One hour after the Patriots dropped Sunday’s season opener at Miami, then again on Monday morning, Bill Belichick described the team’s loss as a game decided by two plays.
There was the second-quarter strip-sack of Mac Jones, and Tua Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass before halftime. And that was it.
That was all that separated the Pats and Dolphins, according to Belichick, who also cited total yards to support his case for an evenly played game.
The thing about a few plays making the difference, though? That’s life in the NFL. And Belichick knows that better than anyone.
All nine of the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearances hinged on a play or two or three. Sunday, of course, was not a Super Bowl. But it was as important an opener the Patriots have faced under Belichick.
Finding comfort in stats should do nothing to erase the sting of giving a win away in the division. Or to a team that may edge you out in the Wild Card race. Or to a below-average quarterback who somehow owns a 4-0 record against Belichick despite averaging 21.5 points per game.
The Patriots allowed 13 points to Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ track team of an offense Sunday, a major win. But their offense scored just seven, a major problem.
Looking ahead, the Pats cannot afford to dwell on their season opener before traveling to Pittsburgh this weekend, the likely reason behind Belichick’s unusual optimism. But they must fix the mistakes that littered their tape and reveal a greater gap than the one Belichick described post-game. Or they’ll be clinging to the stat sheet all over again next Monday.
Here’s what the film revealed about Sunday’s loss:
Accurate throw percentage: 72.4%
Under pressure: 1-of-2 for 27 yards, 2 sacks
Behind the line: 4-of-4 for 26 yards
0-9 yards: 14-of-16 for 107 yards, TD
10-19 yards: 1-of-3 for 12 yards
20+ yards: 2-of-6 for 68 yards, INT
Notes: Call it a B- game.
Jones mostly lived within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and his downfield throws were essentially all go-route, sideline shots to beat a blitz. It’s unclear how his reported back spasms affected his arm strength, but Jones snuck a few nice in-cut completions against tight coverage to move the chains. He also successfully audibled the Pats into better looks, now free to make changes at the line, but Miami was never seriously threatened.
OLB Matt Judon
Judon tied for the team lead with four pressures. He also set a much sturdier edge than the one we last saw in Miami, where he let Tagovailoa loose on a game-sealing scramble in January. Against Kyle Shanahan-style offenses, the backside edge defender is paramount for chasing play-action bootlegs and containing cutback runs.
Judon was all-around excellent Sunday.
DE Deatrich Wise
The player Judon tied with his four pressures? That would be Wise, who generated pressure from multiple alignments across the defensive line and played above-average run defense. He also played more than 80% of the team’s defensive snaps in brutal conditions.
OT Trent Brown
Brown allowed the game-deciding strip-sack on Jones and was the likely culprit on the first sack the Patriots allowed. He also missed a block that resulted in a first-half run stuff.
LB Raekwon McMillan
It was a rough return to Miami for the ex-Dolphin, who played 42 snaps in his return and was a net negative against run and pass. The Patriots deployed him as their lone linebacker in dime packages, and he couldn’t keep up. It’s possible Mack Wilson could overtake that role in the coming weeks.
- Personnel breakdown: 51% of snaps in 12 personnel, 49% in 12 personnel.*
- Personnel production: 7.5 yards/play in 11 personnel, 3.0 yards/play in 12 personnel.
- Pressure rate allowed: 12.1%
- Yards per carry: 3.5
- Third downs: 4-9
- Red-zone efficiency: 1-1
- First downs: 37.5% run (5.1 yards per play), 62.5% pass (5.1 yards per play)
- Play-action rate: 6.1%
- Broken tackles: Jonnu Smith 4, Damien Harris 4, Rhamondre Stevenson, DeVante Parker
- Sacks allowed: Trent Brown 2
- QB hits allowed: Brown
- Hurries allowed: David Andrews
- Run stuffs allowed: Team 4, Mike Onwenu, Brown
- Penalties: TE Hunter Henry (false start), C David Andrews (chop block, offset), Brown (holding, declined)
- Drops: None
- The media messaging around the new/revised/streamlined Patriots offense has been messy. But it is not a Shanahan system, and we can declare that after only one game.
- The Pats called just three outside zone runs and two play-action passes, both staples of any iteration of the Shanahan offense. On Sunday, they were garnishes on the plate of turnovers and punts play-caller Matt Patricia served up in Miami.
- It’s likely the Patriots will increase both their play-action rate and outside zone calls in the near future, but Shanahan offenses don’t deviate that far from their base. Especially in Week 1.
- What the Patriots did do was cough up three turnovers. Here’s how: Mac Jones made a questionable decision to target perennial Pro Bowler Xavien Howard on an end-zone fade route with a backup corner manning the opposite side. Howard blanketed DeVante Parker, then batted the pass up to Jevon Holland for a pick.
- In the second quarter, Miami schemed up an excellent safety blitz to strip sack Jones immediately after the staff replaced left guard Cole Strange with practice-squad veteran James Ferentz in a pre-planned rotation. Trent Brown, working next to Ferentz, allowed that sack.
- Lastly, Nelson Agholor fumbled upon absorbing a huge hit from undrafted rookie Kader Kohou over the middle in the fourth quarter. Credit Miami with creating at least two of those takeaways, if not all of them.
- Beyond the turnovers, the Pats’ chief problem is how one-dimensional they became. Miami largely solved their run game after the first quarter, allowing just two runs longer than four yards the rest of the way.
- Underpinning the Patriots’ initial rushing success were two play designs: crack toss and inside zone. Crack toss (a sweep play) works best against defenses like the Dolphins, which play high rates of man coverage. But Miami adjusted quickly, sniffing out the Patriots’ third toss play to drop Rhamondre Stevenson for a 4-yard loss.
- Being one-dimensional extended beyond run-pass splits, too. The Patriots played half of their snaps in 12 personnel (one-back, two-tight end sets), which averaged three yards per play. Worse yet, they gained 2.3 yards per dropback in that grouping.
- One of Jones’ sacks and his interception occurred on snaps of 12 personnel. The Dolphins were perfectly comfortable defending Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, who should form one of, if not the most, dangerous tight end duo in the league.
- And it’s not as if the Pats’ run game flourished through two-tight end sets, either. Over the last three quarters, two-thirds of their runs from that personnel were stuffed.
- In coverage, Miami mixed more zone than anticipated, probably an admission it couldn’t play as much man coverage without Pro Bowl corner Byron Jones (injured). But on their man-to-man snaps, the Patriots didn’t hunt reserves nearly enough.
- Nik Needham, a utility defensive back, allowed five catches on six targets. Kohou saw just two targets. Keion Crossen, a core special teamer masquerading as a corner, saw none. Any time Jakobi Meyers lined up across from one of them, it was a matchup Jones should have looked to exploit first.
- Meyers not only led the Patriots in catches — predictable with Parker disappearing on Xavien Howard island — but blocked exceedingly well. He even erased two Dolphins on Agholor’s 17-yard screen in the first half.
- The Patriots’ tiny 6.1% play-action rate was likely a game-plan decision to keep Jones out of harm’s way versus a high-blitz team. Remember, the Pats called zero play-action in the preseason against a Giants defense dialing up blitzes on half their snaps.
- But it was still too low. The expectation of blitz pressure from Miami seemed to affect them as much as actual pressure did. Jones attempted two passes between 10 and 19 yards, a window the Pats typically attack off play-action and offers a safer avenue to explosive plays with five or 7-step drops.
- If Patricia felt comfortable calling a pass rate north of 60% on first down, a few should have included play fakes with max protection to protect against the blitz.
- Ultimately, adjustments are what cost the Patriots in Miami, beyond the obvious turnovers and few fundamental breakdowns. They were unable to scheme chunk plays, and Week 1 is no time for dink-and-dunk football, when teams are most prone to basic mistakes.
- Between the stalled run game, ineffective two-tight end package and questionable personnel decisions — no matter how poor Kendrick Bourne’s summer was, he’s better than Lil’Jordan Humphrey — most of Sunday’s stumbles felt like they belonged to the coaches.
- After all, remove Bourne’s 41-yard gain — the Pats’ longest gain of the game — and Belichick’s argument about total yards collapses. Now imagine if Bourne had played extra snaps and generated a second explosive play? That’s an argument, and maybe more points, too.
- Personnel breakdown: 58% three-safety nickel package, 27% three-cornerback nickel, 18% dime, 3% base.**
- Pressure rate: 32%
- Yards per carry allowed: 2.8
- Third downs: 6-14
- Red-zone efficiency: 0-2
- Sacks: Matt Judon, Deatrich Wise, Ja’Whaun Bentley
- QB hits: Judon 3, Wise, Christian Barmore
- Hurries: Josh Uche 2, Wise 2, Davon Godchaux, Jahlani Tavai, Bentley
- Run stuffs: Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Mack Wilson, Carl Davis
- Interceptions: None
- Pass deflections: None
- Missed tackles: Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Mack Wilson, Jack Jones
- Penalties: DT Carl Davis (neutral zone infraction), Too many men on the field
- The bullet points of the Patriots’ game plan came into focus immediately: keep everything in front and force Tagovailoa into obvious passing situations by stopping the run. For the most part, they succeeded.
- The Pats only missed five tackles playing a lot of zone coverage and throttled Miami’s run game. But their biggest missed whiff cost them six points.
- Kyle Dugger took a poor angle to Jaylen Waddle on Waddle’s 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown before halftime. Dugger’s struggles as a single-high safety — normally Devin McCourty’s domain — date back to the preseason, when he allowed a long gain at Las Vegas.
- The Pats played soft zone on most early downs and pivoted to man-to-man on third down, when they could stick Jonathan Jones to Tyreek Hill and usually Jalen Mills on Waddle.
- The Patriots prevented Hill from doing major damage on a high volume of touches. He averaged 7.8 yards per target, and made his biggest gain by pulling in a 1-handed catch in front of fourth-round rookie Jack Jones.
- Hill’s 26-yard grab was one of a few Tagovailoa jump balls they failed to reel in, though the Pats’ coverage wasn’t so tight. They finished with zero breakups on 33 passes
- Miami predictably attacked the Patriots on the edges early, feeding the ball to Hill and speedy running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert in space. Tagovailoa’s short passing game ultimately served as an extension of the Dolphins’ stunted rushing attack, a way around the Pats’ stout front.
- Matt Judon and Deatrich Wise carried the pass rush. Wise was a nightmare across the defensive line bouncing around. Josh Uche had two pressures, but lost Tagovailoa on one with an edge rush that allowed him to extend the play; a rep that will be scrutinized in meetings.
Statistics for passing depth, pressure, broken tackles and missed tackles courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
*11 personnel = one running back, one tight end; 12 personnel = one running back, two tight ends.
**Base defense = four defensive backs; nickel defense = five defensive backs; dime defense = six defensive backs.