Patriots-Dolphins preview: How Bill Belichick can pull another upset in Miami

Now do it again.

Last weekend’s upset of the Bills won’t be enough for the Patriots (2-5) to reverse course on their season, but beating Miami could start an impressive U-turn. The Pats are slated as 9-point underdogs in South Florida, where they’ve struggled historically. The Patriots are 2-8 in their last 10 visits, and haven’t beaten the Dolphins on the road in the post-Brady era.

Expect them to follow a similar formula to what they executed against Buffalo: quick passing, more run-pass-options, defensive schemes to get instant pressure and an eye on the field position battle.

Here’s how Sunday should go down in Miami:

When the Patriots run

Suddenly, the Pats are among the steadiest rushing teams in the NFL.

They rank ninth in success rate over the last three weeks, indicating an ability to stay on-schedule and move the chains. Moving right guard Mike Onwenu over to right tackle factored into some of their success, though something must be said for overall continuity.

The Patriots are no longer juggling injuries along their O-line, which has cleared wider and wider holes for running backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott. Left tackle Trent Brown is also playing some of the best football of his career. Despite that look for the Pats to pound the right side of Miami’s defense, where the Dolphins are allowing a league-high 31.3% of carries in that direction to go for first downs, per Sports Info. Solutions.

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The Patriots are also likely to dust off their plan from the teams’ last meeting in Week 2, when they featured heavy personnel groupings on their first few drives. While they failed to knock Miami off the ball that night, and then fell into an early hole, the Dolphins are allowing 4.4 yards per carry against two-tight end personnel, ninth-worst in the NFL.

When the Patriots pass

Despite all their talent, Miami ranks among the worst passing defenses in the NFL by most metrics. Good news, right?

Not entirely. According to the opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric DOVA, the Dolphins are a top-5 unit at defending the middle of the field, aka Mac Jones’ sweet spot. Jones played his best game of the season last week by attacking between the numbers and inside of 20 yards downfield. He didn’t attempt a single deep pass.

After going 0-of-5 on those throws versus Miami last month, expect the Patriots to target Stevenson and tight ends Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki and Pharaoh Brown in the short to intermediate areas. Miami ranks as a bottom-5 pass defense versus running backs and tight ends. The Dolphins also hinted at a possible return for All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey during the week, which could discourage outside throws.

And don’t forget about rookie receiver Demario Douglas. He averaged more than 14 yards per touch last weekend, the first game of his career when he was allowed to play more than half the team’s offensive snaps. Douglas is coming on strong.

Callahan: The Patriots can’t take Demario Douglas off the field anymore

When the Dolphins run

Lost amid all the hype for Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle is the fact Miami fields one of the most dangerous rushing attacks in the entire league. That is, until last week.

Against Philadelphia, the Dolphins finished with 45 rushing yards and a yards per carry average below four. The Eagles’ defensive line dominated a banged-up Miami offensive line, which will again be without its starting left tackle and starting left guard on Sunday. The Pats will need defensive tackles Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux to dominate like they did against Buffalo and control the middle, where Raheem Mostert ripped off a 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the last meeting.

The danger, as always, is in the Dolphins’ long speed.

But the real battleground Sunday might be on the edge, where Miami repeatedly ran outside zone and toss plays to get their speedy backs in space in Week 2. Aside from Jahlani Tavai losing one battle that allowed for an 8-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the Patriots largely held their ground. That bought them time against Miami, which called 45% of its runs behind either tackle, and scored once in the second half.

When the Dolphins pass

This is all about timing.

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In Week 2, Tagovailoa nullified the Pats’ pass rush (a season-low 15.2% pressure rate with Matt Judon) by unloading the ball in a faster average time (2.08 seconds) than any quarterback posted that week. Miami still operates one of the league’s fastest passing games designed to get Hill and Waddle into space. Even with a limited receiving corps (Hill has a hip injury), the Dolphins’ offense is designed to create yards after the catch for whoever is playing receiver.

To prevent this, will the Patriots blitz? They sent extra rushers at Josh Allen on almost 40% of his dropbacks last Sunday, despite the fact he entered with a passer rating against the blitz north of 110. Tagovailoa’s numbers are also strong versus the blitz, and in Week 2 he went 4-of-6 for 43 yards against Patriots blitzes, including three first-down conversions.

One way or another, the Patriots must either reach Tagovailoa within two-plus seconds or force him to hold the ball for longer than he wants.

Game pick

Miami 20, Patriots 16

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