The Patriots will have to deal with something Sunday in Miami they haven’t seen in almost nine years: a lefthanded quarterback.
Southpaws under center are a rare breed these days. Just five lefthanded quarterbacks have started an NFL game between 2010 and Nov. 1, which was Tua Tagovailoa’s first career start, against the Rams: Michael Vick, Tim Tebow, Tyler Palko, Kellen Moore, and Matt Leinart.
Sunday will mark Tagovailoa’s seventh career start, and the first time New England has had to game plan for a lefty signal-caller since the 2011 divisional round of the playoffs when it faced Tebow and the Broncos. In that one, the Patriots had few issues with the lefthander, limiting him to a pedestrian 9-for-26 for 136 yards in a 45-10 win.
For what it’s worth, Tagovailoa seems to be a different type of prospect than Tebow. While the Miami rookie may not have the same sort of fanfare surrounding him that accompanied Tebow into that start in the 2011 postseason, he has better numbers in many categories, including completion percentage (62 percent to 47 percent), TD-to-interception ratio (9:1 to 12:6), adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (7.3 to 6.3) and overall quarterback rating (95.2 to 72.9).
Regardless of where the quarterback is in his career, how do you prepare for the uniqueness of facing a lefty quarterback?
Traditionally, the Patriots have leaned on backups and practice squad players to serve as the scout team QB for the week, but none of the signal-callers on the roster are lefties, including practice squad quarterback Jake Dolegala.
While that could mean one of the other practice squad players took over scout-team QB duties for the week, it does present a challenge for the Patriots this week when it comes to game planning.
“It’s certainly something to talk about and be aware of,” Bill Belichick said. “I think that it shows up in some of the play calling or the extended plays that occur. Again, sometimes that’s a little hard to replicate depending on who you might have to do that. So, if you could do it, that’d be fine. If you couldn’t, then like a lot of other things, you just have to have an understanding of what it is, even though you may not get to see it every day in practice.”
What’s the difference in preparing for a lefty instead of a righthander? Many lefty quarterbacks prefer to roll out and throw to the left. Meanwhile, throws to the right side of the field — against the body — are usually more of a challenge. And in Tagovailoa’s case, there’s simply not a lot of film on him at the NFL level to gauge what he might be capable of.
But the Miami offense has had to make more adjustments than the New England defense will have to, says one former Patriots linebacker.
“The Miami offense cares more about it than the defense,” said Matt Chatham. “Relative to receivers when it comes to the spin coming out the quarterback’s hand, how you might be inclined to use your tackles, that sort of thing. The defense, I’m not sure it has that big an impact when it comes to game planning.
“With the defense, it’s not so much lefthanded vs. righthanded, but more about tendencies. Do the Dolphins prefer him to roll right or left because of his arm, or do they focus on short side of the field on one side or the other?”
One thing working in the Patriots favor? It’s obviously a small sample size, but they’ve never lost to a lefty quarterback in the Belichick era.
Here’s a rundown of the seven lefthanded quarterbacks the Patriots have faced since 2000, and how they’ve performed against New England.
Tim Tebow: Tebow was 11-for-22 for 194 yards in two regular-season games, with one start. (He did have 16 carries for 105 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns.) That was in addition to the playoff start, a game in which he and the Broncos never had much of a shot.
Pat White: In two games against the Patriots in 2009 — used as a surprise option, for the most part — this southpaw for the Dolphins had eight carries for 45 yards to go along with one pass attempt that wasn’t completed.
Matt Leinart: He played for Arizona in relief of Kurt Warner against the Patriots on Dec. 21, 2008. In a steady snow, he finished 6-for-14 for 138 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Tyler Palko: Palko made his first NFL start against the Patriots in 2011, going 24-for-37 for 230 yards and three interceptions as New England crushed Palko’s Chiefs, 34-3. It was one of the most successful starts for any lefthanded quarterback against Belichick’s Patriots.
Chris Simms: As a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Simms made just one career start against the Patriots (December 2005), and was 21-for-34 for 155 yards and was sacked a whopping seven times in a 28-0 loss to New England.
Michael Vick: Vick played in just two games against the Patriots, once in 2001 with Atlanta and once with the Jets in 2014. He didn’t start either game, and ended with a stat line of 2-for-9 for 56 yards and three carries for 56 yards.
Mark Brunell: Brunell did make multiple starts against the Patriots for the Jaguars prior to 2000 (including as the Jacksonville starter in the 1996 AFC title game in Foxborough). But since then, his work against the Patriots was mostly a collection of kneel downs and garbage-time appearances, including one in 2009 with the Saints and another in 2011 with the Jets.
Christopher Price can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.