CLNS Headquarters – The Patriots completed their stumble down the stretch with a 33-24 loss in the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
Miami is a house of horrors for New England and Bill Belichick, but the myriad of issues that buried the Pats in Sunday’s loss are nothing new for the team, and it starts with the head coach.
For the third time in four games, the Patriots found themselves digging out of a double-digit hole. Belichick’s team has made a habit of slow starts from low energy to costly mistakes and being out-coached schematically, leading to insurmountable deficits.
Although we can blame player execution all we want, Belichick is the backbone of the entire operation. His staff is supposed to prepare and put players in optimum positions to succeed, and they haven’t recently.
Miami took its opening possession and marched down the field on a 13-play touchdown drive, using a script flushed with RPOs and quick throws for quarterback Tua Tagaviola that worked similarly back in Week 1 (10 plays, 80 yards, touchdown). Poor plan, once again.
The Pats offense answered by quarterback Mac Jones throwing a pick-six on their third play from scrimmage on a play where Dolphins head coach Brian Flores broke a tendency by playing cover-two on third down rather than man coverage, and Josh McDaniels wasn’t ready for it.
After getting out-scripted for the third time in four games, the Patriots found themselves down 14-zip in a blink of an eye.
The players will take their fair share of the blame for playing poorly, and the Pats need their stars to answer the bell next week.
However, Belichick’s staff was badly out-coached once again, and that’s where the Patriots are now supposed to have their biggest advantage.
The onus from this perspective is on the coaches to up their game in the postseason.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots finish the 2021 season at 10-7:
(h/t to FTB_Vids_YT for the clips. Give him a follow).
1. Pats QB Mac Jones Picking the Wrong Time to Play Like a Rookie
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was cruising in his rookie season until recently when he began making more rookie mistakes.
Along with a botched snap-fumble in the second half, the two most significant swings in win probability in Sunday’s loss were Mac turnovers, chief among them a pick-six on the Pats’ first possession.
On Xavien Howard’s interception, the Dolphins don’t disguise their coverage much in a cover-two shell. The only pre-snap read telling Mac that Howard might be dropping out of the flat is his staggered stance at the line of scrimmage, but everything else says cover-two. Howard jams Agholor, never turns his back to the QB and squats on the flat. Yet, Jones throws the ball to Meyers on the branch/out route anyways. This is not a trap coverage or a look that should’ve fooled Jones. He just didn’t read it out properly. With that said, Mac has slant/flat or the branch design as his two options here, and neither are great calls against cover-two.
Although the turnovers killed the Patriots, there are still flashes where Jones makes high-level plays that keep you optimistic about his future.
For instance, Mac buys himself time by stepping through the blitzer off the left side and keeps the play on schedule by hitting a crossing Hunter Henry for a 35-yard gain.
In this play, Jones makes a far-hash throw on a deep comeback route against an inverted cover-two structure to Nelson Agholor along the sideline. If you’re worried about arm strength, that’s a long throw.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it given the recent struggles, Jones is still putting good tape out there at times, and his mental toughness to bounce back from early mistakes is impressive.
But if the Patriots season ends next weekend, Jones picked the wrong time to play like a rookie.
2. Patriots Defense Looks Unprepared For Dolphins Opening Script Again
As we wrote in our Patriots game plan this week, Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is a limited downfield passer surviving on run-pass options and quick-game concepts.
New England knew the book on Tua, and despite getting beat on a similar script back in Week 1, the Patriots defense was unprepared to defend the Dolphins’ offense once again.
Although the issues started early, Miami added 0.08 expected points per play and moved the ball most of the afternoon.
The Patriots’ struggles against RPOs continued, capped off by a seven-yard touchdown pass to star rookie Jaylen Waddle.
The Pats have the numbers to defend the downfield routes on the play above. But J.C. Jackson gets caught with his eyes in the wrong place. Despite Devin McCourty taking over DeVante Parker’s route, Jackson never gets back on the deep third to take cover the wheel route from Waddle’s motion, and it’s a busted coverage for six.
Defending RPO offenses is all about having your eyes in the right place and dictating the terms to the offense, which the Patriots didn’t do.
3. Patriots Run Defense Gashed for 195 Rushing Yards in Loss to Dolphins
The consistent theme for the Patriots defense in their seven losses this season is that New England loses the battle along the line of scrimmage.
Miami’s offensive line was pushing back the Pats’ front too often, and it shows in the lack of negative plays for the Dolphins rushing attack (two TFLs vs. run). However, the big runs are coming due to poor run fits rather than getting moved off the ball.
Above, the Dolphins run an inside zone scheme. On the edge, Matthew Judon finds himself in a two-gapping position while Adrian Phillips is now responsible for forcing the ball carrier back inside when J.C. Jackson goes in motion with the receiver. Yes, Judon probably can set the edge better there. But the bigger issue is that Phillips gets drawn in by the tight ends’ block (who he has in man coverage) and vacates the run force on the edge, and McCourty gets held up inside. That’s more on the DBs than Judon.
Regardless, the Patriots need to re-establish their physicality in the trenches to have a chance in the playoffs.
4. Patriots Pass Rush Has Lost Its Mojo and Potentially Christian Barmore
Another major storyline for the Pats defense is the disappearing act by their pass rush, both from a pressure and rush discipline standpoint.
This week, they only sacked Tua once and got lost on two critical scramble plays by Tagovailoa on third down, including a game-sealing 11-yard scramble with 1:58 remaining (yes, Judon got held, but that isn’t the point).
The Pats’ pass rush feels like a unit that doesn’t know what it wants right now. Do they want to pressure, or do they want to contain? They’re caught in between and doing neither as a result.
To make matters worse, New England might’ve lost rookie standout Christian Barmore for the rest of the season due to injury. Although initial tests were positive, it’ll be an uphill battle for Barmore to play next week.
Starting with Matthew Judon, the Patriots’ pass rush needs to wake up quickly.
5. Patriots Offense Needs More Of the Separation Flashes We Saw vs. Dolphins
Outside of Jones’s pick-six, the Patriots’ passing offense produced 8.7 yards per pass and a 51% success rate, meaning there were good plays from that group.
Jones finished the game five-of-eight on passes of 20-plus yards as well, which stood out on our initial viewing, given the downfield separation to create those plays.
For instance, Mac saw one-on-one (man-free) coverage from the Dolphins on this third down play, and Jakobi Meyers worked All-Pro corner Xavien Howard on a fade. Meyers uses a stretch release to get Howard to bite inside, then runs past him down the sideline for 28 yards.
The Patriots’ quarterback also found Meyers on another deep play and connected twice with Hunter Henry down the field for explosives.
If New England wants to compete in the playoffs, they’ll need their passing game to stay aggressive like it was against the Dolphins.
6. Pats’ Running Game is the Only Consistent Area of the Team
Another silver lining was that the Pats added 0.11 expected points per rush with a 70% success rate and 5.0 yards per rush—excellent marks across the board.
Pats running back Brandon Bolden was the most effective ball carrier with seven runs for 46 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown that got New England on the board in the first half.
In the play, the Pats are blocking a lead scheme on third-and-1 where they’re trying to isolate fullback Jakob Johnson on the MIKE linebacker (Elandon Roberts). However, right tackle Trent Brown whiffs on his block, and Johnson makes a great adjustment to keep the play alive by blocking Brown’s man rather than Roberts. Bolden makes Roberts miss with a smooth jump cut in the hole, then works off a block by Nelson Agholor to bounce outside to pay dirt.
The Patriots will need to lean on their reliable rushing attack in the postseason. It’s the one area of their team that shows up every week.
7. Patriots Have a Major Problem on Special Teams
As we start to focus on big-picture issues heading into the 2022 offseason, we’ll need to have a serious conversation about special teams coordinator Cam Achord’s future.
Achord is an energetic, fiery, and intelligent coach who loves his job and the kicking game. But its results-based business and special teams continue to hurt the Patriots.
This week, Lawrence Guy was lining up over the long snapper on a punt, leading to an illegal formation penalty that gave Miami a new set of downs. On the one hand, Guy is an 11-year veteran who should know the rule that you cannot cover up the long-snapper.
However, there’s a new issue costing the Patriots every week in the kicking game from blocked punts, botched extra points, bad penalties, and poor decisions on returns.
With the issues being so widespread, it’s hard not to point at the coach putting it all together.
8. Bill Belichick Gets Conservative Again on Fourth Down Decision
After converting five-of-six fourth-down attempts in Week 16, we thought Belichick turned the corner from his conservative ways earlier in the season to a more aggressive mentality.
—> NE (7) @ MIA (17) <—
NE has 4th & 1 at the 50
Recommendation (STRONG): 👉 Go for it (+3.2 WP)
Actual play: 🚨 (Run formation) PENALTY on NE-M.Jones, False Start, 4 yards, enforced at 50 – No Play. pic.twitter.com/IJcdNQdyQ6
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 9, 2022
Well, we were wrong, as the Pats lined up to punt from the 50-yard line on fourth-and-short down ten points before halftime in an obvious “go for it” situation.
Belichick deflected a question about the decision after the game, and it wasn’t the reason they lost, but it was an opportunity lost before the half to take back momentum.
The Patriots will be underdogs in their Wild Card matchup and need to maximize their scoring opportunities when they have favorable field position. They’re not helping themselves by being conservative.
9. Referees Don’t Help Patriots With Two Game-Changing Calls Against Them
Although it didn’t decide the outcome, we cannot tell the story of Sunday’s loss without mentioning two blown calls by the refs that undoubtedly changed the course of the game.
An unnecessary roughness penalty on Brandon Bolden and a defensive pass interference call in the end zone on Jalen Mills significantly impacted Miami’s win probability.
Whether it was a split-second decision or not, the call on Bolden was one of the worst calls I’ve seen in an NFL game this season. Late slide, no contact whatsoever, and terrible officiating.
If the refs called the Bolden play properly, the Patriots would’ve had the ball at Miami’s 43-yard line in a 14-zero game. Instead, Miami added another field goal after the drive was extended.
Both calls were significant plays in the game and came when the Pats needed momentum.
10. Pats to Face Bills or Bengals in Wild Card Round Next Weekend
As of the publishing of this piece, the Raiders and Chargers are still deciding the final piece to the AFC playoff picture on Sunday Night Football. Regardless of the opponent, the game will be on Saturday, January 15. The scenarios for the Pats are:
- Raiders win = Patriots at Bills
- Chargers win = Patriots at Bengals
- Raiders/Chargers tie = Patriots at Bengals