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Patriots vs Dolphins preview: Cam Newton, rush defense, COVID, Jarrett Stidham, and a 2021 tank?

New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins welcome the New England Patriots to Hard Rock Stadium this afternoon, finishing a home-and-home series that started in Week 1 this season. Now in Week 15, the Dolphins are looking to keep themselves firmly in the AFC playoff picture while the Patriots are looking just to climb back to .500 on the season. How will this game play out?

To get a better idea of who the Patriots are now, I turned back to our friend Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Pulpit, SB Nation’s Patriots team site. We talked the state of the Patriots, the seeming regression of Cam Newton, how COVID-19 impacted the team, the future of Jarrett Stidham, and Buchmasser addressed the possibility of a 2021 tank for the Patriots.

1. Somehow this season feels like it has flown by and yet it feels like it has been forever since that Week 1 meeting between the Dolphins and Patriots. The Patriots started fast - even in their early-season losses, they looked like a team that was set to compete and potentially fight for the AFC East crown again. It does not feel like the same Patriots team, now as the end of the season approaches, however. What has been the biggest change for the Patriots between Week 1 and now?

For some reason they decided winning was no longer their thing, so… Seriously, though, I think that it’s a combination of various factors.

For one, their Coronavirus outbreak in early October really stalled the team’s development – it started the season 2-1 but lost four straight after Cam Newton became the first Patriot to be diagnosed. For a team that is always gradually building through the year, this was just the latest blow after a truncated offseason and no preseason games. Being able to have only limited practice time over a three-week period was a major setback, in my opinion, especially considering that the team was trying to get a new quarterback up to speed and had to rely on a bunch of first-year players on its defense.

This, in turn, also made it easier for teams to adjust to the Patriots. They were not evolving as quickly on either side of the ball, which meant that opponents had an easier time just scheming against them. For as good as New England’s coaching staff and schematic foundation are, this robbed them of a lot of flexibility in my point of view — which is a bad thing for a team crafting its game plans specifically for the upcoming opponent week-in and week-out.

So, in hindsight, and considering all that has happened since, I would say that the Week 1 game was basically more of an outlier and show of potential rather than a true reflection of this team in 2020.

2. Along those same lines, Cam Newton looked like the league MVP Cam Newton against the Dolphins in Week 1, but his play has fallen off over the last several weeks. Is this age catching up to Newton? Is it impacts from COVID?

2020 Cam Newton is not 2015 Cam Newton, but I don’t necessarily think that age is the main reason for this drop-off over the last 14 weeks. Once again, I think it’s not that easy. His time on the Coronavirus reserve list, and how the subsequent lack of practice time prohibited the offense around him from evolving, certainly played a role, for example. While this may not be the sole reason for his comparative lack of production especially as a passer, it cannot be disregarded either. Add that fact that his most experienced pass catcher, Julian Edelman, struggled with a knee injury since Week 2 and later had to be placed on injured reserve — and that the Patriots’ young receivers have not developed as quickly as one would hope – and you get a recipe for disaster.

With all that said, Newton did still have his moments as well — so much so that you have to wonder how he would look like in an offense that had a) better talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions, and b) more opportunity to be tailored around his strengths.

3. The Patriots’ defense is still a top-ten unit, giving up just 342.5 yards per game (10th fewest in the league), 218.5 passing yards per game (8th in the league), and 21.5 points per game (7th in the league). They are allowing 124.0 yards per game on the ground (23rd in the league), so it appears there is an ability to run against New England. Is that a fair assessment? How would you attack the Patriots if you were Miami’s offensive coordinator?

New England has struggled all year to defend outside zone runs, so that is certainly where I would start – for three reasons:

1.) As mentioned above, the Patriots have been unable to contain outside zone with teams such as the 49ers and the Rams successfully using it to get to the perimeter against a New England defense that doesn’t have the second-level quickness to shut down such plays.

2.) It would neutralize the Patriots’ secondary. Led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, the unit is the strength of New England’s defense and still capable of making life hard on opposing passing attacks.

3.) Successfully running the ball would also possibly force the Patriots out of their comfort zone on offense. New England wants to run the football given that this is where its strengths lie, but the opponent shortening the game might put more pressure on Cam Newton and the passing game.

Of course, sooner or later you will also have to pass the football – that’s just the nature of pro football in 2020. If I was Chan Gailey and had to take to the air, I would attack the underneath zones against players such as off-the-ball linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall and Anfernee Jennings. With Dont’a Hightower no longer available due to his Covid-19 opt-out, and with Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins having left in free agency, the Patriots simply no longer have those athletically impressive linebackers that can successfully man those zones. Getting the ball out of Tua Tagovailoa’s hands quickly and into those areas seems like a sound battle plan to me.

4. Looking to the future, Jarrett Stidham has seen a little game action, though Bill Belichick seems to be committed to Newton for this year. Has Stidham shown enough to be considered the future for the Patriots, or do you think they are in the quarterback market this offseason?

Based on what we have seen, you very much have to consider the Patriots to be in the quarterback market in 2021. For starters, Stidham is the only QB under contract beyond this season and unless the team feels he is a no-doubt future starter – which seems like a stretch given what we have seen from him so far — somebody else will have to be brought aboard either via the draft or free agency. Like, both avenues will have to be explored. Whether that also leads to Newton remains to be seen given his at times more down than up play this year, but it would not be surprising if the team expressed an interest in keeping him. Either way, what would be a surprise would be New England going into the draft with only Stidham on the roster.

Of course, we always have to consider that there is a lot that we have not seen from him. Yes, he did not win the job in training cap and he struggled whenever put on the field. But we don’t know what he would look like with a full week of preparation with the starters. We don’t know if the team maybe kept him out of harm’s way deliberately given how the offseason was unfolding. We also don’t know how the Patriots view his progress and potential based on his work behind the scenes.

Long story short: I do see them in the market, even if they feel good about Stidham’s long-term potential.

5. And continuing with the look to the future, no team was ransacked by COVID-19 opt-outs lilke New England. As we move toward next year, are you expecting to the return of those players to spark the team, or are we going to see the Patriots move into a rebuild cycle and maybe be down for a year or two before starting to climb back up the standings?

As for the opt-outs, I would expect not all to be back. While I think the aforementioned Dont’a Hightower and to a lesser degree safety Patrick Chung are realistic candidates to rejoin the team next year and resume their starting roles, I would not count on right tackle Marcus Cannon to return (his replacement, rookie Michael Onwenu, has played on a very high level this year). So, where does that leave the rebuild question? I would say it’s complicated.

The team has a lot of work ahead to improve particularly its offense, but it does have the cap space and draft capital next year to address some major issues. Add the fact that there have been some positive signs from the team’s younger players recently, and that the team was in some close games this year that eventually ended with a loss, and I don’t think you need a major rebuild. Then again, however, the most important position on the team is a question mark heading into 2021. Unless that one is addressed, it’s hard to project where the Patriots will be in the next one or two seasons.

One thing I do know, however, is that we will not see a tank. That’s just not the culture Bill Belichick has created over the last two decades.