Inside the matchup: Patriots at Dolphins

We are very happy to have Alen Dumonjic, an x’s and o’s football junkie who blogs for The Score, back for another season to give us his insight on the intricacies of the game.


It’s the first meeting of the season against the Dolphins and once again, they have a new coaching staff in place. This time the organization is led by head coach Joe Philbin, who most recently was an offensive coordinator with the Packers, and he works on the offense with playcaller Mike Sherman.

Sherman was also once in Green Bay but most recently with Texas A&M, where rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill started. With Tannehill, Sherman has brought over the offense that was used at the college. The offense features three major personnel groupings: 11 (one back, one tight end), 12 (one back, two tight ends), and 21 (two backs, one tight end).


What’s fascinating about the latter two groupings is that they are essentially the same due to the role of H-back Charles Clay; Clay has lined up in the backfield and on the line of scrimmage. When in the backfield, he has done work as a lead blocker for the Dolphins’ ball carriers, led by the explosive Reggie Bush, on their inside zone, outside zone, power and lead run concepts. The Dolphins spend a lot of time zone blocking, occasionally mixing in man schemes as they transition to it full-time.

In the passing game, Tannehill has made the most of what is a limited group of pass catchers and admittedly, sometimes a limited scheme. The Dolphins utilize a lot of short passing concepts that feature progression reads (rhythmic drop-backs) opposed to coverage reads. Their passing game design features the Snag (spot and a flat route), double Smash (two square-ins and a corner route), slant-flat and Flanker drive.


Whereas the offense is sometimes limited by schematic design, the defense is not. It’s a solid defense that is very similar to the one in Cincinnati, where defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle coached defensive backs.

The Dolphins’ defense is particularly stout up front, where big tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks man the middle. Starks is a quality pass rusher that has also done good work against the run while Soliai is the nose tackle, eating up space but still showing the versatility to play more than the typical zero or one technique. Accompanying them is pass rush aficionado Cameron Wake, who is one of the league’s best at getting after the quarterback and has an endless motor. Those three players have allowed the Dolphins to mix in some three-man fronts in their base four man scheme.


In the four-man scheme, Wake is a five technique end while Starks and Soliai play various techniques, which include zero, one, two and three. Three fronts used include the Over (strong-side guard covered), Under (weak-side guard covered) and Even (double three techniques). The Dolphins have also overloaded sides, creating a one on one matchup on one side of the formation, typically where Wake is stationed.

The Dolphins have gotten creative with their pass defenders, playing a multitude of coverages, which includes Man-Free, Man-Free Robber, Cover 2 (traditional and inverted), Cover 2 Man, Cover 2 Trap, Cover 2 Man Trap, Cover 3 (and all its variations of Sky, Buzz, and Cloud) and the always popular, Cover 4 (Quarters).


  • Defend middle of the field: Like every other (modified) West Coast Offense nowadays, the Dolphins like to attack the middle of the field. They will use shallow crosses, slants and spot routes to attack in between the hashes and the Patriots must defend this. If they defend it well, there will be opportunities for the Patriots to force turnovers because Tannehill has never been a great passer in between the hashes, sometimes struggling with anticipation. It would not surprise me if the Patriots gave Tannehill false looks in the middle of the field in order to force turnovers.
  • Battle with the bookends: He’s still one of the league’s best left tackles but it’s hard to ignore the struggles that Jake Long has had this season. He’s struggled with his technique and is over-thinking on the field. At the opposite end of the formation, rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin has also had struggles. Billed as a technician coming out of Stanford, he’s been everything but. Struggles with power, particularly sustaining of blocks, and hand use has been a problem for him this season. The Patriots are short on rushers but there will still be some opportunities to get to Tannehill because of the Dolphins’ pass protection struggles. One other note to make of: right guard John Jerry. He’s top heavy and a waist-bender that sometimes struggles with using his hands. He could be another player to attack.
  • Charles Clay: Clay hasn’t had a big season to date (13 receptions, 175 yards, two touchdowns) but he has the talent to cause some problems for the linebackers. He works out of the backfield as an H-back, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Dolphins try to sneak him out on more routes against the Patriots’ linebackers. Last week, he had a big 29-yard touchdown reception on a wheel route out of the backfield and this week, the Dolphins could look to do it again.
  • Patriots Run Offense vs. Dolphins Run Defense -The Patriots’ running game is important to the offense because it keeps it balanced and the Dolphins will look to take it away. They have a good chance of doing so, as they are one of the premier run defenses in the league. They allow 96.7 yards rushing per game, which ranks 7th in the NFL.
  • Dolphins’ cornerbacks: Miami’s cornerback situation has been somewhat of a mess this season. Veteran free agent acquisition Richard Marshall was designated to IR and now the Dolphins are rotating cornerbacks opposite of Sean Smith. The players rotating include R.J. Stanford and Nolan Carroll, both of which can be taken advantage of.
  • Dolphins’ A-Gap Blitz – The Double A-gap blitz or the “sugaring” of gaps is an important part of the Dolphins’ defense, and it is one of the main concepts that defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has brought over from Cincinnati. What this concept does is place two linebackers to each side of the center, forcing both guards to account for inside pressure. As a result, the offensive tackles are left on an island with the defensive ends, which could be problematic for New England because one of the defensive ends is Cameron Wake. It should be noted that the Dolphins don’t always blitz, however. They “sugar” the A gaps and force the guards to help the center but then the linebackers peel back into coverage, still creating one on one matchups on the outsides despite only a four man rush coming.

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