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Instant analysis from Patriots’ 17-16 loss to Dolphins

Observations from Sunday’s season opener at Gillette Stadium.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots opened the 2021 regular season with a 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon.

Here’s an initial glance through what went into the encounter at Gillette Stadium as a new era begins 0-1.

Alabama products go back and forth under center

The quarterback once sitting ahead of Mac Jones on the Alabama depth chart witnessed the first start of his NFL career. And as Tua Tagovailoa did so, the rookie drafted one spring and 10 selections after him went 29-of-39 passing versus Miami.

It began with a play-action backwards pass that went in the books as a blindside sack and fumble for the consensus All-American. The first true throw by Jones came on a third-and-21 checkdown at the 11:27 mark in the first quarter. But the game brought a total of 281 yards and no turnovers through the air for Jones. He worked underneath and under duress. And he worked accurately, letting a pass go deep down the seams for wide receiver Nelson Agholor on a diving catch of 26 yards. The pair would connect on five occasions, and for their first touchdowns as Patriots before halftime.

As for the other side of the Crimson Tide connection, Sunday marked the 10th start for Tagovailoa in a Dolphins uniform. Tagovailoa ran it in himself from three yards away for game’s opening points. He would go on to complete 16-of-27 passes for 202 yards with a touchdown to another Tuscaloosa teammate in Jaylen Waddle, who motioned and extended over the pylon in the third frame.

Starting in the Gilmore-less secondary

With 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore beginning the fall on physically unable to perform, New England shifted gears in the secondary. J.C. Jackson, Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger drew the start in the “big nickel” package versus Miami. As did March signing Jalen Mills from the Philadelphia Eagles, who had been listed as questionable due to an ankle issue.

Jackson, the No. 1 cornerback, broke up a pass on a DeVante Parker dig route in the AFC East meeting. But the Dolphins wide receiver entered Sunday having notched three 100-yard games versus the Patriots, and he’d go on to reel in four catches for 81 yards, securing a ball above the rim for 30 after intermission. And before intermission, the aforementioned Mills leaped to break up a would-be touchdown toss to fellow Miami wideout Albert Wilson. New England’s newcomer did so with his left arm.

The fourth quarter saw Patriots slot corner Jonathan Jones collect the lone interception of the game with the score reading 17-16.

Going by ground early on

Four members of New England’s running back room would be active versus Miami. What followed proved to be more than active. The offense didn’t officially attempt a pass until the seventh snap.

Starter Damien Harris ran for 100 yards on 23 carries, beginning with a 35-yard breakout on the first play from scrimmage and later having a pirouetting touchdown run wiped away by a holding call. Patriots captain James White spelled in for 61 all-purpose yards. And while Brandon Bolden returned to his post on special teams and as a kickoff returner, Rhamondre Stevenson worked in. But the rookie out of Cerritos College and Oklahoma had the ruling of a fumble upheld upon review. The same result arrived after Harris fumbled deep in Miami territory in the closing minutes. There were four in all for New England.

J.J. Taylor, who checked into six contests as an undrafted free agent last season, went to the inactives list prior to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff.

New England’s new-look front takes shape

The first defensive series for New England began with a front consisting of Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Deatrich Wise on the interior, Matt Judon off the edges, and Ja’Whaun Bentley next to Dont’a Hightower off the ball. And it began with a 10-play, 80-yard drive for Miami that featured a heavy sequence of run-pass options.

But later, Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy added a tipped pass and cleaned up a sack against the organization he was released by after one season. NFL sophomore Josh Uche also registered a sack to force fourth down by bull-rushing through Dolphins rookie tackle Liam Eichenberg. And a back-to-back Pro Bowler in Judon notched a QB hit down the stretch with New England trailing by one.

In addition to the pressure, Miami finished the visit to Foxborough having averaged 3.2 yards per rushing attempt. Those attempts ranged from Jacoby Brissett short-yardage substitutions at quarterback to 2008 wildcat looks.

Two tight ends get the green light

Jonnu Smith played 20 offensive snaps during his first preseason as a Patriot. Hunter Henry played zero. But after landing on contracts featuring a combined $56 million in guarantees, the tight ends by way of the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers got the green light.

Smith took a jet sweep on New England’s opening drive, and finished with five catches for 42 yards as well as a front-flipping fumble on a screen that’d be recovered. Henry was not targeted until the third quarter and finished with three catches for 31 yards.

No depth chart of tight ends around the NFL had accounted for fewer receptions than New England’s one campaign ago. No offense ran “12” personnel with one running back and two tight ends less frequently. One touchdown was scored by the January finale. It was scored by 2020 third-round pick Devin Asiasi, a healthy scratch on Sunday.

Calf injury leads to changes at right tackle

Starting right tackle Trent Brown exited in the first quarter. The Patriots announced his return as questionable due to a calf injury.

In the absence of the 6-foot-8 bookend, who stayed on the sideline with a large wrap, swing tackle Justin Herron subbed in alongside offensive linemen Isaiah Wynn, Mike Onwenu, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. Herron made six starts as a rookie sixth-round pick out of Wake Forest last year. He was flagged for holding on a scramble and 33-yard completion to receiver Kendrick Bourne.

August trade acquisition Yasir Durant from the Kansas City Chiefs rotated in at right tackle before the page turned to the fourth quarter.

New England’s roster flexibility at kicker

“There’s certainly more flexibility, and I feel like right now we have two good kickers combined in our total roster,” Patriots head coach Belichick had told reporters during his Friday press conference. “And to me, that’s a good thing.”

That was seen as the Patriots made veteran Nick Folk a standard elevation on the eve of the opener. And it was seen as the 36-year-old handled the operation from there. Folk went 3-of-3 on field goals, beginning with a 27-yarder through the uprights against the Dolphins and continuing with a 42-yarder and a 33-yarder. He made good on his lone extra point during an outing in which New England’s offense made good on 25 percent of its opportunities in the red zone.

Twice named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week last season, Folk is scheduled to revert to the practice squad on Monday. Undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin is scheduled to remain where he found himself at the league’s 53-man roster deadline instead of being subject to waivers. But on Sunday, the Michigan product found himself among the inactives.