman or White when a passing play needs to be made. Keeping those two in check should be imperative for Miami on Sunday… but they need to be aware that Gronkowski is still very much capable of making big plays. Just ask the Jets.

5. Everyone knows the answer to slowing Brady - and really every quarterback - is pressure. But, the Patriots offensvie line has been fairly good this year. Is there a weakness Miami can exploit to get after Brady and force him into rushed throws?

With starting right guard Shaq Mason returning two weeks ago from a calf injury that bothered him earlier during the season, the Patriots’ offensive line has returned to its level as one of the best lines in all of football — both in run blocking and also in pass protection. How do you attack such a group without getting exposed? That’s the [enter defensive coordinator salary] dollar question. Stunts have created some problems in the past, as did speed rushers off the edge at times. The Tennessee Titans tried disguising their rushes and it worked pretty well for them (albeit against a line that did miss Mason), so maybe that’s the way to go.

While this could certainly all have an impact, the best way to get to Brady is by doing one thing: covering tightly. Seriously, don’t let his guys get open and instead force him to hold the ball longer than he is used to; when the rush is closing in he might a) start to hear footsteps and get antsy in the pocket and b) throw the football away to avoid sacks, which can still be seen as a good play for the defense. If the pass rush doesn’t get to Brady either because he is getting rid of the ball too quickly or because the line is blocking too well, trying disguises and tight man-to-man coverage might do the trick. The emphasis, of course, is on might.