The Patriots had a tail two halves on both sides of the football in Saturday's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium.
After digging themselves into a 22-zip hole, the Patriots scored 18 unanswered points to make it a one-score game late in the fourth quarter. When a forced fumble by their lone Pro Bowler, Matthew Judon, set New England's offense up at the Cincinnati 43-yard line, the Pats offense drove the ball down to the Bengals five-yard line on the verge of the go-ahead score.
Unfortunately, like last week when they fell behind 17-3 to Vegas, the Patriots couldn't complete a comeback that should've been their signature win of the season against the defending AFC champs. Instead, the Pats dropped to 7-8 and now need to win out to make the playoffs.
Spinning their failed comeback bid forward, the question as the Patriots try to win back-to-back games over the Dolphins and Bills is, can the passing attack build on the second half? Was there high-level football on film that is replicable versus their division foes, or were their individual bright spots that masked what ultimately was a messy performance throughout the game?
Statistically, quarterback Mac Jones went 16-of-25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, and a +0.32 expected points added per play in the final two quarters. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones also registered four big-time throws to zero turnover-worthy plays.
Although the numbers were encouraging, let's avoid falling into a similar trap as Thanksgiving night in Minnesota. In the loss to the Vikings, Mac set a new career-high in passing yards (382), and the Pats opened up the downfield passing game. But it was an outlier, not a turning point.
The Patriots offense was lousy for most of Saturday's loss to the Bengals. Spacing issues led to receivers crowding each other downfield, leading to both tight ends getting injured, signals were crossed due to pre-snap communication issues, and bad habits continued that are indicative of a poorly well-coordinated operation. Coaching is the biggest issue here, but the players must also take accountability. These are pros, and they're better than what they're putting on film.
The downfield completions for Jones came on a 787 concept (Bourne), four verticals (also Bourne), a dagger concept against Tampa-2 (Bourne x3), and a Hail Mary that accounted for 127 of the 206 second-half passing yards. The concepts are basic, day-one install-type stuff or just pure desperation. It wasn't a creative scheme dialed up at the right time, but rather Bourne won some one-on-one battles, and the throws were encouraging.
We'd love to report that the Patriots were a well-oiled machine in the second half, but that wouldn't be an objective analysis. For this offense, it's a different chapter of the same book. Sure, more Bourne while keeping the foot on the gas from an aggressiveness standpoint could produce a few big plays in the last two games. But expecting this offense to out-score anyone is a fool's errand.
Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Bengals After Further Review:
1. Although Offensive Performance Wasn't Optimistic, Patriots Defense Continues to Prove Its Mettle With Second-Half Adjustments and a High Level of Execution
The other beacon of hope for the Patriots playoff push is that they still come across as a talented, well-coached defense capable of adjusting to shut down a good offense.
New England's defense needs to share the responsibility of digging into a three-score hole; it did not start well. But the Pats are now 0-8 when the defense allows more than 20 points. Plus, they scored a defensive touchdown once again for their sixth of the season, tying a franchise record, so it was really a net of 15 points.
Due to the offense's inability to sustain drives, the defense is routinely on the field for most of the game, with time of possession favoring the Bengals 36:48 to 23:12. The margin for error is dangerously thin for this unit. Yet, they continue to keep the team in games.
Still, even with that margin for error being paper thin, the Patriots defense battles every single week, makes adjustments when needed, and comes up with game-swinging plays.
For example, the Bengals got them early by attacking single coverage on the outside, and flooding middle-of-the-field zones against cover-three and cover-two with follow concepts.
Here, the Patriots decide to double the slot receiver (Tyler Boyd) to the quarterback's left, leaving Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins one-on-one with their outside corners. Burrow, who is smart and a fantastic anticipatory passer, trusts his guy (Chase) to win one-on-one against Marcus Jones, and the Bengals convert a key early third-down play in the red zone.
On Cincinnati's next red zone drive, the Patriots adjusted their coverage to double-team the more dangerous Bengals receivers, Chase and Higgins, with Myles Bryant one-on-one in the slot with Boyd, who wasn't as dangerous in this game as much as the others. This time, the bracket coverages force Burrow to throw to his running back on an outside double-move, and Pats linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley makes a great play to break the pass up and nearly cause an INT.
In the second half, the Patriots played cat-and-mouse with Burrow in their pressure packages and timed up their one zero blitz perfectly. That's play-calling and setting up a big play.
After successfully bluffing an all-out blitz several times, New England finally brought the house on Marcus Jones's pick-six. They also disguised the second-level pressure well, so Burrow and the Bengals O-Line weren't expecting Dugger to rush, and he's unblocked to the QB. On the outside, Jones's off-coverage allowed him to jump the pass, while Burrow and Chase weren't on the same page, allowing Jones to get loose on the return.
The Patriots defense does its part every week. No, they aren't perfect, but it's hard to be perfect defensively with how the game is played nowadays. For defense in 2022, this is as good as it gets against a good offense (15 net points, three takeaways).
2. Why has the Patriots Defense Been Dropping Pass-Rusher Matthew Judon Into Coverage?
There's chatter outside the building about Judon fading again down the stretch, but that certainly wasn't the case this week.
After using him more as a decoy against the Raiders, Judon was on his speed-rip/inside move/power rush circuit again on Saturday. The Pats edge rusher logged a sack, one QB hit, four hurries for a team-high six QB pressures, and two run stuffs. To put that in context, Judon had five total pressures in the last five games of 2021, so the engine is still running hot.
Another frustrating development for some is that the team is dropping Judon into coverage rather than having him always rush the passer. Last week, Judon was in coverage nine times, and they had him drop on eight snaps versus Cincy. Why?
The answer is simulated pressures. Baiting the offensive tackle to slide out toward Judon creates open pathways to the QB for blitzing middle linebackers. Instead of taking a defender out of coverage to blitz, dropping Judon allows the defense to maintain numbers in coverage, and the strategy is working.
In the loss to the Raiders, LB Ja'Whaun Bentley had a sack and four total pressures, while Raekwon McMillan added another hurry on these schemes.
This week, the Patriots forced Burrow to get the ball out quickly to a check-down by sending Bentley up the middle on a blitz and dropping Judon off the edge. At the end of the day, it's only a four-man rush, but it gives the illusion to the QB that it's a legit blitz. Judon and Adrian Phillips converge on Ja'Marr Chase in the flat, and Judon strips the ball for a game-changing forced fumble.
The pressure schemes where Judon drops into coverage is a good change-up from a standard rush. It's not something the Patriots do all the time. He still had 39 pass-rush snaps, and again, it's working, so stop complaining.
3. Patriots EDGE Josh Uche Stays in His Pass-Rushing Bag vs. Bengals
The Pats Pro Bowler wasn't the only pass-rusher getting after the Bengals tackles in this one, as Josh Uche added another sack and four hurries to his ledger on Saturday.
Although Judon is their more consistent rusher, Uche's pass-rush toolbox and freakish rushes are the best on the team. He is in his bag every week, tormenting tackles who are sitting on his speed rush by complementing it with other secondary moves that make him impossible to block.
For example, Uche's sack came on another "hesi" move where he sets up the speed rush, freezes in time with a hesitation fake, and then jumps inside the tackle who can't help himself oversetting to the corner thinking that Uche is about to throttle past him on the edge.
Later, Uche undressed the Bengals right tackle with an inside-out arm-over move. This time, he squares up Hakeem Adeniji off the line to give himself a two-way go, fakes the inside move, and uses an arm over finisher to swim the tackle and jump outside for another hurry.
In terms of flashes and production, Judon isn't lying when he says that Uche is the Patriots best pass rusher.
4. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Bengals After Further Review
- The film was much friendlier to Mac than the narratives suggest. He had good velocity on his throws, with only a few nitpicky decisions he'd like back. This is the best the ball has looked coming out of his hand velocity-wise in cold weather. 15-of-21 for 151 yards, a TD, and four big-time throws when kept clean. Some of the blown blitz pickups might've been on him, which would be my biggest downgrade. Jones might not be a savior, but he's not the biggest problem.
- The Patriots only attempted three play-action passes a week after Tom Brady went 10-of-14 for 145 yards off play-action vs. the same defense. The biggest reason why was playing from behind. But their first play-action attempt nearly got Mac killed. It was post-cross, and the safety jumped Meyers's crosser, leaving Tyquan open on the deep post. But Mac needed to get the ball out because the pocket collapsed quickly. We all want play-action to be a bigger part of this offense, but they can't block it right now.
- Another rough outing for rookie LG Cole Strange. He allowed a team-high four QB pressures and was overmatched by DJ Reader. Reader is a great interior player, but Strange gets pushed around in these matchups. Reader benched pressed the Pats rookie into the backfield to make the initial stuff on Rhamondre's fumble. Strange's entire offseason should be spent in the weight room. Get him on the Thuney plan.
- RT Connor McDermott passed the eye test again. He allowed a hurry that might've taken a big Meyers play off the board, but he's got NFL playing strength, and you'll take two hurries from a backup OT. On the other side, Trent Brown allowed four hurries. He is struggling to set to his landmarks to cut off the corner and then overcompensating and giving up inside moves. Brown also had a false start. His play has dropped off since the illness.
- Kendrick Bourne saved the receivers from an awful day at the office. Lazy routes, a bad drop by Thornton, struggled to separate vs. man, and the issues we already pointed to in the opening section. Just not good enough outside of Bourne.
- Scotty Washington looked lost in the passing game, but the effort was there, and his size/speed is intriguing. You could see him having a specialized role if the mental part clicks. He had a few nice positional run blocks, thanks to his athleticism.
- Marcus Jones is at a height disadvantage, and there's nothing he can do about that. But he tackled well, click-and-close was good to the flats, and they figured it out with him in the second half. Plus, he was once again an excellent ball carrier on his 15-yard reception. Broke two tackles.
- Another strong week for Pats S Kyle Dugger, who had consecutive high-impact games. He does so much in this defense from an alignment, coverage responsibilities, blitz, and run fit standpoint. Nobody wears more hats.
- Deatrich Wise's three hurries were impactful, and I liked the wrinkle of having him rush over the center in his red zone hurry that forced a throwaway. Just another guy offensive lines need to think about in the pass rush. Had a few good two-gapping reps against the run as well.
- I'll continue to echo the praises for Ja'Whaun Bentley. He has developed into a good middle linebacker. We always knew he could blitz and play the run as a downhill enforcer, but he has also improved his eyes and instincts in coverage. The pass breakup in the end zone on Mixon was a superb play.
- Myles Bryant gave up the one third-down catch out of two-man. But he has quietly settled down for the most part. The zone-heavy stuff suits him, and he was solid in man coverage on Boyd for the most part. They need to find ways to help him out on third down/man situations so he doesn't get picked on there.