5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 21-11 win over the Dolphins

It wasn't perfect, but the Patriots handled their business in Week 1.

Patriots rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings reacts after he helped stop the Dolphins on a fourth quarter run play near the goal line.
Patriots rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings reacts after he helped stop the Dolphins on a 4th-quarter run play near the goal line. –Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the first game the Patriots have ever played at Gillette Stadium without Tom Brady on the payroll, as New England’s new-look offense stomped its way to a 21-11 dispatching of the Dolphins…

CAM WAS SUPER, MAN

Cam Newton was always going to be the biggest story of Game 1, good or bad.

Sunday, it turned out, he was neither good nor bad. He was great.

Of the 18 quarterbacks who started games at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Newton threw for the fewest yards, with 155. He joined counterpart Ryan Fitzpatrick as one of only two of the 18 among that group who failed to throw a touchdown pass.

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But don’t let the numbers fool you. Newton dominated Sunday’s game, with his passing stats only telling a small part of the story in his Patriots debut, and failing to encapsulate the impact his ability to run the ball had on the efficiency and effectiveness of the New England offense.

Newton himself ran for 75 yards on 15 carries, good for an average of five yards per attempt with a couple of trips to the end zone. And those aren’t the only yards he deserves credit for. The 142 yards piled up by his teammates — bringing the team total to 217 — were likewise attributable to Newton, who helped to create those opportunities because of the threat he posed the Dolphins and his ability to decipher the Miami defense when left to decide whether to keep or give the ball away to his back.

Sony Michel had 37 yards. Rex Burkhead added 32. Rookie JJ Taylor picked up 28 on just four attempts, James White had 22, and Julian Edelman’s 23 on an end around was a testament to the value of the movement and misdirection Josh McDaniels was able to utilize with Newton as his trigger man.

In total, the Patriots kept it on the ground 42 times, and averaged 5.2 yards each time. They were 6-for-11 on third and fourth downs, and if N’Keal Harry hadn’t fumbled through the end zone they would likely have gone 4-for-4 on converting red zone trips into touchdowns.

Run-pass option plays are so prevalent in today’s NFL, it’s hard to say anything the Patriots did offensively was especially inventive or exotic. After an unconventional offseason, and no preseason, McDaniels kept things relatively basic.

But because of Newton’s dynamic abilities, basic didn’t mean it was simple for the Dolphins to shut down. Rather, the quarterback consistently kept things manageable, and regularly kept the operation moving forward. He finished with four incomplete passes, two sacks, and a kneeldown. Only four other times did he throw or keep the ball and gain less than four yards. The Pats were in advantageous positions all afternoon offensively.

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And, one week post-Brady, there’s at least a little bit of evidence that quarterback may remain an advantageous position for the Patriots moving forward.

A VISION OF WHAT IT SHOULD LOOK LIKE

Miami closed to within three points with 10:31 to play, by which point the Patriots had only scored 14 points on the afternoon. But the score was not indicative of the rhythm the Pats offense developed over the second half on Sunday — and the encouraging vision of what New England’s offense might look like if it lives up to its potential this season.

The Patriots had three full possessions after halftime, and had Harry not been stripped as he stumbled toward the goal line it’s likely they would have converted all three into touchdowns. Even still, all three netted at least 75 yards of offense. All three lasted at least eight plays. And each drive saw the Pats convert for at least six first downs.

Including penalties, the Patriots picked up 228 yards on 30 snaps, good for better than seven yards per clip — and they did it by capitalizing on the running game they’d established before intermission. Having softened up the Dolphins some, the key to the first series of the third quarter was three throws from Newton to Julian Edelman. On the next series, Harry made four catches before ultimately spoiling it with his fumble, and Taylor also touched it four times for 28 all-purpose yards. Then, on the game-clinching series, the Pats put the ball in the hands of five different players on the five plays it took to move all the way to the Miami 10. After that things stalled, but Newton rammed his way to a fourth-down conversion, and Sony Michel followed that with a 1-yard scoring plunge.

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For the day, New England had only two offensive plays that gained more than 16 yards. And all but two of the 30 snaps in the strong second half picked up more than 13 yards. Rather, the Patriots moved the ball by marching with consistency. They mixed it up, both in their personnel and their playcalling, and they covered for their perceived lack of impact playmakers by counting on their reliability and balance.

Is Sunday’s model sustainable? Probably not. Newton, who’s 31 years old, had only once in his career run the ball more than 15 times. The Pats will face tougher tests than the developing Dolphins, starting next week at Seattle. There’s surely work to do.

But Sunday’s second half offered a glimpse of what the Patriots will likely look like if this thing ultimately works.

DEFENSE DOES ITS JOB

Of course, the other big piece of the Patriots having success this season will depend on their defense. And that unit did its job Sunday, too.
Chase Winovich — who Belichick pointed out afterward is now something of an elder statesmen in the front seven — stepped into a more regular role and played well up front. Stephon Gilmore wasted no time in registering his first interception, and setting a physical tone (even in spite of two pass interference penalties). Adrian Phillips set the Pats up for possible points with a pick at the end of the first half, and then JC Jackson helped seal things at the close of the second.

Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t bring any of his Fitzmagic, so this wasn’t an especially difficult test — particularly when Miami’s No. 1 receiver, Davante Parker, went out with an injury. It remains to be seen if a rebuilt group of linemen and linebackers can legitimately stop the run, or if the Joejuan Williams can be the force that Patrick Chung has been in covering tight ends.

But Sunday gave Belichick a chance to play a lot of guys, to move players in and out, and to see what he has to work with. Without a preseason to do that sort of mixing and matching, the schedule makers did New England a favor in making the opener against an offense that afforded the Pats coaches an opportunity to ease into high-pressure situations.

THE KICKING SITUATION IS A PROBLEM

It wasn’t merely that Nick Folk missed a 45-yard field goal try just before halftime. After all, NFL kickers missed on almost 29 percent of their tries from between 40 and 49 yards last season. The more pressing concern is that from the moment it left Folk’s foot the bid appeared to have a 0 percent chance of being successful.

And based on every indication to this point, it’s possible that Belichick didn’t really think the chances of it working were much higher when he sent his kicking unit onto the field.

The coach’s unconventional handling of the kicking situation has been a topic of discussion ever since he selected an initial 53-man roster that didn’t include anyone at the position, and it wasn’t until Saturday that Folk was temporarily elevated from the practice squad for the season opener. It’s an interesting strategy, and a classically coy way for Belichick to try and exploit a loophole in roster construction.

But Sunday it went past the point of a paper-shuffling transaction, into practical application, and on the field its flaws were apparent. Against the Dolphins, the Patriots presented as a team that wanted to grind things offensively, play for field position, and rely on their defense. They didn’t score much, or strike for many big plays — and this figures to be who they are this season.

A team fitting that profile needs to be able to count on converting the gift of a field-goal try they got with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s brutal interception before the half. They need to be able to play for three points when on the cusp of field-goal range in the first quarter. Even better if they could try booting it from 54 yards instead of punting from the Dolphins’ 37 like they did after Sunday’s other first-half interception.

Given the nature of the games they can expect to find themselves in this season, and their limitations elsewhere, New England’s inability to trust their kicker could become a big problem as things develop. A problem that could cost them a game in what projects to be a tight divisional race.

Unfortunately, however, at this point it may well be a problem they can’t reasonably expect to solve.

Cam Newton runs behind the Patriots’ offensive line. —Getty Images

RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE TOO MUCH OF IT

Of course, Sunday should be taken with a grain of salt. After a limited offseason, no preseason games, and a seismic shift in the direction of the franchise, it’s dangerous to draw too much of a conclusion based on opening day.

We’ve waited so long for this so-called first look, that may be difficult for many of us to do. The wait doesn’t just date back to Newton’s signing in June, or Brady’s departure to Tampa Bay in March. Many have been wondering for years what the Patriots would look like once the greatest quarterback of all time was no longer behind center in Foxborough.

So it might’ve seemed like a slog at times. You might’ve been begging Belichick to be more aggressive at times. You may have been frustrated that three wasted opportunities left the Pats’ lead at just a field goal deep into the fourth quarter.

But be patient. For stretches things seemed stale, flat, even a little boring. Some of that may have to do with playing in front of an empty stadium with artificial crowd noise — and don’t discount that as an element that they’ll need to adjust to, as well. As long as the COVID testing cooperates, things should only get more normal from here. And, in the building process, starting from 1-0 is better than going to Seattle and trying to relaunch at 0-1.

“It was new for every team in the league,” safety Devin McCourty said. “But I think the culture around here is always control what you can control. All the other stuff, it is what it is, and that quickly became what we talked about. … For us, that’s what helped us lock in on Week 1.”

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