The Patriots performance against the reigning NFC champions was nearly good enough to capture the second fourth-quarter comeback of quarterback Mac Jones's NFL career on Sunday.
Following a disappointing start where they fell into a 16-point hole, Mac led the offense on two second-quarter touchdown drives in a game where the Patriots were good enough to remain competitive but couldn't make the clutch plays when they needed them offensively to get over the hump in a 25-20 loss to the Eagles at Gillette Stadium.
To unpack this offensive performance by Jones and company, there are macro and micro-level discussions at play. On a macro level, Jones eclipsed 300 passing yards for the fifth time and had three passing touchdowns for the fourth time in his first full game with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien calling plays. If the reigning league MVP gets built-in injury excuses, so does Jones, who put up a fight down his top outside receiver and two starters along the offensive line.
If the Pats were at full strength or did more this offseason to surround the quarterback with elite offensive talent (a topic for a different day), the outcome might've been different. But, we don't operate on what if's in this space. The film doesn't lie, and we evaluate what the team puts on tape.
The Patriots quarterback registered a 49.0 total QBR that puts him right in the net-neutral category, with four big-time throws that were good passes from the pocket. Jones primarily operated from the shotgun, dropped back 58 times, ran only four play-action attempts, and made three passes off RPOs, while having the full field at his disposal on 11 drop-backs from empty formations. That's a lot on the QB.
However, along with the fleeting clutch moments, there are too many minor details that were off in this game for Jones, who had moments where his footwork died in the pocket, causing him to lose zip on the ball, instances where the ball placement was slightly off costing yards, some hesitation at times, and Mac still feels limited on extended or second-reaction plays. When you're a quarterback with Jones's skill set, the finer details of the position are of heightened importance because he needs to maximize every ounce of physical ability he has to offer. His footwork, upper and lower-body mechanics, timing, decision-making, and ball placement to areas of the field he can access need to be consistent because he's not Mahomes or Allen-like, where he'll make up for small misses with haymakers. Right now, being near-perfect on the margins, a tall order, is a work in progress.
Several factors out of the quarterback's control contributed to Sunday's loss. We can get on Belichick for his fourth-down and overall roster-building decisions or nitpick the situational play-calling by O'Brien (didn't love the third-down screens).
Ultimately, better-than-average quarterbacks find ways to win games like those where they have two chances to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and the greats overcome mistakes like early pick-sixes, drops, and the bad breaks that come their way throughout a game and season.
The offense put good things on film in the opener (see audio breakdown above) that were good enough that it's too soon to write this group off after one loss, especially when they're missing pieces. Still, after giving Mac a pass due to last year's coaching setup, I vowed that this would be an excuse-free zone in year three for Jones. Mac was adequate, but he needs to be sharper on the details, or the seesawing will continue.
Here are two more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Eagles on Sunday:
1. How the Patriots Defense Shut Down Philly's Read-Option Schemes
Often, when you turn on the film after a defensive performance that was perceived as dominant, you see all the plays the offense left on the field. In other words, it wasn't as good as it initially seemed because the offense stunk.
Although this wasn't an Eagles offense firing at all cylinders early in the season, the Pats defense was legit in this game. Their defensive front won the matchup against an elite offensive line by pressuring QB Jalen Hurts on over 42 percent of his drop-backs, held Philly to a 3.9 rushing average, and defensive play-caller Steve Belichick mixed coverages on the backend to hold Philly to -0.15 expected points added per play (22nd percentile) – this was the performance against a top offense and MVP-caliber quarterback that everyone has wanted to see.
Along with some well-timed blitzing that led to positive plays for the defense, it was also encouraging to see the Patriots have answers for the designed quarterback run game. The Eagles tried to gash the Pats on the ground with repeat plays from losses to the Ravens and Bears in the 2022 season, where those two offenses ran gap-read concepts like counter-read. Gap reads are downhill schemes that usually feature pullers as lead blockers rather than zone-read plays. Historically, gap runs have given New England's two-gapping system issues.
Last season, the Patriots defense ranked 28th in the NFL, allowing 6.1 yards per designed quarterback rush attempt. On Sunday, the Eagles only had 46 yards on 13 runs with an option element for a 3.5-yard average, showing real progress for Belichick's defense.
Here's one example of how the Pats slowed the Eagles option package out of a two-high safety shell with a four-man front. The key to the game plan was using their run-stuffing safeties as extra support either on the edge or by coming down into the box. Above, Philly is running a split-zone RPO where the Pats are playing man coverage on the pass routes (top of screen). At the same time, Jabrill Peppers fills from depth on the interior run while Kyle Dugger provides a secondary force for the read defender (Judon) to set the edge if Hurts keeps the ball.
The Patriots found answers to their gap-read problems with similar front mechanics on straight read-option plays. This time, Peppers is on the backside to give a double-edge look on the backside, with Dugger supporting Bentley on the play side as the pullers lead the way for Hurts. The pullers get held up by Jahlani Tavai crashing inside, knowing Bentley and Dugger have the edge, and Hurts has to bounce further outside than he wants as the defense converges on him.
The NFL is often called a copycat league where teams will repeat plays that gave particular defenses problems in the past and designed QB runs would qualify for New England's defense. In this matchup, the Patriots defense finally found ways to limit Philly's option package to the point where the Eagles went away from it in the second half.
2. Rookie CB Christian Gonzalez Plays Every Defensive Snap in Regular-Season Debut
As we predicted in Game Observations, rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez allowed a team-high 71 receiving yards into his coverage on seven catches, which doesn't sound great on the surface.
However, a deep dive into Gonzalez's film showed an impressive regular-season debut that got better as this game wore on, and many of those yards he allowed were in off-coverage out of single-high structures, meaning Gonzo was protecting against the deep ball while surrendering some yards underneath. He gave up his leverage on a "burst" out set up by all the in-cuts A.J. Brown was running against him, but overall, this was an extremely encouraging performance.
Starting with his ability to stay connected on deep routes, Gonzalez is matched up against Brown at the bottom of the screen in this example. Brown runs a post-corner route against the single-high defense, and Gonzo plays it perfectly to remain on the outside hip, knowing he has Marte Mapu playing the post in the middle of the field (yes, Hurts should've thrown the crosser. We'll get to that later). Playing to your help is how you succeed in this coverage system.
Next, Gonzalez was right in the middle of the coaching staff's scheming when they sent him on a corner blitz with the receiver in a tight split (shortening the path to the QB). After starting in a two-high shell, the Pats rotate Kyle Dugger into the deep third to play cover-three behind Gonzalez's blitz, and the rookie corner stays aggressive after the tight end releases to bring down Hurts – good disguise by the safeties and motor by Gonzo to register the sack.
Lastly, the Patriots are already trusting their first-year cornerback to play man-to-man in cover zero against DeVonta Smith with the game on the line. The game is over with a first down there, so bringing all-out pressure makes sense on fourth-and-3 because it's either a stop or game over anyway. Still, it leaves Gonzo on an island with the former Heisman winner. By knowing the down and distance, Gonzalez anticipates an in-breaking route and makes a tremendous pass breakup to force a turnover on downs.
The Patriots selected Gonzalez with the 17th overall pick in April's draft to build their coverage system around a number-one corner again. Although it's way too soon to put Gonzalez in that category, he looked the part of a top cornerback in the making on Sunday afternoon.
3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Eagles
- Overall, a banged-up offensive line wasn't catastrophically bad. Although the individual pressures added up with 58 drop-backs, a 31 percent pressure rate with two sacks isn't horrible – you'll take it, given that they were down their starting guards. The run blocking, however, was mostly a mess with too many off-balance/overextended bass blocks and minimal movement generated on the combinations/doubles. There were also quite a few "no chance" runs in this one. They need Onwenu and Strange back.
- RT Calvin Anderson allowed five quarterback pressures, mainly to the Eagles top edge rusher Hassan Reddick. Anderson only allowed one quarterback hit, while Reddick didn't register a sack, so it wasn't terrible. However, Anderson carried his hands too low in his pass sets throughout the game, resulting in Reddick establishing first contact, which caused a soft corner. Reddick beat him mostly with cross chips and rips because Anderson was late with his punch and couldn't get his hands on him.
- Rookie LG Atonio Mafi allowed a team-high seven quarterback pressures in a rocky first start in pass protection. Mafi struggled to redirect/change directions when rushers crossed his face, had some late losses while hand-fighting where he fell off the block, and didn't pick up two blitzes that were probably on him (can't say for sure). Mafi plays with enough functional power in his base to develop into a serviceable guard, and this was a tough first matchup for him. But he'll need to prove he can overcome his lack of foot speed to be a long-term starting option.
- As for Sidy Sow, he allowed five quarterback pressures while struggling with quick losses for Philly's interior rushers. Sow was getting overextended/off-balance by being too aggressive, and the IDLs were using that against him to swim or immediately cross his face. There was also one hurry late where he had Jalen Carter lining up shaded over his inside shoulder, and Carter used a two-hand slap to go right through his corner. I thought David Andrews could've helped him more there, given Carter had him out-leveraged at the snap. Sow also had similar issues in the run game, firing too quickly out of his stance and getting off-balance. Although this was far from perfect, I like Sow better at guard.
- LT Trent Brown was the Patriots best offensive lineman with only two pressures allowed, but his sack on a flying cross-chop move by Josh Sweat came at a tough time (2:59, 4th QTR). Overall, the Pats will take that effort from Brown in pass protection.
- I'm buying all the Demario Douglas stock and want to see him as the primary slot receiver, with Bourne at the Z and Parker at the X by the end of the season.
- I'm not ready to write off JuJu Smith-Schuster yet, as he integrates himself into Bill O'Brien's offense. But, whether it's related to the knee or not, his lack of burst is worrisome. Although it's an educated guess, my theory is that Mac expected JuJu to "return" back to the inside rather than continuing to the sideline on Smith-Schuster's drop, which is why the ball landed short. Bourne and Douglas deserved to be out there at the end of the game.
- Hunter Henry is a pro, and they need to keep feeding him, which BOB will. With more movement to generate power, his run-blocking improved in this one compared to last season.
- Tough spot for Kayshon Boutte to work the X/perimeter role without Parker when he was primarily a Z/inside receiver at LSU. Boutte is not a natural outside receiver, so it's asking a lot for him to work the sideline like a pro on back-shoulder fades and deep outs. I'm not going to drag the rookie for the Patriots not having a reliable backup X to an injury-prone Parker (it should be Tyquan).
- It's football season, which means that LB Ja'Whaun Bentley is back to being the Pats best downhill run defender. Bentley was excellent at taking on blocks and holding up the ball often as the only player who could make a play at the second level on the read-option schemes (since others were accounting for outside runs)—great film for him.
- Keion White is a force to be reckoned with already. Just ask Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson, who were responsible for allowing the four QB pressures by the rookie. White won with power (x2), an outside-inside rip, and a classic speed/rip move. His recovery talent to change directions when Hurts broke the pocket was impressive, too.
- Great seeing a disruptive Christian Barmore again with four QB pressures, a run stuff, and the team's highest pass-rush win rate. Barmore's upper-body power to press blocks was noticeable on film. Good start for him.
- Deatrich Wise and Davon Godchaux teamed up on a huge play to "spill" a QB draw to the outside rather than allowing Hurts to follow center Jason Kelce's pull block. Without them two-gapping Hurts into bouncing it outside, he likely picks up the first down to end the game before Gonzo's PBU on fourth down.
- Stellar all-around game for Jabrill Peppers, playing multiple roles in the defense. Peppers ranged from center field to break up a DeVonta Smith go ball, delivered a thump to force a fumble on a QB draw, and helped out in the read-option defense. Peppers will become a known commodity if he continues playing like that.
- Jonathan Jones (48 snaps) and Marcus Jones (14 snaps) handled the outside cornerback spot opposite Christian Gonzalez. They held it down well, with the veteran Jones allowing only one catch for seven yards.
- Three coverage breakdowns by my count didn't burn them this time, but they might in the future. The weak hook defender in cover-three isn't looking for the crosser from the passing strength. It happened twice, and Hurts missed it both times (see Gonzo section). Teams love post-crosser to flood the deep third in cover three. If the weak hook isn't going to pick up the crosser when the outside corner carries the post, who will?
- Matthew Judon still has the goods with a team-high six quarterback pressures and a sack. Others to register pressures: Barmore (4), White (4), Uche (4/sack), Wise (3), Tavai (2), Gonzo (sack), Bentley (1).
- Coverage stats: Gonzalez (10/7/71/PBU), Bryant (5/5/30), Peppers (4/3/21/PBU), Dugger (2/2/17), Uche (1/1/9), Mapu (1/1/8), Jon Jones (3/1/7), Marcus Jones (1/1/5/TD), Phillips (1/1/2).
DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer