FOXBOROUGH — the Patriots will be playing on Wild Card weekend for the first time this decade after a stunning 27-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
At times, the Patriots offense moved the ball well, bettering last week’s output to the tune of 6.2 yards per play, leading with 3:53 remaining in the game.
But there were too many mistakes offensively, including Tom Brady’s first pick-six in two years, and combined with shoddy coaching and playing on defense; the Patriots coughed up the bye.
Before we get into the loss, let’s address the sequence at the end of the first half.
With 1:51 remaining in the half, Bill Belichick elected to let the clock run rather than take one of his three timeouts. Belichick’s logic is sound in that by allowing the clock run, you eliminate a chance for Miami to get the ball back, the Dolphins had all three timeouts. Belichick explained that if the Patriots picked up a first down, he would’ve used his timeouts. Again, fine logic.
The Patriots were caught up in keeping the ball out of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s hands, so they went incredibly conservative, dialing up two consecutive running plays, and the clock ran out on the half.
If Belichick was serious about using those timeouts if they got a first down, then maybe the play calls should’ve reflected a willingness to move the ball downfield?
Instead, they wasted the final 57 seconds of the half, potentially leaving behind points in a close game with significant playoff seeding on the line, a game they clearly valued.
For the first time since 2009, the Pats will play in a Wild Card game against the Tennessee Titans next weekend.
As much as it falls on the players, it wasn’t a good effort by the coaches either on Sunday.
Here are ten things we learned as the Pats finished the regular season at 12-4:
1. Defensive Play-Calling Lands Squarely on the Radar in Loss
Players ultimately decide games, but coaching can often lose them, and the defensive play-calling is starting to become an issue.
The Pats called way too much zone as we all watched Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick pick it apart, mainly cover-2 that isn’t working against anyone.
And they were overly aggressive in spots where they didn’t need to be and didn’t adjust to Miami’s plan on offense.
Let’s start with the cover-2 zones. The Pats began to play more cover-2 at the midway point of the season, maybe trying to show offenses something other than post-safety coverages, and also possibly training on the fly to better defend teams like Baltimore and Kansas City.
By playing cover-2, they take some pressure off the linebackers and safeties in the running game, and can better defend things like run-pass options. However, they still need to be sound in coverage to justify playing it, and that’s where the problems are currently.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/cdj8b/xmnbqq” /]
To make matters worse, the Pats coaching staff also put Jon Jones to play the deep half at safety, which isn’t something the slot corner often does and played soft zone on third and two here. Chad O’Shea dials up a zone beater against an inexperienced safety, flooding Jones with a seam pattern and corner route. Jones has to respect the seam, so he’s late to the corner. That’s a tough play for any safety, let alone a defender that’s usually a man coverage corner.
Secondly, teams have caught on to New England’s zero blitzes, especially offenses with veteran quarterbacks. Plus, the Pats are getting too aggressive with them.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/z40wi/vihhfs” /]
Here, it’s a second and ten on the Pats 46-yard line, and the Pats get greedy. They send the zero blitz to try to knock the Dolphins out of field goal range, and Fitzpatrick calmly hits Parker over the middle for another chunk play.
Gilmore’s technique there is what the coaches are asking him to do. He wouldn’t tell me exactly why, but he did say he knows what he did wrong on that particular play. My best guess is that the Pats want to keep things in front of them to avoid giving up touchdowns, and the drop allows Gilmore to read the quarterback, but it seems like it’s easy to expose.
Vets like Fitzpatrick don’t panic against the heavy rush, and they know where to look to find an open receiver quickly; the Patriots need to pick their spots better with the zero coverage.
The Dolphins also exposed the Patriots over the middle, where Fitzpatrick threw for 157 of his 320 yards, and the game-winner to Gesicki.
On passing downs, the Patriots put their linebackers on the line of scrimmage to challenge the Miami offensive line with five-man pressures. To combat that, O’Shea sent his receivers on crossers and slants with nobody dropping underneath those patterns from the second level.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/jpv0g/zsgmjp” /]
The Dolphins ran mesh crossing concepts against man coverage. Sometimes, Devin McCourty, who is sitting in the middle of the field, will jump those crossers, but he stays back, leaving Chung out to dry. If they play aggressive pass-rushing fronts, the Pats need to play cut coverages to help their man coverage defenders against crossing routes.
The Pats coaching staff isn’t in a good rhythm with their play-calling on the defensive side of the ball, and the in-game adjustments weren’t there either on Sunday.
2. Dolphins’ DeVante Parker Gets the Better of Stephon Gilmore
The last time Gilmore allowed more than 100 yards into his coverage, he was a member of the Buffalo Bills playing against the Patriots: Week 8, 2016.
On Sunday, Parker, who is a receiver on the rise in this league, caught seven passes for 119 yards with Gilmore in coverage.
“I felt like I let 52 other players down today,” Gilmore said after the game.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/vvxuv/cjmwi” /]
To Parker’s credit, he made some terrific grabs against tight coverage, adjusting to the ball beautifully in the air and high-pointing it downfield. Tip your cap; there’s nothing you can do.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/wmp1s/qvxuie” /]
And some of his catches came against off-man, little quick-hitters on short throws with Gilmore playing off the line of scrimmage.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/uf8ck/uuszaf” /]
But there was also some poor technique by the Pats All-Pro cornerback, starting with Parker’s first reception of the game. Gilmore gets caught jumping a hitch or comeback when it looks like Fitzpatrick is loading up, and Parker sneaks behind him on a fade for a 28-yard grab.
Gilmore might still win Defensive Player of the Year after a terrific season, and hopefully, his stinker is out of the way before the playoffs, but Parker owned him on Sunday.
3. Tom Brady’s Wasn’t Good Enough Given the Stakes
Based on my live charting, Brady made eight poor throws or decisions in the loss, with six of those coming in the first half. The Pats quarterback’s accuracy was better in the second half, but he missed some critical throws early and threw a costly pick-six. Brady had his team in a position to win late, but you expect more from him in a de facto playoff game with a first-round bye hanging in the balance.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/0wxs8/bbhkur” /]
On the interception, old friend Eric Rowe’s familiarity with Brady was a major factor. Brady looks to both of his primary reads on the play to find them covered up nicely by the Miami secondary. After the game, Rowe said he knew Brady might blindly throw it to his check-down if his initial read wasn’t there, so he lingered in the flat. Brady didn’t expect Rowe to be there and throws it right to him for a touchdown the other way.
Brady’s accuracy issues are an on-again, off-again concern as we head into the postseason.
In the first half, Brady missed five open receivers due to poor ball placement, and he missed two chances to punch the ball in for six in the second quarter.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/f0ncr/rcryh” /]
Here, the Dolphins double Edelman on a double-under route combination with Phillip Dorsett, leaving Mohamed Sanu in single coverage on a corner route. Sanu creates enough separation to complete the pass, but Brady overthrows it out of the end zone. Mechanically, Brady brings his feet together to get loft of the ball, but he can’t get through his throwing motion. The ball leaves his hand too early, causing it to sail on him. Fixable, and an uncharacteristic mechanical issue for the GOAT.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/pf7y8/qswrrn” /]
Let’s end it on a positive note, with one of the better deep balls we’ve seen from Brady this season. The Pats ran the same over-fade combination out of a stack alignment as Dorsett’s touchdown grab in last year’s AFC title game. Brady releases the ball with pressure in his face and throws it nearly 40 yards in the air to complete the pass to Dorsett.
The arm strength and physical abilities to play the position are all still there, but there were some rare breakdowns in Brady’s throwing mechanics on Sunday afternoon.
4. Patriots Continue Success on the Ground Offensively
The Patriots ran the ball effectively once again, racking up 135 yards on 27 carries (5.0 average). McDaniels woke the offense up with a 12-personnel package, and some power runs in the second quarter and then incorporated the fly motions to give the defense a different look.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/jt90z/ompwhi” /]
On four consecutive plays, the Patriots ran power by pulling a guard to the point of attack with the tight ends either leading to the backside of the formation or blocking down on the strong side as the backside guard pulled. Combined with some tough running by Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots gained 40 yards on four-straight runs, leading to their first three points of the game.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/4ud4j/etfzab” /]
After flipping the ball to Harry on a reverse, the Patriots then used reserve motion later on to hit another big run. Dolphins safety Walt Aikens has to leave his run fit to cover Harry on the orbit motion, so the Pats send Michel through the line right where Aikens would’ve filled the hole if there wasn’t any motion.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/stgue/vswhtq” /]
Lastly, running back Rex Burkhead, who averaged eight yards per rush, is stringing together some of his best performances in a Patriots uniform. Burkhead is causing defenders to miss tackles with lethal jump cuts, taking great angles to set up defenders.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/jjtl0/zpxioh” /]
He’s also running through tacklers with tremendous power, throwing a huge stiff arm on Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker to pick up some more yards.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/3181u/stfzm” /]
And we can’t forget about the screen game. The Pats got great blocks from Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, who cut down the last defender, paving the way for James White’s touchdown.
Although the Patriots ended the regular season on a down note, the running game and offensive line are rounding into form at the right time.
5. N’Keal Harry Needs More Touches in the Playoffs
Out of Harry’s 17 touches this season, 11 of them have gone for first downs, 80 percent of them have been successful plays, and he should have three touchdowns as well (he has two officially). The Pats rookie saw a career-high seven targets against Miami, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to find even more ways to get the ball in his hands next weekend.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/yw163/obssmg” /]
On his 18-yard reception, Harry made a terrific adjustment and a difficult catch on a back-shoulder throw from Brady. The coverage by Dolphins corner Nate Brooks was good, and he even gets a hand in there, but Harry shows excellent concentration to hang on.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/h00uy/sipjay” /]
The Pats once again got a first down carry from Harry as well, with Brady flipping him the ball on a pitch-reverse. Harry is a tackle-breaking machine as a ball carrier, running through defenders to the tune of five avoided tackles on his 17 touches.
At this point, Harry is clearly a weapon when used properly, and he nearly connected with Brady for another touchdown on a few red zone fades, so they need to continue to get him the rock.
6. Patriots Moving Julian Edelman Out of the Slot to Avoid Double Coverage
As most defenses have in the second half of the season, Brian Flores and the Dolphins sent bracket coverage at Julian Edelman in critical situations on Sunday. In some of those spots, it felt like the same “nobody else is open when they double Edelman” scenario. In a smart move by the coaching staff, Edelman played nearly half of his snaps out wide on Sunday (26 of 54), which should prevent defenses from playing those inside-out brackets between the numbers.
With Edelman on the perimeter, Brady can look to his other slot options, the Pats have plenty, against single coverage on the inside. Edelman is at his best in the slot, but the Patriots need to find ways to get him away from the doubles and open up the middle of the field. Moving him out wide kills two birds with one stone.
7. Mohamed Sanu’s Up and Down Game Offers Some Hope
After one of his worst performances as a pro, Sanu made a few plays to help out of the offense in Sunday’s loss. He did drop an easy one coming over the middle and ran another route well short of the sticks on third down, but there were positive signs.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/e75ne/oirbfq” /]
The best development for Sanu came on a broken play where Brady had all day to throw against a three-man rush. Sanu is covered on a shallow crosser, but he continues to work to get open for his quarterback and reverses field to separate over the middle on a dart from Brady for a key-third-down conversion.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/cikx0/jojkol” /]
Earlier in the game, Sanu remains physical throughout his under route, gets enough separation to give Brady an opening, and then makes the defender miss after the catch by slamming on the breaks to pick up another first down.
Sanu continues to display an overall lack of consistency in his game, but if he can be relied on in the postseason for a few third-down conversions, that’ll go a long way for the offense.
8. Special Teams Shines Once Again For the Patriots
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Pats’ special teams units were a bright spot on Sunday.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/wjsti/uosncr” /]
The Patriots already had one of the best punt coverage units in football, if not the best, and Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel added to it with Slater batting a punt out of the end zone for Bethel to down it at the Miami four-yard line.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/qbrcf/xgffzc” /]
In a rare occurrence, the Pats also got an explosive return by Brandon Bolden on a kickoff, a 38-yard return that set the offense up on their own 40-yard line. Eventually, the Pats would score to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
If the Patriots want to turn things around and go on a run, they’ll need to win field position battles every week in the kicking game.
9. Patriots Lean on 12-Personnel Grouping on Offense
After linebacker turned fullback Elandon Roberts played 21 snaps a week ago, the Patriots found success with a “12” package that featured tight ends Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse. Roberts played eight snaps, and we’ll get to his miraculous touchdown catch later, but Sunday’s loss was more about the tight ends than the fullback. The Patriots also called a few spread formations with Brady in the gun and four receivers on the field plus a pass-catching back, but pounding the rock with extra beef on the field was the most effective way they moved the ball against the Dolphins. We’ll see what the Patriots turn to in their first playoff game.
10. Play of the Game: Elandon Roberts’s 38-Yard Touchdown
Although it came in defeat, Elandon Roberts’s effort on a 38-yard touchdown grab deserves mention. We’ve been waiting for the Patriots to throw Roberts a pass, but none of us expected it to be in the open field. Something down by the goal line for a wide-open touchdown made sense, but this was something else entirely.
[arve url=”https://streamable.com/s/ohcvn/vbrkqs” /]
On the play, the Pats go with a straight drop-back for Brady, and Roberts immediately releases downfield on a wheel route out of the backfield. The Pats’ new fullback makes a great adjustment to the throw, breaks a tackle up the sideline, and shows off the wheels to steamroll in for six.
Teams will now have to prepare for Roberts as a pass-catcher moving forward.