Breaking Down Patriots’ Game-Changing Drive And Other Final Thoughts From Week 1 Win

Plus: Unexpected intrigue at right tackle for New England

by Zack Cox

September 15, 2020

As the New England Patriots shift their focus to this week’s matchup with the Seattle Seahawks on “Sunday Night Football,” let’s dig through some final thoughts from Sunday’s 21-11 win over the Miami Dolphins:

— The game’s pivotal series began with 10:31 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Dolphins had just driven 80 yards to cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-11, capitalizing on a N’Keal Harry fumble that rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.

A Harry touchdown on that play would have given the Patriots a commanding 21-3 lead, essentially putting the game away. Instead, New England found itself nursing a three-point advantage against a Miami team that was seeking its second straight win at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots responded with their best drive of the afternoon.

It started with an end-around to Julian Edelman, who was sprinting toward the right sideline as he took the handoff from quarterback Cam Newton.

Gashed in the first three quarters by read-option plays and conventional runs, Miami’s defense, which allowed a total of 217 rushing yards in the game, looked unprepared for a carry by a wide receiver.

When Newton faked a handoff to running back Sony Michel after handing to Edelman, cornerback Jamal Perry — who was mirroring Edelman’s pre-snap motion — hesitated and glanced into the backfield. Play-side corner Noah Igbinoghene took two steps toward the middle of the field, staring at Newton and Michel. Edge rusher Kyle Van Noy crashed down and was walled off by tight end Ryan Izzo. Safety Eric Rowe took a poor angle and was forced to loop around Harry while Edelman zipped past him and into the open field.

Edelman picked up 23 yards before being wrestled down by linebacker Jerome Baker. Baker then was flagged for a late hit, gifting New England an additional 15 yards.

After an incompletion, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up another unconventional run play on second-and-10. Running back James White lined up wide to the right, motioned into the backfield, then flared back to the right at the snap, running an old-school option with Newton.

The in-and-out motion forced Baker, who had White in man coverage, to wade through traffic as he pursued the play. Newton held the edge defender and pitched to White, who gained 7 yards.

The next five plays went:

-Read-option give to Rex Burkhead for 4 yards on third-and-3
-12-yard scramble by Newton (his only non-designed run in the game)
-5-yard gain up the middle by Michel
-1-yard loss for Newton
-Newton keeper for 5 yards on third-and-6

Officials initially gave Newton a first down, but he was ruled down just short of the marker following a successful Dolphins challenge.

Facing fourth-and-inches from Miami’s 5-yard line, McDaniels sent out the heaviest personnel package the Patriots have fielded in recent memory: no receivers, no running backs, one fullback (Jakob Johnson), two tight ends (Izzo and Devin Asiasi) and two eligible linemen (rookies Mike Onwenu and Justin Herron).

With that much beef on the field, the Dolphins clearly expected a run up the gut. Newton, though, made a beeline for the gap between Onwenu and Izzo. Both made their blocks, Johnson kicked out edge man Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Newton picked up the first down with relative ease.

One play later, Michel followed blocks by Johnson and center David Andrews across the goal line. The 1-yard touchdown gave New England a 10-point lead it would not relinquish.

The Patriots utilized seven different personnel packages on the 10-play march, including two with zero wide receivers. They used pre-snap motion on eight of the 10 plays. All four running backs (Michel, White, Burkhead and rookie J.J. Taylor) played at least one snap. Newton attempted just one pass, an incompletion.

“Josh called a great game,” Belichick said in his postgame video conference. “He (put) our offensive players in great positions to make plays, and we had a high level of execution from all the units offensively. But that was a big drive. It got started with Julian’s run and the fourth-down run, and we had a number of key plays in that drive.

“But that was a big answer right there to take (the score) from 14-11 to 21-11. Ultimately, that was a key sequence in the game.”

— Of the six Patriots rookies who were active for this game, Onwenu saw the most significant workload.

The sixth-round draft pick played 22 snaps on offense and four on special teams, seeing action both as a jumbo tight end and at right tackle, subbing in for starter Jermaine Eluemunor on one series in the second quarter and another in the third.

With Marcus Cannon opting out of the season, Eluemunor looked like the Patriots’ clear top choice right tackle throughout training camp. Belichick, though, indicated that competition remains open between Eluemunor and Onwenu, both of whom played well against Miami.

Interestingly, neither had played a single NFL snap at right tackle before Sunday. Eluemunor played some left tackle with the Baltimore Ravens, but he’s primarily been a guard at the pro level. Onwenu exclusively played guard at Michigan.

When Belichick was asked about the rotation, his response focused mostly on the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Onwenu, comparing his role to the one former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder played as a rookie.

“Mike?s a very flexible player,” Belichick said Monday. “I don?t think he?s played tackle since high school, but he played a number of positions for us in training camp — guard, tackle. We saw tight end there in the game (Sunday). Similar but different than Solder. When Solder was drafted, of course he was a first-round pick, but he came in and played the majority of his rookie year at right tackle and the jumbo tight end position.

“Mike?s earned playing time, and he?s been able to play different spots for us. Right now, our two guards (Thuney and Shaq Mason) are pretty established players, and they played well. If we can find a way to utilize our personnel productively, then we?ll try to do that. But Mike?s a smart kid, and he?s got good versatility, he?s worked hard, and he?s embraced the opportunity to play different positions. Even though he doesn?t have a lot of experience there, he learns quickly and is able to utilize his skills to be productive.

“Jermaine has gone back and forth between tackle and guard in his professional career. He played tackle for the Ravens. He?s also played guard. So, with Marcus opting out this year, we had a good opportunity to kind of open the right tackle position up to competition. Those two players are ahead of the rest of them at this point. We?ll see how that goes, but I think both Jermaine and Mike have the ability to play inside and outside — they?ve shown that — so we?ll just have to see how things progress moving forward. But it was good to get an evaluation of it (Sunday), and we?ll see how it goes next week and in the succeeding weeks.”

— Here were the snap counts for the other Patriots rookies:

S Kyle Dugger (second round): 11 on defense, eight on special teams
LB Anfernee Jennings (third): nine on defense
TE Devin Asiasi (third): 10 on offense
OL Justin Herron (sixth): two on offense
RB J.J. Taylor (undrafted): nine on offense, three on special teams

Linebacker Josh Uche (second round), tight end Dalton Keene (third) and linebacker Cassh Maluia (sixth) were inactive. Uche, viewed as a likely defensive starter entering the season, apparently was a healthy scratch, as he was not listed on the injury report.

Kicker Justin Rohrwasser (fifth round) is on the practice squad.

— The Patriots need to figure a few things out in the uniform department.

Their new home unis, which they debuted against the Dolphins, are nearly identical to the all-blue Color Rush alternates they wore from 2016 to 2019, with a few minor alterations. Most notably, the new jerseys feature different letter/number fonts than the old ones.

At least, most of the new ones do.

A handful of players on Sunday, including Taylor, Eluemunor and defensive back Joejuan Williams, wore jerseys that featured the discontinued lettering and/or number style.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
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