Miami, FL – The Patriots were going to make a statement either way in a house that hasn't been friendly to this franchise over the years on the road against the Dolphins.
Either the Patriots would state their presence as a player in the AFC East with back-to-back divisional wins or crash down to earth following an upset win over the Bills, answering the question of whether last week's win over Buffalo was replicable or not.
Well, New England fell to the Dolphins by a final score of 31-17 on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium in a game similar to Miami's win in Week 2 up in Foxborough. With the Dolphins taking a 17-7 lead at the half and the Pats making things somewhat interesting late, Miami made the plays in critical situations and generated explosive plays on offense to pull away.
The statement from the Patriots is that there's a stark difference in star power between them and the elite teams in the AFC, making it difficult to replicate the execution they had one week ago. Sure, they have professionals on both sides of the ball who can find the winning formula at times. But they don't have cheat codes like Tyreek Hill or big-play corners (Jalen Ramsey) that can flip the game instantly, especially without blue-chippers Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez.
From a win probability standpoint, Hill's 42-yard touchdown and Ramsey's interception before the half with the Patriots driving were the two biggest swings in the game, and the Dolphins didn't even have their entire arsenal of big-name players (Xavien Howard and Javon Holland were inactive). When it comes to consistent performance, talent almost always wins.
After a big win last week, we were either going to find out that the Patriots had turned a corner or that the win over Buffalo was a one-game aberration. There was context to consider with injuries and shaky officiating, and it wasn't a Dallas or Saint-like blowout. But the Pats still made a statement, which wasn't the one anyone was hoping for in Miami.
Here are eight observations from the loss to the Dolphins as the Patriots drop to 2-6 on the season:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Dolphins CB Jalen Ramsey Second-Quarter Interception
The Patriots were driving deep into Dolphins territory on the fringe of the red zone late in the second quarter with a chance to tie a one-score game.
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien decided to take a shot into the end zone on first down, a good time to take a shot given the game situation. O'Brien called a "bluff" screen, where the Pats will fake a WR screen into the flat and send the "blockers" on deep routes, hoping the defense will bite on the fake, sneaking the receivers past the defense.
However, Ramsey read the play perfectly. You can have any gripe with Jones that you want, who owned it post-game by saying that he was late to pull the trigger and didn't put enough zip on the ball. However, to me, this is an example of a passing window appearing to be there that isn't there, or at least not there for long, and great recognition/baiting by a savvy vet.
The Dolphins appear to be playing quarters to the field in cover-six, and with only two deep routes, that allows Ramsey to pass off DeVante Parker's post route to the safety and work back over the top to the wheel. It's there for a second, but in the NFL, that window instantly closes. This is a bad quarterback play that cannot happen in scoring territory.
For a team with a tiny margin of error, the interception that resulted in at least a ten-point swing is a missed opportunity that the Patriots can't afford. It's a much different game if the Pats walk away with points there instead of a momentum-swinging turnover.
2. Pats Defense Loses Tyreek Hill on 42-Yard TD, Hill Goes Off for 8 Catches, 112 Yards
After doing a good job against the fastest receiver in football in the first matchup, the Patriots couldn't contain Hill with the same success this time. The Dolphins wideout scored a 42-yard touchdown and found voids in the Pats zones as he often does.
The Tyreek Hill stopper, Jonathan Jones, seemed limited by a knee injury in this game, which might be why he didn't cover Hill as much as anticipated. The plan against Hill wasn't good enough, and the Miami WR duo combined for 233 yards and two touchdowns, with Waddle also having a strong performance (7 catches, 121 yards, touchdown).
With the Pats usual answer to Hill banged up, that left corner J.C. Jackson on the Dolphins wideout for large stretches in this one, and Jackson was very accountable to Patriots.com about his performance.
As for Hill's explosive touchdown, Jackson said the Patriots were in quarters coverage where he had the deep fourth with safety Marte Mapu having the middle deep zone to that side of the field. Jackson added that the play-action off the motion led to "bad eyes" with his attention in the backfield, and one false step against that guy will be six.
The Patriots wanted to be physical with the Dolphins high-powered offense, but the execution obviously wasn't good enough on this day.
3. Patriots QB Mac Jones Fails to Build Off Momentum from Buffalo Game, Pats Offense Struggles to Hit Explosives vs. Fangio
With the Fangio defensive system taking over the league, the founding father himself is now in the Patriots division for the foreseeable future.
The bad news for the Patriots is that they'll need to face this Fangio scheme twice a year, and in both matchups this season, the Dolphins defense has limited Jones to full dink-and-dunk mode, and not in a good way, with the Pats two biggest plays going for 24 yards apiece. Plus, the post-snap rotations are causing Mac to hold the ball.
We'll have to watch the film to see exactly what the Dolphins did defensively and if it's a fair critique to say that this Fangio system is confusing Jones. But our live viewing from the press box showed a quarterback who had a few opportunities but couldn't get to the open reads fast enough in his progressions to find his receivers. In all, Jones finished with an average target depth of just 6.4 yards while subtracting -0.29 expected points per play with a 23.8 QBR.
Mainly, there was a third-down sack by Christian Wilkins where it appeared DeVante Parker was open in the first window on a slant/under route. But the Pats QB was locked onto Stevenson's route out of the backfield. Understandably, Jones started where the 1-on-1 matchup was, then waited for Stevenson to run the option. By the time he decided Stevenson was covered, so was Parker, and Wilkins was on him. Those are the timing plays that need to click for this offense.
We credited Jones with one "big-time throw" in our live charting when he drove a tight-window pass into TE Pharaoh Brown over the middle off play-action. These are the type of drive throws that, with a clean pocket, Jones can make that give you some hope about his NFL future.
Whether it's on the quarterback or not, and the coaches film will tell a clearer story, Miami's sacks mostly took some time to get home. The Dolphins average time to sack was 4.35 seconds on their three sacks, suggesting that there was a chance to get the ball out.
New England needs to find a way to solve this Fangio system by next season because the veteran defensive coordinator could be in the division for a while.
4. Patriots Lose WRs Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker and LB Ja'Whaun Bentley to Injuries on Sunday
Adding insult to injury for the Patriots offense, starting wide receivers Kendrick Bourne (knee) and DeVante Parker (head) were immediately ruled out with injuries on Sunday. Bourne suffered a knee injury after catching a third-down pass short of the sticks along the sideline, with his knee crumbling underneath him as he was tackled to the ground. The Pats wideout immediately grabbed the back of his right leg before limping off under his own power. Hopefully, it's just a tweak and not a long-term injury – the Patriots cannot afford to lose Bourne, their best receiver.
As for Parker, the Pats wideout sustained a head injury on one of many questionable plays for the officials on Sunday. Jones targeted Parker on a quick "sit" route against a blitz, and Dolphins safety Deshon Elliott appeared to lower his helmet into the collision, resulting in helmet-to-helmet contact. It was a scary scene with Parker attempting to get on his feet, then stumbling badly as he tried to return to the huddle—clearly, a concussion-like situation. Hopefully, Parker, who also missed time with a concussion last season, is okay. We'll have more on the questionable officiating, don't worry, in a bit.
Lastly, Patriots captain Ja'Whaun Bentley exited the game in the first half with a hamstring injury and did not return. We'll monitor all three in-game injuries throughout the week heading into Week 9.
5. Patriots Start on the Right Foot vs. Tua Tagovailoa With Kyle Dugger Interception, But the Dolphins Quarterback Improves to 6-0 vs. Bill Belichick
Although it's hard to believe that any quarterback could have a perfect record with this many matchups against Belichick, Tua improved to 6-0 against the Pats head coach on Sunday.
Initially, the Patriots had a good game plan against the Dolphins offense. They had some creative ways to cover Miami's motions, passing them off and staying disciplined in their zones not to allow head coach Mike McDaniel to pull them out of their responsibilities. In the first matchup, it was often the stagnant routes that killed the Patriots defense, with the motions creating space by expanding the defense for slants and curls to fill the voids.
After forcing a punt on the Dolphins opening drive, the defense flipped the field in the Patriots favor with a first-quarter interception by safety Kyle Dugger. The interception, Dugger's first of the season, came after Miami's offense went backward into a 3rd-and-15, a good string of plays.
On the interception, the Patriots showed Tagovailoa a man coverage picture in their initial coverage, with the slot defender (Myles Bryant) turning his back to the quarterback like he would match the No. 2 receiver in man. That would've left Dugger on the tight end, who would've cleared the middle of the field for Hill to run the in-breaking route. Instead, Bryant fell off into the flat, Dugger rotated into the hook zone, and Tua threw the ball right to him – a great bit of disguise and baiting.
The Patriots defense got the first laugh against the Dolphins quarterback on Sunday. Still, Tua was in control from there, making some excellent anticipatory throws into the middle of the field. Tagovailoa is extremely tricky with his eyes and is great at throwing receivers open into the second and sometimes third windows when the defense is in zone coverage. Those throws seemed to give the Patriots defense the most problems, with Tua looking off short zone defenders to throw behind them as Hill and Waddle ran across the field.
It also didn't help that the Pats gave up several positive plays on third and long that set up the Dolphins to go for it on fourth down (3-3), and Miami also converted on a 3rd-and-13 with a 20-yard screen pass to RB Salvon Ahmed. Frankly, those plays can't happen. You have to get off the field on third-and-long, and offenses now will be aggressive on fourth down.
The Patriots took a step forward against Bills quarterback Josh Allen last week, but after generating +0.19 expected points added per play in another win, Tua still has their number.
6. Demario Douglas, Kendrick Bourne Flash Potential as Pats Top Wide Receiver Duo
Unfortunately, this game had to end with an injury to the veteran wideout, but it was great to see the Patriots stick with Bourne and Douglas as their top two receivers after last week.
It took until the fourth quarter, after Bourne and Parker's injuries, to see JuJu Smith-Schuster on the field. To Smith-Schsuter's credit, he caught a touchdown and said all the right things in the post-game locker room – it should've been Bourne and Douglas out there, and it was.
As for the flashes, the Patriots touchdown following Dugger's interception was a perfectly executed play that was one moment where New England's hopes were alive. The 24-yard score came with the Dolphins in man coverage. From this vantage point, it looked like cover-one robber, with Miami rotating its safeties post-snap with the robber filling into the three-receiver side. The help defender ends up doubling Douglas, leaving Bourne with favorable leverage against Justin Bethel to break away from the coverage for the touchdown.
Although his status is uncertain now, some positives from Bourne and Douglas carried over from the Buffalo game. Hopefully, this duo can build on it moving forward.
7. Patriots Rookie DE Keion White Makes Presence Felt in Return to Game Action
We'll have to review the film to get a final tally on White's quarterback pressures, but the rookie was very disruptive in his return from a concussion this week. White logged three tackles, made a great play on a TFL against a Dolphins jet sweep, had a notable stuff against a zone run where the back cut back into him, and drew two holds. With the Pats needing more impact players, White stepped up on Sunday.
8. NFL Officiating Deservedly Takes Heat for Several Questionable Calls in Loss
Alright, now it's time for the officials to get theirs as we wrap this baby up. Look, I'm never going to say that officiating cost the Patriots a game that they lost by two touchdowns. But there were several questionable calls, and the lack of transparency from the league when the "eye in the sky" buzzes down from New York to reverse a call on the field is troubling. If that's the process to get the call right, fine, but at least tell us. The refs blatantly missed an illegal shift on the Dolphins and the helmet-to-helmet that knocked Parker out of the game. Then, they picked up an illegal man downfield penalty, which might've been the correct call but was close, as was the slight jersey tug that drew a DPI on J.C. Jackson, a four-point play (third down in the red zone). The Patriots didn't lose because of the refs, but the officiating crew certainly didn't help the underdogs on Sunday, and there needs to be more consistency on these calls.
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