3YPC Corner: Predicting a Miami Dolphins Loss in New England
I have been, and remain very optimistic about the 2018 Miami Dolphins. If you doubt that, just go ahead and read my tweet storm of 35 reasons to be optimistic about the Dolphins in 2018. I wrote that in May, at a time when prognosticators and book makers were projecting the Dolphins to be one of the worst teams in the NFL.
I predicted the Dolphins to beat the Tennessee Titans. They won. I predicted the Dolphins to win against the New York Jets. They won. I predicted a Dolphins victory against the Oakland Raiders. They won that game, too. If I've really got to beat my own drum, I'll even point out that my Dolphins score projections (27 points, 20 points, and 29 points, respectively) have only been off by one point this year.
But alas, now I am projecting the Dolphins to lose on the road to the New England Patriots in Foxboro.
Miami Road Blues
Miami is a poor road team under Adam Gase, even with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. In their time together Gase and Tannehill are 3-4 on the road, having been out-scored 112 to 149. Adam Gase's road record overall is 7-12, having been out-scored 304 to 470.
Which Miami team shows up on the road under head coach Adam Gase seems to be a random probability between 1) just good enough to win, 2) just bad enough to lose, or 3) just plain bad.
One victory against the New York Jets (who are 1-2, with a rookie quarterback) doesn't show that Miami has broken out of that pattern, not yet.
New England Home Front
New England has been a near-impervious home team during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Brady has averaged about one home loss per year during that span. Is this year truly different? Are they really that bad in 2018?
The Patriots just finished back-to-back road games, and lost both games. Prior to that, they played the Houston Texans at home, and won. There's no indication that the Patriots have suddenly become a vulnerable home team. They haven't lost three consecutive games, period, since 2002.
All NFL teams shuffle players on and off the field. Offenses get to decide how many of the (typically five) skill position players will be running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers on any given snap.
Often, you will hear the different offensive personnel packages turned into shorthand. Some of this is numerical. For example, when I say 12-personnel, the first digit (1) refers the number of running backs on the field, while the second digit (2) refers to the number of tight ends. The remaining players (2) are assumed to be wide receivers.
You rarely hear this referenced elsewhere, but former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano used to refer to packages that involved three wide receivers as 'half-personnel', and packages that involve only two wide receivers as 'full-personnel'. I have always been partial to that terminology, in part because I am partial to Tony, may he rest in peace.
By a long shot, the most popular offensive personnel package in use today is 11-personnel. That is to say, a package that includes on running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. My data from 2017 shows that this package was used on more than half of all NFL snaps in 2017. That number is even higher in 2018. The Los Angeles Rams use this package on an astounding 98% of their offensive snaps.
On defense, you will hear me refer a lot to 'Base' defense, as well as 'Nickel', and 'Dime' personnel packages. These are delineated by the number of defensive backs present on the field.
Base defense will have four defensive backs on the field. Most people tend to characterize an entire defense by the form of their defensive front (e.g. '3-4' or '4-3') while in Base, but in reality NFL coaches only called their Base defense onto the field about 33% of snaps in 2017. Coaches typically call their Base onto the field when the offense is showing only one or two wide receivers on the field.
The preferred defense of the NFL, which was used on over half of the snaps in 2017, is a Nickel defense. This is characterized by the presence of five defensive backs. The prevalence of this defensive package is a mirror reflection of NFL offenses' preference for three wide receiver (e.g. 11-personnel) packages.
A growing trend in the NFL today is for defensive coordinators to go even lighter than a Nickel defense, calling for six defensive backs to go onto the field in a Dime defense.
It is important to note, this is not generally in response to the use of four wide receiver packages by NFL offenses. Very few (only about 2-3%) of NFL offensive snaps involve four wide receiver personnel. My data from 2017 shows Dime in use anywhere from 13-22% of NFL snaps, depending on how you classify a certain sub-group of 'hybrid' linebacker-safety types who in years past might have just been referred to as strong safeties.
By the Numbers
I might feel a little differently about this prediction if Miami's defense had a well-rounded look, or had significantly improved on their weaknesses from 2017. But this is not the case.
Over the off season, I detailed five significant weaknesses on Miami's 2017 defense. They were:
- 30th ranked Nickel Run defense
- 25th ranked Base Pass defense
- 30th ranked 3rd & Long defense
- 29th ranked Red Zone defense
- 32nd ranked Tight End defense
The Dolphins are currently 3-0, and their defense has allowed a mere 15 points per game. Surely they have upon these weaknesses?
Mixed bag. Their current rankings, through three weeks of the 2018 season:
- 25th ranked Nickel Run defense
- 22nd ranked Base Pass defense
- 31st ranked 3rd & Long defense
- 3rd ranked Red Zone defense
- 15th ranked Tight End defense
Let's start with the improvements. The high red zone ranking is a fancy way of saying opponents have been in Miami's red zone 9 times and only come out with 3 touchdowns. This is one of those statistics you have to be careful with until you get closer to a full season's worth of data. They are only one unfortunate game away from that ranking going from 'elite' to 'abysmal'.
As for the tight ends, Miami did a solid job on Oakland Raider tight end Jared Cook, and so Miami's progress on this front bears minding. On the other hand, they allowed a lot of production Tennessee Titan tight ends Delanie Walker, Luke Stocker, and Jonnu Smith. I think we all understand that Rob Gronkowski is a different animal.
The weaknesses that persist are stopping the run from Nickel, stopping the pass from Base, and getting the defense off the field on 3rd & Long. This concerns me because, especially at home, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady have consistently shown the wherewithal to re-shape their offensive approach according to what will work against an opposing defense.
For about six quarters, the Patriots asked rookie tailback Sony Michel to almost exclusively run the football out of the I-Formation against opponent Base defenses. He did not have success. Nor should they have expected him to, regardless of what he did at Georgia running from the I-Formation. In 2017, NFL Base defenses only gave up an average of 3.6 yards per carry. Trying to focus your offense around running the ball against Base defenses is like trying run through a wall.
But in the second half of the Detroit Lions game, New England got wise and started running Michel out of single-back sets, as well as from 11-personnel. He had a lot more success, but the game had already begun to get away from them, and so they had to abandon the run.
The fear is that New England may have discovered that putting extra wide receivers on the field against a Nickel defense is exactly how they can get the rookie Michel going. That's bad news for the Dolphins defense, as they have a lot of problems trying to stop the ground game with their Nickel defense on the field. Using deep threat wide receiver Josh Gordon on the field as one of the three wide receivers would enhance this strategy. It would force Miami's safeties to play more conservatively.
The Dolphins also continue having trouble stopping the pass out of Base personnel. While the passing game out of heavier personnel groupings hasn't been a strength of New England's thus far in 2018, they still have a very good personnel for it: tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, and running back James White are all good at running routes and catching the football. If Gordon starts coming onto the field to run vertical routes off play-action, you could see a lot of stuff open up for these players against Base defense.
Tom Brady is not up to his usual standards on third down, particularly 3rd & Long. Facing Miami's defense may be a great way for him to turn that around, as the Dolphins have the 31st ranked defense on 3rd & 5 or more. This is, as those that have followed me for any length of time may know, something that drives me nuts.
The Dolphins do not use Dime defense in these 3rd & Long situations, unlike many defenses in the NFL (including the Patriots). Defensive coordinator Matt Burke does not trust his sixth defensive back as much as he does his second linebacker, and this is the ultimate reason he thumbs his nose at Dime defense.
I find that rationale ridiculous. I don't care about some overly simplistic, vague notions about who is 'better'. I want to cover receivers and tight ends on 3rd & 8. Dolphins corner Torry McTyer (their sixth defensive back) is faster than linebackers Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan. He's better in coverage than Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan.
If the team is really worried about an offense matching a tight end up on smaller corners like McTyer or Bobby McCain, the defense can adjust to make sure they have bigger bodies defensive backs like T.J. McDonald, Reshad Jones, or Minkah Fitzpatrick covering those tight ends.
Offenses in the NFL today pass the ball 86% of the time on 3rd & 5 or more. The threat of running the ball on these downs is not credible. But for whatever reason, the Dolphins insist on getting the extra heft and run defense prowess of a second linebacker on the field.
If I Had a Nickel...
Fortunately for Miami, the Patriots defense has looked soft this year, particularly in areas Miami seems equipped to exploit.
New England is terrible stopping the run with their Nickel defense on the field. Exploiting Nickel defenses on the ground has become something of a specialty for Miami's offense.
The Dolphins are incredibly inventive, as we saw against the Oakland Raiders. Even if a defense keys its linebackers hard on running backs Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore, the Dolphins are likely to exploit that with misdirection, particularly with budding stars Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant, or zone read runs by quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
One reason the Patriots tend to be weak against the run with their Nickel defense on the field is they have a tendency to put Nickel on the field even when the opposing offense has brought out 12-personnel or 21-personnel (two wide receivers).
Miami doesn't use a fullback when they go to a two running back package, unlike the majority of teams that use those personnel packages. They roll with Gore and Drake. With tight end A.J. Derby out, the tight end most likely to hit the field in 21-personnel is Mike Gesicki.
That group has a light, speed-oriented look to it. It could tempt the Patriots into staying in Nickel until Miami either gets into an obvious run situation, or the Dolphins put out heavier personnel (e.g. two running backs and two tight ends).
There is a good and bad to this. The good is it could boost Miami's ground success, as Miami would suddenly face a lighter Nickel defense (more vulnerable to the run) while in heavier, run-oriented offensive personnel packages.
The bad is that passing the football out of these heavier offensive personnel packages may become more difficult, as the Patriots would be bringing five defensive backs in to defend pass plays that usually assume only four defensive backs on the field.
Not on My Dime
The Patriots are one of the teams that will gladly bring out a Dime defense on 3rd & Long and other passing situations. That could put a crimp in the (moderate) success Miami has established passing the ball out of 11-personnel (three wide receivers).
The New England coaches have long established a successful track record of picking and choosing the right spots to go Dime; about 90% of the time they will be facing a pass play.
One key in overcoming Dime defense on third down would be getting Miami's bigger bodied receivers like Mike Gesicki and DeVante Parker mismatched on smaller defensive backs in coverage. The health of New England's versatile Dime specialist, safety Patrick Chung, is something Miami will want to keep a close eye on.
Nothing is more important when facing the New England defense than scoring touchdowns and converting third downs.
Yes, I realize that states the obvious. But New England's defensive yardage and defensive points rankings always differ significantly, for a reason.
The Patriots call their defensive personnel groupings aggressively, using field position, clock, down, and distance as a "12th man" on defense. For example, a mismatch between offensive 11-personnel and Dime defense could expose the defense to run success. But if you call the Dime out on 3rd & 9, the situation itself limits the defense's exposure to that weakness.
New England will often aggressively mismatch the offensive and defensive personnel packages they call according to the situation. This approach has the net effect of making their defense look soft on first and second downs, and/or soft between the 20's, but suddenly effective on third down and in the red zone.
In the end, I don't think I trust Miami's offense to clear the most important fail-points set up by this approach on the road in a tough environment. There is a reason Miami's offense under Adam Gase, even with Ryan Tannehill at the helm, averages about a touchdown less on the road than they do at home.
Final Prediction: New England 27, Miami 17