The New England Patriots played well against the Miami Dolphins for much of the game. They allowed a score in the two-minute drill, which was unfortunate, but the biggest defensive breakdown came on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Dolphins WR Kenny Stills.
Stills is set up on the right side of the offensive formation, closest to the offensive linemen, across form Patriots ED Jabaal Sheard. Dolphins QB Matt Moore saw that match-up and looked at Stills the entire play progression, eventually hitting him in the end zone for a wide-open score. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick took the blame for the letdown.
“What was supposed to happen was we were supposed to have the pattern covered but we didn’t,” Belichick said on Monday. “Yeah, I mean I think really that play is probably more my fault than anybody else’s. There were certainly things that could’ve been better on it, but in the end we have some flexibility in our coverages and we make adjustments in coverages from time to time based on a formation or based on the type of pattern that another team is running. I think this was just one of those where really the players, they were trying to do the right thing.
“We were trying to get to something that would’ve helped us but it just kind of didn’t work out and that’s, again, really probably more my fault because we just didn’t have it clean enough. It just wasn’t presented well enough, not that they didn’t understand it, and it just obviously didn’t play out the way we want it to. The players are trying to do the right thing. They had the right idea. We were trying to apply something and we just didn’t quite have it right, and that really goes back to me more than anybody else, so I’ll take that one.”
The Patriots had five defenders on the far side of the field and each had a distinct responsibility. Sheard was supposed to peel off Stills and cover the middle of the field to deter any crossing pattern- specifically watch the Dolphins running back coming inside from the left sideline.
CB Logan Ryan was in the slot with CB Malcolm Butler on the sideline. It seems like Butler wanted to pass off his sideline receiver to Ryan and carry the slot receiver running the go route, but Butler couldn’t confirm that Ryan had picked up the receiver and so he hesitated in the flat.
With two players running go routes, FS Devin McCourty had to make the executive decision to cover one of them. He saw LB Kyle Van Noy in the middle of the field with a chance to cover Stills, while there was no player able to cover the other streaking receiver. McCourty covered the open receiver and hoped that Van Noy would carry Stills into the end zone.
Van Noy must have thought he had help from McCourty over the top and the two would bracket Stills. It didn’t happen. Stills was wide open for the easy score.
If we’re attributing blame, Van Noy could have gained better depth in his coverage; he appears to be looking at the other Dolphins receivers as if he were trying to prevent an in-cut. Butler could have abandoned his man to stick with the deep receiver- although we saw what happens when a player doesn’t ensure his man is picked up in the zone against the Seattle Seahawks. Butler was just following orders.
The blame really comes down to, as Belichick said, a better understanding of the coverage concepts. Every Patriots defender could have done something differently. While it wasn’t a total collapse in coverage, it was clear that each player seemed to be on a slightly different page. Belichick knows this and will make sure that every player better understands the concepts at work.