MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Coming off its most impressive performance of the season, the New England Patriots’ defense took a major step backward in Sunday’s 34-33 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
It doesn’t get much worse than giving up a desperation 69-yard touchdown on the last play of the game. The performance sparks some old questions about the unit and how much the Patriots can rely on it as they hope to make another postseason run.
On the final play, Ryan Tannehill threw a 14-yard pass to Kenny Stills, who lateraled to DeVante Parker. Parker then quickly lateraled to Kenyan Drake, who took it 52 yards, beating two Patriots to the corner of the end zone -- defensive back J.C. Jackson and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was on the field as part of New England's prevent defense.
It was a breakdown of epic proportions. How does that happen?
It starts with a questionable coaching decision to put Hail Mary personnel on the field, with Gronkowski taking the place of safety Devin McCourty. The Dolphins had the ball at their own 31, which made a 69-yard Hail Mary pass unlikely.
“We practice that play a few times, for the Hail Mary, you guys have seen it before: Go up and get the ball. They changed it up a little bit,” Gronkowski said. “You have to be ready for anything.”
It was the dagger for a defense that couldn’t slow down the Dolphins’ running game for most of the day.
“Unfortunately we didn’t do a good job on that play. We need to obviously coach it better, play it better,” Bill Belichick said.
In the shocked locker room after the game, Harmon said the key on that type of play is spacing and tackling. He said he was expecting a lateral more than a Hail Mary.
Once again, South Florida was anything but a day at the beach for the Patriots, who are 1-5 on the road against the Dolphins since 2013. Tom Brady is 7-10 on the road against the Dolphins, who are one of just three teams to have faced Brady multiple times and have winning home records against him, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“It just hurts. I’m just a little disappointed because we really let a win get away from us, slip through our fingers,” Harmon said. “It really sucks.”
The Patriots had opened the game in a three-safety nickel defense, meaning they were essentially playing a six-man box. That invited the Dolphins to run the ball, which is a matchup the Patriots have had success with in the past.
But in the 80-degree heat and humidity, the Patriots struggled to control blockers at the line of scrimmage, and shedding blocks and tackling from linebackers and defensive backs was a similar struggle.
It was easily the most rushing yardage (189 yards) the Patriots have allowed all season -- against a Dolphins team that hadn’t had such success on the ground since Week 16 of the 2016 season.
The Patriots made a second-half adjustment to play more base defense, giving them a seven-man box that was more stout. The results improved slightly, but by that point, there was little margin for error, in part because of missed opportunities from the offense and special teams earlier in the game.
Brady made an uncharacteristic mental mistake at the end of the second quarter by taking a sack when the team didn’t have any timeouts, which cost the team at least a field goal. And kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point and a 42-yard field goal. It was his shortest missed field goal of the season, and he was 37-of-37 on extra points before Sunday.
The Patriots, who drop to 9-4 and could have clinched their 10th straight AFC East title with a win Sunday, will now look to do so with a win next Sunday in Pittsburgh.
While it doesn’t all fall on the defense, the Patriots will need a much better performance in Pittsburgh to have a chance.