The New England Patriots defense had their worst outing against the Miami Dolphins since their disastrous first four games of the 2017 season. They couldn’t stop the Dolphins offense until it was too late and they gave up 27 points, the fourth-highest total of the year.
There were a lot of issues, from tackling to being out-schemed by Miami head coach Adam Gase to simply not being able to match the energy of the Dolphins players, but a big problem came in defensive front seven, particularly against the run.
Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake received 25 carries for 114 yards and added 79 receiving yards on 5 receptions. Those 193 yards from scrimmage (YFS) are the seventh-most allowed to a player under head coach Bill Belichick. The worst performance was the 246 yards given up to Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt in the season opener, and Drake also joins the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams, and Madden cover athlete Peyton Hillis in cracking 190 YFS.
There were two serious issues for the Patriots against Drake. First, they couldn’t wrap him up in the backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Drake gained 122 rushing yards after initial contact with a Patriots defender. You’ll note that he only gained 114 rushing yards, so that means that on average Drake gained -0.32 yards before contact.
Yes, he was hit in the backfield on his average run, yet he still managed to churn out yards after contact because the Patriots failed to wrap him up.
Second, the Patriots just did a terrible job of covering Drake as a receiver and part of the blame goes on the coaching staff. Whoever thought that Elandon Roberts was the right player to cover Drake must not have ever seen any tape on either player.
And both of these faults lie with the linebackers for not being able to tackle Drake in the backfield against the run or to cover him. With Kyle Van Noy sidelined with a leg injury, the Patriots turned the keys over to Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers, Trevor Reilly, and Jonathan Freeny, with some assists from the Patriots safeties.
So my question is where the heck was David Harris? Even Belichick had to admit that was a less-than-ideal grouping of linebackers to field, acknowledging on Tuesday morning that “due to our depth issues that we had with the linebackers,” they had to keep rotating players in and out of the line-up, changing the player responsible for the leadership of the play on a snap-by-snap basis.
Harris is likely not asked to play against running backs that have great speed and explosiveness because he can’t cover them in the open field. That, of course, didn’t stop the Patriots from asking a similarly limited Roberts from taking on that task. The Patriots should’ve asked Marquis Flowers or Devin McCourty to be responsible for covering Drake all night.
And with Jonathan Freeny not taking a single snap on special teams, what value did he have over Harris on Monday night? There’s no question that Harris would have been a bigger contributor against the run in the middle of the field. Asking an inexperienced Freeny to jump right into a complicated defense was always going to limit the execution.
“You can do whatever you want to do,” Belichick said about presenting different looks on defense. “You just have to decide how much you feel like you can do, how well you can execute it. I mean, sure, to some degree it changes it when you take guys that haven’t done something. You’re not going to be able to do as much with them as guys that have done a lot of things against different teams, different situations, different looks.”
The Patriots defensive performance reminds me of how New England played against the Denver Broncos in 2015 when Jamie Collins was hurt and inactive and Dont’a Hightower suffered an injury early in the game, pushing Freeny and Jerod Mayo into larger roles. Broncos running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman received 29 carries and picked up 172 yards and 3 touchdowns, to go with 40 receiving yards on 5 receptions against the linebacker-less Patriots defense.
New England needs capable linebackers in order to execute their defensive game plan and they opted to keep their savviest on the sideline in order to keep a player that just signed with the team on the active roster and has already been released.
That was one bad decision in a long list against the Dolphins that the Patriots would probably like to have back.