Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien had three primary objectives when he returned to New England to direct an offense that needed to put the train back on the tracks.
First, O'Brien had to help the Patriots evolve offensively by creating a system that ideally burrows from his most recent stint at the University of Alabama, where Mac Jones thrived in a modernized smash mouth-spread scheme as the quarterback for the 2020 national champs. Then, O'Brien had to take one of the league's most predictable offenses a year ago, make its core plays less identifiable, and put the game back in the players' hands to adjust on the fly.
O'Brien's roots, and his experience working under Nick Saban over the last two seasons, made those first two boxes relatively easy to check. O'Brien was always going to bring New England's offensive system up to date by installing a far more advanced playbook and sequencing together plays in a more complementary way to put opposing defenses in binds.
From the outset of training camp, even through early-summer struggles as the players learned a new playbook, it was obvious that O'Brien's system would be challenging to defend.
However, the taller task for the Patriots offensive architect was helping quarterback Mac Jones recover from a bumpy second season and then thrive to live up to his first-round draft status. Although the overall operation was messy, Jones also developed some bad habits in 2022. Mainly, Jones's statistical output against pressure plummeted.
As a rookie, Jones had a respectable passer rating of 74.2 while under pressure, ranking 13th among 31 qualified quarterbacks, per Pro Football Focus. Due to several factors, Mac's passer rating while under pressure dropped to 35.1 in the 2022 season (38th out of 40). Building in answers to pressure and executing blocks relates to coaching. But either way, the numbers weren't good for Mac, who was also 30th in turnover-worthy plays while under duress (11).
Fast-forward to Jones's 12 drop-backs on Saturday night, where the Pats quarterback was under pressure on five-of-12 plays and sacked twice, and Mac had a 118.8 rating against pressure. Obviously, that's a tiny sample size. Still, it was clear that his poise, field vision, and quick outlets at his disposal are significantly improved this season.
O'Brien incorporated three run-pass options (two completions for 15 yards), one under-center play-action pass attempt, two of Jones's drop-backs were in empty formations, and the Pats utilized motion/shifts on half of Jones's passing snaps under center. It was only step one in the preseason, but there was still decent variety in O'Brien's play-calling.
The audio breakdown shows the good and the bad, so it wasn't perfect for Jones and the starting offense. But the building blocks are there with a more poised Jones quarterbacking for the Patriots to get back on the right track, especially if reinforcements come along the offensive line to clean up the pass protection, where there were several issues.
New England's offense under Bill O'Brien is heading in an exciting direction schematically, and there are hints on the film that the quarterback is starting to find his groove again.
Here are two other takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots trip to Lambeau Field on Saturday night:
1. Evaluating the All-22 for Backup QB Bailey Zappe on Saturday night
Patriots second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe is having an uneven camp for several reasons, some of which are in his control and others that are not. With the Patriots down five offensive linemen, including two projected starters, it's had a trickle-down effect on the second-stringers available to block for Zappe, which has honestly led to worse pass protection than what Jones has received from the makeshift "starting" group in recent practices.
On Saturday night, Zappe's had a negative completion rate over expected at -11.8 percent. The second-year QB made life harder on himself with his decision-making at times, hurting his completion rate because he was making more challenging throws. However, there are still positives, which have also come in practice in peaks and valleys for the young passer.
For example, Zappe helped lead rookie wideout Kayshon Boutte to a 42-yard touchdown with great anticipation and accuracy on a five-step slant. Zappe anticipates Boutte's route opening on a basic slant-flat concept, recognizing the slot defender matching the flat route in man, and hits the sixth-round rookie in-stride so that Boutte can take off after the catch.
Earlier, Zappe showed great pocket movement and instincts to turn a potentially negative play into a positive outcome on a dump-off to J.J. Taylor. The Pats are running a dagger concept where the inside vertical tries to clear out the second-level dig route, but the Packers defense has the downfield routes covered. As the pocket starts to break down, Zappe finds clean air space and avoids a sack by flipping the ball over to Taylor.
The issues for Zappe seem to come when he doesn't throw away from help defenders, opting to challenge tight windows where there is help rather than progressing to the next read. Above, the Pats ran a double dig concept. When the linebacker dropping underneath the slot (Nixon) receiver's in-cut stays inside, it opens a passing lane to Kayshon Boutte (bottom of screen), who runs his in-cut from the outside. Ideally, Zappe would make the easier throw to Boutte.
Zappe still operates well working quick-game concepts (slant-flat) and is a solid improviser with light feet in the pocket. But he has made things more difficult on himself on his progression reads at times this summer, which is why his accuracy metrics are down.
2. Christian Gonzalez and the Rookie Roller Coaster for a Cornerback
Patriots first-rounder draft selection Christian Gonzalez had the type of week that allows rookies to grow in their first training camps. Gonzalez has sky-high expectations based on where he was taken in the draft and tremendous athleticism/upside. The 21-year-old is going to start immediately in his first season, and he is expected to play well right out of the gate, but the reality is that there will be growing pains like there are for any young player entering the NFL.
For Gonzalez, those growing pains this week have come in zone coverage, which is somewhat of a knock in his scouting report heading into last April's draft. Certainly, not a major area of concern, but a part of his game that needs to be coached up to find that consistency.
On Saturday night, Gonzalez allowed two catches for 23 yards on 20 coverage snaps and was called for a harsh defensive pass interference penalty. On the DPI, Gonzalez has textbook coverage on Packers wideout Malik Heath. Heath tries to hit the rookie with a slant-and-go, but Gonzalez matches Heath the entire way, gets his head around to play the ball, and barely makes contact with Heath as he tips the pass to teammate Brad Hawkins. Gonzalez, who is excellent in man coverage, was all over Heath's double move and got burned by the refs there.
However, he's still trying to get a feel for mid-pointing routes and reading quarterbacks in zone. Above, Gonzalez has the flat in cover two at the top of the screen, with the Packers running a smash-style concept into his area (flat/corner). Packers backup quarterback Sean Clifford deserves credit for looking off Gonzalez by pumping to the flat before throwing the corner. Still, you'd ideally like to see Gonzalez get more depth there to squeeze the corner to make the play easier on safety Joshuah Bledsoe or even clog the passing lane himself.
Gonzalez is a gifted athlete with explosive closing speed, so he doesn't need to be so reactionary in zone; take away the big play, give the quarterback the check-down, and fly up to make the tackle. Despite concerns about his play strength, Gonzalez can tackle, showing that when he brought down RB Emanuel Wilson on a screen pass.
3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Packers
- Overall, the lack of physicality and one-on-one wins from the top defensive front was not good enough. The defensive line didn't get off blocks, linebackers/box safeties were passive at the second level, and they got pushed around. The pass rush was also nonexistent, with two pressured drop-backs on nine Jordan Love passing snaps. I'm not too concerned, though, because the vets will flip a switch and their four blitzes were basic (adding a fifth rusher from the second level). No line stunts or cover-zero blitzes. Yes, they missed Ja'Whaun Bentley as a tone-setter in the run game, and rookie Keion White (DNP) is already a difference-maker. But they'll get smoked against Philly playing like that.
- Still waiting to see an explosive play from JuJu Smith-Schuster in the open field. Smith-Schuster has worked in the tough areas and makes strong plays at the catch point to finish through contact. But they haven't gotten him loose in YAC mode yet. There's something to be said for his toughness to run in-breaking routes over the middle, and he competes hard in the run game.
- Kendrick Bourne absolutely balled out. You can argue that he was open on nearly every route he ran, and his block on Rhamondre's big run was tremendous. Bourne's suddenness to create separation looks even better than in 2021.
- I was slow to jump on the Kayshon Boutte train because I have past trauma from over-hyping rookie receivers on the Patriots. But his explosiveness might be back, at least against off-coverage. Boutte still wore press at times, but the rookie wideout can eat up cushion in a hurry, and that burst to daylight was extremely impressive.
- Eventually, we'll see Demario Douglas play more than three offensive snaps, right? It's been a while since they've hidden a rookie like this in the preseason.
- The offensive tackle situation is troubling. Sow's technique is too raw to start right away, with his hand usage and footwork leading to a soft edge. There are tools to work with, but improving his angles will take time as he switches positions. Stueber is a hard-nosed run blocker but is a borderline roster guy in pass protection. He'd be better suited on the right side. I'd take a long look at Onwenu at right tackle once he's off PUP with Riley Reiff at right guard.
- The Patriots O-Line struggled more one-on-one this week than last, but a constant issue has been line stunts and picks. The timing isn't there to pass off the twists, and guys are getting picked off their blocks, which is always a tough strategy to combat.
- Rookie LG Atonio Mafi's foot speed and recognition to pick-up line stunts is an issue, leading to a quarterback hit on Saturday. He also tends to stop his feet when he throws a two-hand punch, allowing interior rushers to turn the corner. I wonder if they'll try to train him to avoid a two-hand punch and rely more on independent hand usage, using his size/girth to drop an anchor.
- Rookie C Jake Andrews's athleticism/foot speed was on display a few times. He made a great reach block on outside zone to get the shaded nose tackle and sprung Taylor on his 14-yard screen pass with a good block in space. He needs to keep working on his lower body mass.
- I continue to be impressed with second-year guard Chasen Hines's film. Hines is a plus-athlete with good range in the run game, is an effective puller on counter/trap schemes, plays with power, and has solid awareness in pass protection (zero pressures allowed on 15 snaps). I'd like to see them try Hines out as the top left guard in preseason Week 3.
- TE Matt Sokol's run-blocking was much better than the preseason opener in this one. He helped Taylor turn the corner and made a great combination block to pave a path for Harris. Sokol's in-line blocking gives him a chance to make the roster.
- I'm not sure why Jack Jones hesitated on a Romeo Doubs slant at 8:57 in the first quarter. Jones had an interception if he drove through the catch point. He was good overall, though, with a great open-field tackle in the run game and setting a solid edge on an outside run to force the ball back inside. That was a great play for a corner.
- The Patriots had Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers as the primary deep safeties in a rotation to take single-high duties. We'll need a larger sample size to see if there's a pattern, but it was mostly Peppers on third down in centerfield. Mills also got reps there with the second-string defense. Phillips got a little lost on the Reed touchdown, in my opinion. The underneath help was there for the second in-breaker. I thought he should've helped Wade.
- Besides the silly roughing penalty, it was another solid week for DL Sam Roberts. Still trying to figure out where he fits into the roster, but Roberts converts speed-to-power and uses good upper-body strength to reset the line of scrimmage in the run game. He has been one of their better run defenders in the preseason.
- Jalen Mills is going to be a good safety/nickel. He's probably best playing closer to the line as a slot defender, in man coverage on tight ends, or rotating into robber/rat help positions. Mills has a chance to be an impact player in that role.
- I hate singling out individual players. It's a team sport, and I'm not in the room with these guys to know what's being asked of them. Still, the film says that Mack Wilson is too passive and takes too many poor angles to be an effective run defender. Wilson had good reps in pass coverage, especially a "robot" technique to fall underneath a play-action crosser. Maybe they can find a role for him in the passing game, but they project to play so much dime defense with their five-man rush package on third downs, so I'm not sure where he fits in defensively.