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Friday, September 22, 2023

What Bill Belichick can and can’t fix after an 0-2 start – Boston Herald

Bill Belichick’s decision to bench his most dynamic offensive playmaker for the last three quarters Sunday will eventually fade into the white noise of this Patriots season.

What it represented in the moment, however, encapsulates the conundrum the Patriots now face at 0-2.

The Patriots offense unequivocally needs Demario Douglas, a sixth-round rookie from Liberty University, to function at its highest level. But being a rookie, Douglas is prone to rookie mistakes, like his fumble in the first quarter against Miami.

To Belichick, that fumble meant something more: an inexcusable repeat of the mistakes that cost the Patriots their season opener, a game they would have won were it not for two first-quarter turnovers.

Belichick pulled Douglas because he saw the rookie as a problem he could fix, something he could control. And right or wrong, Belichick believed eliminating the added risk of another turnover was in the Patriots’ best interest; a way to raise the floor on their win probability versus Miami.

Except, because of the lack of receiving talent around Douglas, benching him simultaneously capped the ceiling. Without Douglas, the Patriots have zero explosion. None.

No defensive coordinator is losing any sleep over facing this roster. The Patriots’ offense is the antithesis of the Dolphins’ attack, a dizzying 4×100 relay team and true pick-your-poison operation.

Foxboro, MA - February 17: New England Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker makes a catch defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Eli Apple during the first quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)
Foxboro, MA – Sept. 17: New England Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker makes a catch defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Eli Apple during the first quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

Want to limit Tyreek Hill, as the Pats managed on Sunday? Watch and wave good-bye to Jaylen Waddle, as he averages 21.5 yards per catch or running back Raheem Mostert, as he speeds to a 43-yard touchdown. And if you blitz to force Tua Tagovailoa’s hand, his lightning-quick release will average the fourth-quickest time to throw (2.08 seconds) in a single game since 2020, just as it did Sunday, per Next Gen Stats.

What is the Patriots’ poison? Can you name one?

How about one of their explosive plays Sunday? There were two: Mac Jones’ scramble for 18 yards, and a Rhamondre Stevenson’s rumble for 12. That was it. Two!

Heading into Week 3, the Patriots obviously cannot overhaul their offensive roster in a meaningful way to become more explosive. Belichick cast his die in the offseason. That time has passed.

What Belichick can control now, what he can fix, is coaching his ball carriers to tighten their grip. He can continue to devise brilliant defensive schemes and mine edges on special teams. Meanwhile, Bill O’Brien’s staff must develop their ragtag offensive line and sharpen their usage of Douglas and other playmakers (side note: Mac Jones is 1-of-7 on deep balls to Kendrick Bourne).

Foxboro, MA - February 17: New England Patriots' Mac Jones and Bill O'brien walk off the field after the loss at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)
Foxboro, MA – Sept. 17: New England Patriots’ Mac Jones and Bill O’brien walk off the field after the loss at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

Because those were the other issues that dogged the Patriots Sunday: an impotent run game and Matt Patricia-esque passing plan that overdosed on screens and might as well have flipped the bird to any suggestion of play-action.

How well the Patriots’ coaches problem-solve in the coming days will set the course for the next few weeks, and perhaps the remainder of their season. Thankfully for them, the Jets offer an ideal get-right opportunity this weekend. The Pats haven’t lost at New York since 2015 and won three of their last four meetings with Gotham’s goons simply by screwing up less (the other was a 54-13 Patriots blowout in October 2021).

As slight road favorites, the Pats should make it four out of five Sunday. But offensively, they will play that game on the same tightrope they’ve walked the past two weeks.

Because this is the roster Belichick has built. The absence of a reliable go-to target and lack of a stable offensive line have lowered their win probability as much as anything else.

By now, that much is out of the Patriots’ control. The rest is up to them.

Here’s everything else the film revealed about Sunday’s loss:

Mac Jones

31-of-42 for 231 yards, TD, INT

Foxboro, MA - February 17: New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throws during the first quarter of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)
Foxboro, MA – Sept. 17: New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throws during the first quarter of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

Accurate throw percentage: 75.6% at 5.5 yards per attempt

Under pressure: 10-of-14 for 87 yards, 4 sacks, 18-yard scramble

Against the blitz: 7-of-9 for 74 yards, sack

Behind the line: 8-of-9 for 31 yards

0-9 yards downfield: 17-of-17 for 130 yards

10-19 yards downfield: 6-of-10 for 70 yards, TD, INT

20+ yards downfield: 0-of-5

Notes: For a second straight week, Jones performed well in the face of pressure, as stark and encouraging a change as we’ve seen from him since last season. He was particularly effective against the blitz, which Miami ramped up in the fourth quarter. Jones was also darn near perfect within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, just as you’d expect from the pocket-bound dart thrower.

Now, the bad: Jones’ third-quarter interception was gross. He underthrew a sideline jump ball for DeVante Parker that instead found Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard at Miami’s 3-yard line The pick took points off the board at a critical juncture. Later, while Jones drove the Patriots down for one touchdown, he yet again failed to complete a fourth-quarter comeback.

One area to watch: Jones’ anticipation. As Tagovailoa repeatedly ripped throws before and during his intended receivers’ breaks, Jones often waited to see Parker and Co. spring open first, then fired. That split-second can be, and is often, the difference between passing success in the NFL. Jones’ incompletion to Parker with 1:53 left in the first half, broken up by Dolphins safety DeShon Elliott, offered a clear example where Jones triggered a half-beat late, something reporters have witnessed since training camp.

A side-by-side comparison of that pass and Tagovailoa’s 22-yard rope to Dolphins receiver River Cracraft four snaps later during a 2-minute drill offered a perfect illustration of one of the understated differences between the ex-college teammates.

Critical areas

  • Explosive play rate: Patriots 2.8%, Dolphins 6.5%
  • Success rate: Patriots 53%, Dolphins 53%
  • Red-zone efficiency: Patriots 2-2, Dolphins 2-3
  • Third downs: Patriots 7-15, Dolphins 4-10
  • Defensive pressure rate: Patriots 15.1%, Dolphins 38.3%


Game plan

  • Personnel breakdown: 62.5% snaps in 12 personnel, 25% of snaps in 11 personnel, 5.5% snaps in 13 personnel, 5.5% in 21 personnel, 1% in 22 personnel.***
  • Personnel production: 4.2 yards/play in 12 personnel, 3.1 yards/play in 11 personnel, 4.0 yards/play in 13 personnel, 4.5 yards/play in 21 personnel, 7.0 yards/play in 22 personnel.
  • First-down down play-calls: 65.5% pass (5.8 yards per play), 34.5% run (3.8 yards per play)
  • Play-action rate: 12.8%

Player stats

Foxboro, MA - February 17: New England Patriots' Rhamondre Stevenson celebrates his touchdown with Hunter Henry during the fourth quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)
Foxboro, MA – Sept. 17: New England Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson celebrates his touchdown with Hunter Henry during the fourth quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)
  • Broken tackles: RB Rhamondre Stevenson 4, WR Devante Parker, QB Mac Jones
  • Pressures allowed: OT Calvin Anderson 5 (sack, 3 QB hits, 1 hurry), OT Vederian Lowe 4 (sack, 3 hurries), OG Atonio Mafi 1 (sack), C David Andrews 1 (QB hit), QB Mac Jones (1 hurry), RB Ezekiel Elliott 1 (hurry), Team 6 (sack, 5 hurries)
  • Run stuffs allowed: OG Cole Strange, Andrews, Team
  • Penalties: Strange (holding)
  • Drops: WR Kendrick Bourne


  • After watching the Chargers pound Miami’s defensive front for more than six yards per carry in Week 1, the Patriots’ opening game plan was to bully the Dolphins yet again.
  • Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien opened in 13 personnel and called runs on five of the Pats’ initial seven first-down plays. The trouble was, Miami held its ground.
  • The Pats failed to knock the Dolphins off the ball, especially as left guard Cole Strange knocked off significant rust during the opening drive. On that series alone, Strange was responsible for a run stuff, 0-yard screen gain and (most likely) a sack.
  • The Patriots lost Douglas’ fumble on their next possession and the running game stalled, except in short-yardage. The offense started 5-of-5 with one yard or less to the line to gain. Miami hit back in the third quarter, likely recognizing a developing tell when the Pats dropped under center.
  • O’Brien called runs on the Patriots’ first 10 under-center snaps, including two where Mac Jones ripped an immediate throw to DeVante Parker to take free yards against off-coverage. On those plays, the nine other players on offense carried out run assignments.
  • Miami made its first stand on the Pats’ opening drive of the second half, stopping Rhamondre Stevenson cold on second-and-1, then dropping him for a loss of three yards on the next play. Both runs came from under center, where O’Brien dialed up a play-action throw on the very next possession to convert third-and-1.

  • Around this time, the Patriots committed to running 12 personnel through Stevenson, Parker, Kendrick Bourne and tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki for the rest of the game. Ezekiel Elliott and JuJu Smith-Schuster were the only other skill players to see snaps on the final three drives, taking the field only when Stevenson and/or Bourne needed a breather.
  • That decision by the coaching staff says more than any combination of words could in a press conference. During a 2-minute in a pivotal game, the Patriots demonstrated they believe Stevenson, Parker, Bourne, Henry and Gesicki give them the best chance to execute.
  • The only question is whether Douglas would have replaced Gesicki had he not already been benched for fumbling in the first quarter. Douglas replaced Smith-Schuster in the slot on two passing downs before the fumble.
  • Smith-Schuster should have a gripe with his usage Sunday, which included three screen targets that gained a total of minus-1 yard. His 5.6 yards per catch average trailed all Patriots pass-catchers except Stevenson.
  • Overall, the Pats’ screen game again proved to be a net negative. They averaged 2.5 yards on screen passes, down from 3.3 yards against the Eagles.
  • Screens aside, the Pats’ passing plan seemed to follow two guidelines: pick on Dolphins corner Eli Apple and get the ball out of Jones’ hands ASAP.
  • Apple allowed seven catches on 10 targets, per Pro Football Focus, and committed three penalties. The Patriots generated five first downs on passes thrown in his direction.
  • Meanwhile, Jones’ average snap-to-throw time finished at 2.34 seconds, the third-fastest mark for Week 2, per PFF. He attempted just five passes that coverged 20 yards in the air compared to nine he threw at targets behind the line of scrimmage.
  • Jones’ wild downfield misses reminded of last season’s default answer to the blitz: chuck it deep. O’Brien has provided Jones with more blitz answers, but the downfield passing game has been non-existent. Through two weeks, Jones has one completion with 20-plus air yards.

  • Despite also being empowered in empty formations, where he can see the field, dissect defenses and play matchup ball, Jones is averaging 5.2 yards per dropback in these sets. The Pats have run more empty backfields than any other team in the league, per ESPN.
  • When the Patriots went empty Sunday, Miami attacked their protections by blitzing a linebacker through the B gap (between the guard and tackle) on the short (AKA “boundary”) side of the field.
  • Jones took his first sack against this pressure, then beat a similar pressure in the second quarter. It’s possible the Dolphins had a beat on the Pats’ protection, knowing they would slide four linemen in one direction and leave an offensive tackle isolated on the opposite side, thus widening the B gap to potential pressure.

  • Up front, the Patriots can ill-afford to miss starting left tackle Trent Brown for much longer. He is their lone starting-caliber tackle, and Jones dealt with nine (!) pressures off the edges versus Miami.
  • Right guard Mike Onwenu sat for the last few drives in favor of fifth-round rookie Atonio Mafi. He played 46 snaps in a planned rotation for his season debut. Onwenu is coming off offseason ankle surgery.


Game plan

  • Personnel breakdown: 67.2% three-safety nickel package, 32.8% dime. 5% three-corner nickel package.****
  • Coverage snaps breakdown: 70.6% zone, 29.4% man
  • Blitz rate: 18.2%
  • Blitz efficacy: 7.2 yards allowed per dropback

Player stats

  • Interceptions: CB Christian Gonzalez
  • Pass deflections: S Kyle Dugger, DB Myles Bryant
  • Pressures: OLB Matt Judon 2 (sack, QB hit), OLB Josh Uche 1 (hurry), DL Deatrich Wise (1 hurry), Team (1 hurry)
  • Run stuffs: Team 2
  • Missed tackles: LB Ja’Whaun Bentley 2, LB Jahlani Tavai 2, DL Christian Barmore, DL Davon Godchaux, S Jabrill Peppers, Bryant
  • Penalties: S Marte Mapu (unnecessary roughness), LB Chris Board (illegal formation on kickoff), Bryant (neutral zone infraction), Peppers (holding on punt return).


  • The Patriots opened in a downright bizarre alignment, dropping three deep safeties 12-15 yards off the line of scrimmage and clustered near the has hmarks. The Pats also opened in a 5-1 front, a common tactic against offenses like Miami that prefer an outside zone scheme.

  • The motivation behind the unusual game plan was no different than any other Miami opponent’s: stopping Tyreek Hill.
  • Hill smoked the Chargers for 215 yards in Week 1, doing most of his damage down the sideline and over the deep middle. The Patriots’ deep safeties discouraged Tagovailoa from throwing between the numbers — his most efficient area of the field as a passer — and stopped Hill from running these routes.
  • The defensive structure, though, opened up the flats, as the Patriots’ cornerbacks played off coverage to protect against explosive plays. This allowed Miami to repeatedly attack the seams and edges on two straight scoring drives that opened an early 10-0 lead.
  • The Pats helped them reach the end zone by setting an inconsistent edge, where the Dolphins attacked subpar run defenders in Josh Uche and Christian Gonzalez. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai later lost the edge on Raheem Mostert’s 8-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

  • The Patriots responded by ditching most of their initial plan and creeping a seventh defender toward the box. They maintained their steady diet of deep coverage, though save for a few ineffective blitzes against Tagovailoa.
  • Tagovailoa went 4-of-6 for 43 yards against Patriots blitzes, including three first-down conversions. The Patriots flipped from extra rushers to getting creative with their 4-man “simulated pressures,” in the second half, though those had little effect.
  • The Patriots’ only sack arrived early in the third quarter, when Dugger knocked Hill off course and Deatrich Wise leapt up in Tagovailoa’s passing lane forcing him to hold the ball until Judon arrived. Judon was the only Patriot with multiple pressures.
  • Shortly before halftime, Miami coach Mike McDaniel out-witted Belichick by correctly anticipating the Pats would play a switching coverage near the goal line.
  • From a 2-receiver stack with Hill, the Dolphins motioned tight end Durham Smythe out wide right on first-and-goal at the Patriots’ 2-yard line. By motioning Smythe outside, Miami forced Gonzalez to move off of Hill to cover the tight end, and leave safety Kyle Dugger alone with the All-Pro receiver.
  • Hill ran a quick out versus Dugger, and Tagovailoa hit him for a 17-3 lead heading into halftime.
  • In the second half, the Patriots had first-round rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez shadow Hill in critical situations. Miraculously, not only did he snare the interception the Pats believed Tagovailoa would finally force out of impatience, Gonzalez held Hill without a catch.
  • Once they lost cornerback Marcus Jones to a shoulder injury, the Pats played almost exclusively zone coverage from three-safety nickel personnel and dime packages. Reserve corner Shaun Wade, the next corner available off the bench, played just 14 snaps.


CB Christian Gonzalez

This rookie could be special. He took a shadow assignment of Hill and held him without a catch in critical situations. Gonzalez also added a spectacular interception on a rare snap at safety.

RB Rhamondre Stevenson

The Pats’ star back converted whenever he had passable blocking, added a few catches and a late touchdown. Feed Stevenson.

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