MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The New England Patriots weren’t dominated in Sunday’s season opener. But nearly every pivotal play went the way of their opponent.
Two of those, in particular, turned what might have been a competitive Week 1 matchup into a comfortable Miami Dolphins victory.
“It was really a pretty even game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after his team’s 20-7 defeat at Hard Rock Stadium. “Two big plays, 14 points, really skewed the game. … A couple bad plays really hurt us.”
The first came midway through the second quarter, with the Patriots facing a second-and-10 from their own 15-yard line. Dolphins safety Brandon Jones aligned at linebacker level, then crept toward the line just before the snap, sneaking to the outside of edge rusher Melvin Ingram. Brown blocked down on a stunting Ingram, tight end Hunter Henry released into his route and Jones was left free.
The blitzing defensive back nailed quarterback Mac Jones from behind, jarring the ball loose. Ingram scooped it up with one hand and waltzed into the end zone for a Miami touchdown.
The Patriots had prepared for plays like that during the two-week leadup to Sunday’s game. Belichick noted last Tuesday that Miami’s Josh Boyer — a former New England assistant — blitzes his DBs more than almost any other NFL defensive coordinator. The Dolphins ranked second in the NFL in blitz rate in each of the last two seasons. Offensive lines need to be in sync when an opponent sends extra rushers, especially when those are coming from the secondary.
But the communication issues that plagued New England throughout training camp and the preseason persisted.
“We had enough players to block them, but we didn’t block it properly,” Belichick said Sunday, noting a similar breakdown occurred on an earlier sack.
Ingram’s scoop-and-score put the Dolphins ahead 10-0 — a manageable deficit with more than half the game still to play. But the second “big play” stretched that lead to 17-0 just before the halftime break.
Facing a fourth-and-7 with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half, Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle turned a slant pass into a 42-yard touchdown, beating cornerback Jalen Mills off the line and then taking advantage of a reckless angle by safety Kyle Dugger.
A Ty Montgomery touchdown pulled the Patriots to within 10 late in the third quarter, but that was as close as they would get.
“Ten-nothing and you give up that play,” veteran safety and co-captain Devin McCourty lamented. “Even if we just make the tackle, we go 13-0 into the half. It’s way better, I think, than giving up the touchdown.”
Pre-snap motion prompted the Patriots to switch coverage assignments, with slot corner Myles Bryant shifting onto the motioning Cedrick Wilson and Mills picking up Waddle. The speedy wideout had inside leverage on Mills, allowing him to separate from the veteran corner when he broke toward the middle of the field.
Mills pulled up after the catch, and Dugger’s poorly executed tackle attempt inadvertently took out linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Once that happened, there were no Patriots between Waddle and the end zone.
“Terrible angle by me,” said Dugger, whose miscue was the low point in an otherwise strong season debut for the third-year pro. “Bad eyes. I didn’t locate the defender. I didn’t do my job basically. Really poor play by me. Corners trust in me to be in the middle of the field, and I wasn’t there. So it was definitely all me — bad play.”
Those weren’t the Patriots’ only negative moments Sunday. They gave the ball away twice more — a Mac Jones interception that spoiled an impressive opening drive and a late Nelson Agholor fumble — finishing with a lopsided 3-0 loss in the turnover battle. Nose tackle Carl Davis also jumped offsides on fourth-and-1, leading to a Dolphins field goal, and a David Andrews chop block negated a roughing-the-passer penalty that would have moved the chains on third down.
The Dolphins lost more yardage to penalties than the Patriots did, however (20 to 15). They finished with just one more first down (18 to 17) and 36 more yards (307 to 271), and converted on a lower percentage of their third downs (43% to 44%) and red-zone trips (0-for-2 to 1-for-1). New England sacked Tua Tagovailoa three times and allowed just 13 defensive points.
The numbers agreed with Belichick: This wasn’t a major mismatch. But the Patriots have been operating with very little room for error since the start of the post-Tom Brady era, and the mistakes they did make were too much to withstand. New England is 2-9 when committing multiple turnovers and 1-8 when losing the turnover battle since the start of last season, and Miami’s 14 “bad play” points proved to be the difference in a 13-point defeat.
As center David Andrews succinctly put it: “We beat ourselves.”