MIAMI GARDENS -- Despite all the challenges the Patriots faced going into Miami in recent years, they probably knew in the backs of their minds that a couple of scores might be enough to start the 2019 season 2-0. Especially against this tear-it-down-before-we-build-it-up iteration of the Dolphins. Especially with this suffocating iteration of the Patriots defense.
The only problem was the Patriots were having a hard time generating much in the way of offense after a methodical 10-play touchdown drive on their first series of the afternoon at Hard Rock Stadium.
They lost left tackle Isaiah Wynn to a foot injury on the first play of their second drive. Tight end Matt LaCosse was banged up. Fullback James Develin came out of the game briefly with some sort of upper-body irritation.
The Wynn injury was the key one, though, because the Patriots were already without starting right tackle Marcus Cannon (shoulder). That meant Marshall Newhouse, who started the game at right tackle, had to bump over to left tackle. Second-year tackle Korey Cunningham came into the game to play right tackle for the first time as a pro.
The result of New England's first two drives without Wynn? Punt. Missed field goal.
But what happened on their fourth and final drive of the half proved to be key for the Patriots.
After a ridiculous third-and-17 conversion to Phillip Dorsett to keep the drive alive, the Patriots converted on third-and-one twice to eventually help them get to the Dolphins 20-yard line with 1:24 left in the game.
They could sniff points and would need them to give themselves some breathing room going into the locker room.
The Patriots are going to run into teams with No. 4 corners who are going to be overmatched against their four-receiver sets. Benefit of being deep at wideout.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 15, 2019
They won't always get a No. 4 corner on Brown... but still might make sense to keep rolling out 10-personnel groupings. https://t.co/WZkuUipaPz
The Patriots trotted out a rarely-used formation on first-and-10 just inside the red zone. It was a four-receiver set with one back, referred to as "10 personnel." The Dolphins, not liking whatever it is they saw, and perhaps thrown off by that package in a critical situation, called timeout.
The Patriots ran 10 personnel just three times last week against the Steelers and ran it just 17 times all of last season. It's a formation that's seldom used across the league, as it accounted for just two percent of all offensive plays last year, according to Sharp Football Stats.
It's a formation, though, that could benefit the Patriots as long as their receiver depth looks the way it did Sunday. With four quality wideouts in Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett, that's a grouping that's difficult to match with equally-talented corners.
The Dolphins have a solid top-three in their corner room -- as many teams do -- with Xavien Howard, Eric Rowe and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But their fourth corner is Jomal Wiltz, who spent the last two seasons on the Patriots practice squad and latched on with former Patriots play-caller Brian Flores in Miami.
Wiltz against any of New England's top four receivers is probably a mismatch Tom Brady would be willing to try to exploit. Wiltz on Brown is definitely a mismatch Brady would be willing to exploit.
Out of the Dolphins timeout, the Patriots came back with the same personnel and found Wiltz aligned across from Brown in the left slot. Brown attacked Wiltz's outside shoulder with speed and got Wiltz retreating hard. Looking back to Brady, Brown opened up for a perfectly-placed back-shoulder throw to the front pylon.
Brown only saw eight back-shoulder fades and caught one last season with the Steelers, according to Football Outsiders, but he is skilled in contested-catch situations and he showed it there to put the Patriots up, 13-0.
Brown and Brady's chemistry wasn't quite so on point the rest of the way. In the second half there was a misfire on a slant that took too long to develop, another on a rep that Brady ripped before Brown ever turned around to look for it, and another on an attempt into the end zone that got batted away when Brady couldn't find a window to hit Brown who'd broken free from Miami corner Eric Rowe.
The Patriots got a shutout from their stifling defense and added 30 points in the second half. But the touchdown connection between Brady and Brown -- the result of a rarely-used formation and an unlikely one-on-one matchup -- was all Brady and Josh McDaniels needed.
Moving forward, it'll be interesting to see if four-receiver sets, though not part of New England's normal offensive attack, could become a bigger part of their plan with Brown in the mix. Their depth at wideout is looking like it'll be simply too tough for some opposing cornerback units to match. It was on Sunday.
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