Monday, November 28 2022

By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

MIAMI — Bill Belichick, the man notoriously concerned with points scored and points allowed, began citing how the New England Patriots‘ yardage was on par with what the Miami Dolphins posted on Sunday. That made the game more competitive than the score indicated, he suggested. 

Sorry, Bill. The score was Dolphins 20, Patriots 7.

Belichick’s team made three costly plays: an interception in the end zone on the Patriots’ opening drive, a touchdown allowed on fourth-and-7 at the end of the first half and a blown blocking assignment that led to a Dolphins strip sack and touchdown. That’s a 21-point swing. 

There were a few other embarrassing plays for New England of less importance. Receiver Nelson Agholor fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter after the offense showed signs of life on a 41-yard catch by Kendrick Bourne — more on him later. The Patriots also committed a neutral-zone infraction on fourth down and gifted the Dolphins a conversion in the first quarter. And finally, you can add cornerback Jack Jones allowing Tyreek Hill to rip an interception out of his hands and turn it into a chunk play. 

Both the Patriots’ offense and defense struggled to make crucial plays at key moments. 

The defense, in my mind, simply lacks the requisite talent to stymie great offenses. But there’s room for optimism. The D has a number of young players who will continue to develop, like Jones and safety Kyle Dugger, who missed a crucial tackle on Jaylen Waddle‘s fourth-down touchdown in the second quarter. Belichick may be focused on the offense, but he will surely have a hand in the defense, like always. The season will depend upon the development of defensive tackle Christian Barmore, Dugger, rookie cornerbacks Jack Jones and Marcus Jones, outside linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

The uncertainty — and skepticism — is most intense with the offense. Most worrying, Mac Jones suffered a back injury at some point in the game. The Patriots are notorious for starting slowly and still making the playoffs. They cannot pull that off without Jones, whose X-rays came back negative after the game. He felt much better on Monday, and indications are that the injury may not be serious. 

But Jones and the offense have struggled throughout the summer. On Sunday against the Dolphins, New England even struggled to throw the ball in 12 personnel (with one running back and two tight ends). In that formation, the Patriots managed just 2.3 yards per play with an interception and two sacks on 16 dropbacks, per the Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan. 

That formation should be New England’s panacea after the team invested big money in tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in free agency in 2021. They combined to make five catches for 33 yards. 

Smith and fellow underachiever Agholor remained mostly uninvolved. Agholor had three catches for 28 yards and a fumble despite plenty of playing time (58% of offensive snaps).

Then there were a few questionable decisions worth exploring. 

Why, for example, was Jones dead-set on targeting Xavien Howard in crucial moments? Howard is the clear-cut CB1 with the Dolphins also playing Nik Needham, a solid option, and Kader Kohou, a completely untested undrafted free agent. Howard set up safety Jevon Holland for the first-quarter interception.

And then why, on a crucial third-and-3 in the fourth quarter, did the Patriots call a rushing play to Ty Montgomery? It went for no gain. Montgomery is their pass-catching back. The team’s power backs, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, both finished with more than three yards per carry. We can chalk that one up to first-time playcaller Matt Patricia making a rookie mistake — perhaps overthinking the element of surprise by rushing with his pass-catching back.

And then finally, it is just as important to look at who barely played. Bourne, who seemed like an emerging star in 2021, fell out of favor with the Patriots in training camp for reasons Belichick won’t explain. Bourne was spotted getting chewed out at one practice for not having his equipment ready. The Patriots also ejected him for fighting in a joint practice with the Panthers

But those two offenses hardly seem enough for what took place on Sunday. There seems to something deep at play that the Patriots won’t discuss. Bourne played just two snaps, and didn’t get onto the field until six minutes left in the game. 

And guess what happened when he finally arrived? He freaking arrived, with a 41-yard yard play that injected life into the offense. Then Agholor zapped the life from the unit on the following play with a fumble. (And Agholor was serving as the WR3 above Bourne.) Bourne’s lack of usage was befuddling before he made that big play. After he made that instant impact, it was clear the Patriots had erred.

Did something happen?

“Nothing,” Bourne said. “Just not giving the coaches what they want, what they need to see.”

Belichick didn’t give much of an explanation either. In fact, he also beamed over Bourne.

“I thought KB did a great job stepping in there when we needed him. Made a big play for us,” Belichick told WEEI’s “The Greg Hill Show.” “He’s a good player. And I’m sure that he’ll have plenty of opportunities, as all of our skill players will, going forward. So, we’ll see how it all plays out.”

New England’s offense needs to get better, and that will start with sharper protections for Jones, sharper decisions from Jones and Patricia and playing Bourne for more snaps.

The offense is struggling as much as I predicted. I don’t hate to say told you so, because I like being right. So … told you so. 

Related: Bill Belichick is taking four big risks. How will they affect the Patriots?

What I can’t say: How quickly and how much can the Patriots improve?

Now let’s take a look around the AFC East following Week 1.

Von Miller was everything the Bills could have asked for.

The Bills didn’t blitz Rams QB Matthew Stafford once — and they got seven sacks. 

Seven!

Von Miller was the headliner at the center of a rockstar performance.

“I loved it,” coach Sean McDermott said about Miller’s play after the game Thursday.

How could he not?

After a blur of great Sunday games, it’s easy to forget just how important MIller was in Thursday’s game. So I’m here to remind you. He finished with four pressures, which broke down into two sacks, a quarterback hit and a hurry. And if there’s any lingering doubt about whether the 33-year-old remains dominant, Miller eradicated it on a third-quarter sack of Stafford.

No one broke down that play better than retired defensive end Chris Long, who now hosts the podcast “Green Lights.”

“Von Miller is an alien,” Long said in a video he posted to Twitter. “It’s called the ghost move, the dip move. I’d heard of a name, but there really shouldn’t be a name because nobody else can f—— do it. There’s only a few other people on the planet that can run full speed under an NFL offensive lineman’s armpit. I said don’t try this at home, because if I tried that right now without warming up, I’m going to urgent care. … My back would go.”

Miller’s win percentage wasn’t even the best on the Bills, per Pro Football Focus. In fact, it wasn’t in the top five. He won 26.7% of his pass rushes, behind Boogie Basham (40%), A.J. Epenesa (35.7%), Ed Oliver (33.3%), Jordan Phillips (33.3%) and Greg Rousseau (31.6%). Phillips, in particular, seemed to benefit most from Miller. Phillips has been a mediocre performer over the past few seasons, struggling to find that elite form he had in 2019, when he posted 9.5 sacks. 

Well, maybe — just maybe — he has found it again. Phillips finished the game with a team-high six pressures and two sacks. He was a monster on a defensive front that already features an array of standouts. 

There will be no blocking this front. Not for long.

Because of Miller & Co., Stafford attempted just eight of his 41 passes for 10 air-yards or more. His stats beyond the 10-yards-from-scrimmage marker were fine: 4 of 8 with a touchdown and an interception. But the rush managed to neutralize the Rams’ downfield passing. It was a huge game for the Bills.

And the defensive line’s strong play was all the more important in lifting this defense while it’s without CB1 Tre’Davious White, who is recovering from an ACL injury last year. Miller & Co. prevented rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford from experiencing trial by fire. And that’s a good thing, because they were allowing plenty of production. Benford let up three catches on five targets for 55 yards. Elam allowed three catches on three targets for 23 yards.

“We have confidence in both players, and I think both players will continue to work at it,” McDermott said of his rookie cornerbacks after the game.

Buffalo needed a big game from its defensive line. The group delivered.

The Dolphins’ defense didn’t have CB Byron Jones and it didn’t matter.

The cornerback ties together an elite Dolphins defense. He is the CB2 behind Xavien Howard, which allowed cornerback Nik Needham to play in the slot where he’s most comfortable. But remove Jones from the equation and Miami gets out of sorts. 

The Dolphins have such little faith in youngster Noah Igbinoghene that they made him a healthy scratch on Sunday. So when the team announced that, it was completely unclear who might be the CB2. Igbinoghene had seemed in line for CB2. Miami swerved away from expectations.

The Dolphins started by moving Needham into an outside role, with the defense mostly operating in a two-cornerback look. When they went nickel (with three cornerbacks), they made use of Kohou, an undrafted rookie making his NFL debut, and Keion Crossen, a journeyman known best for his prowess on special teams. 

Mac Jones went after Needham, but the results weren’t catastrophic. Here’s how the Dolphins looked in terms of catches allowed, targets and yards allowed. (They did not allow a touchdown.)

Needham: 5/6, 96 yards (34 coverage snaps)

Howard: 1/2, 6 yards, forced INT (34 coverage snaps)

Kader Kohou (UDFA rookie): 0/2 (14 coverage snaps)

Crossen: No targets (8 coverage snaps)

Needham was absolutely the weakest link, but he was also playing in a spot where he wasn’t comfortable. The Dolphins surely held up better than if they had gone with Igbinoghene, who has been a leaky defender for his entire career. And because Kohou and Crossen held up against exploitation from Jones, the Dolphins’ defense held the Patriots’ passing offense in check. Jones finished just 21 of 30 for 213 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Beyond the passing game, Kohou logged a forced fumble on Agholor and a tackle for loss.

“Since training camp, my coaches have harped on building up my confidence,” Kohou said postgame. “Always telling me, ‘You need to be ready game one, you need to be ready game one.’ So it’s a credit to them, and then in the game just add a little bit on to it.”

The Jets are who we thought they were.

I tried to tell Jets fans that the team was going to struggle again. And yet in Twitter polls and mentions, Jets fans plead with me to think outside the box and see that things are different this year.

They aren’t.

Related: AFC East Guide: Predictions for Bills, Patriots, Dolphins, Jets

But. BUT! 

I think this is an opportunity for a simple round of the good and the bad. Sound OK?

The bad: 

In their 24-9 loss to the Ravens, the Jets converted a depressingly low rate of their third downs at 2 of 14. At least they had better luck on fourth down (3/4).

The offensive line allowed three sacks (OTs George Fant and Max Mitchell, RB Michael Carter).

The pass-catchers dropped four passes (TE Tyler Conklin, WR Corey Davis and RBs Breece Hall and Carter).

New York committed six penalties for 81 yards.

Hall, in his NFL debut, lost a fumble, which gave the Ravens a 2-1 advantage in the turnover ratio. He also had six carries for 23 yards and six catches for 38 yards.

Joe Flacco‘s quarterback rating was 15.4, a product of disappointing play from him — but mostly all the ingredients listed above.

The good:

Lamar Jackson was not wholly dominant. He completed just 57% of his passes for 213 yards, throwing three touchdowns and an interception. Jackson also rushed for just 31 yards on six carries. New York kept him in check with strong cornerback play:

Jackson threw at starters Sauce GardnerD.J. Reed and Micheal Carter on 14 occasions. The QB completed just four passes for 38 yards. Impressive stuff, particularly from Gardner, who allowed one eight-yard catch on three targets.

We haven’t seen what this offense looks like yet with Zach Wilson. So there’s that!

Garrett Wilson caught four of his eight targets for 52 yards. The incompletions weren’t necessarily his fault. And the catches were impressive, including a sharp route on fourth-and-15 where he picked up the first down. And then there was that play where he slipped two would-be tacklers and nearly picked up the first down.

In the end, though, New York’s only consolation was that the Patriots looked so bad that the Jets might actually be able to compete for third place in the division.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.


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