Despite some impressive moments on both sides of the ball, the New England Patriots fell to the Miami Dolphins 17-16 in their season-opener on Sunday. Quarterback Mac Jones turned in a strong debut, while the Pats front seven looked to be much improved from one year ago. Meanwhile, Miami enacted a clever defensive game plan; maintaining aggressive pressure up front, with stout coverage in the secondary. Still, the Patriots lack of consistency and discipline was ultimately the deciding factor in New England falling to 0-1 on the 2021 season.
Though the loss was less than ideal, there was much to be learned about the 2021 Patriots on Sunday at Gillette. In the face of their struggles, the Pats exhibited a resilience that should serve them well in the coming weeks. From the poise of their young quarterback, to their ability to rapidly make defensive adjustments, New England has several reasons to be optimistic heading into their week two matchup with the New York Jets.
Lesson One: Move on from Mistakes, but Protect the Football
One of the bedrock principles of a Bill Belichick-coached football team is protecting the football. On Sunday, the Pats fumbled the ball four times, two of which ended up in the hands of their opponents. Rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled the ball in New England’s second drive, stalling what looked to be a promising start. In the fourth quarter, with the Pats’ offense deep in Miami territory, lead back Damien Harris had the ball knocked loose by Miami cornerback Xavien Howard. The fumble cost the Pats another promising drive, and ultimately the game.
Still, it will be incumbent on New England’s coaching staff to make improvements, yet continue to instill positive morale. In his postgame meet with the media, Pats’ Captain James White was candid on how the Pats’ running backs will find the balance between improving their ball security and keeping up confidence:
“They've got to move on from it. Obviously, it's a mistake or whatever but everybody's going to make a mistake out there. You've just got to move on from it. You can't let it weigh you down because like you said, it's a long football season and we're going to need both of those guys. They are extremely talented, and they'll play a lot of good football for us. Everybody has extreme confidence in them.”
Lesson Two: Leadership Jones
While Jones’ final stat line (281 yards passing, 29-for-39 with one touchdown) may not make headlines, the rookie still turned in a solid performance. Jones continued to make quick reads and impressive throws, while completing 14 of 19 passes under pressure. However, he continues to impress his coaches and teammates with his poise and leadership abilities. Following Harris’ fumble, Jones was seen on the sidelines motivating the Pats defense to continue to put up the fight. Though New England would not come away with the victory, the rookie exuded a confidence and command beyond his years.
After the game, Jones was asked about his ability to motivate in the face of adversity. He responded by saying:
“I think being the quarterback, I need to do a better job, demanding better in practice. Sometimes I just let things slide, myself included. That's not good enough. So I'm going to try and be more vocal, and I am a vocal person, but it's kind of a new situation, and I can be better. But it starts with me. The defense, I try to hype them up and stuff, and they played great. We've got to do better on offense. So we'll do that.
Lesson Three: Still in Need of Help on the Outside
With Stephon Gilmore still weeks away from returning, the Patriots continue to look for solutions at outside corner. In spite of some difficulties in man coverage (most notably against Miami receiver DeVante Parker), J.C. Jackson should continue to provide adequate play as the primary option at the position. Jalen Mills had an up-and down day on Sunday. The Pats defensive back contributed a key pass break-up in the endzone, but also gave up a few plays underneath. Joejuan Williams was routinely beaten by at least a step by his target receivers.
Despite the perception that the Pats played more off-coverage than normal on Sunday, Jackson offered the following on how New England’s secondary will look to build upon its performance on the perimeter:
“I mean we were trying to mix it up with press, off-coverage and trying to disguise it for the quarterback. It is part of football. It was good coaching and good football from Miami and I know we could have played a little better so come Monday, we will be ready to work and move on.”
Lesson Four: Resilience is Found in Attitude, as well as Adjustments
In 2020, the Patriots front seven routinely had problems when attempting to set the edge and stop the run. In 2021, the Pats defensive front is far better-equipped to do so. However, it is not just about the personnel. It is also about the persona. After surrendering 80 yards in just over five minutes in Miami’s first scoring drive, the Pats made the proper adjustments to tighten their defensive game plan. According to linebacker Matt Judon, the unit’s turn around was as much about quickly regaining their swagger. Following the game, Judon offered his thoughts on the Pats defense rebounding when most needed:
“We just calmed down and we looked at where the ball was heading and what they were doing to us. We just made some minor adjustments and we just played better. It’s not always about adjustments, it’s about winning your matchups and I think everybody started winning their matchups.”
The Patriots will now travel to the ‘green side’ of the Meadowlands, as they will take on the New York Jets (0-1) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey at 1:00pm ET on Sunday, September 19.