Whether it's the Super Bowl or Week 18, the Patriots view the last game of the year as a final exam for the current players to make their case for roles in future seasons.
At this point, the meetings and practices have added up to where it's on the players to put what they've learned on film. We can argue about the job the coaching staff did this year. But the schemes and techniques are what they are this late in the season: what can the players do?
On Sunday, it's only fair to mention the field conditions worsening significantly due to the winter storm in Foxborough. The Gillette Stadium turf was in good shape throughout the first 20 minutes or so, but by halftime, it was a snow-covered slush-fest, making it challenging to cut or build speed. For those reasons, we'll talk more from 30,000 feet this week – it was a nasty January afternoon in New England.
This season, the Patriots finished 29th in pass DVOA, with only the Panthers, Jets, and Giants having worse passing attacks in 2023. The final autopsy from a disappointing season for the Patriots offense came down to a few recurring themes from the tape all year. As they look to fix it in the offseason, the Pats lack of a rhythm passing game was their downfall.
Although the off-script heroics around the league garner all the attention, the bottom line is every efficient passing game in the NFL is built on a foundation of in-structure plays. At the root of even modern passing offenses is the quarterback making on-time, accurate throws in a progression-based system from the pocket. If you can't do that, there's nothing for the offense to hang its hat on to move the ball consistently.
A combination of factors for the Patriots led their offense down a road where it was living on quick-game and isolated deep shots, which is not a way to sustain offense. Initial reads were muddied, mainly due to a lack of receiver talent and possibly because of the scheme (we are not absolving OC Bill O'Brien here). Then, there was a lack of time in the pocket for quarterbacks to come off first reads, manipulate coverage, and deliver throws, while the Pats QBs lacked the arm talent to hit a backside dig or second-read vertical routes without a pristine pocket.
All these issues added up to the Patriots having one of the NFL's worst in-rhythm passing games in the NFL this season. Now, all their passing splits were bottom-tier in 2023—still, the Pats passing metrics pail in comparison to the top in-rhythm passers. Out of 39 qualified passers, Patriots quarterbacks Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe ranked 33rd and 31st in EPA generated on in-rhythm throws, producing a combined -46.8 total EPA on 251 drop-backs.
In Week 18, weather caveats aside, Zappe was 6-of-20 for 73 yards with an interception and four sacks on plays that occurred in 2.5-to-4 seconds. Zappe generated -0.57 EPA per drop-back on 24 in-rhythm plays, with an interception on a well-designed shot play gone wrong.
The lack of in-structure passing hurt the Patriots in many ways, like limited production off play-action and generating yards after the catch. Despite running a YAC-based offense, the Pats finished 19th in yards after the catch (1,924) because timing and ball placement are key to hitting receivers in-stride to produce YAC. The Pats also ranked dead-last with a 72.2 passer rating off play-action.
New England's decline from an all-time great offense with Tom Brady, and even a respectable operation with a rookie-year Mac Jones, can be directly tied to their in-structure execution. Gone are the days when the Pats QB1 would survey the field and make accurate throws with opportunities for receivers to do something with it after the catch. Instead, it's a disjointed game of Jenga.
Before we start deliberating about the top quarterbacks in the draft, with several who do add Mahomesian late-down playmaking, the Patriots need to determine the root cause of their struggles within their base offense. If you don't have a solid foundation of plays, it will be tough sledding for whoever is at quarterback. How much of that is scheme-related versus personnel issues should go a long way in determining the next steps for the organization.
Here are our big-picture thoughts on the defense and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Jets After Further Review:
Did the Patriots Defensive Staff Get 'Out-Coached' by the Jets Offense?
As we continue evaluating Bill Belichick's future as Patriots head coach, a frustrated defense following another low-scoring loss had some telling remarks to Patriots.com following the game on Sunday.
Defensively, it's been a tough year where most understandably believe the defense held up its end of the bargain to have a competitive season. Despite losing Pro Bowl pass-rusher Matthew Judon and standout first-round pick Christian Gonzalez early on, New England ended the 2023 season ranked ninth in total DVOA, 15th against the pass and third vs. the run.
However, the defense ended the season on a low note. The Pats came to the week allowing a league-best 3.2 yards per rush, the lowest average rushing output in the NFL in the last decade. On Sunday, Jets RB Breece Hall ran for the most rushing yards against a Belichick defense since 2013 with 178 yards on 37 attempts, capped off by a 50-yard touchdown run that put the game on ice.
Although 3.6 yards on Hall's other 36 carries sans the 50-yarder doesn't sound too bad, the Jets running back had 14 successful runs and four runs over ten-plus yards. Hall was chipping away all afternoon. Given the conditions, the Jets played the elements better than the Patriots – another Belichick-era hallmark that went down in what could be his last game in New England.
In post-game comments to Patriots.com, nose tackle Davon Godchaux honestly assessed New England's struggles against the run: "I feel like we got out-coached. They kept running the same play, and we never adjusted to it. I don't know. I have to watch the film. Never really adjusted to it – Breece Hall is a good player. But we stopped him many times."
After reviewing the film, we'd say that Godchaux has a point about the Patriots getting out-coached by Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. It was only one game. But seeing that Belichick or linebackers coach Jerod Mayo are two likely candidates to be head coach next season, it's not a great way to make their cases heading into the offseason. This game plan up was very September, extension of the preseason-like: base fronts and not much exotic blitzing.
According to NextGen Stats, Hall rushed outside the tackles on 27 of his 37 carries in Week 18, gaining 139 of his 178 rushing yards and a touchdown on off-tackle runs. When he ran inside, the Jets running back only had 39 rushing yards on ten carries (3.9 average). As the Pats nose tackle said, the Patriots played most of this game out of a five-man front, saw the repeat plays from the Jets, and never adjusted. Eventually, Hall broke the game open.
Along with a physical mentality to stop the run as a unit, run defense is all about numbers, hat-on-hat, or whatever you want to call it. The offense is trying to be at least even numbers-wise at the point of attack, so the back is untouched through the line of scrimmage. Then, it's on the back to break tackles, which Hall did, generating 149 yards after contact.
The first repeat scheme was outside zone to the condensed/nub side of the formation. The Jets ran this play primarily out of two-tight end personnel but also once with a condensed wideout, so it's essentially the same. On all three plays, they dressed it up with a pre-snap shift, creating tight formations into the boundary away from a two-receiver side.
In all three instances above, the Pats blitzed off the two-receiver side. With the slot corner blitzing likely as a contain/boot defender to pressure boot-action, the Jets had the right call on into the safety rotation. The strong safety, typically Kyle Dugger, rotates into the deep part of the field as the free safety replaces the blitzing corner in coverage. The rotation leaves the Pats at a numbers disadvantage to the play side. The Jets get a combo/double on the edge, with the outside blocker working to the play-side corner and the frontside combo working up to the MIKE. Hall had 26 yards on three nearly identical plays using this scheme.
The other repeat play the Jets hammered was the same outside zone blocking, but now they're running it out of a two-back set with a lead-blocker in the backfield. The Pats matched the two-back formations in a neutral, seven-man box with split safeties, not exactly conceding the run but also not selling out to stop the run either – a little odd, given the QB.
By using a fullback, the Jets can crack down on the fast-filling safety because the fullback can kick out the boundary corner. This run action forces the Patriots to crack-replace, meaning CB Jonathan Jones is now at the point of attack to fill the entry point for the running back. This time, rookie Keion White sets a sturdy enough edge against Mekhi Becton while LB Jahlani Tavai backdoors the zone run, so the fullback leaves Jones unblocked to block the first color. Still, the run gains eight yards, setting up the big touchdown run on the ensuing drive.
On the next drive, the Jets ran the same exact concept for a 50-yard touchdown. WR Irvin Charles's crack block on Jabrill Peppers is so effective this time that it knocks White off his track. The chain reaction allows the fullback to lead up to Jon Jones, leaving a laterally moving Bentley alone in the hole against Hall, who stiff-arms the Pats LB and houses it.
Frankly, it was weird to see the Patriots run defense exposed by the same plays without the defensive staff adjusting. New England ran the same fronts and blitzes/fits, presenting themselves with the same problems all afternoon. It was not very Belichickian.
Over the years, the Patriots defense has had issues with outside zone/Shanahan-style offenses because their bigger DTs and LBs struggle to flow sideline-to-sideline. However, New England produced a league-best -0.21 EPA per rush on outside runs, meaning this was a one-game blip in an otherwise standout season stopping outside zone schemes.
It's my job to tell you what the film says, not dip into tin-foil hat territory. But that was a very strange defensive performance all around by the Patriots on Sunday. Make of it what you will.
Quick-Hit Film Notes from Patriots-Jets After Further Review
- How the seven sacks went down: five on the offensive line/blocking, two on Zappe, and one on the double-pass that the Jets D-Line didn't bite on. Zappe held the ball for 4.41 seconds (2:21 third) and 5.27 seconds (11:11 third), so we'll attribute those two sacks to the QB. Zappe could've hit Pop Douglas on a crosser on Quinnen Williams's first-quarter sack, but Williams took him down in 3.67 seconds (beat David Andrews) – that's not a very long time on third-and-10.
- The lack of downfield separation from the Patriots receivers was telling. The Jets have a good secondary with a coverage system built to limit big plays, and the field conditions made it difficult to stop, start, and cut at the top of routes. However, there weren't many opportunities into open windows to push the ball downfield. When Jalen Reagor is your most threatening downfield receiver, that says something about the personnel – it has been a long-standing issue. They should work hard to upgrade this WR group, especially Parker (X) and JuJu (Z). Pop can stay in the slot.
- Another long-standing issue is how poor the Patriots offensive line is at reacting to post-snap movement by the defense. Whether it's line stunts, run blitzes or simulated pressure, this group doesn't play with good awareness or active eyes to make adjustments on the fly. Their run fits in this game were poor, with the Jets having unblocked second-level players to stuff runs way too often. The Patriots must look into all their options at offensive line coach in the offseason, whether Adrian Klemm is healthy or not to return to his post.
- S Kyle Dugger ran hot-and-cold down the stretch. The Pats safety is one of the NFL's most versatile players and is a terrific athlete. But he sometimes seems too hesitant to trust his eyes for more impactful plays on the ball. In coverage, the mental processing issues cost him in zone drops and on a 51-yarder allowed to Dalton Kincaid in Week 17, where Dugger anticipated a run due to Buffalo's formation. This week, Dugger was late to fill in run support on a 12-yard rush by Breece Hall. When it comes to paying Dugger the bag, you wish there were more anticipatory instincts to his game rather than relying solely on raw athleticism to recover. Dugger wears several hats and has flashes of playmaking ability on the ball, but I'd be wary of overextending on a new contract.
- EDGE Josh Uche is in a similar boat as Dugger. Uche tried to be a more disciplined pass-rusher this season to play within the Pats system, but the speed-to-power approach rather than digging deeper into his bag of pass-rush moves has limited his effectiveness. Uche logged a QB hit with only six pass-rush snaps in Week 18. After blowing an edge on an 11-yard run where the Jets converted on third-and-5, Uche only played five snaps in the final three quarters, all on third down. Uche is an effective pass rusher when he can do his thing. But this coaching staff views him as a situational player. I only see him back in New England if his market is softer than anticipated. Uche would benefit from being in a more aggressive scheme.
- Assuming they retain him, the Patriots have two building blocks on their offensive line: Mike Onwenu and Sidy Sow. Onwenu allowed just one pressure, facing mostly John Franklin-Myers at right tackle. Sow allowed two hurries at right guard before an injury to Vederian Lowe forced him to move to left tackle. The problem now is figuring out where to put both players long-term. Ideally, they're guards. But the Pats will probably stick with Cole Strange for one more year at left guard. With an offseason to prep, Onwenu could be a permanent solution at right tackle. Onwenu and Sow on the right side would be a nice foundation for a run game.
- DT Christian Barmore recorded a career-high seven run stuffs and a QB hurry. Barmore is definitely seeing more double-teams, being doubled a team-high eight times in the pass rush. He was still able to work off extra attention in the run game, finishing a terrific third season with another great performance -- a prime extension candidate this offseason.
- LB Anfernee Jennings is a prime retention candidate, assuming the Pats are running a Belichick-style defense. Jennings recorded four run stuffs and blew up a screen. He is an ideal strong-side edge rusher as an early-down run stuffer who can rotate with a more explosive pass-rusher like Mack Wilson, Uche, or a draft pick in the future. He was terrific this season.
- Rookie DE Keion White's punch power and length were effective in his reps out of a two-point stance with two runs stuffs and a batted pass. But his get-off suffers when he plays up on his feet. He's far more twitchy in a three-point stance because he can use his lateral agility to slip into gaps/edges. White has intriguing tools, but he's a tweener who must blend his skills to reach his ceiling.
-Two minus decisions for the Pats RBs on Sunday. But, for the most part, the blocking let them down. Kevin Harris ran into contact rather than trying to bounce a wham play to the outside. D.J. Reed got sucked in a bit by the blocking scheme and was the run force on that side of the formation. Instead, Harris ran into traffic for a two-yard gain. Zeke had one poor read where he bounced outside with the hole forming up the middle behind Sow and Jake Andrews. Overall, they needed more on the ground in these conditions, producing a lousy 25% success rate. Most of that was on the blocking. But more explosive/imaginative backs could've produced a few bigger runs from this perspective.
- OT Vederian Lowe deserved credit for two solid starts at left tackle. However, he went backward in Week 18. Lowe allowed a team-high seven quarterback pressures with two sacks. He struggled with his awareness and anchor against stunts while Bryce Huff blew by him for a sack. I don't think Lowe got a hand on Huff, who exploded out of a four-point stance. Lowe should not be in this team's top three tackles next season.
- C David Andrews lost a one-on-one battle vs. Quinnen Williams on a first-quarter sack but was solid for the rest of this one outside an additional hurry. Andrews's run-blocking is still at a high level, making a great block on the move for Zeke in this one, and you'd think his pass-blocking would be steady with better guard play. He also finished the season playing every offensive snap. Andrews took a slight step back in pass protection this season, allowing six sacks, but I'd welcome him back with open arms if he decides to play another year.
- Rookie LG Jake Andrews has some foundational skills that could develop over time, but with more exposure came more issues (four QB hurries allowed). Andrews struggled to keep rushers out of his frame, exposing his chest to power and giving up ground. His post-snap processing of line movement and simulated pressures also looks a little raw, allowing a quick hurry off his outside hip where Zeke had the in-line LB blocked. Andrews should've immediately opened outside but hesitated, and the DT blew past him. Based on his limited size and range, Andrews looks like he'll be locked in at center long-term, where his stout build should work fine with more seasoning.
- TE Mike Gesicki has some burst off the line, and he'd probably be better off with a quarterback that could put the ball consistently in his catch radius away from coverage. Still, he doesn't offer much separation on horizontal cuts or crossers, which was disappointing. You'd like to see him run away from coverage more consistently than he does for a wide receiver in a tight end's body. Gesicki was blanketed throughout this film.
- TE Pharaoh Brown had chances on the wheel route on fourth-and-1 and was open on the double-pass, but Zappe was faced with immediate pressure. Brown's in-line blocks were just okay, but his juice as a receiver was a pleasant surprise – a low-cost UFA to monitor.
- DT Lawrence Guy has some gas left in the tank. Guy is a very sturdy five/4i technique who dominates the point of attack when singled and still holds up well against double-teams. The Patriots were happy with his performance in his role and should welcome him back.
- DL Jeremiah Pharms has some suddenness and lateral agility in the pass rush. He recorded two hurries with a slick arm over/swim move and an inside-out crossover rush. He also added a stuff. Pharms brings some juice to the interior as a rotationial piece moving forward.
- CB Alex Austin was highly competitive in coverage, with one credited pass breakup and another would-be PBU wiped out by a penalty. He was a little passive against the run, with Hall gaining eight yards on outside zone to his side, but it was mostly an encouraging performance for the second consecutive week. Austin will be in the conversation for a role as the third boundary corner in camp next summer.
- QB pressures allowed: Lowe (two sacks, five hurries), J. Andrews (four hurries), Sow (sack, QB hit, two hurries), D. Andrews (sack, hurry), Onwenu (hurry), Elliott (hurry), Mafi (hurry).
- QB pressure: Bentley (sack, QB hit), Wilson (sack, hurry), Barmore QB hit), Uche (QB hit), Pharms (two hurries).
- Coverage: Austin (5/2/8 yards/PBU), Jennings (2/2/20 yards), Jones (2/1/4 yards), Wade (1/1/30 yards), Bentley (1/1/7 yards), Tavai (1/1/1 yard), Marco Wilson (1/0/0), Bryant (1/0/0), Peppers (1/0/0/PBU), Mills (1/0/0).