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MIAMI, FLORIDA — No team in the NFL that practices situational football more than the New England Patriots.
Every week, Bill Belichick’s team practices the exact situation that we saw at the end of today’s game.
However, when the Patriots practice those end of game scenarios with tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field, it’s to defend a hail mary, not a hook and ladder play.
“Every time we practice it, it’s for the hail mary,” Gronkowski said after the game.
With Gronkowski on the field and captain Devin McCourty on the sideline, the Patriots couldn’t tackle Dolphins running back Kenyon Drake and fell to Miami 34-33 at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday in what can only be described as a miracle.
Although the final play stands out above everything else, the Patriots could’ve done a number of things better that were as much to blame for the loss as the play at the end.
The Patriots also missed two kicks (one field goal, one extra point), had breakdowns offensively in the red zone before the half and at the end of the game, and didn’t control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball failing to run the ball effectively on offense (2.6 yards per rush) and stop the Miami rushing attack on defense (9.0 yards per rush allowed).
“There’s a lot of things we could have done better,” Belichick said after the game. “It came down to one play, but there were a lot of things besides that.”
Below, we’ll go over all the things that went wrong and highlight reasons to remain optimistic after the Patriots’ fifth defeat in their last six trips to Miami:
1. The Last Play
If you’ve never seen a play like what we all just witness it’s because it has never been done at the NFL level.
The Dolphins’ game-winning 69-yard touchdown was the longest play from scrimmage to win a game with no time remaining in regulation since at least 1970.
Let’s go through the execution breakdowns on the play, and then we’ll get to the coaching decisions.
For reference, here were the 11 players on the field for the final play: Trey Flowers, Adam Butler, Adrian Clayborn, Kyle Van Noy, Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jon Jones, Jason McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Rob Gronkowski.
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From an execution standpoint, here are the four significant breakdowns from this perspective:
- Cornerback Jonathan Jones’ decision to attempt to breakup the pass or go for an interception on the initial throw from Tannehill to wide receiver Kenny Stills instead of just tackling Stills.
- Cornerback JC Jackson giving up on the play after the ball was lateraled to Drake because he thought that linebacker Kyle Van Noy made the tackle.
- Multiple Patriots, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore, watching the play expecting someone else to make the tackle, a clear sign of a lack of effort.
- Tight end Rob Gronkowski being flat-footed and taking a poor angle as the last line of defense, and ultimately slipping as he tried to catch Drake.
From a coaching point of view, three decisions stand out, one of which was inexcusable.
First, and foremost, the decision to have Rob Gronkowski as the last line of defense is unfathomable. Gronk, who has battled injuries all season, was apparently in the game to stop a potential 75-yard hail mary attempt by a hobbled Ryan Tannehill. Other than a jump ball situation, Gronk is useless as a defender. He doesn’t practice tackling, he doesn’t understand angles the same way a defensive player would, and with his injuries, doesn’t move as well as he once did. Furthermore, the Patriots have a healthier and more explosive jump ball receiver in Josh Gordon and safety Obi Melifonwu who’s six-foot-four with a 44-inch vertical (tied for eighth in combine history) and belongs on the field when the opposing offense has the ball.
Second, it’s baffling to me, utterly incomprehensible, that the Patriots didn’t have Devin McCourty on the field for the final play. McCourty is one of the teams fastest players, he’s one of their smartest players, he’s one of their best open field tacklers, and he’s the last line of defense on the kickoff unit. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Devin was on the field, Drake doesn’t score.
And third, the decision to kick a field goal with 21 seconds remaining from the Miami four-yard line is not as bad as the first two but still highly questionable. A failed fourth-down conversion forces the Dolphins, with no timeouts, to drive roughly 60 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. Plus, a touchdown seals the win for the Patriots.
Everyone deserves blame for a play like that, but the coaches didn’t give the team the best chance to win.
2. Patriots’ Poor Run Defense Sparks Miami Offense
Starting on their opening drive, the Dolphins offense ran all over the Patriots’ defense to the tune of 189 yards and a whopping nine yards per rush. On Miami’s opening drive, the Dolphins ran back-to-back zone read plays, one keeper by Tannehill and one handoff to Gore, that gained 49 yards, and that set the tone for the rest of the game.
Brandon Bolden’s 54-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was a microcosm of the issues the Patriots had up front on the defensive side of the ball.
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On the play, the Dolphins ran a wham scheme with their tight end blocking defensive tackle Lawrence Guy at the point of attack, which allowed the backside guard and center to climb to the second level immediately. The main thing here is that nobody at the second level of the Patriots defense was able to get off their blocks. The center smothered Roberts, the receiver on the crack block took care of Chung, and the guard controlled Hightower leaving an ally for Bolden to explode into the secondary. To finish it off, Duron Harmon takes a poor angle at Bolden as the last line of defense.
Above all else, the Patriots defense failed in the run game because they weren’t physical at the point of attack; they didn’t come with violent hand usage to shed blocks and didn’t play with proper pad level to blow up blockers.
As a result, the Patriots defense couldn’t get off a block or set the edge the entire game, and the Dolphins and mostly running back Frank Gore took advantage.
3. Patriots’ Rushing Attack Disappears Against Shaky Dolphins Run Defense
Coming into the game, the Dolphins ranked 30th in rush defense and 19th in DVOA against the run. However, the Patriots only managed 77 rushing yards on 30 carries (2.6 yards per rush). On initial viewing, it appeared that the Patriots’ offensive line struggled to create holes for the Pats running backs, and didn’t get much of a push up front. We’ll have to wait for the coaches tape to get a good feel for what went wrong for the Patriots on the ground, but after rushing for 375 yards in their previous two games, the Pats couldn’t run the ball this week.
4. Tom Brady’s Best Performance of the Season Wasted in Loss
Alright, enough with the negativity. Although Brady wasn’t situationally perfect, his sack at the end of the half was a huge no-no, this was Brady’s best game of the season in terms of throwing the football. Statistically, Brady threw for a season-high 358 yards, but it was more about how Brady controlled the ball that made this performance stand out. When he needed that extra zip, he had it, and when he needed some touch, he had that too.
In the second quarter, Brady had back-to-back “GOAT” plays to lead New England’s third scoring drive. First, he stepped up in the pocket and threw a dime along the sideline to Julian Edelman to convert a third down, but his 37-yard touchdown pass was one of his best throws of the season.
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On the throw, Brady looks off the safety with playing in the middle of the field and unloads a dart right on the money to Patterson running down the seam. How’s that for a noodle arm?
Brady admitted after the game that he felt like the offense left some points out there, but in terms of pure arm talent, it was a welcomed sight to see Brady’s velocity where it was on Sunday.
5. The Real Rob Gronkowski Shows Up In Miami
Along with Brady, Gronk delivered a vintage performance on the offensive side of the ball on Sunday. The Patriots’ tight end was winning foot races to create separation, finding holes in zone coverage, and made a contested catch on a second-quarter touchdown.
Asked if this was the best he has felt all season Gronk said, “I felt good out there, definitely. I’m making plays, blocking, getting some chemistry built back up.”
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On his touchdown grab, Brady found Gronk on a corner route off of play-action, which continues to be a go-to route for the tight end. Gronk slow plays the route to sell the fake and then explodes to the corner before leaping up to make a catch in front of the defender. More than likely, Gronk also has a read on this route. If the middle of the field is open, he will run a post to the inside. But if it’s closed, he’ll run the corner. He made the right read, Brady put it on him, and Gronk made the catch.
Although his effort on the final play overshadowed his performance, things are looking up for Gronkowski after he was written off by many following last week’s win over Minnesota.
6. Julian Edelman Has Strong First-Half Performance
In the first half, Brady was 7-8 for 70 yards and a touchdown when targeting wide receiver Julian Edelman. Edelman went cold in the second half but provided the Patriots offense with some much-needed energy to get things rolling early, and his route running skills were on full display.
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On his touchdown catch, Edelman ran his patented “return” route for a score. As you can see, the return route has the receiver sell an in-breaking route in his stem before pivoting and exploding to the pylon. Edelman and Brady have probably practiced this play thousands of times, and Edelman is particularly adept at running this route because of his quickness and ability to set up a defender in his stem.
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You may also remember this route from Super Bowl XLIX, as it was the same route Edelman ran for the game-winner.
Although you’d like to see more production in the second half, Patriots fans can be optimistic after this one due to the throwback performances from Edelman and Gronkowski.
7. Patriots Pass Rush Lone Bright Spot on Defense
The Patriots’ defense had a poor performance on Sunday, but the pass rush continues to be a factor. In all, the Pats had five sacks, and nine quarterback hits split between both Dolphins quarterbacks. One thing that stands out every week about the Patriots’ pass rush is that they’re a very well coached unit when it comes to attention to detail and scheme. The Patriots have been highly productive on defensive line stunts or games this year, and their blitzes are getting home with a lot more frequency as well.
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Dont’a Hightower had his first sack of the season on a terrific delayed blitz by the Pats linebacker. After Ryan Tannehill’s 13-yard run on Miami’s opening drive, the Patriots began to spy Tannehill at times. As a counter to that, they then disguised Hightower as a spy here before sending him on a “hug” blitz to take down Tannehill. Great execution by Hightower to sell the delay and close on Tannehill, and a great wrinkle by the Patriots’ coaching staff.
If the Patriots can continue to get these kinds of results out of the pass rush, they’ll hopefully put together better performances overall in the future.
8. Patriots Punt Unit Has a Block Party
Believe it or not, the Patriots are the 18th team to block two punts in a game and lose. Newcomer Albert McClellan, who was brought in to help out on special teams, blocked both punts thanks to great execution and some heady film study by the Pats.
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On his second block, you can see what the Patriots saw on film. They noticed that if they stressed the gap to the left or right of the long snapper that McClellan could get through, and if they wrapped a player from off the line of scrimmage around McClellan’s rush that it would leave the personal protector in a two-on-one situation. The Pats lined special teams ace Nate Ebner up behind McClellan, and had McClellan attack the A-Gap while Ebner went through the opposite A-Gap on the rush. McClellan beat the long snapper and blocked the punt.
The Patriots’ special teams units seem to be getting a lift from newcomers such as McClellan, Ramon Humber, and Obi Melifnowu.
9. Josh Gordon Continues to Shine
Along with Edelman and Gronk, Josh Gordon had arguably his best game of the season against the Dolphins as well. Gordon caught five of his eight targets for 96 yards, and showed off a diverse route tree filled with slants, curls, and go balls. Gordon drew a critical pass interference call late in the game on a sweet and smooth stutter and go on Dolphins rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick, picked up some yards after the catch on a curl route, and continues to run slants as good as anyone in the NFL.
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On this 16-yard gain, Gordon ran one of his automatic slant routes. Two things to look for here: one, Gordon is terrific at selling a vertical stem to force the corner to stay back and not drive on the slant. And two, the Pats wideout has impressive hands and is terrific at plucking the ball out of the air away from his body. In that regard, Gordon could go on a coaches tutorial tape of how to catch the football.
Over the last few weeks, we continue to see Gordon grow, and his efficiency is on the rise as Brady is now 13 of 16 on passes intended for Gordon in the Patriots’ last three games.
10. Dolphins Wide Receiver Kenny Stills Burns the Pats Secondary
Finally, although Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill only threw for 196 yards if you take out the last play, Miami wide receiver Kenny Stills had himself a game on Sunday. Stills killed the Patriots on crossing routes and patterns that utilize his speed on all three levels of the defense. In fact, Stills’ performance got cornerback Jason McCourty benched, as rookie JC Jackson replaced McCourty for most of the second half.
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On Stills’ touchdown reception, you can see Dolphins head coach Adam Gase’s strategy to take advantage of Stills’ speed against the Pats defense. Gase brings Stills in motion to get him a free release at the line of scrimmage, and then he runs a speed out against McCourty to the pylon. Without making contact at the line, McCourty has no chance on this play.
After a stellar performance last week, Jason McCourty took a step back due to Stills’ stellar day (8 receptions, 135 yards, touchdown).
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