By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
One of the best decisions the NFL has made in recent years is making Week 17 all divisional games. This year, the Patriots are getting an extreme version of that, with their final three games all coming in the division (although it’d be more exciting if the games had playoff implications).
Given how much can change over the course of an NFL season, it’s always cool to see two teams face off so far apart. In this case, a lot has changed (the Dolphins have a new quarterback) but that doesn’t mean the Patriots’ Week 1 win should be ignored.
“The first game against Miami was obviously quite a while ago but has some relevance,” Belichick told reporters earlier this week. “The Dolphins have played well here after, what was it, a 1-3 start?”
What can the Patriots use from their first meeting as they prepare for the Dolphins? What will look different this time around? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups.
When New England has the ball: Cam Newton vs. Brian Flores
The Dolphins are a turnover-driven team. They have a league-high 25 takeaways in 2020, and their turnover margin of +10 is the NFL’s second best.
If the Patriots want to keep Sunday’s game competitive, holding onto the football will be the key. “[Miami is] a good team that really has thrived off a lot of defensive turnovers, and as always, ball security will be key for us in this game,” Belichick said on Wednesday.
That means added pressure on Cam Newton to be careful with the football. Turnovers have been Newton’s biggest issue as a Patriot – he has 11 giveaways through 12 games so far this season.
What’s so scary about the Dolphins’ defense is Brian Flores has found ways to scheme opponents into turnovers, like we saw him do last week against Kansas City. No doubt they’ll have some looks to confuse Newton and throw off his internal clock in the pocket. If Newton can read and react to those situations quickly, the Patriots offense will have their chances.
When Miami has the ball: Patriots edge vs. Tua Tagovailoa
Some of the Patriots biggest defensive struggles this year have come when mobile quarterbacks have been allowed to break contain. Whether it was Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, or Kyler Murray, the Patriots’ inability at times to finish their pass rush has been crippling.
While Tua isn’t yet on the level of the passers named above, he possesses a similar skillset. Once he gets outside of the pocket on a passing play, the defense has likely already lost. Yet with the speed of receivers like Jakeem Grant, over pursuing from the secondary can result in big plays.
For the Patriots, it will be crucial for edge pass rushers like Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise, Josh Uche and John Simon to be disciplined in their lanes and not over pursue. If they can force Tua to make reads and throw into the secondary, they may be able to force some turnovers. It’s how the Patriots have given young quarterbacks fits in the past.
Bonus: Patriots ball carriers vs. Jerome Baker
When the two teams met back in September, Baker was a man on a mission. He had a game-high 16 tackles, a sack, and forced a N’Keal Harry fumble near the goal line that nearly changed the outcome of the game. He’s also coming off of a career performance against Kansas City, when he sacked Patrick Mahomes a record 2.5 times.
With the Patriots’ increased reliance on running the ball, keeping eyes on Baker at all times will be huge. His ability to play sideline to sideline could give New England fits all afternoon.
It will be in the Patriots best interest to call plays that will throw Baker off his rhythm early on, whether that be play action, read options, or more likely a mix of the two. Newton’s legs should be a big factor, as was the case in Week 1.
Even with all of that, Baker will still find his way to the ball carrier. When he does, it’ll be important for Patriots players to fight for yards after contact, and most importantly protect the football.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.