Lazar: Ten Things We Learned From the Patriots’ 21-11 Win Over the Dolphins

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FOXBORO — The New England Patriots took the field to a fan-less Gillette Stadium and showed us an offense that would make Bill Yeoman proud in a 21-11 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Yeoman revolutionized football in the 1960s at the University of Houston by inventing the veer offense, which is the basis of all the quarterback-centric running plays the Pats ran on Sunday. 

As a team, the Patriots ran for 217 yards on 42 carries (5.2 average) with quarterback Cam Newton carrying the ball 15 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns. 

Although we knew it was coming, watching Newton run power reads, quarterback sweeps, and other designed running plays that put defenders in conflict all over the field was fantastic. 

The Patriots still have some things to work out in their traditional drop-back passing game, as expected, and it seems like Newton still doesn’t have full control of the offense at the line. There were several plays that one would expect Newton to either check out of or reset the protection to keep himself clean, but he didn’t quite have that part down.

On defense, the Pats secondary got revenge on Ryan Fitzpatrick and company intercepting the Dolphins quarterback three times.

Without further ado, here are ten things we learned from the Patriots’ season-opening victory over the Dolphins:

1. The Cam Newton Offense in Full Effect in Win over Miami 

As we mentioned at the top, the Patriots hit the Dolphins defense with an array of different read-option and designed quarterback runs. In this section, we’ll break down some schemes we saw out of Josh McDaniels’s enhanced rushing attack. Newton ran the ball 15 times, the second-most attempts in a game of his career:

POWER READ

One of New England’s favorite play designs in the Brady years was one and two-back power, so McDaniels took that scheme and added a read element to the mix with Newton under center. 

On Newton’s longest run of the day, the Pats ran power-read with him and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. As you can see, left guard Joe Thuney pulls to the MIKE linebacker at the second level while the rest of the offensive line blocks down to fold the defense. That leaves the edge defender on the play side unblocked as the read defender, and when Kyle Van Noy stays outside to contain Burkhead, it’s an easy “keep” read for the quarterback. 

QB SWEEP

The Patriots ran another veer scheme on Newton’s touchdown runs, calling a quarterback sweep for basically walk-in scores.

On his first TD, you see the motion from White and how it impacts the second level of the defense. White’s defender has to follow him on the motion with Miami in man coverage, which takes the only free defender on that side of the field out of the play. From there, Ryan Izzo’s man washes himself out reacting to Izzo, who cracks the defensive end and creates a pin-pull action with Eluemunor, and Cam walks in. Izzo’s alignment, the motion, and playing to Cam’s strengths all in one play; what a fantastic design by McDaniels. 

SPEED OPTION

The last play we’ll cover, and we’ll have plenty more breakdowns of the Pats running game this week, is a speed option toss.

Here, the Pats are running inside zone, and the quarterback reads the edge defender once again. The edge defender takes Cam, so he flips it out to White, who has the entire sideline to run for a nice gain. 

In all, the Patriots unveiled several new rushing schemes for their offense that they would never have run with Brady at quarterback.

2. Examining Cam Newton’s Pass Attempts in Pats Debut

Newton only attempted five passes with three completions beyond ten yards in the air, but his general accuracy was on-point. Whether it was the game plan, the offensive personnel, or both, the Pats didn’t seem interested in attacking Miami cornerbacks Byron Jones and Xavien Howard down the field, a smart decision. 

On his 19 throws, Newton only threw two bad ones upon initial viewing, with the incompletion/drop to Edelman also coming a little late to the Pats wideout. Still, we saw how the Patriots could build a short and intermediate passing game off of their rushing attack. 

On his longest throw of the day, Newton made a great off-script play with tight end Ryan Izzo. The Pats are running their play-action power play called “Charles Barkley” in their terminology, where the weak side guard pulls like it’s a run and the tight end runs across the middle of the field behind the linebackers coming downhill. In this instance, Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker reacts well to the scheme and drops underneath Izzo’s crossing route, so Izzo adjusts and curls back inside, with Newton on the same page. From there, the throw is a bullet, and Izzo picks up 25 yards. 

We also saw Newton have some nice ball placement on slants putting the ball on his receivers upfield shoulder and inside the coverage to make it an easier catch.

Although we didn’t get to see Newton air it out due to game plan and personnel, his ball placement and timing with his pass-catchers were solid, considering this was the first time out.

3. Patriots Offensive Line Gets Credit From Cam, Coaches

When you run for 217 yards, the offensive line must’ve done some things right, and they did several things well to lead the Pats rushing attack. We’ll know more after reviewing the coaches film, but on initial viewing, it was a strong performance for center David Andrews and a good second half for right guard Shaq Mason after a shaky first half. Thuney and Wynn did their thing on the left side, and the Pats relied on both Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Michael Onwenu at right tackle.

There were some breakdowns in pass protection, some of which might’ve been on the protection call. But again, the Pats OL was dominant on the ground.

Last season, the Pats ranked 17th in short-yardage rushing success. In Week 1, we already saw that with Newton, and this offensive line, they’re going to be much more dynamic and hopefully successful converting in those situations.

If my camp notes are accurate, we barely saw Michael Onwenu play tackle in competitive team drills, and he was thought of as a guard-only prospect coming out. Seeing him play significant snaps at right tackle was a major surprise, and outside of one sack, he held up well.

4. Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Joejuan Williams, Terrence Brooks replacing Chung

The Patriots rotated through four different defensive backs in the Chung role to shut down Gesicki, as their hybrid safety group will be a massive part of the defense this year.

With only three off-ball linebackers active for the game, the Pats used the foursome listed above in linebacker spots, and they were all impressive for different reasons.

Starting with Brooks and Phillips, both Pats veterans made plays against the run triggering downhill to meet ball carriers in the backfield. For players of their size and position history, watching them read out running plays with such precision was impressive.

Phillips was gifted his interception, but the scheme and execution were sound. With him popping out of the rush into an underneath zone to take away the short middle, Phillips’s pick was a perfect example of what we discussed in our Patriots game plan. Miami killed the Patriots with quick-hitters over the middle last season, so the Pats used Phillips as a linebacker to drop into both the low and deep hole to take those plays away.

As for Williams, this was his best performance as a pro, with several plays in tight coverage. He only allowed one catch into his coverage for nine yards with a pass breakup, and his suffocating defense on Gesicki led to Jackson’s pick.

Lastly, Dugger didn’t have the splash plays the others did. However, his zone drops and awareness both as a robber and deep hole player stood out. He has a much better feel for route combinations and the freedom within his zones than expected.

We know the Patriots are thin at inside linebacker, but if they can continue to get production out of Brooks and Phillips against the run, the hybrid safeties on the roster will fill those holes.

5. JC Jackson Earns Praise From Bill Belichick

In his post-game press conference, Belichick went out of his way to praise Jackson, who finished off the Dolphins with a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter. In all, he allowed two catches on four targets for 18 yards into his coverage with a pass breakup and an interception.

On the interception, Joejuan Williams does well covering Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki up the seam, but Jackson basically plays this like a zone corner. By playing off, Jackson can guard his man and keep his eyes on Fitzpatrick. As soon as he sees Fitzpatrick lock onto Gesicki, he peels off his man and ends up in the right place at the right time. For Jackson, his instincts and natural feel for the game are terrific in coverage.

Belichick applauded Jackson for finishing the game strong and showing mental toughness to make a play when the game was seemingly over. Against Miami, we know it’s never over.

6. Stephon Gilmore Intercepts Fitzpatrick in Wacky Performance

We used the word “wacky” to describe Gilmore’s day because he was competitive throughout, but the stats aren’t going to look great. Gilmore allowed a team-high five catches for 63 yards into his coverage and was flagged twice for defensive pass interference. However, both calls were borderline, and his interception was a thing of beauty.

On the pick, Preston Williams is running a deep curl, but Gilmore runs the route better than the Dolphins wideout. Gilmore’s anticipation and strength at the top of the route allow him to beat Williams to the spot and make the play.

Again, Gilmore’s coverage stats and penalties don’t look great on paper. However, as is often the case, the numbers don’t tell the entire story; he had tight coverage throughout the game.

7. Chase Winovich, Byron Cowart Pace Run Defense

Despite playing with safeties in the box, the Patriots’ run defense held Miami to 3.2 yards per rush thanks to contributions from two players trying to carve out bigger roles this season.

Starting with Winovich, he’s someone that’s labeled as a pass-rush specialist. But Belichick said after the game that he’s coming into his own as an every-down player. On the plays above, Winovich spins off a block on the first play to make the tackle for loss and keys quickly on the puller on the second stop to jump in the backfield. If Winovich can continue that kind of play against the run, he will be a big-time contributor this season.

On Cowart, his power and block-shedding technique in the trenches stood out. He’s a difficult guy to move backward, and he uses his upper-body strength to control engagements and shed blocks. Everyone was focused on Beau Allen’s injury this summer, but Cowart might be the better player.

8. N’Keal Harry’s Costly Fumble Masks Steps in the Right Direction

The most disappointing aspect of N’Keal Harry’s game-changing fourth-quarter fumble wasn’t that it gave the Dolphins life, but rather that it masked a day where he took baby steps in the right direction. Harry tied for a team-high five receptions on the afternoon, and several times used his size and big frame to shield the catch point from the defender.

Here, Harry runs a curl route against rookie Noah Igbinoghene who is off the line. In the Pats offense, Harry has the option to run a fade route against press coverage or a curl if the defender is playing off. He makes the right decision and uses his size to body Igbinoghene to create separation at the top of the route with a decent stop-down on his break.

Outside the fumble, Harry did the little things correctly and ran the proper routes based on the coverage, which would’ve been my takeaway if it wasn’t for the fumble despite a modest stat-line. He even made a great block to escort Newton into the end zone on his second touchdown run.

The fumble can’t happen and is a quick way to get into Belichick’s doghouse, but we saw Harry run better routes and create more separation.

9. Patriots Offense Goes Heavy, Trying to Find Groupings That Work

In the personnel packages department, the Patriots offense did a ton of shuffling in their first game of the season, which was expected without a preseason. Still, it felt like they were searching for five pass-catchers that can work well together and get open, and they leaned on their heavy personnel packages quite a bit, including several plays with six offensive linemen. Here were the final numbers:

10. Play of the Game: Stephon Gilmore’s First-Quarter Interception

We could’ve gone with one of Cam’s touchdown runs, but there will be plenty of time to discuss New England’s rushing attack. We also broke down Gilmore’s interception earlier, but I want to discuss the three-man stunt that put the pressure on Fitzpatrick to force a bad throw.

With Adrian Phillips playing on the line, he perfectly executes a three-man game with Adam Butler and Shilique Calhoun creating penetration for Phillips to go basically untouched to the QB. The pressure forces the ball out with Fitzpatrick throwing off his back foot, and Gilmore is there for the pick.

My biggest concern with the overhaul in the front seven was that the Patriots wouldn’t have the chemistry or experience to run complex pressure schemes to generate a pass rush. They desperately need to rely on the scheme some to pressure the quarterback since they don’t have big-time individual pass rushers; there’s no Aaron Donald or Khalil Mack on this team who is a one-man wrecking crew.

Although a three-man stunt isn’t exactly a revelation, it was great to see them execute with multiple moving parts in Week 1.