New England Patriots

New England Patriots

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - AUGUST 21: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins looks on during a preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons at Hard Rock Stadium on August 21, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Speaking to South Florida reporters on Wednesday, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa explained a key part of his thought process in preparing for the start of his second NFL season on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.

“I try to put myself in a situation where I’m Bill Belichick,” Tagovailoa said. “If I was Bill Belichick, what would I do to stop myself?”

Impersonating Belichick is one thing. Any of us can repeat his signature statements — from “Do your job!” to “We’re on to Cincinnati!” to “No days off!” — or tailor the sleeves of our hoodies. Preferably with a pair of pinking shears.

Reading Belichick’s mind, well, that’s entirely another matter. Just ask the quarterback opposite Tua in his one prior game against the Patriots.

Speaking of which, thinking back to Week 15 of 2020, when Tagovailoa became the first rookie quarterback to start a win over New England since Geno Smith of the Jets in 2013, that experience probably wasn’t much help trying to think like Belichick has thought this week.

Since then, when Tagovailoa rushed for two scores while Miami’s defense held the Cam Newton-led offense to four field goals in a 22-12 final, the Patriots have undergone an extreme makeover.

Five of the Pats’ defensive starters from that game aren’t on the team’s active roster. Of New England’s 792 cumulative defensive snaps, 392 (49 percent) are either elsewhere, on the shelf, or relegated to the team’s practice squad. In fact, two of the top six Pats in defensive snaps played — Adam Butler and Jason McCourty — are now Dolphins.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - AUGUST 21: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins looks on under center Michael Deiter #63 against the Atlanta Falcons during a preseason game at Hard Rock Stadium on August 21, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – AUGUST 21: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins looks on under center Michael Deiter #63 against the Atlanta Falcons during a preseason game at Hard Rock Stadium on August 21, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

With so much turnover – including free agent additions Matt Judon, Henry Anderson, and ex-Fins Davon Godchaux and Kyle Van Noy, and the return of “opt-in” Dont’a Hightower – these Patriots should do what those couldn’t: stop the run.

Despite entering that 2020 game with the league’s lowest per-carry average, and without a 100-yard rusher in three years, Miami gained 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0), 23 of which by Salvon Ahmed, who produced 122 yards on his own (5.1 average).

For his part, Tua completed 20-of-26 passes. But they totaled just 145 yards, for an average of 4.8 per drop-back, including two sacks that lost 12 yards.

Tagovailoa’s performance reflected his overall production en route to a 6-3 record as a starter. He ranked 30th overall in yards per pass attempt (6.3 average). According to former league executive Mike Lombardi, now writing for The Athletic, 212 of Tua’s 290 passes were thrown either behind the line of scrimmage or within 10 yards of it.

Generally, everything was short and quick for Tagovailoa, coming off major hip surgery a year earlier and operating behind a suspect offensive line.

One of those factors no longer holds true. Tua is now two years removed from the injury that cut short his final season at Alabama and launched the starting career of Mac Jones. He’s on record saying he feels much better physically, enabling him to be better mechanically. His teammates have publicly concurred.

As for the Dolphins up front, there are as many, if not more questions. Last season, Miami had the third-youngest offensive line in the NFL. Its leader in playing time was center Ted Karras, who logged 1,068 snaps. Karras is now back in New England. Meanwhile, the Fins’ 2020 first-round pick at left tackle, Austin Jackson, spent last week on the reserve/COVID-19 list before being activated on Saturday.

Aware that he’ll be facing what should be a vastly improved Patriots’ front seven and after referring Wednesday to Belichick’s resume featuring “really good defenses,” Tagovailoa undoubtedly understands that he isn’t the only one this week trying to get into someone else’s head.

So how will he deal? Sounds similar to what we saw last year.

“Getting the ball out quick and letting my teammates make plays for us,” Tagovailoa said.

Unlike last December’s win over the Pats, Tua will have dynamic rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle and a healthy DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki to make those plays. Of course, there are other important differences for the Dolphins to note, plus similarities between the two teams and, in particular, both quarterbacks.

  • Coaching Carousel

    Without question, former Patriots assistant Brian Flores has done well to transform the perception and performance of the Dolphins in his first two years as head coach. But he’s entering his third season with a fourth offensive line coach and his third and fourth offensive coordinators.

    The former is Lemuel Jeanpierre. The latter two are George Godsey and Eric Studesville. During the preseason, Godsey, who coached alongside Flores in Foxborough (2011-13) before coordinating Houston’s offense (2015-16), sat in the press box. Meanwhile, Studesville, who became interim head coach in Denver when Josh McDaniels was fired in 2010, worked on the sidelines.

    Each has the title of co-coordinator. But on Wednesday, Belichick referred to Godsey as the play caller.

  • Cover Zero

    According to Pro Football Focus, when Flores called defensive plays for the Pats during the 2018 season culminating in their 13-3 win over the Rams, they employed Cover Zero (man coverage, no deep safeties, heavy rush) a league-high 75 times. The next closest team, Cleveland, used it 36 times. Furthermore, New England employed it on 13.3 percent of third-down passing plays, nearly twice as often as every other team except the Browns.

    Not surprisingly, Flores continues to favor the aggressive approach. Again per PFF, the 2020 Dolphins’ defense coordinated by another ex-Pat Josh Boyer utilized Cover Zero on third down more than any other team in the past five years. Furthermore, Miami blitzed on nearly half of third-down passing plays.

    With corners like NFL interception leader Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, they did it effectively enough to finish the season by holding opponents to a 31.2 percent third-down conversion rate. That’s Miami’s best showing since 1999.

    Correspondingly, the Fins ended 2020 with their best point differential (plus 66) since 2002, while leading the league with 29 takeaways.

  • Roll Tide

    When former teammates Jones and Tagovailoa reunite Sunday at Gillette Stadium, it will mark the first time two Alabama quarterbacks start the same NFL game since Nov. 11, 1983. On that date, Richard Todd of the Jets enjoyed a 31-28 victory over Ken Stabler and the Saints on Monday Night Football.

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