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After Further Review: Did the Patriots Offense Find Something to Build On in the Second Half vs. the Raiders?

After going 39 straight drives without a touchdown, the Patriots offense snapped out of their slump in the second half vs. the Raiders. Can they build on it moving forward?

2023-AfterFurtherReview-wk6-raiders-PDC

As Bill Parcells would say, the Patriots are what their record says as they sit here at 1-5 heading into back-to-back divisional matchups where they project to be heavy underdogs. 

If you think this is sugarcoating or toeing the company line, you can check the receipts for my opinions when it hasn't been good for the Patriots offense in Dallas, New Orleans, or even Philly when I wasn't buying the moral victory. Admittedly, there's also the caveat that this is by far the worst defense the Pats have faced all year, with the Raiders entering the game ranked 24th in DVOA on defense. Plus, in the end, 17 points aren't enough to win in this league, and the start/end was brutal. 

With all that said, at least the Patriots offense looked like a functional unit for the first time in roughly ten quarters. That's not to say they turned a corner or are about to flip a switch, but it was nice to see some tape of this offense that wasn't an absolute trainwreck. Even if that's more a sign of the times than anything, it's a baby step in the right direction.

The Pats kept quarterback Mac Jones mostly clean, allowing a season-low pressure rate of 29.7%, and all three sacks of Jones happened in over 3.2 seconds. There wasn't relentless pressure on the quarterback, and the Pats generated season-high efficiency marks in the run game: 5.0 expected yards per rush, 2.1 yards before contact, and a 70.6% success rate on the ground. A big part of that was O'Brien dialing up motion at the snap on a season-high 78.6% of the time, with the Pats averaging 5.5 yards per play, per NextGenStats. Without motion, the Pats only averaged 2.5 yards per play.

By adding more motion week-by-week into the offense, O'Brien is increasing the window dressing to the defense and it opened up more space for the Pats skill players on Sunday. Surely, something they can continue to use moving forward.

However, quarterback Mac Jones probably takes the brunt of my criticism for this game. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called a good game for Mac to get back on track, which he did in some ways. Jones showed better fundamentals in the pocket, got the ball out of his hands quickly (2.2-second average), and dropped a deep-ball dime on the final drive that was a bad drop by DaVante Parker. But there were still erratic decisions (two turnover-worthy plays), and Jones left plays on the field because he was locking into one receiver rather than reading the field to find the open guy.

If the O-Line can give them that level of play with O'Brien cooking up more exotic run schemes, Mac needs to be better with his reads than on Sunday. This offense doesn't have the margin of error for him to miss open receivers, so, fair or not, his mental processing needs to be on point, especially because only bad things happen when he tries to make plays off-script.

There were still too many offensive line breakdowns that took potential completions off the board in the passing game, the penalties need to stop, as do the turnovers by the quarterback, and certain efforts by the receivers left a lot to be desired. Still, and my opinion is subject to change, I wouldn't start pulling the plug on the season until we see the next two games.

In all likelihood, the Patriots will drop to 1-7 with definitive losses to the Bills and Dolphins over the next two weeks. With the NFL trade deadline on Halloween this year following the Miami trip, they should be sellers if that is indeed the case. But if they can build off the second half in Vegas offensively, I'm giving this team the next two weeks to prove itself.

For the record, I'm expecting them to be 1-7 on Oct. 31. I'm not naive and would then support shopping veterans in contract years to acquire more draft capital for 2024. But there is precedent for teams finding their stride mid-season, like the 2021 Dolphins, for example, who started 1-7 and then won eight of their last nine games to finish 9-8.

Miami narrowly missed the playoffs despite handing the playoff-bound Patriots a loss in Week 18 to finish above .500 after losing seven straight games at one point. So, if your question is, to what end should they still try to compete? My answer is that those Dolphins finished the 2021 season on an upward trajectory, brought in Mike McDaniel after firing Brian Flores, traded for Tyreek Hill, and are now one of the top teams in football two years later.

There's a way back to relevance for the Patriots besides tanking. The Dolphins kept the arrow pointing up for their quarterback, made a tough but necessary decision at head coach, then aggressively upgraded the top of their roster to support Tua, who is now the betting favorite to win MVP after many wrote him off as a first-round bust. Sound familiar?

There's something to be said for remaining competitive, and the Patriots showed me enough in Vegas to give them a two-week trial to see if they can make something out of this season.

Here are two more big-picture takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Raiders After Further Review:

1. Patriots Pass Defense is Worrisome as Upcoming Matchups With Bills, Dolphins Loom

The Patriots defense did some good things in the red zone and against the run vs. the Raiders, but with the Bills and Dolphins up next, their pass defense is pretty worrisome.

Like most things in football, good pass defense takes all 11 players on the field executing at a high level, with the pass rush aiding the coverage and vice versa to be a good pass defense. If the quarterback has all day to throw, you can't expect the coverage to hold up forever, while an effective pass rush can cover up mistakes or losses in the secondary.

We all knew the defense would take a step back following long-term injuries to first-round CB Christian Gonzalez (torn labrum) and star pass-rusher Matthew Judon (torn biceps). Arguably, the team's two best pure talents on the entire roster. Both players have left huge voids at their respective levels of the defense, but the most troubling aspect is how New England's pass rush has completely disappeared without Judon being the queen in Bill Belichick's game of chess.

With the Pro Bowl pass rusher playing for most of the first four games, the Patriots defense generated ten sacks (2.5 per game) and ranked a respectable 13th in pressure rate (37.6%). In two games without Judon, the Pats have only managed two sacks (zero vs. LV), and their pressure rate has dropped to 25.8%, which is 28th in the NFL over that span.

Without the red sleeves to bolster the pass rush, a shorthanded secondary missing both Gonzalez and second-year CB Jack Jones has been vulnerable. On Sunday, two quarterbacks who certainly aren't on the same level as Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa moved the ball efficiently against New England's defense. While splitting the halves due to an injury to the Raiders starter, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer generated +0.29 expected points added on 36 drop-backs (78th percentile) while averaging 8.3 yards per pass attempt.

Although it's fair to say that the coaching staff isn't playing with a full deck, former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got the better of Jerod Mayo and the Belichick's. McDaniels knew that the Pats would play man coverage on third down (76.9%) and that the elder Belichick wouldn't let Vegas beat him with top weapons Davante Adams and Jakobi Meyers.

Anticipating man coverage with help to the Raiders wide receiver duo, McDaniels stressed the defense with variations of the mesh concept. The mesh concept has shallow intersecting crossers that cause traffic over the middle of the field to pick off man coverage defenders and allow receivers to run away from out-leveraged defenders.

On their opening drive, Garoppolo found rookie Michael Mayer twice on the shallow crossing concept. Above, the Pats help to the No. 2 (Tre Tucker) and No. 3 receiver (Meyers) with linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley dropping out of the rush to leverage Meyers's route while safety Kyle Dugger stays deep to cut off a deep crosser (over). The Pats have a decent coverage call on here with a one-cross scheme, so when Bentley picks up Meyers, CB J.C. Jackson replaces Bentley as the low-hole help, but Jackson is too slow to help DB Jalen Mills running across the field with Mayer in the opposite direction leading to an 18-yard gain to move the chains.

McDaniels would go back to a similar play late in the second half. This time, it's a "super" mesh where two crossing patterns intersect with a single crosser at the first level. The Pats have Adams doubled here with a bracket call involving DB Myles Bryant and Dugger, knowing Adams is a go-to target from the fringe red zone, and Peppers is in a help position to take Meyers. With the Pats in man coverage, the traffic caused by the intersecting crossers makes it impossible for Mills to run with Mayer through all the trash without help on the other side of the field.

The former Pats OC also dialed up a 48-yard explosive to speedy rookie receiver Tre Tucker, knowing that New England's defense would have eyes on Adams and Meyers. This time, the Pats use their deep safeties to help to the crossing patterns by the Raiders top receivers, leaving Jonathan Jones on an island with Tucker. Tucker beats Jones, who is in a tough spot without help in the middle of the field because Adams and Meyers draw all the attention.

From a big-picture standpoint, there are two troubling elements from a Patriots point of view. First, this shows the value in having a number one receiver like Adams, and even a productive system fit as the number two receiver, who can draw coverage to open things up for others, something the Pats don't have in their offense.

Second, although the Raiders have good weapons, their quarterbacks are pedestrian playmakers. The lack of pass rush combined with few answers in the secondary makes you concerned for next week's tilt vs. the Bills and the following week against the Dolphins, two teams with better quarterbacks and just as elite weapons for Allen and Tua.

The Patriots defense always has their hands full with their two divisional foes, and if they can't find some solutions to what McDaniels exposed, it will be trouble.

2. Running Game Finds Success, But Why Did Malik Cunningham's Debut Fall Flat?

As we mentioned in the open, the Patriots offense found some success running the ball, with over 70% of their runs being successful against a vulnerable Raiders run defense.

There's the glass half-empty view that this was more a product of Vegas's run defense than a breakthrough on the ground. But credit O'Brien and Klemm for being more creative this week in the run game. Along with getting to their base trap and inside zone schemes to run downhill, the Pats coaches also incorporated a few jet motions and end-arounds with plays built off the motions to get to the edge faster rather than relying on the O-Line to block outside runs.

New England can, should, and probably will build off their run script against the Raiders. However, undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham's quick cameo on Sunday was a flop. Cunningham played six total snaps on offense, two at quarterback, and the Pats netted -4 yards with two unsuccessful running plays with Cunningham at QB.

Although it's not unexpected in his first regular-season appearance, the game seemed to be moving too fast for the rookie. Let's preface this by saying that we don't know what Cunningham is being coached to read, so we can't say he was "wrong" with 100% certainty. But it appeared on his two designed runs that Cunningham read them incorrectly.

The Pats ran an inside zone-read play on Cunningham's first snap at quarterback. With the tight ends releasing at the snap to block downfield, Cunningham is reading the unblocked edge defender to his left (No. 9). If rookie Tyree Wilson crashes to the inside, Cunningham is supposed to keep it, while if Wilson stays outside, Cunningham hands it off. It appears that Wilson is crashing as Cunningham reads it at the mesh, but the Pats rookie still hands it off. If he keeps, there's room to run outside with lead blockers downfield.

Later, the Pats ran a split-zone read play for Cunningham. This time, he keeps the ball into a blitz rather than handing it off for Zeke to run through the middle, where Elliott likely gets positive yards. Although he appears to think about passing, this is not an RPO or a play with designed pass routes. It's a straight-read read option, and the blitz should've triggered a handoff to the back.

Seeing if the explosive rookie could give the offense a spark was the right thing to do, and two failed plays don't mean the Patriots need to ditch the Cunningham package immediately. But, from this vantage point, Cunningham didn't make the proper decisions.

3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Raiders After Further Review

- As much as there were slivers of optimism, the Patriots need to find a way to start games better than a 16-play field goal drive by the Raiders followed by a false start (Lowe), jailbreak/blown up screen (illegal man downfield), drop/near-pick that wouldn't have gained positive yards anyway, and a get-outta-dodge Rhamondre run on third-and-15. That and how the offense ended the game were really tough to watch.

- Terrific game for WR Kendrick Bourne in the box score (ten catches on 11 targets for 89 yards) and on film. He ran dynamic routes with purpose, was where he needed to be for the quarterback on every play, and piled up 68 yards after the catch. Bourne was a legit problem for the Raiders in this game. You wish the others in the receiver room came along with him.

- LT Trent Brown was the second-most effective player besides Bourne. Although teams are targeting RT Vederian Lowe with their best pass-rushers rather than lining them up over the left side, Brown had a clean sheet in pass protection, and they ran behind him several times for big runs. There were some really good "fold" blocks and doubles from Brown. You can make the argument that Brown is their best OL this year. Stop nitpicking the guy. He's a good player.

- Feed Zeke. Elliott is running with power and decisiveness out there, and until Rhamondre finds his shiftiness again, they should continue to get Zeke touches. Stevenson got what was blocked in this game, but it's troubling that his contact balance/elusiveness is not there.

- RT Vederian Lowe (two penalties, sack, hurry, run stuff) is fighting for his life, especially with these matchups. He has faced John Franklin-Myers, Micah Parsons, Cam Jordan, and Maxx Crosby in the last month. It doesn't get any harder than that, especially for a backup tackle, and Lowe is sinking in the deep end of the pool. His footwork in his pass sets shortens the corner, and his punch timing/technique is predictable. It's not Lowe's fault that the Patriots don't have any better options than a Vikings day-three pick who was going to get cut by Minnesota.

- Rookie LG Atonio Mafi (sack, two hurries) registered a PFF pass-blocking grade of 6.9 out of 100. I don't recall ever seeing a grade that low for a guard, and it's killing the drop-back pass game to have Mafi and Lowe out there together. Mafi isn't ready to start, and it's frustrating that Klemm can't coach him up on stunts. Teams are running the same inside twists at him every week, and he's getting beat every week. The Pats had a potential touchdown dialed up to Tyquan if Mafi held up.

- Rooke RG Sidy Sow got a lot of help from C David Andrews, who was solid again amidst the chaos around him, and Sow mostly held his own. Sow only had 15 true pass sets, and, again, he had help, so I'm not ready to put his zero pressures allowed on a pedestal yet. But, assuming they get Onwenu back next week, I'd consider Sow at LG over Mafi until Strange or Reiff is ready.

- What else is there to say about DeVante Parker at this point? His route on a third down target in the first half was poor, like, we don't have all day, and the drop was worse. There aren't enough positives on film to warrant his playing time (45 snaps, 75%). I get he's their only true "X" body type on the roster, but he isn't doing anything with his opportunities other than a few shallow crossers where he should've gotten the ball in Dallas. When healthy, it's time to see what a Bourne, Pop Douglas, and Tyquan Thornton trio can do.

- TE Hunter Henry had a tough time separating in this one against man coverage. I'm not worried about it, but Mac locks onto him, and when he doesn't get open, it leads to problems.

- WR Tyquan Thornton played 25 snaps (42%) in his season debut and only registered one catch for six yards. He got open in the cover two hole for a deep shot, but the protection didn't hold up long enough. I didn't love his effort clearing out the sideline on the first third down. He needs to run that route faster, so the boundary corner declares his coverage to the quarterback. There are flashes of vertical speed, but Thornton continues to be inconsistent.

- I'm not sure what the coverage was supposed to be on Jakobi Meyers's TD. But it sure looked like Myles Bryant was expecting inside help based on how he opened up in his pedal, and it never came with the safeties both occupied by Mayer—the one time in the red zone where the backend didn't appear on the same page.

- The Patriots need more from LB Josh Uche than the two pressures (QB hit vs. LV, hurry vs. NO) in the last two games. I don't think this is a case of Uche getting extra attention without Judon. Maybe teams have more time to study his rush moves during the week. Tackles are playing him more patiently this year and aren't falling for his stutters/fakes. That's forcing Uche to go through the block rather than around it, and he's not converting speed-to-power with as much juice. Maybe it's because he's worried about getting out of his rush lane or is limited by his knee injury. Whatever the case is, the Pats ought to give him carte blanche like they do for Judon. It's worth the risk to get more pressure on the quarterback.

- There still seems to be one or two coverage breakdowns per game involving the free safety spot. But that was great stuff from Jabrill Peppers. The hit stick on Adams and three run stops accounted for some of the more eye-popping collisions in the game. Peppers is one of the best run-defending safeties in the NFL. It's a shame that the Pats don't have a natural fit for free safety so that Peppers and Dugger can do their things in the box.

- LB Jahlani Tavai has been on a heater as of late with three straight good games. Tavai logged a QB hit rushing over the RG and had four stops in this one. He has become a handful for tight ends and tackles to block in the run game, with great shed power, block anticipation, and pad level to make impactful plays. He's a major reason the run defense has held steady without Judon.

- DT Christian Barmore might've had his best game against the run in his career on Sunday. Barmore logged five stops, crossed the LTs face on another rep that caused a stop, drew a hold, and added a hurry in the pass rush. Barmore had to adjust to the Pats gap-sound front mechanics, and even though the splash plays as a pass-rusher have taken a step back, his play against the run has turned a corner this season.

- LB Ja'Whaun Bentley is an outstanding football player. He's never going to be the rangy coverage linebacker fans covet nowadays, but he helps this team in so many ways. Team-high three quarterback pressures, a run stuff, consistently took on lead blockers to compress space, and sets the front seven as the primary green dot. Brings it every week.

- Another good game for LB Anfernee Jennings on the edge of the defense. Tied for the team lead with five stops, registered a hurry, and drew a hold. Jennings is doing exactly what the job entails against the run, pressing blocks on the end of the line to force runners to stay inside and shedding blocks to make tackles. I just wouldn't put him in coverage often (2 catches, 25 yards).

- CB J.C. Jackson was competitive on five of six targets that were mainly vertical routes. Jackson was all over the verticals on the perimeter, including blanking Adams three times. He got burned on a shallow crosser but was bailed out by a DeAndre Carter drop and was called for the ticky-tack DPI. Overall, they'll take that game from Jackson.

- Better games for Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux holding the point of attack vs. the run. I might've been too harsh on Guy last week. He still absorbs contact, and defeats blocks well.

- QB pressures: Bentley (3), Roberts (1), Barmore (1), Tavai (1), Uche (1), Jennings (1), Godchaux (1), Peppers (1); QB pressures allowed: Mafi (sack, 3), Lowe (sack, 2), Andrews (sack, 2), Brown (0), Sow (0).

- Coverage: Jon Jones (5/5117), Bryant (2/233/TD), Mills (3/2/30), Jennings (2/2/25), Peppers (4/3/19, PBU), Uche (1/1/14), Wade (1/1/9), Dugger (2/2/8), Jackson (6/1/6), Tavai (1/1/3, INT).

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