There was plenty to like about the Patriots cruising to a 26-3 victory over the Colts at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Bill Belichick's defense tied a franchise record with nine sacks and is now the NFL's top-ranked unit in expected points added (EPA) and fifth in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. On special teams, Cam Achord dialed up a perfectly timed punt rush to block a punt leading directly to a New England touchdown, reversing the script from a loss in Indy last season.
You'd like to say the Patriots are playing complimentary football with all three phases contributing to back-to-back wins to climb above .500 for the first time this season at 5-4.
Instead, the defense and special teams are propping up an offense searching for answers. As we know from years of experience as contenders, the Pats current offensive execution won't get it done against playoff-caliber opponents who will surely test the defense more than the last two opponents.
Heading into the bye week, finding things the offense can execute consistently and getting quarterback Mac Jones back on an upward trajectory is an absolute necessity.
The biggest thing holding the Patriots back is timing and being unsure of their strengths offensively. To execute a productive passing offense, it all needs to come together: the QB's reads, blocking, receivers getting open, and pressing the right buttons as a coaching staff.
Jones's statistical regression from league-average as a rookie to one of the least efficient passers in the NFL is a trickle-down effect. He did not get here on his own. The play-calling and designs need to improve, the offensive line situation is dire, receiver spacing and separation is inconsistent, and now Mac is playing poorly (27th out of 34 QBs in EPA per drop-back). Yes, both things can be true, the situation around the quarterback needs to improve and so does the quarterback.
In their win over the Jets in Week 8, the Pats found some success with Mac in the gun, up-tempo or no-huddle, empty formations, and run-pass options out of spread formation. So, naturally, against the Colts, Jones was under center on 17 of the Pats first 23 plays, and eight of the first 11 first-down calls were runs against a good run defense.
The coaching staff surely had sound reasoning for opening the game under center with a run-first approach on early downs. But until they can consistently execute a core group of plays, gone are the days of being a game-plan heavy offense that can morph week-to-week. By the time the Patriots get into their strengths, Jones's process is already impacted by a 38.5% pressure rate and a slow start to the point where Mac is out of sync.
Jones will never have elite physical tools like Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes, so winning with his brain and accuracy is critical to his long-term success in the NFL. Whether it's coaching, blocking, receiver separation, or the second-year QB himself, Mac's eyes were not consistently finding the open man on Sunday, while Pro Football Focus put three of Indianapolis's four sacks on the quarterback.
"It's all about where your eyes start, right, as a quarterback. What you're being told and where you're looking," Jones told Patriots.com following Sunday's win over the Colts.
"Sometimes you miss things that people – you don't know if you missed it or not on the field. You walk off and are like, darn, I looked at the picture. Looked like it was there, but my eyes were starting where they were supposed to start. Sometimes that's how it is."
|Mac Jones on Initial Read Throws (via PFF)
|TO Worthy Play %
According to Pro Football Focus, Jones's passing stats to his initial read or first look in his drop-back are plummeting compared to last season. Some of that might be because the play designers aren't scheming guys open as much as before, and the protection isn't as clean. But it's also about where the QB looks in the play's initial stages.
In this audio breakdown, we'll discuss several examples from Sunday's game against the Colts where there are completions on the film that aren't made. Again, we don't know how exactly Jones is being coached to read each play. But there were open receivers on this tape, and the quarterback needs to start finding them.
After failing to force a punt in the final two games against Buffalo last season, we understand that some might label the top-ranked Patriots defense as fools gold until they prove it against an elite offense. But, on the whole, New England's defense is playing playoff-caliber ball.
The onus is on the offense to pick it up in the second half, where the schedule gets significantly tougher, and the defense will have bigger challenges than Sam Ehlinger's Colts (who just fired their head coach).
Although it would be nice, the necessity to win games with their defense allowing the offense to play with a lead is not sustainable. Eventually, the offense occasionally needs to drive the bus. We know what a contending team looks like in all three phases, and one of those phases isn't holding up its end of the bargain to make the Patriots a legitimate threat in the AFC.
Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from Patriots-Colts After Further Review:
1. Patriots EDGE Josh Uche Coming Into His Own as a Situational Pass Rusher
Those who watched him closely over the last two seasons in games and training camp knew Uche had the raw talent to rush the passer at a high level. However, injuries have bogged down his development, as have things like rush lane discipline and sturdy edge-setting.
Over the last two weeks, Uche has put out his best tape as a Patriot, accumulating four sacks and eight quarterback pressures (four in each game). Uche is not just a bursty rusher who can turn a tight corner anymore. The third-year pro is now rushing intelligently as well. Let's explain.
The first play that stood out was one of the few times that the Colts tried to run zone-read with Ehlinger having the option to hand the ball off or keep it on the outside run. Uche, the "read" defender as the unblocked player at the end of the line, stays outside. Typically, this would signal to the QB to give the ball to the back. But Ehlinger keeps it, Uche forces him back inside, and the Pats defense stuffs the Colts quarterback.
Another area of growth for Uche is improving his rush lane discipline to stay level with the quarterback, which is one of Belichick's main coaching points with his edge rushers.
Here, the Pats line up to send a zero blitz at the Colts quarterback with six rushers on the line of scrimmage. It plays out more like a man-free, single-high coverage with only four receivers in the pattern. With the rush coming after him, Ehlinger tries to leave through the middle of the pocket to beat the blitz by scrambling. But Uche wisely mirrors the Colts QB as he climbs the pocket and brings him down for the sack.
The Patriots now have the second-most sacks (32) and second-best pressure rate thanks to secondary rushers such as Uche and Deatrich Wise stepping up along with NFL sack leader Matthew Judon.
2. Evaluating the Pats O-Line: Isaiah Wynn at Left Guard, Yodny Cajuste at Right Tackle
New England continues to search for a five-man combination that can consistently block both in the run and pass game, with right tackle and left guard as the main weak links. Obviously, they're playing with a backup center, too, but David Andrews is expected to return shortly.
Over the last two weeks, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has been under pressure on 38.5% of his drop-backs, and the Pats have generated -12 rushing yards before contact. Alarming.
The Pats are desperate for serviceable play at right tackle. The first experiment was starting third-year pro Yodny Cajuste at right tackle. Cajuste took at least two big plays off the board due to allowing pressure in the first half and finished with a team-high five quarterback pressures and a sack. He had issues against Colts edge rusher Kwity Paye's punch-rip and swipe moves, as Paye hurried Jones on the overthrown ball to Rhamondre Stevenson in the second quarter (and a play-action attempt as well where Bourne was open downfield). Ideally, Mac still makes that throw. But when he's facing pressure off his right side all game long, it's going to make an impact.
Next, the Patriots quickly pulled rookie Cole Strange after two possessions and replaced him with Isaiah Wynn moving inside to left guard, as he did at times last week.
Starting with Strange's two-week drop-off, it's easy to relate it to Andrews's absence. Clearly, the veteran center aided Strange both physically and mentally. But Strange's over-aggressiveness presented problems in this one, which has been an issue all season. He lunged out at DeForest Buckner, and the All-Pro DT swam right around him. Strange was so eager to get to his second landmark in an early run play that he didn't hold his initial block long enough to late center James Ferentz overtake Buckner. That got him benched.
As for Wynn's tape at left guard, arguably his most natural position based on his body type, he wasn't tested much in pass protection but did give up two pressures (QB hit, hurry). Without many reps, his rhythm in the running game was a bit up-and-down. He needs more reps coming off combination blocks and working up to the second level, something you do more on the interior than at tackle. It could've been worse, but there's still a lot to correct.
Our evaluation is that Andrews will get the interior sorted out when he returns, whether it's Strange or Wynn at left guard. Right tackle is a major concern, and offensive tackle is probably this team's biggest need heading into the offseason. Not sure a stable solution is on this roster.
3. There is an Easy Fix to the Patriots Run Game Struggles After the Bye Week
The conventional wisdom about why defenses align at the snap is that the safety alignment and box count are dictated by how much the defense fears an opponent's passing game. However, that is not usually the case.
Instead, things like single-high or two-safeties and the number of players in the box are often determined by the offense's formation and personnel on the field. For example, if the offense is in a heavy grouping such as 12-personnel and under center, expect single-high.
That's what the Patriots got from the Colts defense in this game. When the Pats opened in a heavy grouping from under center, Indy went with one deep safety on the hash and put the extra defender in the box. Despite that, the Pats still ran the ball ineffectively while out-numbered.
There are two ways the offense can counter the defense loading the box against their run formations: play-action or spreading the field with more receivers and the QB in the shotgun.
New England called ten play-action passes but was unwilling early on to dial it up (the nub formation above is begging for two vertical routes into the right sideline). Then, they had issues in pass protection off play-action. The coaching staff eventually spread the field with three receivers, and the Colts lined up with two deep safeties and a lighter box.
With Indy finally going with lighter boxes, the Pats began finding success running the football against their two-high shells with gap/lead plays and seven RPOs – this is how you protect a vulnerable offensive line.
Transitioning to the spread formations was a good in-game adjustment by the staff. But that needs to be their starting point moving forward. Until they stabilize the offensive line, it needs to be easier on the blockers up front. Running the ball into heavy boxes takes dominant run-blocking, which the Pats don't currently have offensively.
New England's ball carriers are too talented for the running game to struggle this much.
4. Other Quick-Hit Film Notes from Patriots-Colts
- The Pats ought to give Rhamondre Stevenson the game ball after every win for keeping the offense afloat this season. He has gained 126 rushing yards after contact over the last two games to give them some semblance of a running game. A stud every week.
- The tight ends are grossly underutilized in the passing game right now, which we already knew. But the fact that they don't try to work the seams against these single-high structures is frustrating. They are passing up big play after big play.
- This is what "all 11" to the ball in the running game looks like by the Patriots defense. Outstanding physicality, technique on the line of scrimmage, gap discipline, and reads from the off-ball guys. A dominant effort by the D-Line, in particular.
- As Devin McCourty said after the game, the Pats are starting to diversify their coverage structures and spin the dial on the quarterback with different safety alignments. They threw a lot at Ehlinger, who was completely lost.
- Vintage Lawrence Guy game. Absorbing doubles, standing up single blocks, taking on pullers at the point of attack, occupying blocks in the pass rush. Still a stout, sturdy IDL.
- Could watch Mathew Judon run T/E stunts all day long. Perfect timing, disguise, and explosiveness on his first two sacks. He even got held on the second one and still got the sack. The refs missed it.
- The Pats used Mack Wilson as a spy in man coverage on Ehlinger, which allowed their four-man rushes to go after the Colts QB. Wilson has carved out a nice role on passing downs, mainly in the rush as an interior blitzer and spy. But he'll occasionally start off the ball and play in a low hole where he can help in man coverage, too. Exactly what they needed in the passing game. Let's see how it holds up vs. Josh Allen.
- The secondary did a great job of avoiding picks/rubs by staggering themselves at different levels, and the help defenders also did their jobs. Fascinated to see this group against an elite passing offense. They've been better than expected and play on a string. Truly make you beat them one-on-one rather than giving it up easily.
- Devin McCourty had great reps in coverage leveraging routes from single-high and two-high safety shells. Could tell he had a feel for what Indy was doing.
- The blocked punt was a great design by special teams coordinator Cam Achord. With two returners deep, the Pats rotated the jammer at the snap (Peppers replaced Jones) and overloaded the protection. Neat play design executed to perfection.