The New England Patriots return Sunday to frigid Foxborough, where they hope to serve the Miami Dolphins a cold dish of revenge. Much has changed for both teams since the Fins upset the Pats in Week 1. The Patriots offense will rely on diverse personnel, alignments and routes to battle Miami’s strategies, coverages and pocket pressure.
During the holiday season, people pause and reflect: both on where they have been, as well as on where they may be heading. Week 15 of the NFL season offers Inside The Pylon a similar opportunity with respect to Sunday’s matchup between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots. These two teams met in Week 1, with the Dolphins emerging victorious. In the wake of the New England loss, football fans ‒ including staffers at a brand new website still in its infancy ‒ scrutinized what went wrong with the passing game.
The Rear-View Mirror
In one of Inside The Pylon’s very first articles, “Patriots Passing Game: Miami Recap,” I examined what went wrong down south for Tom Brady and company. I now revisit that fledgling piece in preparation for the upcoming “hat and t-shirt game” in Foxborough. Short version: The Patriots struggled offensively in Week 1, especially in the second half.
New England’s primary flaw in Week 1 was its execution on pass protection. Miami harassed Brady all day long, reaching a crescendo with a game-changing strip sack by Cameron Wake on a play-action passing play:
The protection scheme called for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to block the All-Pro defensive end, with running back Stevan Ridley serving as a second line of protection. Both players whiff on Wake and the DE gets to Brady.
The Patriots averted disaster on this next play, a flawed protection call. New England is backed up in their own territory with their quarterback in the shotgun. The offense has 11 personnel on the field against a Miami nickel defense showing double A gap blitz:
Only one of the two potential A-gap blitzers attacks the pocket; the other drops into coverage. Hoomanawanui (#47, far left) stays in to block, giving the Patriots six blockers to handle five Dolphin defenders:
As shown in the above still the offense slides the protection to the tight end and away from Wake. This is the result:
With one linebacker peeling into coverage Ryan Wendell blocks air. On the right edge, tackle Sebastian Vollmer is stuck between Wake and defensive tackle Randy Starks (#94). This leads to Wake having a free shot at Brady, and the quarterback simply gets rid of the ball to avoid a sack:
Since Week 1, New England has shored up their offensive line, so perhaps the protection problems will not be as glaring as in the season opener. But if the Dolphins can pressure Brady as on these two plays, the Patriots might be in for a tough day on Sunday.
How Miami Defended Gronk
Inside The Pylon was not the only important football “player” debuting in Week 1 ‒ tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to the field following season-ending ACL surgery in 2013. Though far from 100% healthy on that early September Sunday, he did catch a touchdown pass and the Dolphins certainly treated him as a significant threat. Reviewing how the defense bracketed Gronkowski in Week 1 provides our window into Week 15.
In the Slot
On their season-opening drive, the Patriots face 3rd and 5 at their own 26-yard line with 13:52 remaining in the 1st quarter. With 11 personnel on the field, Josh McDaniels puts his quarterback in the shotgun and empties the backfield. Gronkowski is the middle receiver in a trips formation to the right of Brady:
Miami has their nickel defense on the field showing Cover 1 in the secondary. Prior to the snap, the Patriots send Gronkowski into “in-and-out” motion (in towards the football and then away) to get the TE a free release for his skinny post route:
Look at Miami’s coverage at the snap:
The free safety is on the opposite hash mark from the football. In a standard Cover 1 alignment the free safety will align himself over the football and try to read the quarterback’s eyes. Here, the free safety is shaded towards the trips ‒ and Gronkowski. This gives the Dolphins four defenders to cover three receivers, and, with the outside receiver running a vertical route (and the corner staying with him), Miami now has three defenders to cover the tight end and wide receiver Danny Amendola. As the play develops, watch how the defense first re-routes the big TE before the linebacker runs with him. All the while, the free safety squats on Gronkowski’s route and ignores everything else:
Brady forces a throw into the TE which falls incomplete.
On this next play, New England faces 1st and 10 just outside the red zone. Brady is in the shotgun and the offense has 12 personnel on the field while Miami’s nickel defense shows Cover 2 in the secondary. Gronkowski is on the line of scrimmage to Brady’s right in a three-point stance:
The TE runs another post route on this play. Repeating their containment strategy, the Dolphins again bracket Gronkowski using a linebacker underneath and a safety over the top:
As Gronkowski runs his post pattern, watch the technique from the safety; he stops his backpedal as the TE makes his cut and then drives hard for Gronkowski’s up-field shoulder:
This puts him in perfect position to break-up the pass. With the linebacker underneath Gronkowski, the throwing lane is small:
Finally, when the Patriots split Gronkowski wide, the Dolphins found it tougher to bracket the tight end, so they made a slight adjustment to their coverage to try to level the playing field. Here the TE sets up wide to the left, and will run a simple curl route:
Miami has a 3-3-5 nickel defense on the field showing Cover 3. Prior to the snap, watch the slight adjustment outside:
Initially, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (#59) lines up over Gronkowski. But just before the play, he and safety Louis Delmas (#25) switch assignments. This puts the safety in a one-on-one alignment against the TE. With a more athletic defender on the outside against Gronkowski, Miami cannot prevent the completion, but they do prevent the big play.
New England enters this Week 15 matchup with two key differences from the season opener. First, the protection problems outlined weeks ago (and at the beginning of this article) appear to be fixed. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Rob Gronkowski is back to his dominant self. The offense has evolved, and Patriots fans can expect to buy their own hats and t-shirts around 4:25 Sunday afternoon.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.