Funny, isn’t it? The one Patriots-Dolphins matchup that has been the focus in media circles, both in New England and Miami, is one where the two names involved won’t actually share the field.
That’s right, this is “‘Bama versus ‘Bama” at the quarterback position, as Tua Tagovailoa put it. He’ll square off against old backup Mac Jones at Gillette Stadium on “Sunday Night Football”, with each representing clashing philosophies in the process.
Will this game go to the quarterback whose franchise preaches ball security and the idea that “you can’t win the game until you first stop from losing?”
Or will the light-up-the-scoreboard offense prevail, with its quarterback who has a laid-back attitude and often a devil-may-care style with the football in his hands?
Tagovailoa shredded the Chargers in Week 1, but there’s reason to believe his performance will play out much differently in Week 2. The last time he faced the Patriots, all the way back in Week 1 of last season, he and his offensive teammates posted just 13 offensive points. He was sacked three times. Meanwhile, star receiver Tyreek Hill got his but didn’t break the game open, finishing with eight catches for 94 yards.
Expect plenty of zone from Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo this time around. On 23 zone dropbacks in Week 1 of last season, Tagovailoa averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt and a quarterback rating of 81.8 — 5.3 yards per attempt and 64 rating points fewer than when the Patriots were in man-to-man coverage, per Sports Info Solutions.
The Patriots will mix their coverages as they always do, but whether it’s zone or man, expect them to get as physical as the officials will allow with Dolphins receivers.
Trying to beat Hill and Jaylen Waddle consistently in footraces up and down the field wouldn’t be a winning formula for any defense, and it’s not what they’ve done when limiting Hill in past matchups. But having speed on the field is vital, and it bears watching whether or not Jonathan Jones (ankle, questionable) will be available to the Patriots since his speed and savvy have been a game-changer against Hill in recent seasons. In his last five games against the Patriots — dating back to the 2018 AFC Championship Game — he’s averaged 63.4 yards on seven targets.
Slowing down the “Cheetah”
Here’s how Tyreek Hill has fared in his seven career games vs. the Patriots.
|Week 17, 2022
|Week 1, 2022
|Week 4, 2020
|Week 14, 2019
|Week 6, 2018
|Week 1, 2017
If Jones can’t go, the Patriots will need another defensive back to step up as the primary coverage option. Perhaps that’s rookie Christian Gonzalez, who’s longer and more angular than Jones but has excellent change-of-direction ability, or it could be second-year speedster Marcus Jones. Either way, as was the case when Jones has matched with Hill, there will be help over the top to prevent big plays.
Having versatile do-it-all corners and safeties should help with this matchup. The Patriots are, in fact, built for this matchup in some ways. They have high-IQ athletes who can exchange responsibilities — playing positionless football, if you will — that would allow for the team to keep up with Hill and Waddle without actually having to run with them.
If the Patriots can show Tagovailoa they’re playing man coverage only to then pass Hill off on a deep crossing route from a corner to a safety and have him out-leveraged, that could be enough to force Tagovailoa to hold onto the football. And if he holds onto it, that may allow a deep stable of Patriots pass-rushers to go home against an offensive line loaded with question marks. Or it could force Tagovailoa into some bad decisions.
And he’ll make some bad decisions. His seemingly nonchalant demeanor in the pocket has gotten him into trouble at times, like when he threw three late interceptions against the Packers on Christmas last year, causing the Dolphins to finish the month of December winless for only the second time in team history. He had the fifth-highest turnover-worthy-play percentage in the NFL last year, per Pro Football Focus.
The Patriots and Mac Jones have had ball-security issues themselves, including last week when two first-quarter turnovers helped put them in a 16-0 hole. But if they can clean up their self-inflicted wounds, if they can put together clock-killing drives to keep Tagovailoa and his weapons on the sidelines, Jones could end up winning the battle of ‘Bama passers.