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Game Observations: Eight Takeaways From the Patriots Loss to the Dolphins in Week 2

The Patriots comeback bid fell short once again in a 24-17 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday night. 


Foxborough, MA – The Patriots had yet another comeback bid fall short in a 24-17 loss to the division-rival Dolphins on Sunday night in what felt like Groundhog Day at Gillette Stadium.

En route to building a double-digit lead in the first half, the Dolphins were outclassing the Patriots in what initially felt like a significant talent gap in Miami's favor as the Dolphins were heading toward a blowout victory.

When head coach Bill Belichick's defense came out in a three-deep safety structure, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel dusted off an old 49ers script, relying on a lightning-quick release for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to stretch the field horizontally with yards after the catch and runs to the edge that had the Dolphins averaging over seven yards per play.

Offensively, it was extremely sloppy for most of the night, but water somehow found its level to make the game competitive in the end — a script that's becoming all too familiar and frustrating for the Patriots, who need to stop putting themselves into insurmountable holes before we can even harp on the fact that they can't dig themselves out of them.

As much as the failed comebacks will be discussed, the bottom line is the Patriots aren't giving themselves a chance by falling behind 16-0 and 17-3 in consecutive weeks, a point that team leader Matthew Judon made more eloquently than we can after the game.

"I know we lost. I know it looks bad when you start 0-2. But this is not a bad team," Judon began in his post-game press conference. "We just have to play how we play in the second half from the first play [of the game]. We have to get the crowd involved from the get-go. When we come out there on the field, we have to come out with some energy. We have to have some juice. We can't wait until we're down 17, we can't wait until we are down 13 to try to make a comeback – it's too hard in this league. People are too good, schemes are too good. You don't have enough time, so you can't play from behind. You can't come out here and have slow starts."

For this team to recover from its first 0-2 start since 2001, the Patriots need to start faster out of the gate, not rely on becoming comeback kings. Last season, it took until Thanksgiving for the offense to orchestrate its first opening-drive touchdown, so these slow stats are a multi-year issue that needs to be fixed, or it will be a long season.

Here are eight game observations from the Patriots loss to the Dolphins on Sunday night:

1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Brendan Schooler Blocks 49-Yard Field Goal in Third Quarter

The Patriots special teams coaches dialed up a creative new wrinkle to send special teams ace Brendan Schooler in motion right before the snap to give him a rolling start into a field goal block that shifted the momentum slightly in Sunday night's loss.

According to Schooler, now in his second year as a core special teams contributor, the Patriots coaches saw a weakness in Miami's field goal protection that they could take advantage of with Schooler starting in motion.

"[Joe] Judge, [Joe] Houston, and Cam [Achord] dialed up a really good scheme for that block and saw a weak point on their field goal operation. We worked it during the week and felt pretty confident about it going into the game. Just had the right opportunity, counted out my steps properly, and just timed it up well. As soon as the ball was snapped, I felt myself and the momentum carrying. I knew I was going to get there. I just wanted to make sure I got a hand on the ball."

"I had never seen it ever before. It was new for me, and I think it was new for a lot of guys on the team. Like I said, we trusted our coaches, and we are going to go out there and compete," Schooler said, breaking down the play for reporters.

Following a disappointing year in 2022, the Patriots overhauled the kicking game by drafting two rookie specialists and moving Judge back into a special teams role. Although it wasn't enough to win this week, the early returns have been positive for the revamped operation.

2. Patriots Offense Continues to be at a Talent Disadvantage at the Playmaker Positions

At some point, the Patriots must determine the main reasons for their offensive struggles since the second half of quarterback Mac Jones's rookie campaign.

They're now on their third coordinator with Jones under center. Although we can all agree that last year's offensive setup wasn't the answer, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is searching for consistent execution from this group, much like the past two OCs before him.

The Patriots enter nearly every game at a disadvantage when it comes to roster talent on the offensive side of the ball, and that couldn't be more apparent on Sunday night. Tagovailoa is a really good quarterback, let's not get that twisted. Still, the reality is that Tua took the field this week with at least two receivers who are better than anyone Mac is throwing to these days, and the same could be said for Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts last week.

Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are quarterback-proof playmakers who can generate explosive plays to make the quarterback's jobs easier. For example, Waddle's first explosive was a 28-yard screen pass on a throw behind the line of scrimmage, and when the deep safety's attention went to Hill, Waddle got the ball on a 32-yard completion into single coverage.

New England's offense, on the other hand, still has to grind out every yard and each point it puts on the scoreboard, even with O'Brien designing the offense. Chunk gains don't come easy to this group like they do for Miami, and it shows. I'm not here to tell you that the Pats quarterback would be an MVP candidate with a better supporting cast, but very few young signal-callers in that conversation are working with less.

3. Patriots Unveil Three-Deep Safety Defense in Chess Match vs. the Dolphins

As we mentioned off the top, the Patriots game plan defensively was to play a three-deep safety structure designed to disguise coverage to give the offense pause and keep the top on the defense to force the Dolphins to string plays together rather than hit on a few big-gainers. Obviously, with a quick-strike offense like Miami's, it makes sense to force them into matriculating the ball down the field rather than giving up points in one or two chunks.

From the Dolphins perspective, many of Miami's offensive players actually spoke after the game about how unique the Patriots defensive strategy was, saying they had never seen it before.

"Seemed as if they wanted to put an umbrella over our two fast guys. And then as the game progressed, they started to get back into what they normally would run. But I think they do a tremendous job with adjusting in-game. And, you know, that's really a big, big thing I would say for any Bill Belichick defense," Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said.

The Patriots continued a three-game trend against these Dolphins where they played zone coverage on 71 percent of Miami's snaps, reducing their typical man coverage rate to limit explosive plays against challenging receivers to cover in man-to-man schemes. The Pats mixed in single-high safety coverages (16) and split-safety schemes (13) at a pretty even clip, spinning the three-safety dial into double-robber and Tampa-2 schemes.

Although it wasn't perfect, the defense held the explosive Dolphins offense to 24 points, with only seven second-half points, giving the Patriots a chance to make the game interesting. Unfortunately, it didn't go their way once again.

4. Without starting LT Trent Brown, Patriots Offensive Lines Woes Continue

After a rocky summer filled with injuries and uncertainty, it's not surprising to anyone at training camp daily that the offensive line play has been uneven. Although it was an admirable performance against a great defensive front, the film told a less favorable story about the offensive line play against Philly. Given the circumstances, it wasn't a total disaster, but it was far from good when you reviewed the tape from Week 1.

This week, the Dolphins started piling up quarterback pressures in the second half, with the Patriots in obvious passing situations as they tried to mount a comeback. Jones was under pressure on 14 of his 46 drop-backs, or 30.4%, per NextGen Stats, and was sacked four times. Obviously, you need to throw when you're down, so dropping back a combined 104 times in the first two weeks will invite pressure, with the defense pinning its ears back.

The pressures that weren't as troubling were an assignment-based error by second-year LG Cole Strange, who seemed to block down on the Dolphins first sack instead of picking up the second-level blitzer, and sacks allowed by backup LT Vederian Lowe, and backup guard Atonio Mafi. Those mental mistakes will happen when guys haven't been repping much together in O'Brien and O-Line coach Adrian Klemm's system. They'll get it fixed, while Brown will hopefully be back next week at left tackle, and Onwenu should be able to go wire-to-wire again soon.

However, right tackle continues to be a problematic spot with current starter Calvin Anderson struggling with his footwork and punch timing to block speed off the edge. Dolphins edge rusher Andrew Van Ginkel logged a sack and six quarterback pressures working against Anderson, who is not getting enough depth in his slides to protect his edge, leading to a short corner that Van Ginkel ran around several times on Sunday night.

With the team being overly reluctant to kick right guard Michael Onwenu outside, Anderson, who deserves some leeway as he works his way back from a severe illness that limited him all summer, is their best option at right tackle. This is what they have on the roster right now, opening them up to criticism for not using more resources on OT in the offseason.

If the current right tackle situation doesn't improve, the Patriots should aggressively pursue free-agent tackle La'el Collins, who the Bengals recently released.

5. Besides Getting the O-Line Rolling, How Can the Patriots Get Run-Game Going?

Although getting the O-Line in order would help, it's not the only reason the Patriots have produced only 164 rushing yards on 47 attempts through two weeks (3.5 average).

The one criticism of O'Brien in the first two contests is that the running game might have design flaws. New England has ditched the fullback for the second consecutive year to be a one-back running scheme out of either standard 11 personnel or two-tight end sets (12), which aren't really true "12" if Gesicki is in the game. Between lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott, only seven of their 20 halfback runs came from under center. Long story short: the Patriots are trying to run from spread formations using RPOs with power backs that are better suited to run from under center (this is why I was holding out hope for Pierre Strong before the trade).

Along with mostly dialing up spread runs, Mac only had three pass attempts from under center this week, with a 10.9 percent play-action rate on Sunday night. From this perspective, the Pats haven't given themselves a chance to effectively run the ball because they're not leaning enough on under-center run/play-action sequencing to get it going.

Due to their offensive personnel, the Pats also don't have the option to go "big" with the fullback out of regular formations anymore, which was their way to get the offense back on track after a rocky stretch under McDaniels. Yes, playing from behind presents another issue, but Stevenson is arguably the Patriots best offensive player, while play-action is arguably their most effective way to pass the ball – it's on O'Brien to find a way to scheme it up better on the ground.

6. Patriots QB Mac Jones Flashes High-Level Playmaking in Loss to Miami

After last week's better performance in the box score, my film review was still pretty critical of Jones, who made too many unforced errors in the game against the Eagles for my liking.

We'll reserve judgment until seeing the tape, but Jones made some impressive plays on the move and while under pressure. According to NextGen, Jones was 7-of-10 for 58 yards and a touchdown while under pressure, with a 117.9 passer rating and an outstanding completion percentage over expectation of +22.4. Mac also completed 4-of-6 throws for 36 yards and a score when "on the run" moving outside the pocket, which he doesn't usually do well.

For example, Jones made a terrific throw while staring down the barrel to DeVante Parker, where he threw with excellent anticipation from a muddy pocket to hit Parker on an in-breaking route on third down. We've talked so much about Mac needing to throw from a solid base to have zip on the ball, but he used timing and enough velocity to get that one in there.

Next, Jones rescued a broken read-option design where the Pats set up blockers for him down by the goal line to run into the end zone. When the Dolphins didn't bite on the inside run, Mac was caught in no man's land, and he improvised along with TE Hunter Henry to make a play.

Although we still have reservations about Jones, who had another ill-advised interception with the Patriots driving deep into Miami territory, it would be nice to evaluate Mac with a better supporting cast. What would this game have looked like if the quarterbacks switched teams?

7. First-Year CB Christian Gonzalez Has First-Ever Interception in the NFL

Another positive from the Patriots loss to the Dolphins was that rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez registered his first career interception on Sunday night. Again, we'll need to see the coaches film to assess Gonzalez's game properly, but the Pats first-rounder shadowed Tyreek Hill on several man-coverage downs, and Hill only had five catches for 40 yards on nine targets.

On the interception, Gonzalez said that safety Jabrill Peppers made a check call on the field when Hill came in motion to Gonzalez's side of the formation. The Pats opted to have Gonzalez drop into the deep part of the field rather than a safety to combat the motion, and Gonzalez made a terrific high-point grab to range over the top of Hill to intercept the pass.

The Patriots rookie cornerback has been thrown into the fire facing these two offenses in his first two games, and Gonzalez has looked the part against some steep competition out of the gate.

8. Rookie WR Demario Douglas Benched on Offense Following First-Half Fumble

Lastly, it was extremely unfortunate to see rookie wideout Demario Douglas, who ran an explosive route and made a dynamic cutback, fumble in the first half. Why? Everyone who has followed head coach Bill Belichick's coaching tenure in New England knew that Douglas would immediately be riding the bench. Douglas owned the mistake after the game, acknowledging that ball security is critical, but Belichick danced around questions about Douglas's "benching" following the turnover. Although he took over as the primary punt returner for an injured Marcus Jones, Douglas didn't see the field again on offense following the fumble.

Bottom line: the Patriots don't have the luxury to bench arguably their most dynamic route-runner in Douglas because of one rookie mistake – this cannot be a multi-week thing.

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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