Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known for playing things close to the vest when it comes to his football team, and in some ways, Thursday night's preseason opener was no different.
After weeks of drilling Shanahan-style concepts during practice, New England's offense in Thursday night's loss to the Giants had a sprinkling of those new wrinkles. However, either by choice to keep the newer elements of their system under wraps or due to game situations, the Patriots weren't as Shanahan-heavy as anticipated.
Based on Pro Football Focus's charting, the Pats ran ten zone-blocking concepts to eight gap schemes, featuring outside zone (six runs), inside zone (four), duo (five), and power plays (three). With hard play-action a staple of the Shanahan tree, New England didn't run a single traditional play-action pass but did incorporate one run-pass option.
New York's blitz-happy game plan coinciding with the Patriots having only one active tight end were likely factors in those play-calling decisions to be more traditional in their approach.
Although we may have to wait to see all the Shanahan elements in New England's arsenal this season, the lack of under-center play-action and outside zone sequencing gave us plenty of tape to dissect the Patriots drop-back passing game.
To first-year quarterback Bailey Zappe's credit, he handled Giants defensive coordinator Don Martindale's aggressive play-calling nicely, working with a new offensive line and mostly fellow rookies at running back.
The Patriots fourth-round selection faced 17 blitzes on his 33 drop-backs, completing 75 percent of his passes (12-16) for 135 yards (8.4 average) with a touchdown and an interception. Zappe's poise was impressive, particularly staring down pressure or moving off his spot to extend plays.
Martindale didn't waste any time dialing up the pressure on the rookie, blitzing Zappe on his very first NFL possession. Above, the Giants walk the strong safety up to the line of scrimmage and send an overload blitz to Zappe's left, dropping the nose tackle into coverage to replace the blitzer in the zone. Zappe makes a nice side-arm throw around the pressure to hit fellow rookie Tyquan Thornton on a snag route in the soft spot in the zone for a positive second-down play.
Typically, we don't see this type of aggressiveness in the preseason, but it's not a major surprise given Martindale's track record. Before joining Brian Daboll's staff, Martindale was the defensive coordinator under John Harbaugh with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were among the league leaders in blitz percentage each season with the veteran DC at the helm.
Here, the Giants ran another zone pressure with the slot corner to Zappe's left coming on the blitz. The Pats ran a mesh-sit concept this time, which will be a staple of their passing offense with starting quarterback Mac Jones. The mesh aspect is the low intersecting crossing routes, while wide receiver Tre Nixon settles in the middle of the field on the "sit" element of the play. Zappe does well to elude the pressure by stepping up into the pocket and flips the ball to the crossing Lil'Jordan Humphrey for a third-down conversion.
The last pressure that Zappe saw on four separate occasions was a zero blitz, where the defense forgoes a deep safety to add an extra blitzer into the pass rush.
Once again, Zappe showed impressive poise and recognition against pressure. The Pats get hat-on-a-hat up front to give Zappe enough time to find Humphrey up the seam for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. If time permits, attacking single coverage against all-out pressure is another good sign from Zappe's approach against the blitz-happy Giants.
Lastly, when the Giants didn't blitz Zappe, the Patriots showed us some other notable schemes.
In another likely base passing concept for the Patriots, New England ran the coverage upfield with two vertical routes to Zappe's right, clearing out the zone for the double-dig routes to his left. Again, Zappe maneuvers in the pocket to keep himself clean and finds Humphrey breaking across the middle for an 11-yard completion.
Regular readers know that since the Patriots drafted Mac Jones, we've been clamoring for them to install more Alabama-style RPOs (run-pass options) into the offense.
It was only one play call, but New England dialed up an RPO power scheme with a bubble screen attached to the run action. The run play is power, with the backside guard pulling through to the second level. With the numbers in the box and the slot defender stepping into the fit, Zappe quickly gets the ball out to Humphrey, who makes a tackler miss for a positive gain.
The Patriots offense had a simplistic approach in their first dress rehearsal without Josh McDaniels as the offensive coordinator in a decade, which isn't surprising since it was an exhibition game.
Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia, and Joe Judge didn't dial up any misdirection or play-action, while they played nearly every snap with three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back.
Although we likely won't see the entire offensive repertoire until the games start to count, there were tea leaves to read about New England's shotgun passing game and rushing attack.
Other Quick-Hitters After Further Review
1. Patriots Outside Zone Rushing Attack Had Fixable Issues
As we noted above, the Patriots were in 11-personnel on 51 of their 59 offensive plays on Thursday night (86 percent) and didn't have much misdirection in their under-center schemes. As a result, it became difficult for the Patriots to run the ball on outside zone concepts without sequencing bootleg action or motion into the equation.
For example, here is a rep of outside zone from Thursday night where a cutback lane was forming for rookie running back Pierre Strong. Strong makes the proper read, with the offensive line walling off the over-pursuing defensive front. However, nothing is influencing the backside edge rusher away from the ball carrier, and Giants rookie Tomon Fox crashes down to make the stop.
Look for the Patriots to run this action with more misdirection to hold the player in Fox's position to create a larger cutback lane for Strong. By using a second tight end or motioning a wide receiver across, the Pats can incorporate a "slide" route with the quarterback's bootleg action. At times, it'll be play-action, and that's when you hit Jonnu Smith in the flat for a catch-and-run play, which will force the backside pursuit to stay home and open up a bigger hole for Strong.
2. Patriots Rookie WR Tyquan Thornton's Explosive Debut
Thornton only had two catches for nine yards and a touchdown in the box score. But his explosive movements were all over the tape in his 14 routes. Thornton's quickness at the line of scrimmage and the top of the route, along with his ability to stack cornerbacks with his vertical speed, was exciting to see in his preseason debut. He has the movement skills to create plenty of separation at the NFL level. It was also impressive to see how well Thornton held up as a run blocker at the point of attack. He wasn't tasked with any easy assignments, either.
3. Patriots First-Round Pick Cole Strange Solid in Preseason Debut
After reviewing Strange's tape, it was a solid outing for the first-round pick. He wasn't tested much in pass protection, with only three true pass sets (no screens or play-action), but didn't allow a pressure. He made a nice pull block when the linebacker shot the gap on a third-and-4 run play to help J.J. Taylor make the line to gain. Strange only played 14 snaps, but he did his part.
4. Patriots Have Tough Decisions to Make Along the Defensive Line
Belichick and the rest of the defensive staff have some difficult decisions to make roster cuts-wise along the defensive line. They still have a few weeks to separate this crowded group, including two critical joint practice weeks. But rookies Sam Roberts and LaBryan Ray, Daniel Ekuale, and nose tackle Carl Davis have all had their moments. Roberts had a team-high five quarterback pressures and drew a hold against the Giants, while Davis is a stout two-gapping nose tackle who was shedding blocks for the entire first half. There's good depth along the D-Line. Now, it's a number game to find roster spots for guys.
5. Pats DBs Shaun Wade and Jalen Elliott Making Roster Push
This is the best we've seen Wade look in coverage in a practice or a game. He consistently stayed in phase or had the noticeable closing speed to recover and make plays on the ball. Wade allowed three catches on eight targets for 30 yards with two pass breakups. Let's see if he can build on it moving forward. Also, don't sleep on Jalen Elliott. He was starting to come on earlier in the week during practice, getting reps with the starting unit. Elliott plays fast and tackles well. He's competing for a backup safety and special teams role.