The last time New England lost -- to Houston -- we covered it in a different Any Given Sunday and talked mostly about the offense. That offense remains in about the same state of shock for exactly the same reasons. The Patriots ran Sony Michel 18 times for just 74 yards against Miami, Julian Edelman was double-covered for almost the entirety of the game and caught just three balls for 26 yards, and James White caught 3-of-3 targets for 33 yards and a touchdown but was routinely guarded by a real coverage player rather than a linebacker.
Let's put those aside for a bit and instead focus on New England's defense, which has been good, but nowhere near as good as it was in the first nine weeks of the season.
|New England's Defense Before and After Week 9|
|Weeks 1-9||-37.3% (1)||35% (1)||31 (1)|
|Weeks 10-17||-10.4% (8)||41% (t-7)||12 (20)|
Many of the pieces written about the New England defense earlier in the season brought up their aggressive blitzing, so it was not much of a surprise that they came after Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins were completely ready and demonstrated a game plan that the Patriots are going to have to deal with at some point in the playoffs: if you're blitzing linebackers, we're going empty and throwing it to the area you vacated. In this case, that meant they were an extremely slant-heavy team.
Look at all the green in the middle of this chart. That's 18 of Fitzpatrick's 41 throws pounding the short middle between the numbers, and some of the throws to the left of the line of scrimmage were essentially the same sort of throw, just moved to the side. Over the course of the season, the Patriots have allowed just -12.0% DVOA against passes over the short middle, the fifth-best rate in the league (subscription required). But since Week 10, that number has skyrocketed to 44.9% DVOA -- 22nd place, and with just one turnover over 41 targets. A league-high 13 targets were over the short middle against the Dolphins, and they allowed a 107.5% DVOA on them.
The Dolphins pounded the middle of the field against the Patriots. pic.twitter.com/nfkGaZKoxH
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 31, 2019
Even though a Patriot is sort of hanging rather than rushing on the first of these throws, I wouldn't call either of them blitzes, but they're short passes with manufactured easy releases. Fitzpatrick didn't really have to hold the ball too long on either of these. It's the right way to attack a blitzing defense with good coverage players.
When you manufacture pressure off of your blitzes, the blitzes have to get home. Fitzpatrick -- somehow a street football legend despite looking like a lawn gnome come to life -- only took two sacks and four quarterback hits. For the third time in seven games, the Patriots didn't create a turnover on defense.
These aren't auspicious signs for a defense that will be tested over the middle by Ryan Tannehill on Saturday -- the Titans have the third-highest DVOA on passes targeting the short middle this season, at 95.7%. Bill Belichick and his lieutenants are going to have to figure out a way to keep blitzing without getting gashed.
Where the Game Swung
We covered the fourth quarter in Tipping Points, so I'll avoid repeating Scott's column there other than just listing out the numbers. As always, Game-Winning Chance (GWC) is brought to you by our media overlords at EdjSports and tracks what chance a team has to win from each snap relative to down/distance/score/timeouts and our projections of their base talent.
- Tom Brady's pick-six cost the Patriots 15.8% GWC, and nearly doubled Miami's chances of winning.
- Fitzpatrick's third-and-5 throw to Mike Gesicki at the New England 2 in the middle of the third quarter converted, creating first-and-goal at the 2. That and the ensuing touchdown run on the next play raised Miami's GWC by a combined 12.7% GWC.
- Elandon Roberts' surprising 38-yard touchdown catch lowered Miami's GWC back down to 25.9%.
- With the Patriots driving, down three, Brady's screen pass to James White on third-and-13 was worth 21.2% GWC, mostly because of the down-and-distance at the time.
- From there, the three major plays of Fitzpatrick's go-ahead drive by GWC were his third-and-5 completion to Albert Wilson that set up first-and-10 from the 17 (+20.4% GWC) and then his touchdown strike to Gesicki (+18.6%)
Sneakily, I also think it's worth pointing out that the Patriots got the ball back with first-and-10 at the New England 25, 57 seconds left in the first half, and three timeouts, but chose to run the ball twice in a tie game. New England actually gave away 1.9% GWC by doing that. Bill Belichick, I am sorry for this slander and you know well more than I do about football, but you have been a tad conservative this year and it has bit the Patriots in some spots.
By the (D)VOA
The game, obviously, becomes a lot worse looking for the Patriots (and better for the Dolphins) when you include opponent adjustments. Boy does it ever. New England's special teams helped keep the game closer than it may have otherwise been.
DeVante Parker Became Good, What Were The Odds?
The few times when they really needed a big play, the Dolphins were able to rely on DeVante Parker to provide it despite being covered by one of the NFL's best corners in Stephon Gilmore. Parker has had an almost unprecedented fifth-year breakout, and at this point his three-year, $30.5-million extension looks like a steal. (For context, that makes Parker the 24th-highest paid wideout by average annual contract value.)
DeVante Parker is alive! pic.twitter.com/mfX4sLgqJe
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 31, 2019
The first deep ball came at the two-minute warning and there's pretty much nothing to be done about it. Gilmore plays with outside leverage, and the ball is put in a spot where he couldn't contest it once he flipped his hips. The other throw, earlier in the game, appeared to be Gilmore reading the quarterback's eyes and getting caught peering into the backfield.
Only 43 wideouts since the merger have pulled in more than 1,200 receiving yards in their fifth season. There are exactly two wideouts in the last 20 years to not crack 750 receiving yards in their first four seasons and bust out to the tune of 1,200-plus yards in their fifth season: Emmanuel Sanders and Joe Horn. Sanders got to play with Peyton Manning, so he's even kind of an awkward comparison to push into this. But both of those players sustained solid production throughout their next three to four seasons, which should give Dolphins fans a little hope that the contract won't end with Parker stagnating again.
Miami's rebuild has been sort of awkward from the outside because it doesn't exactly fit the terms of how we think of a classic Moneyball tank job should be on the field. They traded away a lot of their good players, but they continued to play guys like Fitzpatrick and Parker -- the non-upside guys -- rather than second-year quarterback Josh Rosen or some undrafted free agent. The NFL's salary system incentivizes you to find young, solid players on cheap contracts and build around them, because they will remain cheap for the next three or four years. Word came on Monday that the Dolphins were firing offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea as well, adding another wrinkle of fog to whatever the plan was.
Viewed through the terms of finding good young players, the season wasn't much of a success. Miami got better play from their on-contract rookies, and Nik Needham and Preston Williams showed a few flashes, but there wasn't exactly a preponderance of solid undrafted talent finding roles.
The biggest positive the Dolphins can take from this season might actually just be Parker's growth. It doesn't solve everything, but it is a step in the right direction.