It's hard to find a take on the Patriots disappointing 20-7 loss to the Dolphins in Sunday's season-opener that isn't all doom and gloom.
We aren't going to sugarcoat every little detail about the disjointed performance by the Patriots offense and a defensive effort that was good but not impactful enough to turn the tide.
New England's offense struggled against the Dolphins, and that much is obvious when you net zero points by scoring just one touchdown and giving away seven points on a turnover.
However, while fully admitting that the Patriots offense has a long way to go, it's far more productive to answer the following question than rag on them some more: what did the Patriots do well offensively that they can carry over into Week 2?
Starting with the running game, the Patriots found success early on by running inside zone and crack toss plays against the Dolphins defense.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Pats called eight inside zone runs that gained 38 yards (4.8 average) and five toss plays that produced 28 yards (5.6 average). Those 13 runs also generated three rushes of ten-plus yards for New England, so they were highly successful.
One of the better play designs in the game plan was a crack toss scheme where the play-side tackle and tight end pulled to the condensed side while the receivers executed their crack blocks. Also shown above, the Pats got some solid blocking from a right-side combination block by Mike Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn to spring Damien Harris on inside zone.
In the passing game, there were instances where the Patriots route concepts put Dolphins defenders in coverage conflicts when New England spread the field.
For example, the most complete play execution-wise that the Patriots offense ran was a 27-yard completion to Jakobi Meyers. The play is perfectly designed to attack Miami's cover-one coverage scheme with Nelson Agholor running a crossing route and Meyers running a slot fade. The post-safety in the middle of the field can't help to both vertical routes, so someone will get a one-on-one matchup. This time, it's Meyers. When the safety stays in the middle of the field, quarterback Mac Jones puts the ball up for Meyers, who makes a spectacular catch. Kudos to running back Ty Montgomery for coming across the formation to pick up the blitzer as well.
Here's another where the Patriots route spacing and design create an opening for Meyers. The Dolphins are playing a Tampa-2 style defense with the middle linebacker running the shoot with tight end Hunter Henry to clear out the middle. Nelson Agholor's under route also pulls the short zones away from Meyers, and Jones does a nice job of influencing the coverage in the other direction by staring down the left side before coming back to Meyers for a third down conversion.
Although it's only a small handful of plays, the point is that there were good things to take away from what was admittedly a rocky start to the season for the Patriots offense.
There are elements of the playbook that New England's personnel is comfortable with and good at executing: inside zone runs, crack tosses, and spread concepts with Jones in shotgun formations.
If the Patriots can emphasize those things moving forward, the offense can potentially pull itself out of the rut it has been in dating back to last season. But there are real concerns with the offense's design and execution that we need to address.
With that in mind, let's discuss those concerns and how the Patriots can potentially fix them:
1. Patriots QB Mac Jones and Knowing When to Take the Layups
The challenge for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is balancing hunting for big plays and taking the easier completions presented by the defense.
On Sunday, it felt like Mac was forcing shots downfield in situations where sometimes it would've been better just to make the layups. So my one critique of Jones from this game is that: don't be afraid to make the easy ones count. Listen and watch above.
2. Breaking Down the Pats Pass Protection on the Dolphins Fumble-Six
Pro Football Focus only had Jones under pressure on four of his 33 drop-backs in Sunday's loss to the Dolphins. It sounds low, but after reviewing the film, the pressures the Pats allowed looked ugly but didn't necessarily add up to a high volume of total pressures.
Miami's touchdown on a strip-sack by safety Brandon Jones was a microcosm of New England's issues up front. The audio breakdown explains that the Patriots had enough blockers to pick up the blitz. But lack of communication and awareness cost them. In other words, this was an assignment or mental error rather than a physical issue.
3. Lack of Play-Action and Motion a Head-Scratcher for Patriots Offense
Let's explain the difference between pre-snap shifts and motion. The Patriots shifted quite a bit in this game when a player motions pre-snap and settles at a new alignment before the ball is snapped. However, motion at the snap is when a player moves as the ball is being snapped, like jet motion, which the Pats only did three times. Furthermore, New England only ran play-action twice. That is not a very challenging offense from a mental standpoint to defend.
Let's use the Dolphins motion and play-action heavy attack as an example. Miami head coach Mike McDaniel ran play-action 17 times and incorporated motion early and often.
Here, the play starts with a jet motion by Dolphins wide receiver Cedrick Wilson that causes the flat defender at the bottom of the screen (Adrian Phillips) to widen at the snap. Then, Miami calls gap play-action where the pulling guard simulates a run, putting Raekwon McMillan in run-pass conflict. McMillan bites too hard on the play-action fake due to all the window dressing, losing tight end Durham Smythe in coverage, and Phillips is too far away to shrink the passing window. There's a lot of mental stress on the defense to read this play out.
The Patriots offense needs to create similar mental conflicts for opposing defenses and open up the middle of the field with play-action designs.
4. Patriots Use Zone-Heavy Game Plan to Limit Big Plays
Bill Belichick's defense held the Dolphins to two deep completions with a heavy dosage of early-down zone coverage. The Pats cycled through their typical cover-three, cover-two, and a few reps in quarters and cover-six coverage. In all, New England played 24 passing plays in zone coverage compared to just 11 pass attempts in man coverage. From this vantage point, there were more downfield opportunities for the Dolphins than the box score suggests. But pressure and poor execution by Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa limited the production for Miami on Sunday. Ultimately, they held it together and kept the Dolphins out of the end zone, so that's the most important thing.
5. Deatrich Wise Registers a Team-High Four Quarterback Pressures
The Patriots 35 percent pressure rate on Tagovailoa saved the secondary on more than one occasion in Sunday's loss. The pass rush smothered Miami's downfield chances, so the DBs can tip their cap to the front on those plays.
For instance, the Dolphins shift into a four-by-one set here to run two crossing routes at the single-high coverage. The deep safety in the middle of the field, Devin McCourty, cuts off one of the crossers. Without help in the middle of the field, Tyreek Hill beats Jonathan Jones on the crosser. Now, who knows if Tua makes that throw accurately. Still, luckily Deatrich Wise beats Dolphins right guard Robert Hunt with a quick two-hand swipe move for a strip-sack on third down. That was a big play early on in the game by Wise.