The Patriots didn't get off to the start anyone wanted with a 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Sunday's season-opener at Hard Rock Stadium in Week 1.
New England's offense moved the ball at times but struggled with turnovers and finishing drives which led to a net-scoring differential of zero points when you factor in a fumble recovery for a touchdown by Miami. Defensively, there were more reasons for optimism, as the Pats held the Dolphins attack to only 13 points and managed to keep Tyreek Hill in check.
If you're looking for reasons to remain optimistic about this team, it goes back to something head coach Bill Belichick said in late August before the Patriots fully turned their attention to the regular season.
"I've heard a lot of people comment on it, that September's an extension of the preseason, building your team, developing your team, I think there's some truth to that," Belichick said.
The Pats head coach then went on to say that you "don't really know where your team is until you get to about midseason, mid-October. Play five, six, seven games."
Although it may sound like making excuses, it's early. Plus, a thorough review of Patriots-Dolphins on film showed a somewhat vanilla game plan. This was not a team throwing the kitchen sink at the opponent.
New England has a long way to go before they are consistently competitive, especially on offense, so we have to take a realistic view. But the hand is only hovering over the panic button in the early stages of the regular season.
Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag following Week 1 of the NFL season:
Q: Where do you see this Patriots team improving to be more productive on offense? Game planning, coaching up the O-Line, or Mac? - Joshua King
We'll tackle two different answers to this question here: what we'd like to see the Patriots do to liven up the offense and what we expect the Patriots to do on offense.
Starting with what we expect the Patriots to do, the most likely answer is to stay the course and improve at what they've been doing. Improving the blocking up front is item number one on the to-do list, which will hopefully get better with more practice time. Then, finish drives in the end zone with sharper situational execution and cut down on turnovers. It's not sexy, but I wouldn't expect them to reinvent the wheel here.
We'd like to see the Patriots dial up the creativity. The Pats did not challenge the Dolphins defense enough mentally on Sunday. They got to the line, called a drop-back pass or run, and played things straight up, which isn't going to cut it unless you have elite talent on the field. Play-action, misdirection and motion, and more RPOs causing defenders to think before they act, or this offense will continue to struggle.
Q: Have you seen regression from Mac Jones or is this just a lack of execution from the offense in general? - @ChefdDds89
This is a good question that says a lot about the big-picture direction of the Patriots at quarterback. I'm not seeing much regression with Mac. No, we haven't seen a massive leap forward, but it's important to remember that development isn't always linear. My biggest thing right now with Mac is not that he's going backward but rather that he's stagnant, which could mean this is who he is, at least for now. If the talent around him isn't elevating his game, he is a good but not yet elite quarterback. The drive throws to the sideline and the inability to access the deep middle of the field are concerning. Still, you see enough in the quick game and deep passes to think that Jones would put up better numbers if his supporting cast improved. After reviewing the coaches film, Jones wasn't missing many open receivers downfield. It was more singular instances where his decision making could've been better.
Q: What is the biggest issue moving forward: offensive play-calling vs. offensive execution? Doesn't the OC have to call plays they know the team can execute? - @ThetikosM
I will continue to pound the table with this take: the actual play-calling is a much more minor issue than the overall design of the offense. It's squarely on the coaching staff to put players in situations where they can succeed and challenge defenses with scheme, which will help the offense execute far more than sequencing plays together. I think execution is an easy response for players and coaches when asked what went wrong. What does that really mean? Every team is trying to execute at a high level. You are either challenging the defense with your personnel and play designs, or you are not. The Pats aren't threatening defenses enough, and since the personnel isn't drastically changing, the play designs need to make it harder to defend this offense.
Q: What did you see from the secondary on how they played but also how they were deployed and snap counts? - @Prostarr27
The most impressive aspect of this game for the Patriots was that the defense limited an explosive offense without many bells and whistles. New England trusted their corners in man coverage with Jonathan Jones drawing the matchup on Tyreek Hill, then rotated through split and post-safety coverages. There weren't any dedicated double-teams on Hill, nothing too exotic in the pass rush, and it wasn't some surprise game plan. The Pats played their style of defense and held the Miami offense in check by playing them straight up. As much as Tua left some plays on the field, that says something about the Patriots defense right there.
Q: What is going on with pass protection? Is it the swap of Brown and Wynn at the tackles? Is Cole Strange struggling in that area? - @tcruz617
This doesn't appear to be a talent thing for the Patriots offensive line. Instead, this is a communication and seeing the whole picture issue. For example, on the strip-sack, it was three-on-three pass protection rules where the center slid towards the pressure to even up the numbers. In other words, they had enough blockers to pick up all the rushers. However, Trent Brown didn't see the blitz coming, and nobody pointed it out to him either. The Patriots need to improve their communication.
Q: How do you think Cole Strange played? - @PWellz
Strange was solid for his first time out. A few of the Pats big runs, especially early, were to the left side, where Strange's athleticism helped make positive yards. Plus, there were a few instances where he showed good awareness to pick up a stunting pass rusher. Although the timing of his rest period suggests it was a benching after a Miami sack, my guess is the plan all along was for James Ferentz to spell Strange at some point, with the Miami heat being a major factor. The sack didn't appear to be on Strange—another communication issue.
Q: Are the days of the coaching staff being able to talented players in the dog house (Kendrick Bourne) long behind us? Or do we need to just trust the process? - Brendan in DC
It's a fair question. We should first point out that Belichick said Bourne's lack of playing time wasn't a disciplinary issue, so take that for what it's worth. Furthermore, someone had to be the odd man out with the Pats playing primarily out of two and three-receiver sets. It wasn't going to be DeVante Parker or Jakobi Meyers, so it was between Nelson Agholor and Bourne, and Bourne's weird summer led to him being the fourth receiver on the depth chart. I still think that Bourne will emerge as a contributor eventually, and it's frustrating that an explosive playmaker is on the bench when the offense isn't scoring. Let's see if Bourne gets more opportunities next week. If not, we can start to question why one of their most productive receivers isn't seeing the field.
Q: Do you think not having any three and outs is a sign of progress, considering what the offense looked like this summer? - @Russ_Goldman
Want to talk baby steps? Let's talk baby steps. I'm not going to get all excited about the Patriots offense not having any three-and-outs. But the scripted drives, meaning the opening drive of the game and the Pats first drive of the second half, were their two best possessions where they averaged over six yards per play. The fact that the Patriots can execute an opening script and translate what they practiced to the game field in that sense is a good thing. The coaching staff can at least dissect a defense's weaknesses to devise a good plan. Now, they need to finish both those drives and clean up everything else.