I was asked during a recent radio appearance how opposing teams should defend the New England Patriots. If I had the answer to that question, you would be reading a story from the new defensive coordinator of an AFC East rival.
The Patriots’ offense can’t be defended. When they go to 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), it forces the opposition to make one of two unideal choices: play nickel or dime.
Playing nickel forces at least one mismatch, because running back Dion Lewis, tight end Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots’ receivers all should be covered by defensive backs. Nickel forces a linebacker to cover at least one skill position player — unless teams stop deploying a free safety, which would be unwise in its own right — and quarterback Tom Brady will find that mismatch and exploit it.
Using dime makes the defense susceptible against the run, and Lewis has proven to be dangerous between the tackles, to the outside and in the passing game, either out of the backfield or as a receiver.
Teams are choosing option A, which is why the Patriots haven’t shown much interest in running the ball. Perhaps if teams start choosing B, Lewis will see his carries increase again.
Let’s check the film from the Patriots’ 36-7 win over the Miami Dolphins.
— Tom Brady made some of his best passes of the season Thursday night. There’s a reason Brady has thrown only one interception this season, and that’s because of his complete and total aversion to risks. He’d rather miss to the sideline or out of the end zone than he would in the middle of the field when there’s a chance he could throw an interception.
— Gronkowski found himself wide open on the Patriots’ first score of the night: a 47-yard touchdown. The Patriots used play action to bring the Dolphins’ linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, opening space in the middle of their defense. Gronkowski then had to break a tackle to get near the sideline before wide receiver Brandon LaFell delivered a perfectly timed block. Gronkowski had to outrun a cornerback for the score, something that would be difficult for a typical 265-pound tight end. Gronkowski is anything but typical.
— Later in the first quarter, we got to see what it looks like when a linebacker tries to tackle Lewis in the open field near the left sideline. It, uh, wasn’t pretty.
— One of Brady’s best throws was one of his 12 incompletions, though no fault of his own. Right tackle Cameron Fleming was beat, forcing Brady out of the pocket to his right. He then delivered a rare on-the-run pass that dropped perfectly over Gronkowski’s shoulder. If the Dolphins’ defender hadn’t made contact early, the big tight end likely would have hauled in the pass. This should have been a 20-yard pass interference penalty.
— The Brady-LaFell connection wasn’t firing on all cylinders in the receiver’s second game off the PUP list, but we saw a glimpse of their impressive chemistry late in the second quarter on a deep back-shoulder completion to the left sideline.
— Gronkowski doesn’t have to be wide open to be targeted in the passing game. The Dolphins had a linebacker and a safety dedicated to Gronkowski on this play, but Brady delivered a perfect pass where only the tight end could grab it.
— Fleming had a tough matchup against Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake. Fleming certainly wasn’t perfect, allowing a sack, a quarterback hit and four hurries, but it also could have been a lot worse.
— Sebastian Vollmer exclusively was a right tackle for five years, and now he suddenly has found himself on the left side. Like Fleming, Vollmer wasn’t perfect, but he has been solid protecting Brady’s blind side in consecutive games.
— Check out this week’s pass-protection charting stats.
— The Patriots ran the ball just 26 times despite leading the entire game. Lewis picked up five carries for 19 yards, including two highly impressive plays. Lewis can cut faster than he can run, which makes him nearly impossible to touch, let alone tackle. He made four jukes on this play alone. Calling this a video game run would be an insult to Lewis, because no one is this good at “Madden.”
— Lewis jukes Dolphins cornerback Jamar Taylor out of his rushing lane, then cuts just as easily back into it to pick up 10 yards. This is your weekly reminder that Lewis was out of football for two seasons. How? Why?
— LeGarrette Blount had a solid game on the ground, picking up 72 yards on 17 carries. He’s at his best when he can gain steam and start breaking tackles using his 250-pound frame.
— Tight end Michael Williams stood out positively as a run blocker, notably on a pair of 8-yard carries by Blount.
— The Patriots missed Shaq Mason, who was out with a knee injury, on pull blocks. Fellow rookie guard Tre’ Jackson isn’t nearly as mobile.
— The Patriots mostly had Malcolm Butler shadowing Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry in man coverage. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 3 of 5 for 33 yards targeting Landry with Butler in coverage.
— The Patriots spent the majority of the game in Cover-1 man. Tannehill was just 15 of 25 for 163 yards with an interception and five sacks when facing man coverage. The Patriots allowed 13 catches on 19 targets for 137 yards with an interception in Cover-2 and Cover-3 zone.
— Safety Duron Harmon had a huge fourth quarter for the Patriots, showing off his range and ball skills with an interception and four pass breakups. Using Harmon at free safety allows Devin McCourty to help cover tight ends near the line of scrimmage. McCourty also recorded a sack Thursday in another stellar game.
— Logan Ryan covered Rishard Matthews for most of the game and allowed just four catches on nine targets for 31 yards with an interception. Ryan has been the Patriots’ most consistent cornerback thus far.
— Check out this week’s pass-coverage charting stats.
— Linebacker Dont’a Hightower continues to be the Patriots’ best pass rusher. He had a sack and four quarterback hits, and he simply powered through Dolphins guard Billy Turner on his sack.
Hightower sent Turner and running back Lamar Miller to the ground on a near-sack later in the game.
— Rookie pass rusher Geneo Grissom forced Chandler Jones’ first sack by disrupting an attempted screen. Grissom showed impressive closing speed and made Tannehill abandon the play and scramble toward the line of scrimmage. Jones cleaned up for the sack.
— Jones’ second sack came when the Patriots had seven defensive backs on the field. The Patriots only really rushed Jones and defensive end Rob Ninkovich. Hightower pursued the line, then stopped. Jones beat a double team to get to Tannehill.
— Check out this week’s pass-rush charting stats.
— Rookie defensive tackle Malcom Brown has surpassed Sealver Siliga as a starter next to Alan Branch. Brown has upped his game in recent weeks and rarely gets powered off the line of scrimmage by blockers.
— Linebacker Jamie Collins had a relatively quiet game, mostly being used in coverage rather than as a rusher, on passing plays. The Dolphins’ running backs rarely made it past the Patriots’ defensive line, and it appeared Collins was patrolling the second level in the ground game.
— Siliga made his best play of the season on a 2-yard tackle for loss. He read the play perfectly and quickly got behind the line of scrimmage to make the stop.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images