CLNS Media Headquarters — the Patriots’ season took its final breath of Miami air with a 22-12 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday.
Not that anyone expected a playoff run at this stage, but the loss ends a streak of 11 consecutive trips to the postseason for New England dating back to the 2008 season.
We no longer need to talk about *the path* with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick dragging Cam Newton and a flawed defense to the playoffs; it’s over, and it was never all that close.
New England’s quarterback situation will dominate all offseason conversations, and rightfully so, but it was their run defense that also did them in over the last two weeks.
The Dolphins and Rams ran for a combined 436 yards where setting the defense’s edge and defeating interior blocks at the first and second levels were significant issues.
Right up there with the quarterback and skill positions are deficiencies in the front seven where the Pats have some talent but lack all-around playmakers that can play on every down.
For example, Chase Winovich and rookie Josh Uche are explosive passing down players, but neither sets a firm enough edge to be a three-down player in Belichick’s defense.
At linebacker, rookie safety Kyle Dugger is the only one that flashes the ability to defeat a block and make a play on the ball.
Belichick has the resources to make it a rapid rebuild, but the Patriots are rebuilding and should be in the market for a new starting quarterback.
Next week, backup Jarrett Stidham might get a chance to show what he can do, but the definition of insanity is running it back with Newton and this group of pass-catchers next season.
Newton is not a long-term answer and the Pats need better top-end talent at receiver to establish a better hierarchy in their offense.
There will be plenty of time to discussion offseason moves, so here are ten things we learned as the Patriots fall to 6-8:
1. Dolphins Go Off For 250 Rushing Yards
Entering Week 15, Miami was dead-last in rushing average, so just as we all predicted, the Dolphins averaged six yards and 0.28 EPA per rush on 42 carries.
The scheme that gave New England fits was split-flow zone where the offensive line uses zone-blocking in one direction with the tight end coming across the formation to kick-out the backside defensive end. In Miami’s scheme, the tight end’s block allowed their tackles to climb to the second level immediately.
Here, Dolphins tight end Adam Shaheen comes across the formation to kick-out Shilique Calhoun, allowing right tackle Robert Hunt to climb to Terez Hall at the linebacker level. Miami running back Matt Breida presses the run inside to get Adam Butler to flash into the A-gap, and with Butler caught inside as a two-gapper against a solo block, the edge kicked-out, and Hunt on Hall, Breida cuts back towards the tight end for a 24-yard gain. Someone, Butler or Hall, needs to get off a single-block there and make a play.
Miami then attacked to the original strength of the formation with split-zone on a 31-yard run.
This time, the Dolphins use a “crack” block to expose the edge. Winovich, who likely has edge-setting responsibilities, gives a weak effort against Hunt on the right side. Plus, the crack block by the wide receiver gets Jon Jones to crash inside with the flow of the blockers, which leaves nobody outside of Winovich to make up for the second-year pro getting blown off the ball, and Salvon Ahmed bounces the run outside.
For those that don’t understand why Winovich isn’t playing more, the second example happens too often for this coaching staff to justify an early-down role for the 2019 third-round pick.
As we mentioned, the Patriots have been a mess on the edge of the defense all season long, allowing a league-high in yards per rush on off-tackle runs entering the weekend slate.
Although run defense is no longer in vogue in the NFL, it’s still a significant problem when an opponent moves the ball on the ground at will as the Dolphins did on Sunday.
2. Cam Newton’s Inconsistencies are Tough to Overcome in Pats Offense
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton’s performance was nowhere near his worst game of the season, but that’s not necessarily the point when examining his future in New England.
Newton averaged 7.7 yards per pass and had a positive completion percentage over expected (0.7), it was a pretty accurate day for Cam, but not all accurate throws are equal.
There are flashes of outstanding quarterback plays, such as the one above, where Cam bought himself some time in the pocket, and with the defense in man coverage, James White eventually got himself open for Newton to convert on third down.
Here’s more of an in-structure play where the Pats QB slides up in the pocket to elude pressure off the left side and finds Damiere Byrd over the middle for 23 yards on third and 15.
However, there are too many plays that Newton leaves on the field each week that make it difficult for the offense to score touchdowns, hence four field goals on Sunday.
On this play, Jakobi Meyers beats Dolphins slot corner Nik Needham on a corner route. All Newton needs to do is drop it in the bucket for Meyers, who has the whole end zone to work with, but the ball doesn’t give the Pats wideout a chance.
Some throws are catchable that are even completions but eliminate chances at YAC.
In this play, Jakobi Meyers is crossing over the middle of the field with a post route taking the deep safety out of the passing window (Yankee Concept). Instead of leading Meyers across the field, Cam throws behind him, and when Meyers adjusts to make the catch towards the defenders in the middle of the field, Xavien Howard punches it out for a fumble.
Other passes are catchable but make it difficult on the receiver because they aren’t well placed.
Here’s a throw early on where N’Keal Harry was looking for a back-shoulder pass with the defender over the top. Newton throws the ball to Harry’s upfield shoulder, rather than his back shoulder, and the Pats wideout can’t adjust to catch the pass.
Those last two plays are catchable throws for the Pats receivers, and it’s not the quarterback’s fault that Meyers fumbled, but Newton’s ball placement is making it harder on his pass-catchers.
There’s undoubtedly a chicken or the egg conversation here; if Newton had better receivers, would he have better results? Probably. But catchable doesn’t always mean accurate.
3. Stephon Gilmore Leaves Game With Scary Leg Injury
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore left Sunday’s game with a leg injury that could have major implications for his future, although the initial prognosis is positive.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said that Gilmore hopefully avoided a significant injury when he slipped on the turf and awkwardly bent his left knee while trying to change directions. With Gilmore’s status as a trade chip in jeopardy, and a potentially massive contract looming from another team, his tests on Monday will be worth monitoring for the league.
Gilmore, a great Patriot and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, likely won’t get paid by New England on his next contract, so an offseason trade seems inevitable for both sides.
4. Pats WR Jakobi Meyers is a Keeper in the Slot
The one silver-lining from Sunday’s loss is that Jakobi Meyers is one New England pass-catcher that the team can build around moving forward, cemented by seven catches for 111 yards.
Miami’s secondary is no joke, and Meyers saw all three of the Dolphins’ top corners and had success against Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and slot corner Nik Needham; if you can beat those guys, you are good.
On Meyers’s biggest play of the day, the Patriots ran their fake bubble screen concept where they got the defense to bite on the screen pass to N’Keal Harry, and then Meyers released upfield. Meyers waits long enough for Nik Needham to bite and then catches and runs for 35 yards.
Earlier, Meyers beat Howard on a slant route for 11 yards. The Pats wideout gets up on Howard’s toes in his release to set up his break, uses a crossover move to get Howard to put his weight on his outside foot, and then breaks inside with no help between the numbers.
Although Meyers got a lesson on ball security on his fumble, it’s clear that he can produce against good NFL competition and has a future here.
The Edelman clone shouldn’t necessarily be the top weapon in New England’s arsenal, but if he’s second or third on the pecking order, the Patriots are in business.
5. Pats RB Sony Michel Makes Most of Opportunities
The Patriots might have two running backs worth carrying into next season as Sony Michel had 74 yards on ten carries with starter Damien Harris inactive due to injury.
Michel, who started the season as the lead-back, lost his job to Harris and should still be second on the depth chart, but is running like someone who doesn’t want to lose his job.
Here, the Patriots ran inside zone with Michel and fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield. Michel runs away from the fullback and tight end into a pile for a small gain but then pushes the pile for another six yards after contact to move the chains.
In the second quarter, Michel got outside the defense on a crack toss play where he had enough burst to get the edge, which wasn’t a given for him earlier in the season.
Michel also maximized his blocking. Above, the Pats ran inside zone again, and Michel ran behind an excellent combination block by right guard Shaq Mason for 13 yards.
Although Harris is a more dangerous ball carrier, Sony Michel isn’t running like a JAG either, as it appears that Harris’s emergence lit a fire under the 2018 first-round pick.
6. Bill Belichick Still Confuses Rookie Quarterbacks Despite Result
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa became the first rookie to beat the Patriots since Geno Smith in 2013, snapping a streak of nine consecutive wins over first-year signal-callers.
However, Tua struggled and mostly hid behind his running game on Sunday.
The coverage scheme that gave Tagovailoa the most problems was an eight-man structure by the Patriots where the two edge defenders drop off the line into low zones with cover-1 man behind them. The short zone-droppers come from an unconventional alignment, fall underneath easy throws into the flats, and have eyes on the quarterback to shut down scrambles. Above, the Pats play great man coverage downfield, and rookie Josh Uche makes sure Tua doesn’t get loose.
Although the run defense overshadows Tua’s issues, Belichick is still the rookie QB whisperer.
7. Pats Rookies Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche Look like Keepers From 2020 Class
Along with starting right tackle Michael Onwenu, the Patriots appear to have found two more keepers in Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche.
Uche made the play on Tua in the last section. Plus, check out the first-step explosiveness and bend to turn the corner here. Uche uses an inside-out move to get Dolphins left tackle Austin Jackson leaning inside, then explodes around the corner to apply pressure on Tua. Obviously, it would’ve been a better highlight if Uche finished the sack, but that’s some get off there.
As for Dugger, his physicality and sideline-to-sideline speed are big-time.
On this play, Dugger goes right through a block attempt by a climbing Lynn Bowden and tackles the ball carrier for no gain. Want some speed? That’s some speed.
Both Patriots’ rookies offer some much-needed athleticism to the defense. Belichick put the onus on himself to maximize their physical gifts.
8. Pats’ Special Teams Continues to Dominate
For better or worse, the most consistent phase of the game for the Patriots this season is on special teams, where punter Jake Bailey and kicker Nick Folk are magnificent.
Folk was 4-for-4 on field goals, perfect once again, and Bailey and special teams ace Matthew Slater combined to down the Dolphins offense inside the five with a patented Slater play.
Bailey, who leads the league in punts downed inside the 20, is a legitimate candidate for first-team All-Pro honors.
9. Pats Rookie Justin Herron’s Start at Left Tackle Foreshadows Last Two Games
The Patriots started bookend rookies at the tackle positions with sixth-round pick Justin Herron joining Onwenu in the starting lineup. Herron had some struggles with protecting his edge in pass protection but held his own at left tackle. Based on Belichick’s comments last week, Herron is currently viewed as a third or swing tackle option for the Patriots as he continues his development. Expect to see even more veterans give up playing time to the youngsters in the coming weeks, as Eluemunor did this week with Herron, with backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham at the top of that list.
10. Play of the Game: Jakobi Meyers’s 20-Yard Catch and Fumble
As much as Miami’s running game was like a bad sequel to the Patriots’ loss to the Rams, Meyers’ good catch that ended poorly summed up the season in one play.
The scheme works perfectly to clear-out the coverage for Meyers’s over route (crosser), but the throw is a little behind him and gives Howard a chance to punch the ball out, and Meyers fumbles. Just when you thought something good happened, it turned out bad, the 2020 Patriots in a nutshell.