The word of the week for Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe was sustainability.
While posting a 71.5 QBR in an upset win in Denver last week, there was an argument that Zappe's performance against the Broncos was the best game film by a Patriots quarterback this season. We'd still put it behind Mac Jones's win over the Bills in Week 7 (77.8 QBR), but it was a similar discussion: doing it once is great. Can you repeat it?
To be considered a franchise quarterback, replicating peak performances while playing winning football when you don't have your "A" game is a must. With the two outlier games, both Jones and Zappe have shown the ability to reach a solid peak. However, neither has been able to sustain it week-to-week, which is why the Pats are in the quarterback market next offseason currently with the third overall pick in the 2024 draft.
After reviewing the film, two things stood out about the roller coaster ride that is watching the Zappe offense. First, calling it a "terrible" first 20 minutes, as Coach Belichick said post-game was accurate. To start this game, Zappe had three straight minus plays, including two interceptions. Five of his seven downgraded plays occurred in the first 20 minutes while the middle quarters produced plus throws to DeVante Parker (+15), a 17-yard touchdown run, and an improvised third-down conversion.
Overall, Zappe makes a couple of good downfield throws per game and uses his mobility to create off-script. However, his in structure decision-making and timing hurt the Patriots throughout this game. With an average time to throw of 3.02 seconds, Zappe invited pressure by lacking anticipation. New England's offensive line was not good again, allowing a 58.1% pressure rate, but the Pats current QB1 was late and hesitant to pull the trigger.
Zappe is a roller coaster play-to-play, quarter-to-quarter, and half-to-half. He can just as easily drop a deep-ball dime in the bucket as throw an awful interception. That's often good for a backup/spot starter because it can win you a game or two, like he did in Denver and Pittsburgh, to keep your season afloat while your starter is unavailable. However, Zappe's in-structure execution doesn't consistently rise to starter-level.
The other element of Sunday's loss that stood out was how different these game plans were for Zappe compared to Mac's win over Buffalo. As discussed in Gameplan last week, Jones had his moment in the sun thanks to a lightning-quick release (2.19 seconds) and efficient short and intermediate passing. Besides some situational calls where they played for field goals, the Pats tried to attack downfield against Buffalo this time. Zappe's average target depth (8.1 yards) was nearly twice what Mac's was in Week 7 (4.1 yards) while attempting nearly double the passes over ten air yards (4-of-9, 83 yards, INT) compared to Jones (5-of-5, 88 yards).
The fear with adapting to Zappe's style was that Buffalo is primarily a zone coverage defense that ranks 12th in pressure rate this season. Rather than picking apart the short zones as Mac did, the Pats went with longer developing plays to attack downfield for Zappe. Where Jones had success, Zappe failed, with all three interceptions coming on passes under 2.5 seconds against zone coverage. It wasn't a good formula for New England, which struggled to pass protect and hit plays on time for the downfield concepts OC Bill O'Brien called to materialize. In this particular matchup, Jones's efficiency trumps Zappe's gunslinger gene.
Ultimately, comparing Jones to Zappe misses the larger point. The Patriots don't have a reliable starting quarterback who can consistently put the team in a position to win, so we'll be talking about Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels for the next four months.
Here are our big-picture thoughts on the defense and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Bills After Further Review:
Did the Patriots Defense Solve Their Josh Allen Problem?
My biggest takeaway in Game Observations was the Patriots defense stood toe-to-toe with Bills quarterback Josh Allen for a second time this season.
For the record, I didn't have much hope in the Patriots upsetting the Bills twice in one season, especially in Orchard Park, so the fact that they lost didn't mean much. We already knew they would likely lose, and we already knew the offense had problems. It wasn't new information where the top takeaway was to pile on the 4-12 Patriots for falling short.
Instead, spinning the result forward felt more compelling: are the Patriots on to something against Josh Allen defensively? After all, with a Week 18 win in Miami, the Bills will have won the AFC East four straight times – Buffalo is not going anywhere. Whoever is the HC and QB in Foxborough will need to go through Allen to win the division.
In seven previous matchups before this season, Allen lit up the Pats defense generating +0.34 EPA per play with 18 touchdowns to two interceptions and a 6-1 record. Buffalo went two full games without punting. It wasn't competitive. In two games against the Patriots this season, Allen is completing only 59.2% of his passes while generating just +0.01 EPA per play with only two touchdown passes and two interceptions.
Based on the metrics, the Patriots defense is closing the gap against Allen. Some of that is thanks to Buffalo's internal issues at offensive coordinator. The Bills passing game has become more predictable, while Allen's film is interesting. The advanced metrics still love him as an MVP candidate. But he's playing unsettled and sporadic football at times, with several off-target throws leading to a -6.9 completion percentage over expectation on Sunday.
New England has found a formula within their brand of defense that takes away Allen's comfort zones of Stefon Diggs, James Cook, and then obviously off-script playmaking shenanigans. The Pats also kept Buffalo's resurgent rushing attack at bay, holding Cook and the Bills to -0.10 EPA per attempt with zero explosive runs on non-scramble plays.
With a lot of credit going to the Pats assistant coaches in the post-game locker room, the Patriots were well prepared for Buffalo's staple tackle trap read-option scheme. New England limited Cook to 3.4 yards per rush on 11 carries against light boxes, compared to his season average of 4.9 yards with six or fewer defenders in the box. The Pats run defense didn't allow Cook to get downhill on these plays, either clogging his vertical rushing lanes or forcing him into the sideline.
As for defending the Bills passing game, the Patriots game plan this time had a few differences from their Week 7 plan. Starting with the first third-down attempt, the Patriots played man coverage on 47.1% of Allen's drop-backs, a 10 percent increase from Week 7.
Here, the Patriots are playing a man-free coverage with a five-man rush and linebacker Jahlani Tavai serving as a spy on Allen. The Pats put Allen in the Star Wars trash compactor, with athletic edge rushers Josh Uche and Mack Wilson compressing the pocket. Without an escape route, Allen has to stand in the pocket and make a throw under pressure courtesy of LB Ja'Whaun Bentley's rush on the running back. Then, in the secondary, CB Jonathan Jones takes away Diggs on the whip route (bottom of screen), Allen's first read. Jones's coverage forces Allen to progress to rookie TE Dalton Kincaid on the big corner route, and his pass is a little too far with S Kyle Dugger in good trail technique playing off the post safety.
Along with making Allen beat them late in the progression from the pocket, New England has also had success blitzing the Bills QB this season. On Sunday, Allen was 2-of-9 against the blitz, with 51 of his 60 yards coming on one play (Kincaid catch). If you remove Kincaid's explosive, Allen was 1-of-8 for nine yards with a sack vs. the blitz.
In this play, the Patriots anticipate the Bills could run mesh-rail against their man coverage on third down. So, the Pats have linebackers Mack Wilson and Marte Mapu on alert for the rail route by the running back. If the back releases into the flat, Mapu will drop off to leverage the route from the edge. However, Wilson will take him if the back releases through the middle of the pocket. Cook releases on the rail route, Mapu drops off to take Allen's initial read vs. man away, and then Wilson converts to an off-ball blitzer, adding to the rush. Wilson's pressure forces Allen to rush on the mesh/crossers read, and he throws the ball into the dirt.
This time, the Patriots charge Allen up with a cover zero blitz. With Dugger disguising as a man coverage defender on the tight end, the three-man game on the right side gets home. LB Anfernee Jennings wraps inside, DT Christian Barmore occupies two, and Dugger is unblocked. The result is an uncatchable pass under pressure.
Lastly, it was clear the Patriots did their homework on the Bills shot plays off play-action. In Week 10, the Bills hit Kincaid on a 22-yard touchdown pass, flooding the boundary corner in cover three with a post-wheel concept. The corner carries the post, and Kincaid sneaks behind the defense.
New England must've seen the concept on tape because rookie CB Alex Austin was ready. With Allen trying to look him off by staring at the post, Austin is not fooled, falling off and passing the post to teammate Jalen Mills with an excellent speed turn to jump the wheel for the interception.
The one nitpick defensively was that the Bills ended the game with the ball. After beginning yet another drive in favorable field position (NE 49), Buffalo ran out the final 5:02 on the clock. The big play was a third-and-7 at the NE 46. With the game on the line, defensive play-caller Steve Belichick called a Tampa-2 zone. The Bills had the right play, with a middle-read route clearing out the Tampa-2 defender for Khalil Shakir's route. In hindsight, a more aggressive call than a soft zone with a four-man rush would've probably been better.
Overall, Buffalo managed one legitimate touchdown drive fueled by Kincaid's 51-yard catch in the third quarter. Allen hasn't looked comfortable against Belichick's defense this season, missing open throws while under pressure and looking sped up in his progressions.
Although the offense has a long way to go, the Patriots defense is closing the game gap against Allen and the Bills offense.
Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Bills After Further Review
- The Patriots lacking chemistry along the offensive line has plagued them all season. Pass protection is about seeing the game through the same set of eyes. Tons of the Pats pressures result from guys unexpectedly coming off doubles, playing with poor eyes against post-snap line movement, and not communicating through picks/stunts. Adrian Klemm's absence (health) put assistant O-Line coach Billy Yates in a tough spot, taking over midseason. But they haven't improved much over the course of the year. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots hire a new offensive line coach in the offseason.
- The Patriots defense gave up one big play (51 yards to Kincaid) and nearly gave up another on a deep post to Stefon Diggs. On the Kincaid explosive, Kyle Dugger got caught in cover zero/man coverage without safety help. Not sure why that was the call on first down at the BUF 36. Maybe it wasn't, and the players screwed it up on the field? Odd spot to call cover zero. Dugger could've done more to disrupt the route at the line of scrimmage, but Kincaid was shot out of a cannon—impressive burst by the rookie, who had a lot of space to run into without deep help.
- On the Diggs overthrow, Jalen Mills was the post safety in cover three. Mills jumped a crosser, which might've told CB Alex Austin to replace Mills on the post. It's tough to know for sure, but Jon Jones was looking for his post-safety and went right to Austin after the play. Austin was good other than that: impressive interception and some aggressive tackling in run/screen support. There is something there once they iron out the rookie mental errors.
- On Dugger, there's certainly enough evidence that he is not a great coverage player. The Chiefs game was hard on him in zone. This one he got burnt in man. Dugger gives them a lot of versatility to line up at all three levels of the defense, is an impact run defender, and flashes as a ball-hawker at times. But it's a passing league, and he gets exposed in coverage too often. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the NFL views him because I'm inclined to believe this Patriots brass wouldn't break the bank to retain Dugger.
- DT Christian Barmore was more impactful on re-watch than it initially looked live. Barmore had logged two quarterback pressures, which were key to speeding up Allen early, and once again showed how far he has come as a run defender (two stuffs). Barmore had one incredible rep where he fought through a double-team block and stuffed James Cook for a four-yard gain. His progress in that area has been fun.
- Rookie EDGE Keion White logged a QB hit and a hurry. White used an inside-out rip and swipe moves to get on the edges against the Bills guards. He did rush too far upfield on Allen's 19-yard scramble on the second play of the game for BUF. But the rookie's initial quickness, lateral agility, and recovery talent are impressive. I'm looking forward to seeing White with more seasoning down the road. His explosiveness is all over the film.
- CB Jonathan Jones lined up across from Stefon Diggs on a team-high ten coverage snaps, allowing zero catches on one target. Jones deserves a ton of credit for how he played this season, especially through a knee injury. He's been more consistent than last year.
- The Pats needed better from RT Mike Onwenu late in this game. Onwenu allowed a hurry on first down (4th, 6:41) and then was bull rushed into Zappe's lap on third down. Zappe could've gotten the ball out sooner on first down to Reagor, but the third down hurry prevented the Pats QB from taking a shot to Pop against single coverage. Onwenu is a serviceable OT, but I don't view it as a long-term fit. His ability to mirror and drop anchor in space is too inconsistent. I'd still re-sign him as a good lineman who will help them regardless of where he lines up.
- C David Andrews has given this team everything he has this season, and you have to wonder how much he's trying to cover up with two rookie guards on either side of him. Still, Andrews allowed a team-high six QB pressures with a sack and five hurries. His run-blocking film is still solid, but Andrews might be slowing down late in the year. I hate writing anything negative about Andrews, who is a perfect Patriot.
- Rookie G/C Jake Andrews only played 13 snaps. However, he had a clean sheet on eight pass-blocking snaps and had no huge losses in the run game. Although it's a small sample, Andrews's compact/stout frame held up better than Atonio Mafi (five QB pressures) at left guard. Andrews had two reps where he was a tad over-aggressive, leading to balance issues. But, overall, he looked solid. The Pats view Andrews as a center, which might be why it took till now to play him at LG. Still, his limited film was better than what they're getting from Mafi. The Pats should give Andrews a look in the regular-season finale. DA heir apparent?
- Pop Douglas was open all game long on Sunday. Zappe was late on a post route (2nd, 10:50), couldn't get the ball out on a slant (3rd, 8:06), Douglas had a step on the coverage on a fade (2nd, 2:05), and the previously mentioned corner route (4th, 5:50). Plus, Zappe threw a ball in the dirt to Douglas on his 15-yard catch that could've been six with a throw in stride. The three catches for 31 yards in the box score don't tell the whole story. Get the Pats rookie a consistent quarterback, and pass protection, and he'll go off next year.
- LB Anfernee Jennings was excellent against the run. Jennings logged five run stuffs with terrific block anticipation and length/power. Buffalo tried running their tackle trap read-option plays to Jennings's side, and he anticipated the puller time and time again. He also registered a TFL knowing the Bills like outside zone from under center—another great film for him.
- LT Vederian Lowe has been much better on the left than the right. Lowe, a multi-year starter at left tackle in college, trusts his technique and plays way more under control on the left side. However, his issues with sudden changes of direction, particularly on inside counters, have you questioning his foot speed/COD to be more than a backup. As a backup, you need to be able to play both sides to serve as a top swing tackle/OT3. If he can't translate his skills to the right side, Lowe's value as a backup diminishes greatly. He deserves credit for putting out solid left tackle film in consecutive weeks.
- Rookie RG Sidy Sow was the Patriots best lineman in this one. Sow only allowed one hurry, and his double-teams with Onwenu stood out on film, clearing the way for Zeke's six-yard TD run and Harris's 15-yard run. Sow needs to continue developing his awareness in pass protection. But the balance, foot speed, and power are there.
- Zeke rides the roller coaster with the O-Line every week. He had a great blitz pickup on Zappe's improv play to Gesicki on third down, getting outside to pick up the nickel blitz. His touchdown run was why he was brought here, he showed great patience on a nine-yard run, and danced out of a TFL to gain six yards on third-and-1. But he also allowed two hurries and had a minus decision where he tried to bounce a run out of the backside instead of following his blocking. Overall, Elliott has shown enough that I'd bring him back on a reasonable deal.
- RB Kevin Harris's 48-yard screen was good design and blocking by the interior O-Line. A more explosive back probably houses it. He did a nice job reading the duo blocks on his 15-yard run and made a good block to help spring Pop on his 17-yard screen, but he allowed two hurries in blitz pickup. Harris is a fine RB4, essentially what he was on the practice squad. He gets what's blocked, mostly protects the ball, and finishes runs. I do not see anything more than that.
- TE Mike Gesicki only had four catches for 35 yards, but this was one of his better games. Gesicki was in the right spots for Zappe, especially on the improv play that gained 14 yards on third down. He also made a great block on Pop's toss sweep play and was open on a third-down crosser, but Zappe's throw was off-target. Gesicki had his moments.
- In a shaky year for special teams, you can put Jalen Reagor's 98-yard kickoff return TD on the teach tape. Perfect kick-out blocks by Matthew Slater and Pharaoh Brown, a double-team by Josh Uche and Adrian Phillips, and Jahlani Tavai and Brenden Schooler blocked the backside. Reagor did the rest. Fantastic execution.
- QB pressures allowed: Andrews (sack, five hurries), Mafi (sack, QB hit, three hurries), Elliott (QB hit, hurry), Lowe (QB hit, hurry), Onwenu (two hurries), Sow (hurry), J. Andrews (clean).
- QB pressures: Wise (sack, two hurries), Barmore (two hurries), White (QB hit, hurry), Dugger (QB hit), Wilson (QB hit), Tavai (hurry), Bentley (hurry), Bryant (hurry), Uche (hurry), Jennings (hurry), Godchaux (hurry).
- Coverage stats: Dugger (4/2/60/PBU), Bentley (2/2/24), Wilson (1/1/18), Bryant (3/3/17), Wade (2/1/15), Austin (6/3/14/INT), Mills (2/1/11), Tavai (3/2/10), Mapu (2/0/0), Jones (3/0/0/PBU).