After last Sunday's upset of the Bills, there's was some optimism that the Patriots could generate some real positive momentum with a strong effort in Miami.
No such luck. The Patriots were "out-talented" and outclassed by the Dolphins in a 31-17 loss that drops them to last in the AFC at 2-6. There were some decent performances on the field Sunday. But nothing close enough to topple the new leaders in the AFC East.
Let's get to the grades...
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It wasn't the volume of turnovers that did the Patriots in Sunday, as it had in other weeks. They only had one. But the timing was brutal.
On the first play after the two-minute warning in the second quarter, Mac Jones acknowledged that he threw late and without enough velocity to the boundary to Kendrick Bourne on a wheel route and was picked off by Jalen Ramsey. The Dolphins followed up the turnover with a field goal, resulting in what was (at least) a six-point swing.
Jones also had what could be deemed turnover-worthy throws late in the game with his team trailing by two scores; one was nearly picked but was scooped off the turf, the other would've been picked if not for JuJu Smith-Schuster breaking it up.
Pressure was an issue for Jones in this one. He was hurried by a blitz on third down on New England's second drive of the game, and it looked like that may have sped him up a bit moving forward. On a play-action pass -- the very next snap for Jones in the first quarter -- Jones was hit on an incompletion, but the pressure wasn't immediate, and Jones may have been able to get it out of his hand a touch more quickly. He was hit again on third-and-long on the following drive but seemed to have some time to get the ball out more quickly.
Jones' feet seemed to be doing a little too much on a checkdown incompletion to Rhamondre Stevenson on first down during the Patriots' first second-quarter series. Soon after halftime, Jones seemed to get a little over-active in the pocket again, and he took a sack that forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal. Jones took another sack just before the fourth quarter on first down where he was slow to pull the trigger.
Jones' touchdown throw to Bourne, his deep in-cut to Pharaoh Brown for 24 yards, and his play-action strike late to Hunter Henry were all positive plays. The Bourne touchdown was open thanks to a double-team on Demario "Pop" Douglas and the free safety falling down, but Jones made an accurate throw with a blocker being shoved into his lap.
Running back: C+
Stevenson's 11-yard run was a thing of beauty and had him looking more like the Stevenson of 2022 than perhaps any other moment this season. He plowed through three defenders for a first down. But otherwise he wasn't much of a factor in this one, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry on 10 attempts.
Ezekiel Elliott had just seven yards on his first four carries of the game, and he fumbled one out of bounds. He came to life late in the game and finished with 36 yards on seven attempts, but there wasn't enough in the way of production from this unit -- Stevenson had two catches for 11 yards on four targets -- to elevate their grade any higher here.
Wide receiver: C
The first touchdown of the day for the Patriots was due in large part to the attention paid to their top young receiver, Pop Douglas. He was doubled, leaving Bourne one-on-one crossing the middle of the field. With Bourne out for the season with an ACL injury, they'll need more from Douglas -- both on the field and off.
"I feel like I gotta bring that energy," Douglas told me after the game. "Not on the field. I’m saying energy in that room. KB was our energy. KB was our energy.
... I did it at Liberty. I just gotta bring it here now. I’m getting comfortable with my teammates. I just gotta step up and become that young leader."
Mac Jones averaged just 5.6 yards per pass attempt, so no one in this unit lit it up on Sunday. Douglas had five catches for 25 yards, doing well at times to know when the play was "over" and getting down to avoid big hits. Bourne finished with 36 yards on three grabs, and Smith-Schuster's only catch went for a touchdown, but he played just 18 total snaps in a sign of where he stands in the receiver room.
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Tight end: B-
Pharaoh Brown continues to simply make plays when given opportunities. His adjustment to a Mac Jones throw over the middle for a 24-yard gain was impressive for a man of his size moving in the opposite direction. Hunter Henry ended up with three catches for 28 yards, while Mike Gesicki had two grabs for 11 yards. Both Henry and Gesicki were targeted just three times.
This grade got a bit of a bump thanks to this group's work in the running game. The Patriots averaged 4.4 yards with their running-back rushing attempts and utilized multiple tight-end sets over the course of the afternoon. Not a game-breaking performance from this unit, by any means. But solid.
Offensive line: C
Mac Jones had a bit more time to throw (2.6 seconds on average) than in recent weeks. And his average depth of target (6.6 yards) was slightly higher than in recent weeks, indicating that he had a bit more in the way of protection. But just because things may be getting better up front doesn't mean they're good enough to win.
For example, there were multiple play-action snaps -- when the line understood it must hold up for an extended period -- where the combination of pressure and Jones' timing in the pocket led to a quarterback hit (first play on the first touchdown drive) or a sack (late third quarter). Mike Onwenu was beaten badly for one of the three sacks Jones absorbed on the day.
Like the tight ends, this group gets some credit for the 4.4-yard rushing average. But they struggled on the run-blocking front for the majority of the game. Elliott's chunky five-yard and 17-yard runs (nearly 30 percent of their running-back rush yards Sunday) came during their long touchdown drive in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins protecting against New England's two-minute drill.
They could've used more push early in the game to help with time of possession. They ran 11 times for just 28 yards (2.5 per carry) in the first half and had seven non-touchdown drives of five plays or fewer. They had the football for just 24:05.
Interesting to note that -- perhaps due to heat and conditioning concerns -- Bill Belichick said the Patriots planned to play three guards Sunday. Atonio Mafi (28 total snaps) filled in for both Cole Strange (49) at left guard and Sidy Sow (29) at right guard at times. For a unit in desperate need of consistency, that was an interesting wrinkle to track.
Special teams: C
Rookie punter Bryce Baringer had an up-and-down day in South Florida. He blasted a 60-yarder that bounded into the end zone for a touchback, and he later hit a 44-yarder when the Patriots could've used a bomb. He also pinned the Dolphins at their own 4-yard line for one of his best punts of the season and blasted a 63-yarder to put Miami at its own 15.
Chad Ryland made his only field goal and both his extra points. This grade was hurt a tad by a Joe Cardona false start as well.
Defensive line: B+
Another bang-up job from this group against the run. They made one of the best rushing offenses in football look pedestrian (3.0 yards per carry) — even with all of Miami's speed and creative use of motion.
The Dolphins were the top rushing team in the league going into Sunday with a 47.7 success rate. The Patriots held them to a 34.8 percent success rate on the ground. Christian Barmore continued his strong stretch of play with multiple run-stuffs to go along with a sack. Keion White drew a penalty and came up with a tackle for a loss in his career-high 62 snaps.
To the negative, Davon Godchaux picked up a penalty that hurt this grade. Tua Tagovailoa's fourth-down scramble that extended a second-quarter touchdown drive seemed to be on this group for not maintaining its rush lanes, and the unit's ability to pressure Tagovailoa was limited by the quarterback’s quick release time.
Overall, though, the bigger bodies in the defensive huddle were far from the issue for the Patriots defense on Sunday.
Losing Ja’Whaun Bentley in the second quarter with a hamstring injury didn't help this unit. Mack Wilson came in, though, and showed up with a tackle for a loss and a run-stuff. Jahlani Tavai, meanwhile, was stout on the edge and had a key pass breakup on third down that led to a punt. He also was all over Tagovailoa during a scramble on third-and-long that led to another punt.
Anfernee Jennings made what could've been one of the plays of the game had the Patriots offense capitalized more on his knifing move into the backfield to be in the right place at the right time to pick up the botched hand-off between Tagovailoa and Raheem Mostert.
Later in the game, Jennings drew a holding call. He's been a solid player in Matthew Judon's absence.
I asked Peppers if he felt the Patriots defense needed to play perfectly given the way the team has played this season.
“We always chase perfection,” he said. “It's hard to have a perfect game, but if you chase perfection you wind up at excellent. We always try to do that. We don't care what happens. When we're on the field, we got a job to do, and we gotta execute.”
Peppers was among the first to acknowledge after the game Sunday that they too frequently fell short of that standard.
Two coverage busts on the back end led to 14 Dolphins points. First, J.C. Jackson and Marte Mapu saw Hill run right through their bracket double-team for a 42-yard score. (They also both looked slow to react to his speed, apparently biting on some motion in the backfield.) Then came the meltdown that led to the Waddle score.
Jackson also had a pass-interference call that led to a Dolphins goal-line score. Peppers missed a tackle on a key in-breaker to Chase Claypool, as well.
This unit made some positive impact plays, no doubt: Peppers’ tackle for a loss in the first quarter; Dugger’s interception, sack and tackle for a loss (the play was wiped due to an offensive hold); Jonathan Jones' pass breakup in the end zone, Jack Jones' pass breakup late in the second quarter, Jackson's pass breakup early in the third on a fade.
But New England’s defensive backs weren’t on their details in the way they needed to be to keep Miami down on the scoreboard.