The phrase that keeps coming to mind when thinking about the Patriots offense is margin of error, or better yet, a lack thereof compared to consistently good offenses.
New England's offensive film is a constant game of Jenga, where if one piece of the 11 players on the field is pulled out of the tower, the whole thing starts to wobble, and when more than one piece is gone from the foundation, now we have a mess to clean up.
All the foundational pieces must remain in place for the tower to stay upright because there aren't any elements that create a margin of error for this passing attack. The quarterback's eyes, feet, and timing need to be precise because he lacks the arm talent to be late or off-platform to an open receiver, while the downfield opportunities aren't exactly coming in droves due to the collection of pass-catchers, and when the offensive line starts giving up any pressure, forget about it -- it all has to line up nearly perfectly, which makes consistent offense unlikely.
Along with their own shortcomings, add in two matchups a year against veteran DC Vic Fangio's vaunted defensive system. This season, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is 8-of-24 (33.3%) for 128 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions on passes over ten air yards vs. the Dolphins defense. The Pats QB generated a 31.3 passer rating, less than if he spiked the ball into the ground 24 straight times while producing a completion percentage over expectation of -4.8%. On deep throws, Jones didn't have a single completion vs. the Dolphins in 2023 (0-for-6).
Now, the Dolphins defense deserves credit. They've won the trenches battle twice against New England (34.4% and 36.2% pressure rates), they swapped one playmaking corner (Xavien Howard) for another (Jalen Ramsey) on Sunday, and Fangio's zone-based system is known for making even explosive offenses drive the ball, which is why it's popping up all over the NFL.
Miami's defense, even down a few starters, has talented players at all three levels, but it hasn't always translated to results against other offenses. However, their two best games have come against the Patriots. Why? Based on the tape, the game seems to hinge on a small handful of dialed-up shot plays by offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, and if the shots don't fall, that's all she wrote. That speaks to the margin of error theme we're going for here.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins scheme and skill talent might create a small handful of chunk plays a drive, let alone in an entire game, while the opposing quarterback seems more opportunistic. The biggest difference between Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a frontrunner for MVP as the point guard of the NFL's top-ranked offense, and Jones is timing, trust, and anticipation. Of course, it's much easier for Tua to trust his receivers to throw with anticipation when it's Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle on the receiving end. Tagovailoa is often a step ahead of the defense, with a lightning-quick release and great pocket mechanics to make up for the fact that Miami is shorthanded on the offensive line.
With Mac, as shown in this week's audio breakdown above, there's a lot of uneasiness in his film. Jones wasn't always trusting the play design with his decisions in this one, showing hesitation, bailing quickly on downfield reads to throw check downs, or throwing too late in the down. There are also instances where he's not trusting the pocket, often dropping his eyes to the rush prematurely, and pressure on the QB was an issue again, with Fangio sending several early blitzes at him to speed up Mac.
Although he did show better execution in structure against the Bills last week, the Patriots quarterback has no choice but to play fast and free within the framework of the offense. No, he is not throwing to a loaded supporting cast like Tua. But he needs to control his process because his own physical limitations really show up when he's not throwing on time.
As we've said previously, the Patriots had either turned a corner in their upset of Buffalo, or that execution level wouldn't be replicable because of their talent. The unfortunate truth is that, albeit more professional than the blowout losses in Weeks 4 and 5, this tape from New England's offense represented the total body of work they've put out this season. This is who they are, and the Bills win was likely an anomaly.
Here are our big-picture defensive takeaways for the Patriots defense and quick-hit film notes from the loss to the Dolphins After Further Review:
Patriots Defense More Aggressive, But Poor Eye Discipline/Dolphins Scheme Does Them in Again
After the Patriots defense took a passive approach against the Dolphins explosive offense in the first matchup, we were critical of the game plan from New England's defensive staff.
Although it held Miami's offense to an average day (24 points, 389 total yards), it was almost like the Patriots were scared of the Dolphins offense in Week 2, and that was at a time when they were nearly at full strength with the expectation that they'd be winning games on defense. If you want to win on defense, you have to force errors, not sit back and pray.
|Tua vs. Patriots, This Season||Week 8||Week 2|
|Man Coverage Rate||44.9%||31.3%|
To the coaching staff's credit, even without some of their best defensive players, the Pats have been willing to go down swinging over the last two weeks against Bills QB Josh Allen and Tua. Following a blitz-heavy plan against Allen that worked, the Pats blitzed Tagovailoa on 47.9% of his drop-backs, using a five-man rush 32.4% of the time between the 20s. In Week 2, they only blitzed Tua on 39.4% of his passes with six snaps between the 20s with a five-man rush—they nearly as many drop-eight coverages (4) as extra rushers (6). Again, sit back and pray.
This time, the game plan was to blitz more and play more man coverage. With the Dolphins motions and Tua's excellent manipulation of zone schemes, the Patriots increased their man coverage usage from 31.3% in the first matchup to 44.9% in Sunday's loss. That's a very numbers-heavy way of saying we liked the game plan. At 2-5, what's the point of playing not to lose? Just try to make plays by being aggressive. If you're going to go down, go down swinging!
At first, the Patriots going toe-to-toe with the Dolphins offense worked. Although they moved the chains on fourth down a few times, the Pats initially held Miami without a third-down conversion for nearly the entire first half, with the Dolphins ending the game 5-of-14 on the money down. The Pats defense forced a punt and set the offense up deep into Miami territory with an interception that led to an early lead.
On the Dolphins opening drive, the Pats defense got off the field by playing a coverage we discussed in our gameplan preview, cover-two man. In two-man, the man coverage defenders will play with inside leverage, taking away anything into the middle of the field with their body positioning. By cutting off Tua from his favorite in-breakers, it funnels the ball to the outside, or better yet, you might get a forced throw by the quarterback into the defenders' leverage.
In the example above, the Patriots play a disguised rep of two-man, where they show a cover zero shell before the snap. The Pats drop out into man coverage with two deep safeties while adding LB Ja'Whaun Bentley into the rush as a blitzer/spy on the quarterback. Tagovailoa doesn't want to throw outside the numbers short of the sticks to the tight end in the right flat, so he tries to force the ball into Chase Claypool on an in-breaker, and the Pats get off the field.
On the Dolphins next possession, the Patriots stuffed a first-down run and followed that up with a second-down sack by DT Christian Barmore, setting up a third-and-15 on Miami's side of the field. This time, with the lengthy down and distance for a first down, the Patriots use their three-high safety structure that they first unveiled in Week 2. In the first matchup, they used this scheme on early downs. But this time, they only brought it out when it was third-and-a-mile.
In the play, the Patriots rotate from the three-high safety look into a cover-three double "buzz" coverage, where two safeties will drop down into deep hooks to close the middle of the field. New England does a great job of disguising this coverage in the initial phase, with the slot defender to Tua's right (Myles Bryant) turning his back as he carries No. 2 on the inside, which might've made Tua think it was man coverage. That would've meant the tight end would clear out Dugger so the in-breaker would open up. Instead, Bryant falls into the flat, Dugger sits in the passing window to the in-breaker, and Tagovailoa throws it right to the Pats safety.
The Patriots game plan was working for the first two Dolphins possessions, with New England taking away the in-breaking routes from two-man and three-buzz schemes. However, the success wouldn't last, as the Pats discipline in zone and communication in man-to-man broke down, resulting in several explosive plays for the Miami offense.
Although the constant stress the Dolphins put on a defense is cumbersome, the Patriots defense beat themselves on several occasions, leading to the 31 points by Miami.
Along with Tyreek Hill's 42-yard touchdown, the Pats zone structures broke down because the backend often had their eyes in the wrong places. Above, the Dolphins use a quick "return" motion from the number one receiver and play-action to draw in Dugger, who vacates his short zone in cover-two, opening a wide-open lane to Hill for another chunk. With the defense in a five-under, two-deep, cover-two zone, Dugger shouldn't be worried about the route into the flat since that's Jones's responsibility. Dugger should be getting depth there to fall underneath Hill's route. When he stays down to play the motion, it's pitch-and-catch for another 22 yards.
Then, on the back-breaking touchdown pass to Waddle in the fourth quarter, the Patriots communication against Miami's "cheat" motion broke down, a bad time for a coverage bust.
For the most part, the Patriots had been passing off the motion as they did above. Although Tua completes the pass anyway, you can see that Bryant passes off Hill in motion to J.C. Jackson. Then Bryant takes the new number two receiver, a common strategy against Miami that nearly worked on this play. This was good defense, beaten by better offense.
However, on the touchdown that iced the game, Jonathan Jones anticipates that Jack Jones will do the same thing as Bryant, passing off the new number one (Hill) to the veteran Jones, while Jack Jones takes the new number two receiver (Waddle). Instead, both Joneses take Hill, and the coverage bust leads to a walk-in touchdown to put the game out of reach at 31-17.
The Patriots defense had a good game plan that, despite the extra touchdown on the scoreboard, was more effective on a per-play basis than the first meeting. Unfortunately, there were a handful of critical mental miscues that led to explosive plays for the Dolphins.
We can appreciate the strategy from the coaches and the effort by players to stand in the middle of the ring with the Dolphins offense. However, like the offense, it wasn't replicable for four quarters.
*Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Dolphins: *
- The injury to WR Kendrick Bourne (torn ACL) feels like the final nail in the coffin for the Patriots season. At 2-6, the Pats will be without Bourne, Matthew Judon (biceps), Christian Gonzalez (torn labrum), and Marcus Jones (torn labrum) for the duration. Bourne was having a career year and will now head into free agency next offseason while recovering from a major injury. It stinks on every level. Bourne is a fun player who was a pleasure to cover and is one of a few difference-makers on offense.
- The Patriots continued using a high motion rate with motion on two-thirds of their offensive plays (66.7%) while running 11 play-action drop-backs (6-of-10, 59 yards, INT) with a mix of inside zone, split-flow zone, trap/counter, and gap/duo schemes. Overall, a similar rush/RPO/play-action plan as last week vs. Buffalo. Obviously, with worse execution.
- For the second-straight matchup, the Dolphins defensive front won the trenches battles over the Patriots blockers despite mostly carrying over the O-Line continuity from last week. The Pats only generated 13 of their 77 rushing yards before contact, and they struggled to generate movement on standard base blocks and doubles, with the Dolphins playing their typical brand of gap-and-a-half front mechanics. Without the motion/misdirection and a solid Rhamondre game, this run game was going nowhere on Sunday. The 34.4% pressure rate was back in the danger zone, too, but some of that falls on the QB holding the ball.
- One underlying weakness is the subpar blocking from the tight ends. The Pats tight ends are liabilities in the run game, either as lead blockers at the point of attack or on kick-outs against edge defenders. It's easy to say they should lessen the burden on them, but these are mostly routine edge blocks that need at least stalemates to execute the combos/doubles they want to work on the interior, and they give them a head of steam with motion/sifts to lead block. Even big-play machine Pharaoh Brown has his fair share of whiffs. It's been a problem all year.
- The other underlying weak link in this offense is the absence of a third-down back, which the personnel department could've easily addressed in the offseason. The read often takes Mac to the one-on-one for the back vs. a linebacker, and Rhamondre Stevenson doesn't consistently show the juice to create separation at the top of routes – it's just not his game. With a pocket passer, you need a James White to create mismatches for easy first downs.
- LT Trent Brown is playing hurt with ankle and knee injuries to the same leg. Whether it's for his game-day roster bonuses, for his team, or both, I still give him credit for gutting it out. With that said, this tape wasn't kind to Brown, who gave up a team-high four QB pressures (three hits, hurry), and this was one of his worst run-blocking games of the season – another solid starter for this team who is now compromised by injuries.
- RT Michael Onwenu was solid once again at right tackle. His sack allowed came very late when the game was already decided. I was hoping for more push on the right side between him and Sow in the running game, though. To be fair, Sow was only in there for nine run-blocking snaps (Mafi was in for the other 12).
- Belichick said the plan was to rotate the rookie guards, but other than to get him game reps for development, I'm not sure what they're seeing that would make them do that. Sow has been the better player. I had Sow allowing one hurry to Christian Wilkins on 20 pass-blocking snaps. He needs to work on his hand strength/placement to sustain blocks in the running game, but he plays with a good base and skill in pass protection. Sow even picked up a stunt, Mafi's kryptonite, on Kendrick Bourne's touchdown. Sow has a chance to be a starting guard with more technique work. Maybe Scar will work with him and Cole Strange next offseason.
- LG Cole Strange's limitations inside due to his linear/thin frame are what they are at this point. I had him giving up ground twice, one QB hit, and a hurry, and he had another mental error on the same blitz Fangio got him on in Week 2. Trent blocks down when the edge drops, which should've allowed Strange to block down to the blitzer, but he opened outside again and let the blitzer through his A Gap. Again! Add another three QB pressures to his ledger.
- This was Rhamondre Stevenson's best game in terms of creating yards after contact. Stevenson generated a season-high 3.2 yards after contact (32-of-39) with two forced missed tackles. He turned a negative play into a +6 gain, finished through contact to add yards to a +11 gain, and nearly dragged two defenders into the end zone in the fourth quarter. Although the passing game shortcomings are there, this was closer to 2022 Rhamondre as a ball carrier.
- The Patriots continue to do whatever they can to get the ball in WR Demario Douglas's hands. He led the team in targets, catches, and snaps by wide receivers (41). It's good to see them live with the growing pains, as there are still route-running mental errors. But there is also the ability to get open quickly on gains of 13 (slant) and 12 (juke) yards that nobody else brings. Douglas is their most dynamic mover on film, and it's not particularly close.
- All TE Pharaoh Brown does in the passing game is make big plays. Brown hit the Pats second explosive where they ran a "scissors" concept off under-center play-action, and he made a tough catch in some traffic on a ball that was slightly late/behind him. I also love the boot-action drive starter they've used the last two weeks, this time for a nine-yard gain on first down.
- WR Jalen Reagor's speed translates on film. He has good burst off the line and can get open deep, but you wonder if he'll ever see those vertical targets playing with this quarterback. Although he has some explosiveness, Reagor's third down target (3rd QTR, 6:21) on an in-cut is an example of a contested/tight-window target vs. man coverage that a better receiver catches through contact. The ball was there past the sticks to move the chains, but Reagor drifted a bit through his break, allowing the defender to contest the catch point. The Pats receivers don't make enough of those tough catches for their quarterback.
- Nothing of note from WR DeVante Parker (one catch, 14 yards) and TE Mike Gesicki (2 catches, 11 yards). Besides the game-winner against Buffalo for Gesicki, it's been a season of nothing for two players the team is paying a combined $11.6 million in cash this season. At least Gesicki is accountable and willing to face the music after games. I'll give him that. It's troubling that the Patriots haven't seen enough behind the scenes to give Kayshon Boutte and Tyquan Thornton a chance to play over Parker.
- LB Ja'Whaun Bentley was excellent in his 20 snaps before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Bentley logged four run tackles (one stuff) in just eight run defense snaps – that's a wild ratio. It would be tough to see Bentley miss time. He's a really fun player to watch every week.
- Another solid performance by Christian Barmore, who beat the RG clean with a swipe-rip move for a sack and logged five stuffs in the run game. Barmore's upper-body power to press blocks has really improved, and he even held up playing the nose in this one. He's on a heater.
- Rookie DL Keion White is a bit of a tweener. He's got a playmaking gear with two hurries, a TFL with great recognition on a jet sweep, and another stuff on a zone run. But his power/leverage to hold the point of attack in a three-point stance makes it difficult to envision him as a hand-in-the-dirt DE full-time. My guess is they'll settle on him playing standup EDGE on early downs while moving inside to rush in obvious passing situations.
- S Kyle Dugger made the plays that came to him, with Tua being fooled by the post-snap spin and disguise on his interception. He also made a good red-zone stuff when he read the motion coming out on his side of the formation correctly. But there are still too many instances where he's baited/drifts out of position as a zone defender— a boom-or-bust player.
- LBs Jahlani Tavai and Anfernee Jennings continue to do their thing on the edge against the run, but each missed a tackle in space in coverage (Jennings's was on Tyreek Hill, so we'll give him a pass). The edge duo combined for four stuffs and mostly did their jobs to slow down outside zone/crack toss schemes that Miami loves to run.
- LB Mack Wilson came to play in this one after Bentley left the game. Wilson logged six tackles, three being stuffs, and was much better at taking on blocks and finding the ball against the run. He has some juice turning the corner as an edge rusher—one of his better games as a Patriot.
- Deep safety remains a major issue, and Marte Mapu's audition as a backend defender didn't go well at all. Tua also missed a chunk gain where Jabrill Peppers was running deep as the crosser was developing right in front of him. This defense misses Devin McCourty badly.
- CB J.C. Jackson had a rough game. He was targeted a team-high nine times, allowing five catches for 94 yards, two touchdowns, and a DPI in the end zone. The DPI was a little soft, but that jersey tug will get called. He got caught jumping the motion/play-action on the Hill TD, was spun around by Jaylen Waddle on another route, and twice, the Dolphins had big runs on crack toss to his side where he didn't replace the edge/force. Jackson is probably happy he won't see this Dolphins offense again this season.
- CB Jack Jones had the most snaps lined up across from Tyreek Hill (11) and didn't allow a single catch. He was good in this game, with a near-INT and two stops, until he was involved in the coverage bust that led to a walk-in TD for Waddle – blouses.
- Pressures allowed: Brown (4), Strange (3), Andrews (2, sack), Mafi (1), Onwenu (sack), Sow (1); QB pressures: Dugger (2, sack), White (2), Barmore (sack), Tavai (hurry).
- Coverage: Jackson (9/5/94/2 TDs), Dugger (6/5/48, INT), Jon Jones (8/5/37/TD, PBU), Bryant (6/5/35), Jack Jones (2/1/31, TD, PBU), Bentley (3/3/24), Jennings (3/3/19), Tavai (3/1/9, PBU), Wilson (1/1/7).