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Dolphins at Patriots preview: New England’s defense starts with shutting down the pass

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins visit the New England Patriots this afternoon in the regular season finale for both teams. While the game marks the end of the 2019 season for the Dolphins, New England has once again been crowned the champion of the AFC East and will be heading to the playoffs.

Miami will be looking to end the season on a high note, while potentially playing spoiler for the Patriots. With a win, New England will be locked into the second seed while a loss to Miami and a Kansas City Chiefs win this weekend would force the Patriots to play in Wildcard Weekend next week. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has described today’s game as a playoff game, knowing his team is in position to receive the opening weekend bye in the postseason, and knowing they need to win to make sure they stay in that position.

How will the Patriots win? After years of relying on Tom Brady and the offense, this season New England has clearly been a defense-led team. What exactly are the strengths and weaknesses of the league’s top-ranked defense? Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Puplit, SB Nation’s Patriots team site, broke it down for us.

New England’s defense ranks first in the NFL in scoring and its ability to slow opposing passing games down is the main reason for that, in my opinion. The coverage in the back-end has been superb most of the time, while the pass rush — despite lacking star power — has made life hard for quarterbacks due to how pressure is applied in numerous ways through the scheme. Tying it all together is a unit that has considerable knowledge of the defensive system: linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr, for example, have played a lot of football alongside each other and within the Patriots’ scheme; the same goes for a secondary headed by safeties Devin McCourty (10th year), Patrick Chung (10th year) and Duron Harmon (7th year) as well as cornerbacks Jonathan Jones (4th year), Stephon Gilmore (3rd year), Jason McCourty (2nd year) and J.C. Jackson (2nd year).

The run defense, meanwhile, has been a bit more inconsistent throughout the year. While New England performed well at times — which allowed the defense to make opponents much more one-dimensional thus playing in the hands of its secondary — some teams did find success against the unit. How? The Ravens, for example, exploited the Patriots’ aggressiveness and patiently set up their blocks to create openings on the perimeter. Other teams were able to generate yards on the ground when New England sold out somewhat to stop the pass. All in all, the run defense has had some good moments but also some bad ones — despite trending in the right direction recently.

Running the football against the Patriots is one way to potentially attack the defense, another is trying to isolate the linebackers in one-on-one matchups against running backs and tight ends. As good as the group has played so far this season, its coverage consistency is still an area that a team could try to take advantage of. I do not know if Miami is that team, but they should at least try if they want to have much of a chance against a defense that surrenders only 11.3 points per game.

We will continue to take a closer look at the Patriots heading up to kickoff at 1pm ET today. You can also head over to Pats Pulpit for more on New England ahead of Sunday’s game.