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What the Patriots can learn from their 20-7 loss to the Dolphins

Related: Execution, not play-calling, dooms Patriots offense against Dolphins

NFL: SEP 11 Patriots at Dolphins Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Just like last year, the New England Patriots came up short in their season opener versus the Miami Dolphins. The team of head coach Bill Belichick was unable to overcome its own mistakes en route to a 20-7 loss, and as a result will start off at 0-1 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2001.

The loss in Miami saw the Patriots struggle on offense and play just inconsistent enough on defense. The Dolphins, for comparison, did not play great either but they were able to take advantage of the visitors’ miscues.

Of course, one game does not a season make and New England still has a lot of football left to play before the alarms truly can be sounded. Week 1 therefore can also be seen as an opportunity for growth

Let’s take a look at some things the Patriots can learn from their disappointing trip to Miami.

Kendrick Bourne has to be more involved. Bourne’s limited workload — he played just two offensive snaps all game — has already been discussed around these parts of the internet, but that does not change the fact that a) it was a curious decision and b) he should probably play a bigger role moving forward. The Patriots offense as it presented itself on Sunday is simply not good enough to keep a player of his caliber on the sidelines, after all.

Will Bourne single-handedly fix the issues that plagued New England on that side of the ball against Miami? Obviously not, but his rapport with quarterback Mac Jones and ability to win 1-on-1 matchups as evidenced by his 41-yard reception are certainly valuable assets. He is a capable complementary piece in a wide receiver room without a true No. 1 option.

Whether or not that will compel the Patriots to give him more snaps moving forward remains to be seen. However, it appears that Bill Belichick is open to it if his statements on Monday are to be believed.

“I thought KB did a great job stepping in there when we needed him,” New England’s head coach said during an appearance on WEEI. “Made a big play for us. He’s a good player. I’m sure that he’ll have plenty of opportunities, as all of our skill players will, going forward, so we’ll see how it all plays out.”

There was some encouraging run-blocking. A lot was made this offseason about the Patriots moving away from their usual gap/power schemes in the running game to incorporate more zone concepts. Against Miami, they did indeed call some zone but the most successful runs off of it came on the inside rather than outside:

In total, the Patriots gained 80 yards on 21 hand-offs for an average of 3.8 yards per carry. When excluding their three outside zone attempts for a grand total of 1 net yard, however, that last number jumps to 4.4 yards per attempt.

Of course, that does not mean New England should do away with its outside zone runs entirely; defenses need to be kept honest, and the Patriots have had a handful of good moments both against Miami and in preseason running it. However, it is clear that the execution on gap and power runs as well as inside zone is simply at a higher level right now.

The young cornerbacks deserve a shot. Besides a breakdown on 4th-and-7 late in the second quarter that resulted in a 42-yard touchdown pass, Patriots’ coverage unit did a fairly solid job against Miami’s explosive skill position players. Both Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills fared relatively well with their assignments; their positions atop the depth chart should not be questioned.

The same cannot be said for slot cornerback Myles Bryant, who served as CB3 and played 52 percent of New England’s defensive snaps. Bryant was credited with two receptions giving up on three targets for 24 yards, but he also had a bad missed tackle versus Raheem Mostert that resulted in a first down for the Dolphins. Additionally, he knocked a would-be interception away from Devin McCourty in the fourth quarter.

Bryant is a solid role player, whose versatility and special teams contributions are valuable. However, it might be time for the Patriots to give their rookies a shot: third-rounder Marcus Jones is a speedy option in the slot, with fourth-rounder Jack Jones offering upside on the perimeter.

Nonetheless, they combined to play a mere 15 total snaps versus Miami: Marcus played just four, with Jack subbing in for 11. Those 11 did see him draw a pretty challenging matchup, though; the rookie was going up against Tyreek Hill in man coverage on several occasions and allowed one 26-yard catch — with Hill out-boxing him in the air to prevent a potential interception — on two targets.

All in all, the sample size is a small one for both rookies. Still, they should see more action moving forward based on what they have shown thus far since arriving in New England.

Early-down production is a problem. The Patriots offense found itself in unfavorable situations repeatedly in the game, and a look at their down-and-distance positioning illustrates this. When breaking down the average yardage needed to gain a first down, we can see that the production on first and second down in particular was an issue (hence the relatively high yards-to-go number on second and third downs):

  • 1st down: 9.9 yards to go
  • 2nd down: 8.3 yards to go
  • 3rd down: 8 yards to go
  • 4th down: 6 yards to go

In total, the Patriots moved the chains on just 13 percent of their first-down plays against Miami — fifth worst in the league in Week 1. For comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars (?!) were able to convert 38 percent of those plays into a fresh set of downs, the highest such mark in the NFL.

Whether it is penalties or busted assignments, the production — and in part the play-calling as well — needs to improve on early downs in particular. Center David Andrews mentioned as much himself directly after the game ended.

“I think when we were rolling, we were in the rhythm,” he said. “Then we kind of sputtered out, didn’t win first down, got behind the chains. It’s hard to win that way.”

Tackling fundamentals needs some work. As noted above, the Patriots defense played a relatively solid game against Miami but it did have some notable breakdowns. Some of those were tied directly to an insufficient performance in the tackling department: the team was credited with 10 unsuccessful tackle attempts for a miss rate of 15.2 percent.

Needless to say that those numbers are too high, and they negatively impacted the game from New England’s point of view. Take the aforementioned 42-yard touchdown in the late second quarter: the play might have been limited to a 15-yard gain had safety Kyle Dugger been able to take the right angle. However, he came in too hot and as the last line of defense allowed Dolphins receiver Jaylen Waddle to break through for six.

“We’ve got to do a better job, no matter who we play, of tackling because guys are talented in this league,” said fellow safety Devin McCourty after the game. “I think there were some plays on third down and different times where [Tua Tagovailoa] threw the ball short, but a broken tackle turned it into a big play and I think kind of changed drives.

“Instead of being ready to get off the field on a minus 50, they get a first down, either in field goal range now or the punt knocks us back to within the 5-yard line. I think some of those plays made it tougher for us as a defense and as an offense.”

All it takes is two bad plays. Despite being one of the oldest overall teams in the NFL right now at an average age of 27.1 on their active roster, the Patriots do have a lot of youth under contract. Their median age of 26 is a reflection of that.

For the youngsters on the team, the game against Miami was a painful lesson in fortunes turning quickly in the NFL. As Bill Belichick mentioned the day after the game, all it took was basically two plays to give Miami the edge.

“Looking at the game, the two big plays really affected the score. 14 points on two plays that we gave up,” Belichick said on a media conference call. “Obviously have to do a much better job on that, coaching, execution, everything. We’ve got to eliminate those. Otherwise, it was a pretty competitive game from a yardage standpoint, and all that.”

The two big plays mentioned both took place in the second quarter. First was a strip sack against Mac Jones that was returned for a touchdown; then came the big scoring pass to Jaylen Waddle on fourth down. Those two plays changed the outcome of the game drastically.

From that point of view, the Patriots need to adapt a “no plays off” mantra: one missed assignment can have disastrous effects against this level of competition.