After several weeks with a stripped-down version of offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's offense, the Patriots took the training wheels off for Bailey Zappe in the first half against the Steelers on Thursday night.
Over the last several weeks, including in Zappe's first start against the Chargers six days ago, O'Brien was running as basic an installation as you'll see at the NFL level: gap/duo runs, two-man route combinations, screens, iso slants, and jump-ball heaves on go routes. With shaky quarterback and offensive line play, the Patriots over-simplified everything offensively.
Although the idea might've been that less is more with inconsistencies in several areas, the decision to strip O'Brien's offense down to the studs led to 13 points in a three-game span amidst a five-game losing streak that effectively ended the Patriots season in early December. At 2-9, the Patriots switched from a crumbling Mac Jones to Zappe, who inherited the same isolation ball Jones was running as he lost control of the starting job, likely for good.
After reviewing the coaches film from Thursday night's win, here were the biggest takeaways. First, Zappe's passing chart from this game is what an NFL quarterback's heat map should look like: throws to all three levels, an average target depth of 6.6 yards (not 1.1), only two screens, and attempting passes all over the field. I'm sure O'Brien and head coach Bill Belichick had sound reasoning to play iso ball over the last month. However, if the Pats ran this offense in losses to the Colts, Giants, and Chargers, they'd be in a much better spot. That's just facts.
Zappe gave them solid quarterback play in a well-scripted plan by O'Brien that could've won them games where they lost 10-7, 10-6, and 6-0. Before you freak out at that statement, think about what it's saying. This version of the Pats offense could've mustered one touchdown drive to push the Chargers last week. It's not saying much.
The next takeaway from a Zappe perspective was that it was refreshing to see a Patriots quarterback with full control to check in and out of plays, going through progressions, and moving around the pocket to keep himself protected. Zappe was doing nuanced quarterback things such as eye manipulation, executing pump fakes, ID'ing holes in zone blitz schemes, and stepping up into clean pockets to buy time against a good pass rush. In the end, Zappe was essentially a net-neutral quarterback, finishing the game with 0.0 expected points added per drop-back and a 52.3 total QBR. But they can win with this defense with net-neutral.
The last big takeaway was that the Patriots reverted to iso ball in the second half to sit on their 21-10 halftime lead, especially after Zappe made a bad read on a third-quarter interception, and the pressure started to ramp up. Pittsburgh made some halftime adjustments, mainly to blitz less to tighten up the coverage. Also, Mitch Trubisky couldn't handle pressure or read out a post-snap coverage rotation to save his life. So, they want back to conservative, don't turn it over, don't beat ourselves offense to survive in a 21-18 win on the road. In all, Zappe only dropped back to pass nine times in the second half compared to 23 first-half drop-backs. Ultimately, it got the job done for one week. Still, they can't be afraid of their own shadow forever offensively.
We aren't here to second-guess a coaching staff that knows much more about the inner workings of the offense than any of us do. Why didn't they go to Zappe sooner? Would he have saved their season? Why did they park the bus in the second half? Maybe they felt like their luck had run out with Zappe in the first half, and pushing more aggressively for offense would've led to more mistakes and turnovers. Who knows? They had their reasons, I'm sure.
However, the bottom line is that the first-half offense we saw on Thursday night against the Steelers was the playbook O'Brien probably imagined running when he returned to Foxborough. One that threatens you schematically in the drop-back pass game, stays a step ahead of the defense with the QB running the show at the line, and can access different areas of the field to stress the coverage.
Unfortunately, it's too little too late, and winning down the stretch only angers fans who would rather find a silver lining in this lost season in a top-five draft pick. The Patriots found their offense's DNA in the first half in Pittsburgh against a good defense (sixth in DVOA). But to what end? Is it sustainable, or were they trying to tell us that it was a flash in the pan once again?
Here are our big-picture thoughts on the defense and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots win over the Steelers After Further Review:
Patriots Run Defense is the Best in the NFL, With the Film to Back Up the Metrics
The Patriots defense was a short field away following another special teams error from allowing ten or fewer points again to a Steelers offense that was also very rudimentary in the passing game.
Pittsburgh was in a similar situation as the Patriots recently on a short week with backup QB Mitch Trubisky, who panicked at the first sign of pressure or a post-snap coverage rotation. The Steelers drop-back pass game often consisted of two downfield routes and a few underneath check-downs without much play design incorporated to get receivers open or stress coverage rules – it was as simple as it gets.
We don't want to take anything away from the Patriots pass coverage, which was sound for the second straight game without any glaring coverage busts/blown assignments. The Pats played their second-highest rate of two-high safety shells in a game this season (29.3%), with the focus on limiting big plays to wide receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. Until they were in prevent mode, the Pats allowed only one explosive through the air on Johnson's touchdown.
Although the pass defense allowed Trubisky to self-implode, let's talk about the more impressive Patriots run defense. Statistically, the Patriots have the best run defense in the NFL this season. Now, we can discuss where that gets you in modern football. But the numbers are elite: first in EPA allowed, first in success rate, first in yards per rush through TNF.
Admittedly, run defense isn't as sexy as a sweet creeper pressure in a disguised cover-two scheme that led to Jabrill Peppers's interception (and a sack in the second half). Still, with that kind of production, it's only fair to give the big boys up front their flowers. Based on the post-game locker room, the Pats wanted to make a statement against Steelers RB duo Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, who they felt were getting a lot of positive buzz around the league.
Pittsburgh entered the game with the ninth-ranked rushing attack in DVOA, and the Patriots held the Steelers running backs to 2.9 yards per rush with a below-average 27% success rate. Here are a few run defenders who are standing out and how the Pats defense is getting it done:
Let's start with the big boys up front getting the job done with NT Davon Godchaux anchoring a D-Line playing great ball for defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington and company. As always, the Pats D-Line mainly uses a two-gapping technique where they post up on blocks and then mirror the ball carrier into gaps, building a wall across the line of scrimmage.
The key to this system is having big run-stuffers who can hold up against double-teams without losing ground with the upper-body strength to press-and-shed blocks. Above, Christian Barmore does a great job of splitting a double team at the point of attack against a power scheme. With the backside guard pulling to the second level, Barmore holds up the run by standing his ground and eventually working through the double. The other key element here is Godchaux, who shows excellent discipline to protect against a cutback before collapsing into the play-side gap.
Godchaux has been excellent as a two-gapping, odd front nose tackle all season. In this example, the Steelers are running outside zone. Godchaux once again stays disciplined in his technique to protect against the cutback lane while still being in position to close the play-side A Gap if the runner gets vertical. The ball cuts back, so Godchaux sheds the center and records the stuff for a key stop in the red zone.
Next, the Pats are also getting great play from sturdy edge setter Anfernee Jennings in his fourth season. Jennings led the team with four stuffs in the win over the Steelers, with three of those run tackles going for a loss in yardage. Above, Pittsburgh runs a toss play to Jennings's side, and the Pats linebacker discards rookie tight end Darnell Washington with ease. As we remember from draft season, Washington is a 264-pound blocking sled. Jennings makes the play look easy.
Lastly, the one plus-ten run on a non-scramble that the Steelers had was on a double reverse to speedy gadget receiver Calvin Austin. Pittsburgh went back to the well one more time, dressing it up differently but reversing the field just the same. This time, captain Deatrich Wise recognizes the reverse and does well to get vertically up the field immediately. Wise's quick instincts allow him to string out Steelers RB Jaylen Warren and then help arrives for a seven-yard loss.
The Patriots run defense has always been stout up the middle over the years due to their big DTs and linebackers, such as Lawrence Guy and Ja'Whaun Bentley. However, they've had trouble in the past with setting the edge and stopping designed quarterback runs. This season, they have the second-best EPA per carry allowed on outside runs (-0.23), and they've limited designed QB runs against quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts and came up with a key stop on a zone-read play versus Justin Herbert and the Chargers last week.
Head coach Bill Belichick always says it takes great team defense to stop the run, and that's why the Pats have the best run defense in football.
Quick-Hit Film Notes from Patriots-Steelers
- My one gripe with O'Brien in this game: hated, hated, hated the trap/long trap runs toward T.J. Watt. On film, you see Watt routinely blow up run plays when offenses leave him unblocked initially to pull to his side. In theory, he's an aggressive player who you can ear hole by catching him flying upfield. But he's so damn quick to diagnose it and bendy around the corner that he just gets vertical to blow up the runner in the backfield. Big reason why they struggled to run the ball (17% success rate). Shocked that was the plan. Zeke nearly ended it on duo running right at Watt, which should've been the plan all along (downhill schemes at him actually work).
- RT Mike Onwenu was more competitive against T.J. Watt than he was last week with Mack, and there's something to be said for not allowing a sack, but there were some issues in one-on-one pass protection. Onwenu allowed a team-high four hurries vs. the former DPOY, with Watt beating him clean on a spin move and a club-rip that caused issues for Zappe. These elite edge guys challenge Onwenu to move his feet like an athletic tackle on an island. Big Mike was far better this week than vs. the Chargers, though—credit for the bounce back.
- LG Cole Strange is starting to win me over. Me! Yup, I said it: Strange is getting better. Despite having several one-on-one reps with the line sliding toward Watt, the Pats LG allowed one hurry, with a great one-on-one rep against Cam Heyward and an excellent stunt pass-off in the first half. Strange's play strength and body control have taken a step forward in year two, no doubt. Most of his issues this year have been mental lapses. He's starting to put it together.
- RG Sidy Sow had trouble with line movement in this one. Sow had one notable one-on-one rep in pass pro, where he did well to anchor and re-fit his hands against a Larry Ogunjobi power rush that showed good growth as a hand fighter. Still, the rookie got fooled on a three-man stunt (long stunt) on the Elandon Roberts sack and couldn't maintain his leverage on Cameron Heyward's wrap move on a T/T stunt. He was also a little late to ID the twist on the Heyward sack, so maybe recognizing it a split second earlier would've allowed him to re-fit his hands faster. Overall, Sow looks like a promising rookie on film. The play strength and foot speed are translating, but he's making rookie mistakes. I'm still optimistic about his long-term outlook.
- LT Trent Brown had two bad beats in pass protection. It looks like that ankle injury has him pretty compromised, where he can't plant his feet in the ground with the proper balance to anchor at the apex of the rush—no excuses, just what I'm seeing. Conor McDermott allowed his customary three hurries due to limited range on an island. However, he had an excellent block picking up the nickel blitz on JuJu's 37-yard explosive—good stuff there by McDermott.
- WR JuJu Smith-Schuster made a great play on the ball on his 37-yard catch and another diving catch on a low throw on a crosser. Those are the types of targets we've been clamoring for the QBs to trust him on for weeks. Smith-Schuster is a sturdy target who wins with strong hands and body positioning. He's not, and never has been, an elite separator. The quarterback needs to recognize when he has leverage and place the ball in a spot for him to box out the defender. Zappe did that on Thursday night, so JuJu had a big game. Smith-Schuster has been moving better recently. It wouldn't surprise me if he finishes strong.
- RB Ezekiel Elliott was a pro's pro in this one. He played 52 of 57 offensive snaps, churned out some tough yards against a good Pittsburgh run defense (and some bad play calls), and was excellent as a receiver. Zeke has been a true factor back in the screen game all season, while those rub routes in the flats got them going on several occasions. Elliott was a good signing.
- TEs Hunter Henry and Pharaoh Brown were often open in this one. Henry made his plays in the red zone, but Zappe missed Brown twice for big plays between the 20s. Zappe's tunnel vision for go routes cost him when Brown was wide-open on a crosser, while the big TE was the better option vs. a linebacker up the seam in HOSS in the first half. Brown should've had two chunk gains in this one and had a great block on Zeke's 12-yard run that nearly iced it.
- WR Tyquan Thornton slipped three times on his routes. Can someone get him new cleats? He also couldn't get off press-man twice, one on a go ball and the other on a seam run. That said, he opened up a few plays occupying the post-safety. Overall, it is a step back from last week.
- NT Davon Godchaux is the key anchoring piece to the Patriots run defense. Godchaux's ability to play as a true two-gapping nose unlocks all the playmakers near the line of scrimmage. He's so good at staying disciplined in the backside gap to prevent the ball carrier from cutting back, then crashes down into the play-side gap. Godchaux finished this game with two stuffs as well. Eats up single blocks every week. It's great to watch.
- DL Christian Barmore recorded a team-high five quarterback pressures with a small handful of excellent bull rushes. Barmore's ability to convert a good first step into power puts blockers on skates. He walked rookie RT Broderick Jones into Trubisky's lap on multiple occasions. Barmore has also really improved as a run defender, especially his ability to split double-teams at the point of attack – a three-down player who consistently plays at a high level each week.
- LB Anfernee Jennings led the Patriots with four run stuffs, three TFLs, and a hurry. Jennings plays with excellent technique at the end of the line, easily discarding Steelers tight end Darnell Washington (264 pounds) and a double-team between Washington and Pat Freiermuth, who can both block at a high level. It's been a while since the Patriots had a strong-side edge setter as stout as Jennings, who is a prime retention candidate under a BB/BB adjacent regime.
- S Kyle Dugger's best all-around games of the season. Dugger did have the DPI where he was a tad early to Freiermuth, but he finished the game with a sack, four QB pressures, nearly made a highlight reel interception on an RB screen, and logged a run stuff. He was integral to their pass-rush plan on creeper pressures (Peppers INT). Dugger is an impact player when he's playing at the first two levels of the defense. His play speed, strength, and instincts shine. Add a true free safety and let Dugger and Peppers make plays all over the field for you next season.
LB Mack Wilson is rounding into a nice player. Wilson's sack was a good job of climbing the pocket to close down an escape route for Trubisky, his batted pass on the trick play was something else, and he can handle high-stress coverage assignments playing off the ball linebacker. He's a useful defender on and off the line. Wilson finished the game with two QB pressures, three stops on coverage tackles, and the batted pass.
- Another outstanding game for CB Jonathan Jones, who has been great the last two weeks. Jones split time covering George Pickens (13 routes) and Diontae Johnson (ten routes), allowing only five catches for 24 yards in coverage. Great open-field tackle on Pickens for a third-down stop, competitive on the go route on fourth-and-2, and great reps in leveraging corner routes in cover two and crossers from cover three. Jones is just a good football player.
- CB J.C. Jackson has his ups and downs every week. But, after a benchable effort against the Giants a few weeks ago, Jackson has been more tied into the coverage plans over the last few games. He's at least giving them representable play in coverage now and isn't busting coverages like he was earlier this season. Jackson's two DPIs were one legit call (on the negated INT) and one ticky-tack call in the end zone. My only gripe with Jackson was allowing the touchdown in cover zero on what was a bad throw by Trubisky. He has to be better there.
- Rookie DL Keion White logged a QB hit and a hurry in this one. I continue to see his length being a problem for blockers, but he's very unrefined with his hand technique and block anticipation. They need to coach him up in the offseason and camp next summer.
- Ho hum game for DL Deatrich Wise with three hurries and a great job getting vertical on the second double reverse to string Warren out. Also, another reminder to stop picking on Myles Bryant. He's a solid nickel corner with good instincts and pass-rush disguise, and when protected against difficult man coverage matchups, he'll hold up just fine.
- CB Alex Austin looked competitive in his Patriots debut with seven coverage snaps, nearly logging an interception on a bad ball by Trubisky. Also had a few nice exchanges in zone. Let's see some more. Why not? He didn't look out of place.
- The Patriots replaced RB/ST Ty Montgomery on the wing in their punt protection unit after the blocked punt in the fourth quarter. It wasn't a mental error that led to the costly mistake, just Montgomery having a soft edge where Miles Killibrew ran through his outside shoulder. The special teams gaffs are out of control. It's remarkable that they are this bad on teams. Montgomery was released from the 53-man roster on Friday.
- QB pressures: Barmore (five), Dugger (sack, four), Wise (three), White (2), Bentley (2), Bryant (2), Wilson (sack, two), Uche (hurry), Jennings (hurry), Godchaux (hurry), Mills (hurry), Guy (hurry); QB pressures allowed: Onwenu (four hurries), Sow (two sacks, hurry), McDermott (three hurries), T. Brown (two hurries), Andrews (two hurrires), Strange (hurry).
- Coverage: Jackson (5/3/57/TD/2 DPI), Bryant (4/2/29/PBU), Jones (6/5/24), Bentley (3/3/21), Jennings (2/2/17), Uche (2/1/14), Mills (2/2/9), Dugger (4/1/7/PBU), Wilson (1/1/7/BP), Tavai (3/2/5), Austin (1/0/0/PBU), Peppers (1/0/0/INT).