How the Patriots defense can rattle Tua Tagovailoa and beat the Dolphins

For the most part, Tua Tagovailoa will have the answers to the test.
The Dolphins’ rookie quarterback will be prepared on how to beat the Patriots defense with inside knowledge provided by headman Brian Flores, a longtime New England assistant, and other Miami coaches formerly of Foxboro. Tagovailoa is a sharp kid, who overcame similarly complex looks in college at Alabama; both in practice and games. The question is whether the Pats will let him put those answers to good use.
The Dolphins offensive line is a poor run-blocking unit that holds up decently well in pass protection. Outside, Tagovailoa’s top weapons are hurting. The Patriots are sure to attack both.
So if the game is put on Tagovailoa’s shoulders, can he carry a winning load?
Probably not. It’s why Bill Belichick’s well-documented record against young quarterbacks is so impressive.
Here’s how the Pats can knock off another rookie and win on Sunday:
1. Win on first down
The first step is first down.
If Miami is allowed to sustain some form of a running game, it can and will control the clock and the game. Tagovailoa also throws well off play-action. Expect the Patriots to try to generate a strong interior push to cloud his vision on dropbacks at 6-foot-1 and control the line of scrimmage.
If the Pats force the Dolphins into enough third-and-mediums and third-and-longs, victory should be assured — barring a catastrophic performance by Cam Newton and Co. The Patriots’ greatest advantage defensively is in obvious passing situations, where they can flood the field with defensive backs and introduce game-specific pressure wrinkles. When forced to play basic coverages and fronts on standard downs — where the threat of a run is equal to that of a pass — they don’t have the talent to dominate outright.
The Rams loss last week was the greatest example yet.
2. Play heavy man-to-man coverage
Even if Miami fields just one or two of injured wide receivers DeVante Parker and Jakeem Grant and/or tight end Mike Gesicki, their offense will be extremely limited. We’ve seen this story before.
A limited weapons corps was largely stifled during the Pats’ 21-11 win in the season opener. The Patriots can again lock down the Dolphins with bump-and-run coverage, given their talent edge in the secondary. The added benefit will be disrupting the timing of Miami’s passing game and forcing Tagovailoa to hold onto the ball, negating one of his greatest strengths as a passer.
“You know, (Tagovailoa) sees what he’s got, understands the pressure, understands the timing of routes, gets the ball out quickly and has enough quickness in the pocket to make it difficult for the pass rush to get to him,” Belichick said this week. “He can run a little bit, but he’s more, I would say, of a quicker guy in the pocket that’s elusive and really wants to throw more than he wants to run.”
3. Tilt coverage to Tagovailoa’s left
It’s only a six-game sample thus far from Tagovailoa, but there’s an odd tendency developing in his passing chart.
When throwing outside the middle of the field, 65% of his attempts have gone left, per Pro Football Focus. To a degree, it’s understandable, with Tagovailoa being a left-handed quarterback. He’s passing to the side of the field he sees most easily upon dropping back.
That said, in obvious passing situations, the Pats should safely be able to rotate their safeties down to Tagovailoa’s left, understanding that’s likely where the ball is headed — if he isn’t working the middle. This should particularly help against the Dolphins’ most dangerous throws. Half of Tagovailoa’s throws to the intermediate (10-19 yards) and deep (20-plus yards) levels of the field this season have gone left.

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