By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Not many people foresaw this Week 4 meeting with the Dolphins as a potential season-altering football game, yet here we are.
The Patriots, hoping to avoid falling to 1-3 on the season and hoping to avoid falling three games behind the Dolphins in the AFC East, will have a lot to prove when they host Miami on Sunday afternoon.
With a win, the Patriots can stabilize their season before perhaps improving to 3-2 the following week when the Colts visit on Thursday night. That would be similar to what happened last year, when the Patriots improved to 3-2 on a short week with a win in Tampa on a Thursday night. If that happens this year, the Patriots will have proven capable of once again withstanding some early-season slippage.
But with a loss, the questions will intensify, the heat will turn up, and we’ll all start to wonder if this is finally the year that things go south for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots.
That may seem like hyperbole, sure, but there’s simply no way of downplaying the significance of this weekend’s game. A loss for the Patriots would make the climb to just make the postseason — let alone win the AFC East — significantly more difficult, so there won’t be much room for errors come Sunday afternoon.
As for when this game does kick off, here’s What To Watch For.
Ryan Tannehill may not always be considered to be a significant threat to an opponent, but armed with some real weapons this year, he’s been outstanding.
In Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson, Danny Amendola and Jakeem Grant, the Dolphins have four wide receivers with 100 or more receiving yards this year. (The Patriots have one.) And their diverse skill-sets across the board has presented some logistical nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
And covering wide receivers has not been a strength of the Patriots over the past two weeks. New England allowed Jacksonville’s Keelan Cole-Dede Westbrook-Donte Moncrief trio to catch 15 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2. The Patriots allowed Detroit’s Marvin Jones-Golden Tate-Kenny Golladay trio to catch 16 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. And the Patriots even allowed DeAndre Hopkins and Bruce Ellington to catch 12 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown on a day when quarterback Deshaun Watson was inaccurate and constantly under pressure.
Covering wideouts has not exactly been a strength of the Patriots’ defense thus far in 2018. And the fact that Tannehill has evenly distributed his passes this year (the four leading WRs all have between 11 and 14 receptions through three weeks) makes the task that much more difficult for a Patriots secondary that may be without Eric Rowe.
The jobs for Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, and (probably) Cyrus Jones will be difficult, and Patrick Chung’s availability figures to be a significant factor.
Rookie Sony Michel has become a bit of a scapegoat of sorts for his lack of production in his first two games. That’s not really fair.
Even a glancing look at the blocking for the majority of Michel’s rushing attempts — especially last week in Detroit — shows that the blocking has not been there for him. At all. Even Shaq Mason spent one third-and-1 snap lying flat on his back, which perfectly captures how things have been going for the offensive line.
This week, with the benefit of being in front of a compliantly quiet home crowd on offense, it will be important for the Patriots’ O-line to re-establish itself and make it possible for the Patriots to run the football.
So far, that’s been a struggle. The Patriots rank 20th in rushing yards and 18th in rushing yards per attempt. They’ve also yet to run for a touchdown. It hasn’t been good.
But, on the road against Jacksonville? That’s not an easy assignment. Nor is a Sunday night game in Detroit. At home, it’s an important week to prove to be at least competent in this area, both for the benefit of running the ball as well as the benefit of providing some balance to the offense. It becomes a lot easier for defenses to stop Tom Brady’s passing game when the defensive line can dominate.
Can Anybody Get Open?
Speaking of the balanced attack, the Patriots were balanced last week … in that they were bad in both the run game and the passing game. And it was very clear that no receivers could get open.
And when those receivers can’t beat man coverage, defenses can afford to double-cover Rob Gronkowski without fear. The results, for the Patriots, are disastrous.
This week, Josh McDaniels is going to have to get creative, because the offense as it’s currently constituted (without Julian Edelman) has not nearly been good enough. It should not look so difficult for NFL receivers to be able to get open, so there will have to be some changes across the board.
What that ends up meaning is up to them. Whether it’s the quick passes to Cordarrelle Patterson, the fake screen passes to one direction that end up going to the other direction, some pick routes, some complex pre-snap motions, or any other concepts, there are ways for this offense with this personnel to function harmoniously. It just requires some creativity and some work.
(Having Josh Gordon running some go routes and deep posts on the outside might make life a lot easier for everybody else across the field, even if it’s just for a dozen or so snaps.)
A Pass Rush Reawakening
The Patriots’ pass rush got off to a positive start this season, as New England sacked Deshaun Watson three times and recorded 12 total quarterback hits in Week 1. After that, though, the rush disappeared.
In Week 2, the defense didn’t sack Blake Bortles and only landed five hits on the quarterback. Last week, the Patriots recorded one lone sack, which was the team’s only time delivering a hit on Matthew Stafford.
That drop in production coincided with the loss of Trey Flowers, who suffered a concussion very early in the Jacksonville game. (He had two solo tackles and a forced fumble in his limited time on the field that game.) So if he returns to the field, it should presumably make a significant difference for the defense.
That will be important too. Tannehill, a career 63-percent passer, is completing 73 percent of his passes this year. That type of success is due in part to scheme but is also aided by protection. In Weeks 1 and 3, Tannehill was sacked just once in each game. (He was sacked four times in Week 2 at the Jets. Though he managed to have a very efficient game, he threw for just 168 yards.)
With the defensive backfield facing a very tough task in defending those receivers, the pass rush could help things a lot quite a bit by getting Tannehill off his spot, which could eliminate a read and force a rushed decision for the quarterback. (From there, the defense will have to be wary of Tannehill taking off. He had 70 rushing yards on 11 attempts through Week 2.)
Helping matters for the Patriots is Tannehill’s spotty history in Foxboro. In five games, he’s thrown five touchdowns and nine interceptions while taking 22 sacks. That includes a seven-sack day in his first game in New England, a six-sack day in his second year, and a five-sack day in 2015. 2016’s trip to Foxboro marked the first time that Tannehill avoided getting sacked, but he still had a mediocre day with two touchdowns and two picks. He also had that safety on the bad snap through the end zone, which was humorous:
As much as any week, the Patriots’ pass rush will play a critical role in getting the defense off the field. The Patriots currently rank 30th in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing conversions at a near-50 percent rate. Fixing that requires improvement across the board, but the front seven can provide the most obvious impact.