The Patriots dropped their first game of the season, but the disappointing loss did little to offset the optimism surrounding a new-look offense with a rookie quarterback at the helm.
New England put up nearly 400 yards of offense in the contest, including three drives that lasted 14 plays, as they consistently found ways to move the ball. But most impressive was the work of the offense late in the game as they tried to come back from a seven-point deficit that Miami gained on their first possession of the second half.
On the two field-goal scoring drives, the offense showed great promise, with Mac Jones staring down pressure and delivering the ball with the game on the line. It didn't end the way it looked like it might, with Jones leading a fourth-quarter game-winning drive, but with some better execution in the red zone and better ball security, there could be bright days ahead for the Patriots' offense.
Here were the big third downs that highlighted the offense's performance in the opener.
3rd quarter, 3rd-and-11: Jones to White (26 yards)
After the Dolphins tied the game at the close of the first half, they took the 17-10 lead with a touchdown on their first possession of the third quarter, but the Patriots would respond. It wasn't easy. New England had to overcome an illegal formation penalty and a holding call on the drive. Though it came on second down, Jones' 21-yard pass to Nelson Agholor early in the drive was one of the better throws of the day, with the rookie quarterback stepping up in the pocket and delivering a strike.
"We just keep on working and we've done that," said Agholor of his developing chemistry with the rookie. "We've practiced hard and we need to continue to do that. I think good things will happen if we practice hard."
But just a few plays later the Patriots found themselves in a third-and-11 situation from their own 29-yard line. With Jones in the shotgun, the offensive line formed a nice pocket off the snap and the quarterback showed no hesitation throwing the wheel route to James White as he ran out of the backfield. Jones showed great anticipation and trust on the play, throwing the ball as White was even with the defender, and putting it where only his teammate could make the play.
It was reminiscent of one of Jones' best throws in training camp, which came on Day 1 of joint practices with the Giants. Jones found White along the sideline on a similarly lofted throw with pinpoint accuracy.
White led the team with six catches for 49 yards in a promising sign that he'll be more heavily involved in the offense this year.
"James is an awesome guy," said Jones after the game. "He always knows what to do. We have a lot of guys like that on our team, and I need to get better at knowing what to do so I can get them the ball because they're all good playmakers and we have a really good offensive line. We have a good play caller, a great play caller, and we've got to execute what he calls quickly, efficiently, and perfectly."
4th quarter, 3rd-and-5: Jones to Henry (6 yards)
Early in the fourth quarter and down 17-13, the Patriots would face a big third-down near midfield with Miami crowding the line of scrimmage with defenders. Miami initially sent all seven rushers before two backed out in the middle to take away any underneath crossers, but the pressure would quickly close on Jones, requiring a quick decision and quick throw.
Hunter Henry showed good awareness on the play, quickly bending off his route and giving the quarterback a hot read target. Jones pulled the trigger and though he couldn't fully step into the throw due to pressure, he got enough on it to complete the pass and keep the chains moving. It was a good example of how the rookie handled the various pressure packages that Miami has been known for since the arrival of Brian Flores.
It was also a big play for Hunter Henry, who finished with just three catches but was starting to come on at the end of the game. After a summer of being limited by a shoulder injury, Henry should continue to make strides and more contributions. The offense certainly needs him, especially in the red zone.
4th quarter, 3rd-and-7: Jones to White (8 yards)
Just three plays later the Patriots would face another third down, this one coming from the Miami 29-yard line. The Dolphins would send five rushers, but they were ably picked up by the Patriots offensive line. It allowed James White to run an angle route of the backfield and Jones hit him in stride, giving the running back the chance to burrow for enough yardage to pick up the first down.
White continues to emerge as a favorite target for the rookie quarterback as Jones has shown repeated confidence to go to the running back in big spots. But more than his relationship with White is how Mac continues to show faith in the offense, trusting his keys and pulling the trigger in time to let his weapons go to work.
However it wasn't all perfect, and this drive would fizzle out on the next third down, on an incomplete pass from Jones to Jakobi Meyers that forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal instead of taking the lead with a touchdown. The Patriots put just two receivers out on routes, with the rest of the offense enlisted in protecting the quarterback. Meyers' quick motion inside, followed by taking his route outside at the snap opened up a window for what looked like it should have initially been an easy completion.
But as Jones threw on the move the ball was inaccurate and too low for the sure-handed Meyers to secure the catch and keep the drive alive. The margin for error is small and while the Patriots did a lot of good things on third down throughout the game, this was one where they came up short and it cost them on the scoreboard.
"We had some good stuff out there; we had some bad stuff out there," said White after the game of the performance. "Even if we won the football game, there's still going to be plenty of stuff to coach all of us. When we get back, it's going to be a tough Monday watching the film and everybody has to take it with a grain of salt and get ready for next week. We've got to get out there ready to improve."
4th quarter, 3rd-and-6: Jones to Meyers (7 yards)
Jones wouldn't hesitate to go back to Meyers on the Patriots' final drive of the game. Down by one point, the defense forced an errant throw by Tua Tagolvailoa that was picked off by Jonathan Jones, giving the Patriots another chance to take the lead. The first two plays after the turnover would pick up just four yards, putting the offense in another key third-down situation.
The Dolphins would send six rushers this time and they all got a great jump off the snap, instantly powering through the protection and forcing Mac to retreat. But the rookie didn't blink, throwing off his back foot and narrowly completing the pass to Meyers underneath for seven yards. Jones took a significant shot at the end of the play for his trouble.
This is the pocket poise and confidence we've seen from Mac Jones all summer. Many rookie quarterbacks would be overwhelmed by Miami's pressure but late in the game, with everything on the line, but Jones continued to make plays.
This might've been a culminating drive of sorts, but Damien Harris' fumble at the Miami 11-yard line short-circuited the Patriots' comeback attempts. Still, for a new-look offense with a rookie under center, they showed good poise and execution. There's plenty else to clean up, but for Mac Jones and the offense, it was a promising start, especially in crunch time.