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Replay: Best of Patriots.com Radio Thu Apr 11 - 02:00 PM | Tue Apr 16 - 11:55 AM

After Further Review: Breaking Down the Highs and Lows for QB Mac Jones, Patriots Offense vs. the Dolphins

The Patriots offense is still searching for big-play ability and consistency in the season's early stages while rookie Christian Gonzalez logs his first interception. 

2023TB-AfterFurtherReview-wk2-dolphins-PDC

The Patriots offense appeared to regress after moving the ball well in the regular-season opener in their second-week matchup against the division-rival Dolphins on Sunday night.

Statistically, the Patriots produced only 288 yards of total offense on 71 plays for an average of 4.1 yards, nearly 100 fewer total yards, while averaging almost a full yard less than in Week 1. Furthermore, New England's offense started slow once again, turning the ball over to end a promising second possession. They didn't put any points on the board until their fourth drive and didn't find the end zone until the fourth quarter in another too-little, too-late comeback bid.

As a team, the Patriots need to start faster in what has become a troubling early-season trend that has led them into their first 0-2 hole since the 2001 season. Offensively, the slow starts are nothing new. Last season, the Pats didn't orchestrate their first opening-drive touchdown until Thanksgiving night in Minnesota and had two total all season. So far in 2023, it's been more of the same, even with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien now at the helm. New England hasn't scored on either of their opening possessions and has been shut out in the first quarter.

From a game flow perspective, digging themselves into a 16-0 and 17-3 deficit in consecutive games has sunk the Patriots. The passing offense isn't explosive enough to make up early deficits in short order, while New England's offensive line continues to struggle. In the first two weeks, the Patriots have the worst run-blocking grade in Pro Football Focus's system, dead last, with a 39.1 out of 100 run-blocking grade. In pass protection, quarterback Mac Jones has seen a pressure rate in the danger zone in both games, including an alarming 36.2 pressure rate this past week with four sacks for the Dolphins defense.

Although the play-to-play consistency needs work, Jones has taken some encouraging steps in the early stages of his third season. Mac is currently the sixth-highest graded passer under pressure, and he also completed 4-of-6 throws for 36 yards and a TD when "on the run" moving outside the pocket, which he doesn't usually do well. The Patriots offense is also off to a great start in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on five of their seven red zone drives for the fourth-best TD rate in the NFL (71.4%).

However, the overall offensive operation still feels very Jekyll and Hyde, with all the factors coming to roost in one particular drive in Sunday night's loss to the Dolphins.

On the Patriots first drive of the second half, they had three positive plays in a row from under center to move the ball from their own 36-yard line to Miami's side of the field. Despite a second-and-one from the MIA 42 begging for a play-action shot play, O'Brien called two consecutive runs in an effort to move the chains on second and third down.

The Patriots were stuffed on a straight duo run on the second down handoff to lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson, then lost four yards when safety Javon Holland blew up a short-yardage toss, and Belichick opted to punt on fourth-and-5 from the Miami 46. On the one hand, a good offense easily converts one of those two plays for a first down. But, on the other hand, it's telling that this offense is more preoccupied with picking up one yard than being aggressive there.

In the first two weeks, albeit with a banged-up offensive line, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has the fourth-lowest play-action rate among qualified quarterbacks. He has attempted only one pass off under center play-action. One. Jones averaged 8.8 yards per attempt off under-center play-action in his rookie season under Josh McDaniels, with a 26.8 percent play-action rate (13.3% this season). Plus, the Pats set it up perfectly in the above sequence with three straight successful plays from under center.

New England's running game, led by arguably their best offensive skill player in Rhamondre Stevenson, needs to be a strength of their offense this season. Instead, they're 27th in rushing average by running backs (3.0 yards) and 23rd in expected points added per rush attempt. Again, the blocking and issues/injuries along the offensive line are a big reason.

With that said, Miami's defense quickly picked up on run tells and was flying to the ball when Jones went to hand it off. Sequencing together more play-action could open up a non-explosive receiving corps to bigger passing plays thanks to the space created by the fakes, while the defense now also needs to respect both run and pass from under center.

New England decided in recent years to ditch the fullback and the downhill gap schemes that McDaniels majored in during his time as the offensive coordinator, including Mac's first year. Rather than using pullers and a fullback as lead blockers, we are seeing more duo, zone runs, and tosses, with the trap schemes now coming from gun runs built off RPOs/gun-action. And as much as we love RPOs, the Pats are really only attaching bubble screens to option runs rather than downfield routes.

Ultimately, the running game will wake up once the offensive line improves. Still, this group, quarterback and skill players alike, need more scheme-created conflict to generate big plays. O'Brien's play designs in the passing game are sound, but they rely on the receivers to win their routes consistently. The current personnel still feels like it's grinding out every yard, with only two explosive pass plays over 20 yards (tied for fewest in the NFL through two weeks).

Until the Patriots have playmakers who can consistently separate on their own, they need to be schemed open, so increasing play-action usage and other forms of window dressing is a must moving forward.

Here are two more big-picture takeaways on the defense and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Dolphins After Further Review:

1. How Dolphins HC Mike McDaniel Solved the Patriots Defensive Game Plan

The Patriots defense found its footing to hold the Dolphins to just seven points in the second half, but Miami really picked apart their game plan with their play design and play-calling by head coach Mike McDaniel.

New England's strategy, both out of a new wrinkle with three-deep safety structures and in their more traditional post-safety schemes, was to take away the middle of the field, forcing Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to go beyond his comfort zone by winning outside the numbers.

Based on his passing chart, the Patriots executed their game plan to take away the in-breakers that Tagovailoa loves to throw when McDaniel creates larger passing windows with motion/misdirection and run actions for Tua to throw slants/digs at different levels.

For example, the Patriots used a three-deep safety structure on Miami's opening drive to rotate into a cover-one double robber scheme after the snap. With a single-high safety, Jabrill Peppers and Marte Mapu play robber roles to provide inside help. The Pats essentially bracketed off those in-breakers to Hill and Waddle, forcing Tua to scramble in the play above.

However, to his credit, McDaniel quickly adjusted by going to quick-game passes, motion sweeps, and crack toss schemes with the Patriots light in numbers on the edges. Miami forced the Patriots front to run sideline-to-sideline and attacked the flats, much like McDaniel's 49ers did in 2020.

Here, Tua handles a high snap and rookie Keion White presses the right guard almost ten yards into the backfield. Even with the early penetration and snap snafu, the Dolphins still gained seven yards on the toss sweep because the split-safety shell was late to rally to the ball, leaving NT Davon Godchaux one-on-one with the back, and Godchaux missed the tackle.

Along with exposing the edges and the flats, the Patriots didn't have very good coverage discipline in their zone schemes. As a result, Patriot defenders were easily manipulated by motion and Tua's eyes out of passing lanes, and they had several breakdowns in their short zones.

In this example, the Dolphins send tight end Durham Smythe in motion at the snap. As Smythe rolls into his route, linebacker Jahlani Tavai widens at the snap with the motion while rookie corner Christian Gonzalez stays in the boundary. As a result, there is no short zone/hook defender to take Hill, who is wide open for a way-too-easy completion for the Dolphins.

Miami's coaching staff deserves credit for a good script, but the Patriots defense made it too easy on them by beating themselves in the first half. In total, the Pats missed eight tackles, many of which were one-on-one whiffs that produced solid yardage after the first guy missed. Their coverage discipline in their short zones was also iffy. Frankly, the Patriots defense was in a mental pretzel vs. the Dolphins on Sunday night.

2. Breaking Down Rookie CB Christian Gonzalez's First Interception in the NFL

Although the Patriots defense felt like it could've made more plays to turn the tide in their favor, first-year cornerback Christian Gonzalez continues to stand out in the early going.

New England's first-rounder logged his first interception in the NFL, allowing only three catches for 32 yards into his coverage, all while shadowing Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill. Without speedy corners Jonathan Jones and Marcus Jones (in-game injury), Gonzalez drew the assignment on Hill in the Patriots man coverage schemes after younger Jones's injury.

The Patriots strategy on Hill was to allow Gonzalez to have inside leverage to wall off the inside, knowing Hill loves to run crossers and in-breaking routes. At the same time, safety Jabrill Peppers primarily played over the top of Hill's side to protect against fade routes into the sideline.

Along with playing sticky man coverage on Miami's superstar receiver, Gonzalez's first-career interception was a great adjustment on the fly in zone coverage by Gonzo and Peppers.

On the interception, Gonzalez is actually playing at safety in the deep half of the field, with Peppers taking the flat in a cover-two structure. When Hill starts his motion, Peppers forces an outside release as Hill rolls into his route. Tua tries to look the safety off by looking right in his drop, but Gonzalez smoothly flips his hips to recover and high-point the ball at the catch point.

The 21-year-old has excellent athleticism to mirror receivers in man schemes and flip-and-run freely in zone. Gonzalez is already a plus-coverage talent two games into his career, and once he fully grasps the mental side of things, he has a chance to be one of the NFL's best corners.

3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Dolphins

  • Demario Douglas made a rookie mistake where he has to be aware that the pursuit speed from NFL defenders is different from what he faced in college (Chubb makes a great play to pop out of the rush and chase him down). But that's all it was, a lesson learned, and he showed more explosiveness on his two catches than anyone else did all night. It was clear Pop was a big part of their plan, and they essentially replaced his package plays with JuJu, who is not nearly as dynamic on those routes, so it made an overreaction worse when they started throwing those RPO screens to JuJu instead. They can't do this to young skill players anymore.
  • Upon review, the Patriots running game was better than it initially felt live. Rhamondre Stevenson had ten successful runs on 15 carries, showing good patience and second-level manipulation on duo/inside zone schemes. However, the combination blocks were still sloppy, likely due to a lack of reps together for this five-man unit, and getting stuffed twice on back-to-back runs when you needed a yard in the third quarter was an absolute killer. Good football teams pick up a yard there easily. I don't love how little second-level action there is to this blocking scheme. There's not enough climbing/pulling/leading up to the linebackers to spring bigger gains.
  • LG Cole Strange (sack, two hurries) made several mental errors and had balance issues in the first half. Strange tends to get over-aggressive and thus overextended in the run game, and he struggled with second-level blitzers and wrap players on stunts in pass protection. I'm not going to blast him in his first outing, but they need him to be better, especially with his post-snap processing in pass protection. It was a lot of the same stuff he wasn't recognizing/picking up from Miami's pass rush.
  • Rough two weeks for RT Calvin Anderson (sack, QB hit, two hurries). His footwork out of his stance in pass pro led to short corners, then he over-corrected and was getting beat by Van Ginkel's inside spin. The feet aren't gaining ground quickly enough to protect the corner, and his low/late punch doesn't lead to any quick wins, either. Hopefully, he gets better with more reps after missing camp on the non-football injury list. If not, call La'el Collins.
  • Down game for Patriots C David Andrews (QB hit, hurry). He was great in the opener, but Andrews didn't protect his edge against shaded NTs as consistently as usual.
  • The Patriots desperately need RG Michael Onwenu to go wire-to-wire. We had Onwenu down with one hurry allowed early on, but he was his usual self until Onwenu was replaced late by rookie Atonio Mafi, who gave up a sack almost immediately.
  • The quarterback pressures piled up late on Vederian Lowe (sack, two hurries) after an okay start. He did a decent job of getting to his landmarks, but his grip strength/punch power didn't sustain the blocks, so Chubb started winning late in the rep to turn his corner.
  • We all love Kendrick Bourne. His honesty is refreshing, and he's one of their twitchier receivers who uncovers at the first two levels. However, Bourne must catch that ball on the sluggo late in the first quarter. Eli Apple got away with pinning Bourne's inside arm, forcing KB to try to make a one-handed catch. But you'd like to see Bourne swipe Apple's hands out of the way and finish through contact – it was a good throw.
  • TE Hunter Henry continues to have great on-field chemistry with Mac and gets open on leverage-based reads more than any other receiver. Keep feeding him, BOB.
  • Mike Gesicki ran good routes in this game and was open pretty regularly. He would've moved the chains on fourth down if the ball was on him sooner, and it was a heads-up play to lateral the ball in that spot, too.
  • Pharaoh Brown is a good blocking tight end. They should use him more in 12 personnel.
  • At times, Kyle Dugger looks like the best player on the field when he's tackling in space on end arounds and making ridiculous pass breakups popping out of the rush in cover zero. However, he took a bad angle to Mostert on the long touchdown. Overall, Dugger still makes more good plays than bad, but he really belongs closer to the line of scrimmage.
  • Deatrich Wise has developed into a solid run defender with much better pad level and far more aggressive/powerful hands to shed blocks on the interior. It's impressive how he has rounded out his game – he is a reliable player for them every week.
  • Didn't think this was Ja'Whaun Bentley's best effort. He seemed lost with all the moving parts and angles the Dolphins created in the run game. Although the bigger issue was Daniel Ekuale getting pushed around by the initial double-team, Bentley was also combo'd by the RG on Mostert's long touchdown run. I'm not sure why Ekuale is on the nose in that spot. It makes you miss Carl Davis.
  • When used correctly, Jahlani Tavai is a solid linebacker, but he was in a blender trying to cover the left flat and play "robber" to the backside slants off RPOs. He also lost the edge on Mostert's first touchdown run. You can see how these misdirection/speed schemes test Tavai's athleticism in space. Hopefully, that'll be Marte Mapu eventually.
  • Although he had a team-high four quarterback pressures, Miami ran at EDGE Josh Uche with their crack toss/sweep schemes, and Uche struggled to set the edge. It's just not his game.
  • Coverage stats: Bryant (5/75/PBU), Gonzalez (3/32/INT), Mapu (1/28), Bentley (2/26), Tavai (3/25), Wade (2/24), Judon (2/21), MJones (1/11), Mills (1/5), Dugger (1/2/TD/PBU).
  • QB pressures: Uche (four hurries), Judon (sack, QB hit), Wise (hurry). There wasn't much time with Tua's ridiculously fast release (1.98s) to get to the quarterback.
  • That was a neat wrinkle by Achord, Judge, and Houston on the field goal block. I watch a lot of film, and I can't say I've ever seen that design before. Great stuff.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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