PATS REPORTER

Perry: Dolphins will provide Mac Jones with a great pre-playoff test

PATS REPORTER

The Dolphins might not be a playoff team, but they'll provide Mac Jones a playoff-caliber test Sunday.

Think about it: on the road ... tough venue ... talented defense ... aggressive scheme. It'll be a lot for New England's rookie quarterback. Which makes it the perfect final tune-up before the Patriots get into the lose-or-go-home portion of their schedule.

How will it go? While the Patriots have been an excellent road team this year (6-1), remarkable as it may seem, their passing game has seen just one opposing crowd really mess with its communication. That came in Indianapolis. The fans were loud. Jones threw two picks, and the Patriots appeared to have some pre-snap issues that helped lead to Colts stops.

MetLife Stadium didn't come close to matching that kind of road intensity, no surprise. Neither did a Patriots-leaning crowd at SoFi Stadium in LA, or the lackluster scenes in Carolina, Atlanta or Houston. Buffalo was its own unique challenge, but because the passing game was a non-factor in that one for Bill Belichick's club, it's hard to include it in a list of tough environments Jones has conquered.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Should the Patriots treat Miami as a playoff game? We say yes! | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

 

Whether the Patriots end up in Cincinnati, Kansas City, back in Orchard Park or somewhere else for the Wild Card round, they'll have to go on the road and execute despite less-than-favorable conditions. Sunday's game in Miami gives them an opportunity to prove to themselves and the football-watching world that they can handle a hostile environment, because the reality is they simply haven't seen many of those this season.

Then there are the schematic challenges with which Jones will be presented this weekend. The Dolphins like to blitz quarterbacks into oblivion, which will give the Patriots one last regular-season opportunity to handle a variety of pressures before seeing them in the postseason. And they will see them in the postseason.

Jones is blitzed at the second-highest rate (34.3 percent of dropbacks) of any quarterback with at least 350 dropbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus. The only quarterback blitzed more frequently has been Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (35.7 percent), who famously had difficulty attacking Miami's all-out blitzes in a 22-10 loss back in November.

The plan for Jones, it seems, is somewhat uniform across opponents when it comes to pressure: heat him up, force mistakes.

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Before the Colts game, "Hard Knocks" cameras caught Indy coaches relaying that type of message to their players.

"For us to go where we want to go," head coach Frank Reich said, "it's to make this rookie QB feel something he hasn't felt from a defense before. Let's get after this rookie quarterback."

Defensive line coach Brian Baker added, "We really want this guy to be anxious about people in his face. It's to pressure him, to make him hurry up everything. He has to feel this anxiety the entire game. This is the key to eliminating their passing game."

In one portion of the episode, Colts linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi showed his players film of what looked like Jones dealing with pressure and making a mistake. "He's accurate and everything," Borgonzi said, "but he's a rookie so he'll do some things like this. Stop the run. Make this guy play quarterback."

When blitzed, Jones has not been the same quarterback as when he's facing a more traditional three or four-man rush. When blitzed, per PFF, he has a 64.5 completion percentage, a 6.7 yards-per-attempt figure and a rating of 87.9. When not blitzed, his completion percentage is 69.2, his yards-per-attempt number is 7.5 and his rating is 94.9.

It hasn't been a crippling issue for the Patriots offense; they're eighth in the league in scoring this season. But Jones has been sacked on eight percent of his dropbacks when blitzed, and he's been sacked on just three percent of his dropbacks when not blitzed. His yards per attempt when blitzed ranks him 23rd in the NFL and his rating against the blitz is 19th.

 

The Dolphins blitz at a higher rate (39.8 percent) than any team in football outside of the Bucs (40.9 percent). Back in Week 1, Miami blitzed Jones on over half his dropbacks, including his first pass attempt of the season ... which went behind him for a fumble as he tried to avoid pressure and apparently lost his orientation.

He's come a long way since that moment, but Dolphins coach Brian Flores probably won't be afraid to dial up pressure on Jones early and often once again.

The Dolphins like to blitz quarterbacks into oblivion, which will give the Patriots one last regular-season opportunity to handle a variety of pressures before seeing them in the postseason. And they will see them in the postseason.

"Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s been a major problem this year," Belichick said earlier this week. "I think we’ve handled that pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement and every game’s different. These guys do a little more odd pressuring than some of the teams. We’ve really been four-man line teams here for the last, I don’t know, six, seven, eight weeks, whatever it’s been. It’s been a lot. So now we’re into a little bit of a different look here and we’ll have to make sure we’re straight on all that too. We’ll see."

A different look. An aggressive look. Given just how frequently teams have tried to rush Jones into bad decisions this season, what he faces in Miami will be a good test for what awaits him in his first-ever postseason. 

Prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins 17

X-Factor: Adrian Phillips

With Kyle Dugger already ruled out due to a hand injury, the Patriots defense will be shorthanded at the second level. Phillips is a key piece to what the Patriots do every week, but with his safety-hybrid partner in crime unavailable, the veteran defensive back's importance to the overall plan will be ratcheted up a notch.

Phillips could be particularly important this week because of the way in which the Dolphins passing game is structured. They've become an extremely RPO-reliant passing attack. That means quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be reading certain defenders -- it could be Phillips on a regular basis -- and deciding to hand off or throw depending on the defense's reaction to Tagovailoa in those run-pass option moments.

For Phillips, who was recently given a contract extension in part because of his versatile skill set to defend both the run and the pass, he'll have plenty on his plate this weekend.

"I see RPOs as a Georgia Tech or Army or Navy," Phillips said this week. "Everybody has a specific job, and you have to do your job. You can't really worry about the pass option if you're a run player. You can't worry about the option part of it if you're a quarterback player. You have to do your job.

 

"That's where you get in trouble. People's eyes get all crossed in the backfield, looking at the ball, and then they lose their assignment. It's always: If you're a run player, you're a run player. If you're a pass player, you play the pass. Depending on what type of RPO they run, we practice it and we say, 'Hey, this is your job in this specific coverage. You have to do your job and take away your job and trust that other people are doing theirs.' That's how you defend it."

Number to know: 2

We're going a little outside the norm for our number this week. This one isn't exactly game-specific. But it was of some interest to me that, as coaching searches around the NFL are about to heat up, the Patriots posted a pair of videos featuring their top-two head-coaching candidates.

Both Josh McDaniels and Jerod Mayo got their own "Do Your Life" specials detailing who they are as coaches and people. For owners looking at candidates, they were well-produced big-picture looks at both that highlighted everything from their family lives to their coaching philosophies.

Losing one or both this offseason would be a significant blow to the Patriots coaching staff, but it speaks to the team's respect for and support of both that these videos would be released when they were. When asked, both have said consistently that they would like to be given opportunities to be head coaches.

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Both would make sense in Houston, where there are plenty of Patriots connections. Former director of player personnel in New England Nick Caserio serves as general manager and former Patriots character coach Jack Easterby serves as executive vice president of football operations.

Texans head coach David Culley remains in place, but if the team were to move on, Mayo would provide highly-regarded leadership traits. Alternatively, McDaniels has the kind of resume that would make him a logical choice to help develop rookie quarterback Davis Mills (a player the Patriots had interest in prior to last year's draft) or whatever young passer next makes his way to Houston. Both Mayo and McDaniels spoke at length of their respect for Easterby prior to Super Bowl LIII.

 

Chicago would be a spot, if it moves on from coach Mat Nagy, that would also make sense for both as well. Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported this week that Mayo's name will be in the mix for that particular job. McDaniels would also make for a logical choice as the Bears try to get the most out of their investment in 2021 first-round quarterback Justin Fields.