"I can't believe they're still in this game" is what I ended up saying far more than I would have liked to on Sunday. This was a very winnable game for the Patriots, even with the injuries coming into Sunday night and during the game. On the other side, the Dolphins weren't exactly in any rush to seal the deal in this one, so the Patriots had chances until the bitter end but never capitalized on both sides of the ball. Now they find themselves 0-2 for the first time in over two decades. Going back into the film, here are your big takeaways.
On Their Terms
All things equal, I wasn't a fan of how New England played things defensively in the first half. They played a ton of three-high looks to take away anything deep, but Mike McDaniel and Tua saw through it right away and went with the death by 1000 cuts route. Allowing the opponent to come in and do things their way is as far away from ideal as it gets, and it bit the Patriots on more than one occasion defensively. The two-minute drill to end the first half for starters, which we'll get to in a little bit, but this popped up several other times.
This was the Dolphins' first third down of the game and a 3rd&3 at that. Even then, the Patriots show a three-high shell to start this play out, with Bentley coming in on the blitz and Uche dropping into the flat to double Waddle on the hitch. The problem here is that there isn't enough help closer to the line of scrimmage, and while Tavai could have maybe come out of his assignment a bit more to cover Berrios, that's a tough spot to put him in, to begin with. And again, this is all because you don't want Hill or Waddle to beat you deep, but it's a fine line with being too conservative. Ultimately, the Patriots made a great goalline stand to end this drive, so they saved a few extra points going up.
What also didn't help was the trench play on both sides of the ball for the Patriots. It was another rough outing for Calvin Anderson at right tackle, and while Vederian Lowe played admirably at left tackle, he could only do so much. It wasn't a banner night for Cole Strange either while on the subject. Onto the other side of the ball, the Patriots applied next to no pressure on Tua with Terron Armstead out of the lineup and allowed Miami to gash them repeatedly with zone runs. After the game, Dolphins IDL Raekwon Davis said that the Dolphins knew they could play things on their terms if they could control things up front, and he was 100 percent correct in that assessment.
The Beat Goes On
Two weeks in a row now, Mac Jones has played great football, but in each game so far, committed an inexcusable turnover. This week, it was on a deep shot down the sideline to Devante Parker, which he's batting about 1-for-9 on lifetime going back to last year.
As much as I do like McCorkle not showing any hesitation here, this was never going to work out in the Patriots' favor. Xavien Howard is still a legit cornerback and played it beautifully by forcing Parker out of bounds and getting himself in prime position for the pick. Had he come off that read, Jones could have had Zeke underneath on the right or Gesicki on the opposite side for a solid first-down gain.
On the flip side, Jones was also great once they got him going in no-huddle, and they began working the tight ends in (also nearly exclusively going at Eli Apple). That's something that Bill O'Brien should be getting to way earlier in games, especially with the Jets coming up, who struggled big-time against tight ends last year. Watch this laser beam on the run to Juju-Smith Shuster right as things shifted to no-huddle in the fourth quarter.
So, while the two interceptions Mac has thrown this year have been horrendous, he's been far from the biggest issue the Patriots have at the moment. The health up front on the offensive line and the alarming lack of production in the running game are certainly ahead, but there are certainly some more things that bump McCorkle down the pecking order of the Patriots' issues two games in.
Two Minute Backbreaker
Throughout eight quarters of play, this two-minute drive by Tua and the Dolphins is the only time the Patriots have allowed a touchdown with the opposition starting at least 75 yards out. Miami was held to just a single third down attempt and immediately hit three 10-plus yard pass attempts in four plays. The Patriots were in zone coverage for all three of these, and they allowed Tua to pick things apart to get down inside the five-yard line in just 60 seconds after that third-down pickup. Not a fan of this approach, given the situation. This was all to prevent anything explosive, but they still rattled off multiple chunk plays to make this a 14-point game going into the half.
While the play that ultimately gave up six is hard to put on New England, it's more than fair to credit McDaniel for setting his boys up with an excellent mismatch with presnap motion, something he used all night long to his advantage.
At a glance, Gonzalez is responsible for Hill, while Dugger has Smythe. The motion flips that around and gives Hill a mismatch on a safety, running an out route with a ton of outside leverage to begin with. Have to give credit where it's due. This was an excellent play call by McDaniel. Still, a wildly frustrating and disappointing way to go into the locker room if you're the Patriots.
Popped Down on the Bench
The benching of Pop Douglas has been a huge sore spot with Patriots fans over the last few days, and this is something I can agree with to a certain extent. At the end of the day, his fumble was a rough one on a drive where it felt like the Patriots were going to come away with three at the bare minimum.
Even knowing how this play ended, I do like that Douglas had the moxie and instincts to try and make something big happen this early in the game. Just look at all the wide-open field ahead of him, but the time he's about to cut back. Unfortunately for him, Bradley Chubb is on QB contain duty to the left side, and that x-amount of yards he saved by doing may as well have been a 14-point swing. Had Chubb committed to the rush, there is realistically well over a 50 percent chance that Douglas scores on this play, but luckily for Miami, their prized edge rusher stuck to his assignment, and finally had the night that the Dolphins had needed out of him for some time.
As for the benching itself, Belichick was pressed on it heavily postgame and danced around it every single time. The old man still has the fastball in the media room. I can tell you that much. The bottom line is that Douglas got six offensive snaps the entire night. The next-highest receiver, Kendrick Bourne, got 38. Do with that information what you will. While Douglas has to take better care of the ball, he does provide an explosive element in that receiver room that no one else has brought from practice to the games just yet. Hopefully, this was just a one-week thing.
Going to (Special Teams) School(er)
Have you ever watched something during any sporting event and thought after something happens that it'll immediately get banned? That's what I said as Brenden Schooler got that field goal block. Pat McAfee did a legitimately great breakdown of this, going into how Schooler anticipated Jake Bailey tipping the snap count by some head motion/breathing. My big question is, how did no one on the Miami sideline or on the field pick up on the guy outside the numbers on a field goal try? Only nefarious things are set to happen in that instance, and sure enough...
The craziest thing is that not only did Belichick dial this up a second time, it led to a field goal miss, a crucial one, at that. While Schooler didn't come close to the block, I have to imagine that Jason Sanders knew it was coming this time, and it took him off his game just enough for him to send a ball with some late break outside of the left upright. And I promise you, this will win/lose someone a playoff game this year, and this will be banned for 2024, I guarantee it.
Gonzo Breakout Game
I don't think even the most optimistic of Patriots fans could have hoped or anticipated this kind of performance from Christian Gonzalez in his first prime-time NFL game. With the Patriots' depth at cornerback literally falling apart at the seams, he stepped up and stepped up big to give the Patriots a chance in the second half. Covering Hill for a good chunk of the second half, he held him to zero catches on just two targets and this incredible interception lining up at safety, which he's done several times this year.
It's hard to put into words how insane this is from Gonzalez at just 21 (twenty-one) years old. To have the wherewithal and instincts to flip your hips outside to give the fastest receiver in football a wide-open window down the boundary, then flip inside, drive on the ball, and go vertical to make a game-changing turnover is genuinely absurd. This is what Ed Reed, the best safety in NFL history for my money, used to do back in the day, and he was a natural safety, lest we forget.
PFF has Gonzo graded as the No. 3 corner in football for a reason. He was nails in this game. Better yet, he has another huge matchup next weekend against reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson. It should be another awesome battle.
Final Score: Miami Dolphins 24, New England Patriots 17
Gaffney's Three Stars from Patriots-Dolphins 1:
3rd Star - Hunter Henry (6 Catches on 7 Targets, 52 Yards, 1 Touchdown)
2nd Star - Brendan Schooler (1 FG Block, 1 Unofficial FG Miss Assist, 1 Special Teams Tackle)
1st Star - Christian Gonzalez (1 INT, 1 PBU, Held Tyreek Hill to 0 Catches on 2 Targets, Held Jaylen Waddle to 3 Catches on 3 Targets for 32 Yards)
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