The New England Patriots started off the 2018 season defeating the Houston Texans 27-20 in Gillette Stadium in week one. However, the next two games saw the Patriots struggle on offense and defense as the Jacksonville Jaguars exacted their revenge after falling in the AFC Championship game in January 31-20 and former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia defeated the Patriots handily
This week the New England Patriots welcomes the Miami Dolphins to Foxboro in a game with huge AFC East ramifications. The Dolphins are 3-0 having outlasted the Titans in week one in a game with multiple weather delays, went into New Jersey to defeat Sam Darnold and the Jets and came from behind last week to keep Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden from his first victory of 2018.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, September 30 at 1:00 PM ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 out of Boston and WPRI 12 in Providence. Kevin Harlan will handle play-by-play duties with Rich Gannon as the color analyst. Steve Tasker will work from the sidelines.
On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Mark Kestecher will call the with game with Kelly Stouffer providing analysis. Jeff Darlington will work from the sidelines. The New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The Patriots are in a rare position of being two games behind a division opponent after three weeks of the season. Suddenly, this week four match-up has become one with huge ramifications for the AFC East. A Dolphins’ road win puts the defending AFC Champions an almost insurmountable three games back after just four weeks.
A big problem for the Patriots has been an offense that is currently ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored and total yards and is averaging less than 20 points per game (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). More troubling, they are 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs.
First and foremost the Patriots need healthy bodies on the field on offense before they can even consider a game plan to improve. One healthy body not on the field is wide receiver Julian Edelman who will return to action on Thursday Night against the Colts and give a boost to the offense.
Rob Gronkowski has been slowed by double-teams, but is listed on the injury report with an ankle injury. As usual, there is little out of New England regarding injuries. Former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi was very critical of Rob Gronkowski and his lack of quickness on his GM Street Podcast on the Ringer. Perhaps that ankle injury is affecting him more than he lets on but his production is needed against Miami.
Marcus Cannon continues to appear on the injury report with a calf injury. He has split time with tackle LaAdrian Waddle but is–when healthy–a shutdown right tackle. Cannon split snaps in game one against Houston, missed game two against Jacksonville and played about 70% of the snaps against Detroit. Cannon will need to be healthy and effective against Miami’s edge rushing duo of Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn.
The Patriots also have other skill position players on offense dealing with injuries including wide receivers Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett and tight end Jacob Hollister. Hollister missed game one, had three catches for 35 yards on just 14 snaps played and then was sidelined by a chest injury and missed last week and is unlikely to suit up against Miami.
Dorsett had been the most consistent receiver for the Patriots in weeks one and two and is likely to play after injuring his knee late against Detroit. He has been off he injury report this week and will be counted on to get open against Miami.
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Gordon may make his first appearance in New England this week and his abilities–even as a decoy–are desperately needed in the offense. Gordon playing takes Miami’s best cornerback Xavien Howard away from Dorsett and Chris Hogan. It also forces free safety T.J. McDonald to cheat over and respect his downfield receiving abilities. That takes McDonald’s attention away from Gronkowski and gives him space in the middle of the field.
Is There a Running Game?
One advantage for the Patriots is that Ndamukong Suh is no longer in Miami and suiting up in Los Angeles. The Dolphins have filled his snaps with youngsters Jordan Phillips, Vincent Taylor, Davon Godchaux and veteran Akeem Spence.
None of those defensive tackles are the pass rushing threat of Suh, but all are much better against the run. The Dolphins’ interior big bodies have effectively tied up guards and centers through three games and limited running room. Their quick linebackers Kiko Alonso, Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker have benefitted by piling up tackles.
The Dolphins are eighth in rushing yards allowed (267 yards) and third in yards per attempt (3.3 yards per attempt). Contrast that to a New England offense which is 20th in rushing yards (293 yards) and 18th in yards per attempt (4.0 yards per attempt). New England’s leading rusher in total yards, Rex Burkhead, is on injured reserve with a neck injury. Their leading rusher in yards per attempt, Jeremy Hill, went on injured reserve after week one with a knee injury. Rookie Sony Michel is averaging just 3.5 yards attempt after missing most of training camp with a knee injury and the team had to sign Kenjon Barner from the scrap heap.
New England has made a concentrated effort to run the ball early in the first three game without much success. Those slow starts hurt the team in the first two weeks and another slow start could doom them this week.
Whatever the game plan, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to get the team scoring points early and often. The plan to open the season was three rushes and a punt against Houston. Fortunately, a fumble by DeShaun Watson gave the Patriots the ball back with great field position and let them play with a lead.
Against Jacksonville, a balanced opening drive stalled and resulted in a missed field goal. The next two drives were balanced and resulted in a three-and-out and one third down conversion before punting. Down 14-0 and eventually 21-3, the emphasis on balance instead of scoring points, the offense became one-dimensional and vulnerable in the second half.
Finally, last week against Detroit in prime time the Patriots went three-and-out three times in a row. By the time they got the offense rolling they were down 13-0. Amazingly, they got back in the game at the start of the second half cutting the lead to 13-10 before the defense continued to give up points at an alarming rate.
Playing from behind, a team with multiple offensive weapons can mount a comeback in conjunction with a defense able to make stops. At this point of the season, the defense is erratic and the offense cannot function while one-dimensional. In McDaniels’ defense, the team being able to run the football effectively would take pressure off of the much-maligned receiving group.
New England needs to find a way to move the football effectively and score points. It sounds simple. Whether it is simply execution (or lack there of) or play calling, there needs to be more pressure put on the opposing defense.
New England needs to look at their offense and run plays off of their tendencies. Go jumbo and pass out of the attack; spread out the defense and run the ball; pull out a few alignments that the defense may not have seen; re-introduce rub routes to get receivers open; whatever it takes to get receivers open and open running space.
Josh McDaniels is the highest-paid offensive coordinator. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of his generation. This should not be a lingering problem for this duo. They need to start earning their paychecks this week.