Game Overview ::
By JM >>
- Teddy Bridgewater will be starting for the Dolphins, which is less likely to change their approach than it is to change their chances of success
- The Patriots are at a disadvantage on offense, but are “aware enough” of their shortcomings that they aren’t necessarily trying to win the game in this way
- Both teams are selectively aggressive, but each team will also recognize that the team that makes fewer mistakes will likely be the team that wins this game
- Not many paths to this game blowing up
How Miami Will Try To Win ::
Miami ranks sixth in pass rate over expectation on the season, and is one of only EIGHT(!) teams in the NFL this year throwing the ball at a higher rate than their expected pass play rate (what a strange season!), but we’ve also seen some strange bounce-arounds in their play-calling tendencies, with this team somewhat hardheadedly choosing to throw the ball on 80% of their competitive plays against the poor run defense of the Texans in Week 12 (after which McDaniel said he’d made a mistake remaining aggressive so deep into that game — a game in which the Dolphins’ aggressive stance ultimately gave the Texans some final, gasping opportunities for life), following that up with a predictably pass-heavy game plan against the run-tough 49ers (33 Tua attempts in a game in which the Dolphins ran only 46 plays), and following that up with pass attempt totals of 28 // 30 // 25 against the soft run defense of the Chargers, the elite all-around defense of the Bills, and the soft run defense of the Packers. Peeling back the layers further, the Dolphins suffered from low play volume in all three of those games, with 51, 59, and 50 plays, good for pass attempt rates of 54.9%, 50.8%, and 50%. The Dolphins now enter a must-win game for their dimming playoff hopes, on the road against a Patriots defense that ranks 10th in run defense DVOA and third in pass defense DVOA, with Teddy Bridgewater almost certainly set to start under center after Tua Tagovailoa entered concussion protocol on Monday following another potentially-botched head injury sequence. Bridgewater led the Dolphins to a pair of losses earlier this year with three touchdown passes and three interceptions against lesser defenses in the Bengals (stepping in for a concussed Tua) and Vikings (replacing Skylar Thompson on the Dolphins’ fourth drive of the game). That second game was particularly interesting, with the Dolphins calling 17 pass plays to only six rush plays with Skylar under center, then continuing this pass-leaning approach when they switched to Bridgewater. Put it all together, and the Dolphins are likely to “plug and play” with Bridgewater, approaching this game the same way they would have approached it with Tua under center…but with the question of exactly how they would have chosen to attack with Tua under center not necessarily coming with an obvious answer. Anything from a pass-heavy game plan to a totally balanced game plan is in the mix here, with only a run-dominant game plan easy for us to remove from our lists.
The Dolphins have leaned primarily on Raheem Mostert on the ground over the last month, giving him the majority of the running back snaps and a wide-ranging level of touches (over his last four games, 7 // 11 // 17 // 8 carries), though last week, Jeff Wilson reemerged for four more snaps than Mostert and nine carries of his own. Given the low likelihood of a run-heavy game plan from the Dolphins and the elite nature of the Patriots’ run defense (as explored repeatedly in this space, the Pats are on track to finish top three in fewest RB rushing touchdowns allowed for the seventh time in eight years), the Dolphins’ run game should function more as a “balancer” for their passing attack than as a means to the Dolphins winning the game.
In order to win the game, the key pieces, of course, will be Tyreek Hill (recent target counts of 9 // 14 // 10 // 13 // 6) and Jaylen Waddle (recent target counts of 10 // 5 // 4 // 7 // 6). As explored in this space throughout the year, the Patriots play an aggressive brand of defense that leads to occasional big plays (sixth deepest average depth of target faced this season) but also leads to low drive success from opponents (fifth lowest opponent drive success rate // second fewest points allowed per drive), making it difficult for any one player to truly “take over the game” against them. Expect the Patriots to also mix and match coverages in an effort to make it look to Bridgewater like the wide receiver they are covering is actually open. Said differently: the Patriots — who capitalize on their adaptability and variable looks — will know that they can’t cover both Waddle and Hill every play; so rather than worrying too much about trying to take away both players on every single play, they will likely be comfortable giving up some big plays, knowing that they can also A) leverage the confidence generated by these big plays to lure Bridgewater into mistakes, and B) leverage the slow-developing nature of these big plays to get some drive-killing sacks. Because the Patriots don’t care as much about “yards allowed,” the Dolphins may be able to pick up some chunk plays, but long drives and easy scoring opportunities should ultimately be at a premium.