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Finding building blocks from Patriots loss to Miami

Here's what the Patriots can build off of from their season-opening loss to the Dolphins.

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The Patriots dropped their opener to the Dolphins 20-7 in a game that fit the script of many season openers that came before it. Turnovers and big plays were a major factor in the defeat, with Bill Belichick pointing to a fumble-six and late-first-half 42-yard touchdown that were essentially enough to make the difference in the game.

"[L]ooking at the game, the two big plays really affected the score. Fourteen points on two plays that we gave up. Obviously have to do a much better job on that, coaching, execution, everything. We've got to eliminate those. Otherwise, it was a pretty competitive game from a yardage standpoint, and all that. Our turnovers are our problem. Again, that's something that we have to do a better job of and, just in general, playing better all-around football," said Belichick on Monday morning.

It's hard not to wonder how differently the game might've unfolded had they finished the opening drive with a touchdown. From that solid start, things quickly devolved until the Patriots got to the locker room at the half, staring up at another 17-point deficit to the Dolphins for the second time in their last two meetings. As usual, they'd make a push in the second half before the mistakes reared their head again and saved the Dolphins from having to face a final drive needing a first down to seal the win.

With 16 games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Patriots will look at what they did well and try to move forward by building off of those things.

"There's some positive things to build on, but plenty of things to work on," continued Belichick. "And that's what we'll do, is look at the game, identify the things that we did well, try to keep doing those well and things that we need to improve on, we need to work harder to improve on."

Here are five positive elements that showed up in the opener for the Pats to build off of.

Safety speed

While many were clamoring for faster linebackers this offseason, the Patriots continue to stock their safety group to provide the athletic boost the defense needed. Kyle Dugger flashed throughout the game showing speed, anticipation and solid tackling. A rib injury to Adrian Phillips could complicate things a bit. Phillips was playing an extensive role before leaving the game, but with Jabrill Peppers waiting in the wings (18 defensive snaps), the Patriots still have options and depth and that's without tapping Josh Bledsoe who also popped up on the injury report last week.

Aside from providing a boost of speed inside the box, the safeties also did their traditional safety job, not getting beat over the top for any big plays, though Jaylen Waddle's catch-and-run touchdown was not one for the safety highlight books. But overall, the safety group delivered some of the best plays of the game and gave a glimpse into what an effective tool they can be for the defense this season.

Bourne again (and more Nelly)

The lack of any intermediate passing game was a clear factor for Mac Jones and the offense. A collection of deep shots and dumpoffs made up the majority of the passing attack with limited run-after-catch opportunities.

Kendrick Bourne played just two snaps but the 2021 breakout receiver still had a 41-yard catch that was the offense's most explosive play of the game, and only one of two plays that went for more than 17 yards. Nelson Agholor also had one of the games best plays, taking a 3rd-and-11 short pass for 17 yards and a first down. With DeVante Parker now occupying the every-down outside role, Agholor has been freed up to play inside more, where his most productive year as a pro came back in 2017.

Agholor and Bourne could hold the key to rounding out the Patriots passing attack and making more effort to feature them within the offense could help open things up. They should know what they have in Parker and Jakobi Meyers, who was once again the most reliable option for Mac.

Run game roots

The ground game might've been the biggest unknown of all entering the Week 1 contest, and while the final numbers (22 carries for 78 yards, 3.5 yards-per-attempt) don't look that flashy, there were some well-executed runs that should give a reason for optimism. Nowhere did it look better than on the first two drives, when Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined for seven carries for 50 yards, including two runs of 12 yards.

Obviously, things went downhill from there as the Patriots fell into a double-digit hole and were forced to play catch up and could no longer lean into their ground attack. Ty Montgomery wasn't overly productive (three catches, 15 yards, touchdown) but simply his ability to suit up so soon after being carted off of the final preseason game was a boost for the offense. Montgomery's role should only increase as he gets fully healthy and comfortable.

There's no quicker way to jumpstart the offense than to get the running game going, and this week, against another aggressive defense, finding a way to back off pass rushers will be critical. Harris and Stevenson hold big keys to the offense taking a strong step forward.

Defense aggressive, must finish

The Patriots defense only allowed 13 points, a total anyone would take any Sunday, but the Miami offense was just the start of a difficult slate of top attacks that are on tap this season. Among the highlights were holding Miami to two field goals on their only trips inside the red zone, including the stop on the first drive that featured a strip sack by Deatrich Wise. Wise was the team's highest-graded PFF player, registering two hurries to go with the sack.

They also forced four second-half punts that still kept the door open for a potential comeback. Miami converted just six-of-14 third downs (42.9 percent).

Overall, the defense was also playing behind the line of scrimmage more than they did for much of 2021. Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Mack Wilson and Christian Barmore all registered at least one tackle-for-loss. However, the pressure (three sacks, seven QB hits) must be better. Once that improves, there should be more opportunities to spark some takeaways. They did force two fumbles but were unable to recover either.

With a number of new pieces working their way in, it's not hard to feel optimistic that the defense is headed for good things this season as they continue to gel.

Offense finds another gear

The revamped Patriots offense was simplified this offense but was it too simple? The team rotated just two personnel packages, ran just two play-action passes and didn't spring any major surprises on the Miami defense that adjusted after the Patriots initial drive and mostly held them in check from there. Still, the Patriots came out after halftime and executed a 15-play, 92-yard drive, putting up their first touchdown of the season. That kind of execution was a welcome sight after a summer that only demonstrated small bursts of success, usually limited to just a play or two per team period.

It still took two penalties to help them along on that second-half drive, including one illegal contact penalty that came on an incomplete fourth-down pass, but there were a number of nice plays as well with a third-down conversion to Jakobi Meyers and a 12-yard catch-and-run by Jonnu Smith standing out to set up the score.

The drive also featured some no-huddle as the Patriots were able to push the pace a bit. They dabbled in a lot of different things outside of any trick plays, and the signs would point toward moving fast and using the spread to get their most desirable matchups. Later, in the fourth quarter, they again had some success with the no huddle with Bourne's big play coming out of a hurried pace, but Nelson Agholor's fumble effectively ended the game just two plays later.

The no huddle can't be overused, but with limited personnel groups the Patriots should consider expanding its use going forward. If they wanted to sprinkle in some RPOs, those might add another dimension as well.

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