Patriots-Dolphins Takeaways: Questions About Defensive Personnel Choices

The Patriots' run defense was gashed by the Dolphins

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The New England Patriots’ biggest problem this season is a talent deficiency.

The Patriots lost more than half of their defensive starters from last season through free agency, trades and opt-outs, and it showed Sunday in their 22-12 loss to a Miami Dolphins team that was without all of their top skill-position players (running back Myles Gaskin, wide receivers DeVante Adams, Preston Williams and Jakeem Grant and tight end Mike Gesicki).

The Patriots also lack consistent weapons in the passing game beyond wide receiver Jakobi Meyers.

Here are our top takeaways from the Patriots’ latest loss that knocked them out of playoff contention.

All advanced stats via PFF unless otherwise noted:

PASSING GAME
Quarterback Cam Newton went 17-of-27 for 209 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Adjusted completion percentage
Among Newton’s 10 incompletions, three were dropped and two were thrown away. He had an 80-percent adjusted completion rate, which is much higher than I expected after watching Sunday’s game.

— Wide receivers Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry and tight end Devin Asiasi were charged with drops.

— Newton was 2-of-5 for 44 yards on deep passes.

— It took Newton an average of 2.94 seconds to release the football. That’s way up from his season average of 2.65 seconds. Newton also was sacked three times.

— Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers had a costly fumble but caught seven passes on 11 targets for 111 yards. He now leads the Patriots in catches (49) and yards (616). He’s eighth in the NFL in yards per route run.

Pass protection
C David Andrews: four hurries
LT Justin Herron: sack, two hurries
RG Shaq Mason: sack
RB James White: hurry

— Right tackle Michael Onwenu, left guard Joe Thuney, center James Ferentz, tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, fullbak Jakob Johnson and running back Sony Michel were clean in pass protection.

— Andrews left the game late with a calf injury, leading Ferentz to take seven snaps at center, all of which came as a pass protector.

— Herron played every snap at left tackle over Jermaine Eluemunor, who was questionable to play with an ankle injury.

— White hasn’t been quite as dependable in pass protection this season. He wasn’t charged by PFF with allowing a sack, though it appeared he let one up to linebacker Jerome Baker.

RUSHING ATTACK
With Damien Harris out with an ankle injury, 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel took over the reins as the Patriots’ top running back, picking up 74 yards on 10 carries.

Michel: 4.4 yards after contact per attempt, one avoided tackle
Newton: 2.29 yards after contact per attempt, one avoided tackle
RB J.J. Taylor: 2 yards after contact per attempt
White: 2 yards after contact per attempt

— Byrd and Meyers both had avoided tackles as receivers.

— Taylor received just one carry for 2 yards in his return to the offense. The undrafted rookie hadn’t played since Week 3.

— Michel filled in well for Harris and had a long run of 17 yards. Harris should regain his starting job when he returns, however. Both players are under contract for next season.

PASS DEFENSE
The Patriots’ pass defense was pretty stout against Dolphins rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who went 20-of-26 for 145 yards with an interception. The Patriots’ run defense, of course, was a different story. We’ll get into that soon.

Pass rush
DT Adam Butler: sack, two hurries
OLB Josh Uche: two hurries
S Adrian Phillips: sack
OLB Chase Winovich: QB hit
DE Tashawn Bower: hurry
DE Deatrich Wise: hurry
OLB John Simon: hurry
CB JC Jackson: hurry
OLB Anfernee Jennings: hurry

— Winovich (19 out of 72 snaps) barely played. He saw 10 snaps in run defense, just six as a pass rusher and three in coverage. Uche (20 snaps) actually saw the field more. Uche was deployed 11 times in run defense, five as a pass rusher and four times in coverage.

— Anfernee Jennings (45 snaps), Bower (42 snaps), Shilique Calhoun (39 snaps) and Simon (33 snaps) all played more than Winovich and Uche among edge defenders. That shows the Patriots put more of an emphasis on playing who they determined to be better run defenders. Miami still gashed New England for 250 rushing yards on 42 carries with three touchdowns.

— Butler finished fifth among Patriots defenders in snaps (50).

Pass coverage
Jackson: four catches on six targets for 34 yards, INT
LB Terez Hall: 4-5, 30 yards
S Kyle Dugger: 2-3, 23 yards
CB Jonathan Jones: 1-1, 14 yards
CB Myles Bryant: 1-1, 9 yards
CB Stephon Gilmore: 1-1, 8 yards
Simon: 2-2, 7 yards
Phillips: 1-1, 7 yards
Jennings: 2-3, 5 yards
Devin McCourty: 1-1, 5 yards
Calhoun: 1-1, 3 yards

— Gilmore left the game after 24 snaps with a leg injury. Jones and Jason McCourty took on bigger roles in his absence.

— That was Jackson’s eighth interception of the season. He’s second in the NFL behind Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, who has nine picks this year.

— Hall wound up playing the third-most defensive snaps on Sunday. Ja’Whaun Bentley left early with an arm injury and didn’t return.

RUN DEFENSE
As mentioned above, the Dolphins ran all over the Patriots despite being down their top ball-carrier in Gaskin. Rookie running back Salvon Ahmed carried the ball 23 times for 122 yards with two scores.

Tackling efficiency
Hall: five stops
Dugger: four stops, missed tackle
DT Lawrence Guy: four stops, missed tackle
Simon: two stops
Phillips: two stops
Butler: two stops, missed tackle
Bentley: stop
Calhoun: two stops, two missed tackles
Jennings: stop, missed tackle
Jones: missed tackle
Jackson: missed tackle
Bower: two missed tackles
Uche: two missed tackles

— Missed tackles were a massive problem for the Patriots on Sunday. Jones, Calhoun, Bower, Uche, Butler, Jackson and Dugger finished with PFF’s lowest tackling grades Sunday.

— Calhoun, Winovich and Wise finished with PFF’s lowest run-defense grades. The Dolphins had some big plays to Calhoun’s side. The Dolphins’ longest run, a 31-yarder by Ahmed, was to Winovich’s side. Wise was overpowered at times in the middle of the Patriots’ defense.

— The Patriots are a game-plan defense, so their snaps will vary based on the matchup. Still, it’s slightly confounding to see a player like Bower, who didn’t play Weeks 10, 12 or 13 in wins over the Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers suddenly take on 27 percent of snaps in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams and 58.9 percent of defensive snaps Sunday against the Dolphins. It was slightly surprising to see Calhoun return off of injured reserve and play his most snaps since Week 6 against the Broncos. Jennings’ snaps have also been all over the place this season.

— Winovich or Uche might not be the answer on run defense, but it appears Calhoun, Bower and Jennings aren’t either. Winovich and Uche are the Patriots’ best pass rushers. It seems slightly inexcusable to give them a combined 11 pass-rushing opportunities.

— The Patriots missed Bentley in the middle of their defense as the Dolphins really got rolling in the second half after Bentley left the game.

NESN’s New England football takeaways is presented by Valvoline Instant Oil Change

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