The Patriots week down in Miami ended with an unpleasant final result to begin the 2022 season as the Dolphins bested New England in a 20-7 victory at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
Although the Patriots defense held its own, New England's struggles offensively carried over from the preseason into the regular season. The Pats managed just seven points, turned the ball over three times (including a fumble-six), and failed to get their early-down offense going.
The phrase we'd use to describe the Patriots offense was non-threatening. The scheme didn't challenge the Dolphins defense with the tools at the play designers' disposal (motion, misdirection, play-action), while the downfield passing game was limited to go routes and contested prayers outside the numbers.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones continued a theme from his rookie season where he could not complete passes beyond ten yards between the numbers. When an offense relies on deep throws outside the numbers to create big plays, it won't generate many chunk gains.
As we've seen in the past from the Patriots, methodically moving the ball down the field with stellar situational execution to finish long drives in the end zone is a potential path forward.
However, it's challenging to string ten-plus play drives together in this league, and taking advantage of scoring opportunities becomes critical, which the Patriots didn't do on Sunday.
If you're looking for a silver lining, this game ultimately came down to two critical plays: a 42-yard touchdown by Jaylen Waddle before the half and a defensive touchdown on a strip-sack fumble recovery by Dolphins linebacker Melvin Ingram.
"Not enough good things to win. A couple bad plays really hurt us," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said following Sunday's loss. "Need to finish some drives better on both sides of the ball and make an impact. Just build on this and go back to work."
New England's defense can build on holding an explosive Miami offense to 13 points and bottling up wide receiver Tyreek Hill. But the Patriots offense needs to sharpen its play-to-play execution or unlock a downfield passing game quickly.
Here are ten observations from the Patriots loss to the Dolphins in the season-opener on Sunday:
1. Patriots QB Mac Jones Suffers Back Injury in Forgettable Start to Second Season
Without the benefit of film review, it's difficult to discern if quarterback Mac Jones was missing open receivers downfield or had nowhere to go with the football. We'll do our best to find those answers in After Further Review. Overall, Jones was efficient in the quick game resulting in a completion percentage over expected of +2.9 with a raw completion percentage of 70 percent. However, that didn't tell the whole story.
The intermediate passing game was non-existent. Plus, pre-snap problem solving, which is usually a strength of his game, let him down on a strip-sack that led to a Dolphins touchdown.
On the fumble-six, Dolphins safety Brandon Jones rotated toward the line of scrimmage right before the snap. Mac has two answers here: either hold the play up pre-snap when he sees the late rotation to reset the protection or recognize the blitz post-snap and beat the blitz with a quick release. In this instance, the Patriots had enough blockers to pick up the Miami rushers. Unfortunately, the blockers weren't pointed in the right direction.
As he showed on a 41-yard completion to Kendrick Bourne in the fourth quarter, Jones's deep ball velocity is there when he steps into it and lets it fly down the sideline. Still, you wonder how much of the lacking completions to the deep middle is on Jones's limitations as a passer, and if those plays aren't in his arsenal yet, then Mac needs better ball security and consistency.
To make matters worse for the Patriots, the team announced that Jones suffered a back injury in Sunday's game and wasn't available to speak with reporters following the loss to the Dolphins.
2. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Kendrick Bourne's 41-Yard Reception
Speaking of Bourne's big completion in the fourth quarter, it was notable that the play came on just the second snap of the game for the Pats wideout (more on that later).
New England appears to be running a variation of the 989 concept on the deep completion to Bourne. In this three-receiver route combination, the outside receivers run go routes and the inside receiver works the middle of the field coverage. With the Dolphins in a cover-three buzz scheme, Jones throws away from the safety rotation to the one-on-one matchup. Bourne burns Dolphins corner Nik Needham on the go route, and the safety is too late rotating over the top. Hopefully, the play was a sign of things to come for the Patriots offense.
3. Breaking Down Matt Patricia's Debut as an Offensive Play-Caller
Senior Football Advisor and offensive line coach Matt Patricia called the offensive plays for the Patriots. Patricia had a few situational head-scratchers with runs on 2nd-and-17 and 3rd-and-3 late in the game (New England failed a fourth down attempt on the next play). But the play sequencing didn't feel like the biggest issue. Instead, the overall simplicity of the offense was un-Patriot-like. The Pats used two personnel groupings the entire game, didn't feature a heavy dosage of play-action or run-pass options, and there wasn't much motion either. Similar to the preseason, it felt like the Patriots were running the same basic play they did in training camp. New England's coaching staff will need to dial up the creativity to help the players on the field.
4. Patriots Offensive Line Starts Hot on the Ground, But Assignment Football Remains an Issue
Speaking to reporters after Sunday's loss, head coach Bill Belichick said there were two instances where the Pats had enough blockers to pick up the Dolphins pass rushers but failed to do so, and there were plays in the running game where getting hat-on-a-hat was also an issue.
On a positive note, Patriots running back Damien Harris averaged over five yards per rush, and the offensive line made holes on Harris's nine carries. New England found a rhythm early on the ground by sequencing inside zone and crack toss schemes to keep the defense off-balance. Although the Dolphins eventually adjusted, the rushing offense was productive.
The Patriots put positive runs on tape that they can build on, but playing assignment-sound football is a consistent problem. There are too many unblocked rushers to the quarterback and defenders shooting gaps to contact ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. The Patriots need to clean that up for the offense to be successful.
5. Led By CB Jonathan Jones, Patriots Defense Bottles Up Dolphins Passing Offense
As we mentioned, the Patriots defense did its job by holding the Dolphins offense to 13 points and limiting Tyreek Hill to gains of 26 and 23 yards as his longest plays from scrimmage. Based on our initial viewing, the Pats didn't do anything overly exotic to limit the big plays by the Dolphins. Speedy cornerback Jonathan Jones drew the matchup with Hill in man coverage and held Hill in check. Plus, New England mixed in different cover-three zone coverages where they were sound in passing off routes downfield throughout the contest. The fact that the Patriots didn't need an exotic 2018 AFC Championship Game-like game plan, where they doubled Hill on nearly 50 percent of Kansas City's passing plays, is a testament to the Pats current secondary.
6. Patriots DB Kyle Dugger Consistently Flashes Star Power in Loss to Dolphins
Another silver lining for the Patriots defense was the play of third-year safety Kyle Dugger. Dugger flew around the field, registering five tackles and two tackles for a loss, making a pair of impressive open-field stops on Tyreek Hill. Dugger was the last line of defense on a Hill end around where he had a one-on-one with the Dolphins big-play machine and hit Hill square in the chest to get him on the ground. On the next play, Dugger shot through the line of scrimmage to make a play behind the line. Dugger continues to look like an impact player for the Patriots defense this season.
7. Deatrich Wise, Matthew Judon Lead Patriots Pass Rush
Along with impressive deep coverage in the secondary, the Patriots defense battled with the Dolphins offense thanks to a productive pass rush that sacked Tua Tagovailoa three times and pressured Miami's quarterback on several other occasions.
The pass rush began to make an impact when Deatrich Wise sacked Tagovailoa and forced a fumble on the play. Wise beat Dolphins right guard Robert Hunt with a two-hand swipe move. When Hunt aggressively set with a two-hand punch, Wise swatted the right guard's hands out of the way to keep himself clean and turned the corner quickly to bring down Tua.
Later on, Judon perfectly executed a T/E stunt with teammate Christian Barmore to wrap around for a sack. The Patriots will take the production they got from the pass rush on Sunday.
8. Patriots WR Kendrick Bourne Held Out of Sunday's Game Until Fourth Quarter
From a playing time perspective, the biggest head-scratcher this week was that wide receiver Kendrick Bourne only registered two offensive snaps, and both of those came late in the fourth quarter. Bourne finished second on the team with 50 catches for 800 yards last season and was the Pats most explosive receiver a year ago. Yet, on a day where the offense struggled, Bourne was not on the field.
Bourne said, "I really don't know, so just waiting for my opportunity," when asked about his lack of playing time in the locker room after Sunday's loss to the Dolphins.
Bourne had an unorthodox summer where he spoke openly about the transition for players in the new offensive scheme and was held out of the second preseason game after he was thrown out of a joint practice with the Panthers due to fighting. Although Bourne is still working his way back into the circle of trust, the Patriots offense is at its best with him on the field.
9. Patriots RB Damien Harris Leads Backfield Snaps in Season Opener
After leading the Patriots offense in rushing last season, Damien Harris picked up where he left off on Sunday. Harris played 22 offensive snaps, Rhamondre Stevenson logged 14 plays, and veteran Ty Montgomery was on the field for 20 plays that were mostly in passing situations. Although things can always change moving forward, Harris is currently the lead back in New England.
10. WR Jakobi Meyers Continues to be Mr. Reliable for Patriots Offense
Meyers led the Patriots with a team-high four receptions for 55 yards and made a spectacular 27-yard reception.
The Pats wideout consistently shows up on third down and makes more highlight-reel grabs in contested situations downfield than he gets credit for by the masses. On Sunday, Meyers ran a slot fade against Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham and went above Needham to make the catch along the sideline. Meyers shows up positively every single week.