The Patriots’ 33-24 loss to the Dolphins in their regular-season finale followed a familiar script.
After the defense surrendered a 13-play touchdown drive on Miami’s opening possession, quarterback Mac Jones threw a pick-six on the ensuing drive, and the Pats fell behind 14-zip.
New England would eventually trail 17-0 following a Dolphins field goal, then the plane leveled off defensively, and the offense woke up to make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter.
The Pats once again couldn’t make enough plays in the fourth quarter to turn the tide in their favor, but the starts are a bigger problem than the finish.
Over their last four games, three losses, the Pats were out-scored by a combined score of 38-7 in the first quarter. As the chart above shows, New England is one of the worst first-quarter defenses in the NFL this season (28th) compared to second in EPA per play in the final three quarters. Although it’s not as drastic, they also improve offensively later in games.
Ideally, the Patriots would develop their late-game clutch gene to cap off these comeback attempts after burying themselves behind double-digit deficits in the first half.
However, constantly playing from behind is a losing formula that needs immediate correction, or they’ll be one-and-done in the postseason at the hands of their division rivals in Buffalo.
Here are various advanced stats from the Patriots’ loss to the Dolphins on Sunday:
MAC JONES’S PASSING METRICS
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is going through a stretch where his play is seesawing in a fashion that many rookie quarterbacks experience in their first NFL seasons.
Over the last four games, Jones’s turnover-worthy play rate has spiked from 2.5% in the first 13 games of the season to 3.3% with six giveaways in the last month.
Although the turnovers are undoubtedly hurting the team, Mac has rebounded from them nicely.
After throwing a pick-six on his first pass attempt in Sunday’s loss, Jones added 0.19 expected points per drop-back (68th percentile) and averaged 8.7 yards per pass attempt.
Mac made throws on the move where he reset in the pocket after sliding up to evade pressure, with Hunter Henry winning on a crossing route downfield for a 35-yard gain.
Later on, Jones made one of his best throws by reading out the cover-three structure (it might’ve been inverted cover-two, but we’ll need all-22 to confirm) and dropping a far-hash throw over the underneath defender and in front of the deep safety.
The Patriots need more consistency from their quarterback, and the turnovers need to stop for the team to right the ship next weekend against Buffalo.
But the good news is that Jones still makes plays to make you a believer in his long-term future.
PASS PROTECTION STATS
The Patriots’ offensive line mostly did its job by keeping Jones clean on 75.8 percent of his drop-backs with an average time to throw of 2.72 seconds.
Miami blitzed Jones 12 times, or 36.4%, on his 33 drop-backs yet didn’t generate much pressure until left tackle Isaiah Wynn (ankle) did not return to the game in the second half.
After Wynn’s departure, the Dolphins started attacking the left side of the offensive line and found some success.
Above, Miami ran a three-man stunt with Justin Herron at left tackle, and the Pats failed to pass off the wrap player with Andrews and Karras blocking the same rusher.
Miami’s other sack came when the Pats had their six offensive linemen package on the field. Mike Onwenu got caught essentially playing left tackle versus speed-rusher Andrew Van Ginkel, and it didn’t go well.
The Patriots also generated a 70% success rate and added 0.11 expected points per rush.
Considering how well Brian Flores draws up blitzes to pressure the quarterback, New England’s offensive line did its job to keep the Dolphins’ pass rush from taking over.
DEFENSIVE PRESSURES & RUN STOPS
The biggest concern heading into Saturday’s Wild Card showdown with the Bills is the ineffectiveness of New England’s once potent front seven.
Like the second matchup against Buffalo in Week 16, the Patriots pressured Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at a respectable rate (34.6%), but the pressure had little impact.
The main reason why it wasn’t productive is that Tagovailoa scrambled out of pressure for three first downs when the Pats moved him off his spot, a continuation of their issues with rush lane integrity.
Whether it’s four-man rushes letting Tua out of the pocket as they did on the back-breaker in the fourth quarter, or spies taking bad angles to the quarterback, they are lost when the QB scrambles.
Patriots pass-rusher Matthew Judon was thriving off running the arc around tackles earlier in the season, but as the play above shows, his rush allows Tua to escape the pocket and scramble for a first down.
Patriots rookie Christian Barmore is doing his best to hold the pass rush together by providing consistent pressure every week (three more hurries this week).
But the Patriots will need to generate an effective rush, potentially without Barmore after he sustained an injury on Miami’s final possession while containing Josh Allen in the pocket.
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Still, that’s why they invested resources in the front seven (looking at you, Matthew Judon).
Although the Dolphins’ run-pass options (RPO) hurt the Patriots through the air on their opening drive, it was the RPOs that converted into runs that burned New England after that touchdown.
The Patriots’ defensive system against the run is predicated on their big off-ball linebackers coming downhill at the line of scrimmage to press blockers and plug up gaps.
However, the linebackers are caught in a bind against an RPO, where they have to decide to either sit back in the passing lanes or play the run.
Here, you can see how late the linebacker level is to triggering downhill to the run, waiting for Tua to hand the ball off before they step into their fits. In some ways, that’s by design, but it allowed the Dolphins to gain 195 rushing yards in the game.
We can have a conversation about the Patriots’ strategy to force Tua into “give” reads rather than allowing him to throw off RPOs, and which way is more effective in the long run.
But it was clear based on how the Pats defense played that they were trying to force handoffs.
The Patriots once again allowed Tagovailoa to be a net-positive through the air (0.16 EPA per play) despite an average depth of target that ranks in the fourth percentile (4.7 yards).
In other words, Tua beat them with short throws off quick-game concepts and RPOs for the third time in two seasons. Ouch.
New England’s secondary had trouble handling Miami’s flood RPO concepts where they sent wide receiver Jaylen Waddle or a tight end on a wheel route behind a vertical by DeVante Parker. They hit that play for a touchdown and a near-explosive to tight end Durham Smythe.
Another silver-lining on the TV copy was that practice squad elevation D’Angelo Ross held his own on his 46 defensive snaps, allowing only two catches for eight yards into his coverage.
Although he likely had safety help, Ross shadowed Waddle on several occasions.
The Patriots likely won’t make any dramatic changes to their personnel heading into the postseason, but Ross versus Myles Bryant in the nickel role is one competition to watch.