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Perry: Mac has a built-in advantage over ex-Alabama mate Tua

/ by Phil Perry
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Mac or Tua? Tua or Mac?

The former Alabama teammates are relatively similar in their styles of play. Neither is a next-level athlete at the quarterback position. Neither has prototypical size. Neither possesses a howitzer for an arm. Both are considered accurate passers with the ability to anticipate openings.

Which quarterback will have the better career? That question will linger until Mac Jones or Tua Tagovailoa answer it definitively while leading AFC East division rivals. But finding an answer begins in earnest on Sunday when the Patriots and Dolphins square off at Gillette Stadium.

While Tagovailoa would seem to have the early advantage thanks to his year-long head start on Jones as they navigate the nascent stages of their pro careers, there is one massive piece of evidence that would suggest Jones will be the more successful of the two in this particular season.

Phil Perry's BOLD predictions for the 2021 New England Patriots

It's not that both Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith -- 'Bama receivers chosen in the first round this year -- said before the draft they would choose Jones over Tagovailoa if given the option. (Bit of an awkward stance for Waddle, who's since been reunited with Tagovailoa in Miami.)

It's the nearly 2,000 pounds of offensive linemen protecting them.

Playing in front of Jones will be what is considered one of the league's best collection of blockers. Pro Football Focus ranked it as the third-best offensive line group in the NFL headed into the year thanks in part to a critical one-two punch: talented players who have experience playing together.

 

Playing in front of Tagovailoa, particularly in Week 1, are question marks personified.

Dolphins starting left tackle Austin Jackson, who endured a rocky preseason after an abysmal rookie campaign, may have to sit out on Sunday due to COVID protocols. If Jackson can't play, his replacement might be Greg Little. A second-round pick out of Ole Miss in 2019, Little was dumped by the Panthers just a few weeks ago when he was traded away for a seventh-round pick.

Starting left guard Liam Eichenberg is a rookie out of Notre Dame, and he's dealing with a thigh injury that made him a limited participant in Wednesday's practice. If he misses time Sunday, last year's starter Solomon Kindley could be the answer. Kindley was PFF's 74th-ranked guard in 2020.

Starting center Michael Dieter, meanwhile, is coming off a season spent backing up Ted Karras. Karras is now New England's backup center.

The Dolphins ranked 29th in PFF's preseason offensive line ranks headed into 2021. Dismal as that may be, their 2020 actually represented an improvement from 2019 when they used 10 different starters and were arguably the worst offensive line in football.

Perhaps over the course of 2021, they'll see another bump in production as Jackson, second-year right guard Robert Hunt and Eichenberg improve. But in the short term? All that shakeup -- with issues right now at left tackle and left guard ahead of a matchup with a vastly improved Patriots defensive front -- could spell disaster.

One of the reasons places like PFF and Football Outsiders track offensive line continuity from one year to the next is because, in general, offenses with consistency up front tend to produce consistently positive results. According to Thomas Emerick of RotoViz, seven of the top eight offenses in football since 2017 have, on average, returned over three offensive line starters from one year to the next. The worst eight offenses in that span? Six returned, on average, fewer than three offensive line starters from one year to the next.

That doesn't mean that it's always best to bring the gang back together year after year. The Chiefs, for example, have totally overhauled their offensive line ahead of this season because last year's group was not an especially talented one. They should be better, even though they have yet to play a regular-season game together.

 

Belichick delved into the talent-versus-continuity problem earlier this week soon after Miami placed Jackson on the COVID reserve list.

"It's always nice to have continuity," Belichick said. "That can be a good thing, but I think it's more important to have good players who are playing well. So, if we put some coaches out there that have coached together and have a lot of continuity, I don't think we'd be able to block anybody, so it really wouldn't do any good. "So I think it's more important to have good players that play well, and they've had plenty of time to work together, and they'll have plenty more time during the season to work together. If you can bank on that experience and that background, there's definitely value to that. I don't think it overrides, again, good players playing well."

Continuity isn't everything, of course. But it matters.

Consider what former Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said ahead of the 2016 Super Bowl. The year prior, his team had one of the most in-flux offensive line operations in modern NFL history, with 13 different starting offensive line combinations and 41 line combinations total.

"I think continuity is so important," he said at the time. "It makes it that much easier, and they all understand. We have this phrase that they want to see the game through one set of eyes. All five players through one set of eyes. We feel like if they’re all doing that, it makes the communication easier. How they play together becomes much better ... We try and do that every game. That’s what we’re after."

In Week 1, Tagovailoa could end up with just two starters from last year blocking for him, both on the right side of the line. Jones, meanwhile, will have four 2020 starters joining him in the huddle. And the fifth lineman, Trent Brown, played with Shaq Mason and David Andrews back in 2018.

Even if that doesn't count as a "continuous" group from one year to the next, it's close.

"It's crazy," Brown said. "When I knew I was going to get traded back here, I felt like everything in my life felt at peace and right all over again. Shaq and David are really like brothers. Last time I was here, I know it was a short time, but we really got super close through working, knowing -- I believe -- we'd all take a bullet for each other. I think that's how we approach work every day: Do it right for the man next to us."

The man behind the Patriots offensive line will surely appreciate that approach as well.

Jones' blockers -- their collective experience and ability level -- is why he will have a definitive advantage over his teammate-turned-division-foe when he steps on the field for the first time as a pro.

 

Prediction: Patriots 20, Dolphins 10 

 Patriots Talk Podcast: What to expect from Mac Jones in 2021, plus Kyle Van Noy 1-on-1 | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

X-factor: Patriots No. 2 corner

Who will it be opposite JC Jackson on the outside and Jonathan Jones in the slot? Jalen Mills (ankle) is dealing with an injury that may throw his game-day availability into jeopardy. Behind him on the depth chart are Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel and Shaun Wade.

Bethel is primarily a special-teamer and Williams struggled on the outside at times during training camp. Is there any chance Wade could find himself on the field after being traded to New England by the Ravens just last month?

The Patriots have been open to getting Wade reps on the outside since his arrival, even though it was in the slot where he had most of his success at Ohio State. In 2019, under now Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley, Wade was one of the Buckeyes' most important players. In a conversation with NBC Sports Boston earlier this week, Hafley described Wade as "very instinctive" and said he leaned on Wade and defensive back Jordan Fuller (now a captain for the Rams) to make on-field adjustments.

Wade attempted a move to the boundary last season, Hafley's first at The Heights, but he struggled and was drafted by Baltimore in the fifth round. How Wade fits in New England remains to be seen, but indications are he's capable of handling the information that'll be thrown his way. Hafley previously coached Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan at Rutgers and said Wade reminded him of those former Patriots defensive backs in part because of his football IQ.

"He's got length, footspeed, he's a smooth athlete," Hafley said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he (played the boundary) well. There's so much value in that pickup."

When he was acquired, Wade looked like a depth piece and a developmental option thanks to some rare physical traits (33.5-inch arms). But with Stephon Gilmore on PUP and Mills dealing with injury, Belichick may have to get creative on the outside.

Number to know: 1

Mac Jones saw one Cover 0 blitz -- seven rushers, no safeties deep -- in preseason action. It came on a third-down play against the Giants, and he handled it well enough, getting off a pass to Kristian Wilkerson. Though the throw bounced away incomplete, the Giants were flagged for a hold in the secondary, giving Jones and his teammates a fresh set of downs.

Jones' professional interactions with Cover 0 should balloon on Sunday. Brian Flores and the Dolphins blitzed at the second-highest rate of any team (only behind Baltimore) last season. And according to Pro Football Focus, on third down, Flores used Cover 0 more than any team in the last five years.

 

Uber-aggressive. That's what the Dolphins have been under Flores. That's what they were when facing rookie Justin Herbert last season, blitzing him 16 times in Week 9. Herbert completed eight passes on those snaps for 6.2 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and an interception in a 29-21 loss.

Jones' will see his share of pressure as well. When he sees Cover 0, he'll likely be faced with more rushers than blockers can handle. The Dolphins will also show Cover 0 and occasionally drop would-be rushers into coverage to confuse Jones and jump shorter routes. Working in Jones' favor is that for weeks he's been studying the Patriots defense, which has obvious similarities to what the Dolphins like to do on that side of the ball.

"Luckily it's some of the same stuff that our defense does," Trent Brown said this week. "So we've been getting a look at it since April as a unit. I think we'll just have to take it as it comes, make corrections when needed and just remain patient and calm."

Jones barely saw Cover 0 in preseason, which is understandable given the vanilla nature of NFL defenses in August. But, to Jones, Sunday might feel like he's drinking out of a Cover 0 firehose. Whether or not he can read the rush and get the ball out quickly in those situations will go a long way in determining his team's Week 1 outcome.

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