Who would’ve thought?
The Patriots lost at Miami.
Mike McDaniel’s offense out-flanked and out-gunned Bill Belichick’s defense. The Dolphins dictated terms to the Patriots offense at the line of scrimmage. All of this took place Sunday, but Miami laid the foundation for its sixth win over the Pats in their last seven meetings during the last few offseasons.
Over the last three years, the Dolphins successfully stockpiled talent in a way the Patriots have failed to for years. That talent gap manifested in a flexibility and crucial margin for error Sunday.
Despite missing four starting offensive linemen for stretches, the Dolphins passed at will. Tua Tagovailoa flipped a bad first-half interception, just like Mac Jones, yet knew he could still comfortably control the game in a double-digit win. Why?
Because Tagovailoa knew his defense, stocked with Pro Bowlers and former first-round picks, would buy him time. Not that his offense ever needs it. The Dolphins scored the next drive after Tagovailoa’s pick, when he launched a 42-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill.
But for the Patriots offense, life is hard. Everything takes time and demands precision. Their talent leaves them no optionality.
The entire passing game consists of short to intermediate throws. They generate no explosive runs. They have no Plan B.
Against them, Miami’s defense had the luxury of shutting off one side of the field by parking new All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey on Jones’ left basically all day. By game’s end, Jones had completed as many passes in that direction to Ramsey as he did his teammates. His interception led directly to a 10-point deficit, a death knell for the Patriots.
Defensively, the Pats’ talent disadvantage left them at Miami’s mercy. Hill and Jaylen Waddle pull coverage toward them pre-and post-snap, motioning at the highest rates in the league. Defending the Dolphins means changing on the move, on their time and at their speed.
So, the Patriots majored in basic zone coverage. They hardly blitzed. They played basic, static defenses on early downs; the same formula most Miami opponents have followed.
And yet the stress of keeping up with the Dolphins’ speed ultimately broke them in the final minutes, when Waddle coasted to a 31-yard touchdown with no defender in sight. The score clinched Miami’s fourth win of 14 points or more this season. The talent-starved Patriots have four of those, too — in the last year and a half.
Leveling this division series, which has become as lopsided as any in the AFC the last few years, will require matching Miami’s talent in the coming offseasons. That, of course, will take time.
For now, the Pats can address these problems as they play out a lost year without wondering why they lost again on Sunday:
19-of-29 for 161 yards, 2 TDs, INT
Accurate throw percentage: 70.4%
Under pressure: 2-of-8 for 26 yards, 3 sacks
Against the blitz: 1-of-2, 2 yards
Behind the line: 6-of-6 for 20 yards
0-9 yards downfield: 10-of-13 for 77 yards, TD
10-19 yards downfield: 3-of-8 for 64 yards, TD, INT
20+ yards downfield: N/A
Jones did little to power a winning effort Sunday, hitting just one tight-window throw and declining to rip a single deep pass for a second straight game. As always, he proved sharp underneath, which sustained the Patriots the week before against the Bills (when he was also appreciably more accurate). There were three major differences between those outings: Jones had more time (posting a 2.2 second snap-to-throw average versus Buffalo and 2.51 at Miami), more injured receivers and a big, bad interception before halftime.
Jones grossly overestimated his arm talent in that moment, skying a 19-yard, cross-field throw a half-beat too late against future Hall of Fame cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The interception represented at least a 6-point swing, possibly 10.
Jones even had a chance to atone at the start of the third quarter, when Miami gifted the Patriots a fumble on first play from scrimmage. But standing at the Dolphins’ 14, Jones took a third-down sack after staring down Rhamondre Stevenson in the flat, while Demario Douglas found open space across the back of the end zone for a possible touchdown.
It’s a tough balance. Jones knows he often has little time behind a porous offensive line, so jumping at checkdowns to Stevenson makes sense. No NFL quarterback is envious of his current situation.
But failing to keep defenses honest downfield for multiple series, and now games, allows opponents to play downhill and squeeze routes underneath. It’s a tightrope walk every week for Jones and this offense. Jones crossed safely last week against the Bills.
He fell off Sunday.
Turnovers: Patriots 2, Dolphins 2
Explosive play rate: Patriots 5.9%, Dolphins 6.8%
Success rate: Patriots 38%, Dolphins 43%
Red-zone efficiency: Patriots 1-2, Dolphins 2-4
Defensive pressure rate: Patriots 16.7%, Dolphins 31.2%
Personnel breakdown: 77% of snaps in 11 personnel, 23% snaps in 12 personnel.***
Personnel production: 4.3 yards/play in 11 personnel, 5.6 yards/play in 12 personnel.
First-down down play-calls: 67% pass (4.9 yards per play), 33% run (2.3 yards per play)
Play-action rate: 25%
Broken tackles: RB Rhamondre Stevenson 3, RB Ezekiel Elliott 2
Pressure allowed: LT Trent Brown 4 (3 QB hits, hurry), C David Andrews (sack), RG Mike Onwenu (sack), LG Cole Strange (hurry), RG Atonio Mafi (hurry), QB Mac Jones (sack), Team (hurry)
Run stuffs allowed: TE Hunter Henry, TE Pharaoh Brown
Penalties: Mafi (ineligible man downfield), WR Kendrick Bourne (holding), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (unsportsmanlike conduct), LS Joe Cardona (false start on punt)
After trying to pound the Dolphins with heavy personnel in Week 2, the Patriots pivoted to a spread game plan that emphasized pre-snap motion.
Bill O’Brien called for motion on more than 62% of his play-calls, including 35% with a receiver in motion at the snap. This represented huge departures for the Pats, who recently ranked near the bottom of the league in motion usage at the snap two weeks ago, but have since made it a staple of recent game plans.
The results of O’Brien’s motion-heavy plan were meager —17 points and a 4.3 yards per play average with motion (same as their average on all plays) — but pre-snap activity did spark both touchdowns. More on that later.
The Patriots’ chief problems in Miami were the same as always: an ill-timed Mac Jones turnover that handed the opponent points, and an inability to overcome minor adversity. The offense scored on one of its seven drives that included a negative play.
How did that happen? The Dolphins controlled the line of scrimmage, allowing 0.7 rushing yards before contact and creating havoc with a stunts and other defensive line movement on passing downs that reached Jones on roughly one-third of his snaps basically without blitzing.
Miami targeted left guard Cole Strange on a couple stunts and blitzed linebackers up the middle, while they dropped outside linebackers into coverage.
Rookie guard Atonio Mafi, who rotated with starting right guard Sidy Sow, again proved to be a weak link. Left tackle Trent Brown also allowed a season-worst four pressures, hampered by ankle and knee injuries. Center David Andrews and right tackle Mike Onwenu each surrendered a sack.
As they bullied the Pats up front, the Dolphins dominated first down, when they allowed 2.3 yards per carry and forced Jones to go 4-of-7 for 13 yards and an interception in the first half.
Trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Patriots received a golden red-zone opportunity to score after the Dolphins lost a fumble on their opening play of the half. Instead of marching forward, the offense gained five yards on two RPOs and Jones took a 6-yard sack after holding the ball for 3.5 seconds.
Down by 14 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots sustained their longest possession by rushing for 38 yards on a defense willing to wind clock, and hitting tight end Hunter Henry on two out-breaking routes that covered 24 yards.
Henry and Mike Gesicki should have seen far more than six measly targets, considering Miami entered kickoff as a bottom-5 defense against tight ends by DVOA.
Rhamondre Stevenson continues to look like a lesser version of himself, excluding one powerful second-quarter run where he broke two tackles.
Finally, the motion. The Patriots scored their first touchdown by sending Demario Douglas left to right across the formation before a third-and-4 snap, which forced his defender, backup corner Justin Bethel, to follow. That told Jones that Miami was in man-to-man coverage.
Once Douglas aligned outside of Kendrick Bourne, the Dolphins’ defensive rules dictated Bethel switch onto Bourne, now the nearest receiver to him, instead of chasing Douglas all the way across. This created a mismatch for Bourne, the Patriots’ best receiver.
At the snap, Miami double-teamed Douglas, who drew the nearest safety closer to the line of scrimmage. Once Bourne cut in front of Bethel and ran into open space over the middle, Jones found him for an easy 24-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Without Douglas’ pre-snap motion, the Patriots don’t force that switch, and Jones may not have detected man-to-man.
Later, motion sprung JuJu Smith-Schuster free for his lone highlight of the season, a 3-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal. He whipped into the right flat at the snap and triggered a common pick-route combination.
This is the essence of the Patriots offense: repeating basic plays that allow Jones to unload the ball quickly and attack space within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. O’Brien’s job week to week is essentially figuring out how he can package these same few dozen concepts in new ways to run them again.
This is why motion is now so vital. The Patriots can’t create mismatches organically, and motion is among the tools that helps them dress these concepts up and stresses defenses.
In Miami, plays involving motion at the snap averaged 4.7 yards per play and a 53% success rate, up from the Patriots’ overall numbers of 4.3 yards rate of 38%. Through two weeks, the Pats have used more motion, created more mismatches and more defensive stress scored more points. Keep it going.
Personnel breakdown: 50% three-safety nickel package, 39% dime, 10% three-corner nickel, 1% base.****
Coverage snaps breakdown: 74%% zone, 26% man
Blitz rate: 16.7%
Blitz efficacy: 8.9 yards allowed per dropback, 44% success rate allowed
Interceptions: S Kyle Dugger
Pass deflections: CB J.C. Jackson 2, CB Jack Jones, CB Jonathan Jones, LB Jahlani Tavai
Pressure: Dugger 2 (sack, hurry), Tavai 2 (2 hurries), DL Christian Barmore (sack), DL Keion White (hurry), OLB Anfernee Jennings (hurry)
Run stuffs: S Jabrill Peppers, LB Mack Wilson, White
Missed tackles: Peppers, Dugger, Jennings, White,
Penalties: Jackson (pass interference), CB Jack Jones (neutral zone infraction), DL Davon Godchaux (holding)
Stealing from the Eagles’ win over Miami the week before, the Patriots opened in a 3-4 front and lived out of Cover 2 and Cover 3. Their goal was to force Tua Tagovailoa to march patiently downfield, limit vertical routes and rally to short crossing routes.
Early on, they succeeded, thanks to a Dolphins run game sapped of most of its power due to O-line injuries. Miami suffered a negative play on each of its first two drives (a Jabrill Peppers run-stuff and Christian Barmore sack), thanks to this O-line.
Kyle Dugger ended Miami’s second drive with an interception on third-and-15. The Patriots showed a two-deep shell pre-snap, then morphed into Cover 3 Buzz, a single-high defense that dropped Peppers and Dugger over the middle at the line to gain, while fellow safety Jalen Mills covered the deep middle.
Tagovailoa carelessly flung that ball for Hill down the right seam, where Dugger was waiting. From their scouting efforts, the Patriots knew Miami loves to target receivers in the space between the numbers and hashes.
Pivoting, the Dolphins spent most of the next drive attacking the flats with play-action passes and perimeter runs. The Patriots defended most flat throws by having their edge defenders “peel” and run with running backs or receivers in that area so their defensive backs could stay deep.
At midfield, another play-action pass caused cornerback J.C. Jackson to step up against Hill, who zoomed by him and rookie safety/linebacker Marte Mapu for a touchdown.
The Patriots had called a version of Cover 4, a defense where both outside cornerbacks and both safeties are responsible for covering a deep fourth of the field. Hill’s speed served as another reminder he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league.
Miami then stuck with its play-action and flat-focused formula on the next series, even overcoming a second-down Dugger sack. Facing third-and-14 at the Patriots’ 21, coach Mike McDaniel called consecutive screens, successfully predicting an incoming Patriots blitz in the high red zone and then again on fourth-and-1. The Patriots have a high blitz tendency in that area and down-and-distance.
To cap the drive, Tagovailoa targeted Jackson three straight times inside the 10 and scored on a 1-yard toss to Cedrick Wilson Jr. Miami clearly saw value in targeting Jackson.
Little changed for either side over the middle quarters, when the Dolphins added a field goal before the half and another touchdown after marching 77 yards in nine plays. The Patriots did send a double-team at Hill in the red zone and on third down to help Jackson.
Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick also backed off the blitz. On his final drive, the Pats gambled by deploying dime personnel (six defensive backs), hoping to slow Miami’s passing game and offer enough resistance against the run.
Instead, Miami accepted the dare to run and averaged almost six yards per carry on its last scoring drive. The Dolphins also drained 5:37 of the last eight and a half minutes, before Waddle exploited a communication breakdown in coverage on third-and-1 that knocked the Pats out with a 31-yard touchdown.
Nice game for second-round rookie defensive lineman Keion White. He was the only defender to record a pressure and a run stuff.
S Kyle Dugger
An interception, one sack and a hurry. Even if Dugger was at fault on Miami’s knockout touchdown in the fourth quarter, he kept the Patriots within relative reach as much as anyone.
LB Jahlani Tavai
Tavai continues to wear as many hats as any player on Belichick’s defense. He tallied two hurries and a pass breakup.
CB J.C. Jackson
The Dolphins picked on Jackson like a little brother who went unpunished for a successful prank. With all that attention, he allowed two touchdowns and committed pass interference.
LT Trent Brown
He fought through ankle and knee injuries, which must be factored here. But four allowed is a bad day at the office for any offensive lineman.
Statistics for passing depth, broken tackles and missed tackles courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
*Explosive plays are defined as runs of 12-plus yards and passes of 20-plus yards.
**Success rate is an efficiency metric measuring how often an offense stays on schedule. A play is successful when it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.
***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.