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After Further Review: Evaluating the Patriots Offense in Bailey Zappe's Third Start of the Season in Week 15

After a promising first half where the Patriots hung with the defending champs, what went wrong in the second half for Bailey Zappe and company?

2023-AfterFurtherReview-chiefs-PDC

When it comes to future personnel decisions, the Patriots have a serious question to ask themselves before they can decide which direction to go in at the top of the 2024 draft. 

If I were Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, my number one question to head coach Bill Belichick or any HC/GM candidate would be to map out their plan to fix a multi-year problem on offense, going beyond simply upgrading at quarterback. Whoever is in the seat across from Mr. Kraft will need a good response to this question: how will you fix the offensive line and the pass protection issues that are sinking this offense?

As we reviewed the film for the Patriots offense against the Chiefs, the quarterback pressures and poorly handled blitzes started to add up at an alarming rate. Second-year QB Bailey Zappe looked like a prize fighter standing in the middle of the ring on Sunday. At first, Zappe had a plan for handling the punches thrown at him by Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien game-planned for it, practiced it all week, and gave Zappe answers before the test. However, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

In the first half, Zappe was well on his way to a solid performance where he was getting through his progressions, using fakes/eye manipulation to create passing windows, and moving around the pocket/stepping into throws, something he does better than Mac Jones. Then, like Mac, a 48.6% pressure rate gave Zappe little chance to move the ball in the second half, and the negative plays began to snowball right down to a WTF interception to start the third quarter. Where have we seen that before? Oh, right, the last QB who was broken by relentless pressure.

The Patriots were down multiple layers of depth along the offensive line in Sunday's loss to the Chiefs, which gives them an excuse. Backup swing tackle Conor McDermott was starting for an injured Trent Brown at left tackle, and then third-string OT Vederian Lowe had to play the final 13 snaps when McDermott left the game. On the interior, starting LG Cole Strange (knee) left the game early in the second quarter, and his replacement was rookie Atonio Mafi, while the Pats are starting guard Mike Onwenu at right tackle because he's their best option.

Due to the mounting injuries and rising pressure rate, Coach Belichick even stated after the game that the line play impacted his fourth-down decision-making in the second half. For example, Belichick elected to punt down 17 points on fourth-and-3 near mid-field (NE 42). Why?

"At that point, we had lost three starters. Worried about the pass protection. Worried about being able to execute in that situation. Felt like we were playing good defense. Get the ball back on a turnover, three-and-out, get the ball in better field position," Belichick said. "It's not a question of not wanting to go for it. It's a question of doing what you feel like is best at that point in time."

The Patriots had to punt the ball back to the Chiefs in a 17-point hole on a manageable fourth down because they felt like they couldn't block – that says it all. You can use the injuries as an excuse, but it runs deeper than that for the offensive line: it's coaching, not using significant resources in the offseason at offensive tackle, and partially the offensive system.

As much as it's on the blockers to pick things up, Zappe took responsibility after the game for the Chiefs generating eight quarterback pressures on 14 drop-backs against the blitz (three sacks). In the Pats system, changing protections at the line of scrimmage falls on the quarterback, whether that's re-MIKE'ing or sliding the protection to account for the rush.

"The issues aren't anybody else's problem but mine. I control that stuff. I do it. If I MIKE right, that's where people are going. If I MIKE left, that's where people are going. I've got to see it," Zappe told Patriots.com following Sunday's loss.

Along with entertaining a first-round quarterback, the Patriots need a sound plan to fix their pass protection issues. The biggest step is upgrading the personnel, particularly at tackle, but they might also need to take a long look at how much is on the quarterback's shoulders before the snap. New England's system isn't the only one that gives the controls to the quarterback, but there are ways to simplify it, while other offenses have the center make the calls or have built-in answers to stay in the original protection calls.

Although a stud quarterback would make things better, the Patriots next quarterback will eventually have issues behind a shaky offensive line as well. When this group pass protects, they move the ball. When they don't, it's a mess, regardless of who's at quarterback – it's that simple. We can't lose sight of the fact that the O-Line needs significant retooling.

Here are our big-picture thoughts on the defense and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Chiefs After Further Review:

Mahomes, Reid Too Good for Patriots Defense in High-Leverage Situations

When the Patriots defense plays a chess master and an elite quarterback, the most interesting angle is whether Belichick can still hang with the big dogs. If the Patriots keep Belichick as their head coach, success on defense would be a major selling point.

Belichick isn't playing with a full deck defensively, but neither are Mahomes and Reid. The Chiefs offense was down its top running back (Pacheco), had five drops by a lousy group of wide receivers, and Travis Kelce might finally be slowing down a bit at age 34. Aided by Kadarius Toney, the Patriots forced two turnovers and held Mahomes to +0.04 expected points added per drop-back. The Pats had some good schemed coverages to take away Kelce, who finished with five catches for 26 yards, forcing Mahomes to target his other receivers.

Although they had competitive moments, the Patriots defense couldn't make enough plays when the stakes were highest. Kansas City opened four of six on third down, scored three times in the red zone, and made plays late to hold off any thoughts of a comeback; when the money was on the table, Mahomes and Reid were just better.

In this first example, the Patriots took the lead following Mahomes's first interception, and a false start penalty on right tackle Jawaan Taylor made it a third-and-8, a good opportunity to get off the field quickly to ride the momentum in the first half.

Instead, the Chiefs anticipate the help going to Kelce in a post-safety coverage, hitting a 31-yard pass to Justin Watson. With the Pats sending S Kyle Dugger on a blitz off the backside, LB Ja'Whaun Bentley drops out of the rush to help cut off Kelce's crosser. Watson then runs an inverted over route where he will stem inside and then break on the corner against Jonathan Jones in an outside trail technique from the No. 3 spot. The route and alignment make it difficult for Myles Bryant to help from his post-safety perch, and Jones can't catch up. KC knew the Pats would have extra resources on Kelce, so they put Watson in a favorable spot.

Later in the same drive, the Chiefs scored to take the lead with another man-beater. This time, it's a rub/pick play with Jet McKinnon running the flat route out of the backfield. With linebacker Marte Mapu on McKinnon in man coverage, the Pats rookie has to run through traffic and is late to the Chiefs running back's route. New England should've anticipated a rub route to McKinnon and had some sort of switch/check to avoid it. 

Next, Kansas City is one step ahead of the Patriots again using a switch release while motioning into a three-receiver bunch formation against a two-man coverage. The book on the Chiefs offense is to play split-safety coverages, particularly split-safety with man underneath. Kansas City anticipates New England will mix in some two-man on third down.

In two-man, the man coverage defenders will have inside leverage since they have split-safety help. The well-designed release by Reid creates leverage for Rashee Rice against Bryant. Bryant is playing an out-breaking route with inside positioning, a tough assignment in that coverage. Rice wins on the route, and the Chiefs convert a third-and-10. 

Lastly, Mahomes's ability to extend plays and move zone coverages with his eyes/legs was a problem for the Patriots defense. After scoring off another turnover to make it a ten-point game, the Pats had the Chiefs in third-and-4 from their own 31-yard line.

In the play, the Pats are in a match zone coverage. When the X receiver and No. 2 receiver to the passing strength run short routes, the Pats DBs fall off those routes into a spot-drop zone. The Pats blow this coverage in two ways. First, Bentley is likely supposed to plaster to No. 2 running the crosser and is lucky Mahomes passes that up. However, Mahomes's pump fake draws Dugger's attention. The Pats safety initially does the right thing by gluing to the backside crosser but allows Mahomes's movements in the pocket to bait him out of his assignment, so Mahomes finds Dugger's man (Rice) for a first down. 

Kansas City wouldn't score on the drive following a third down conversion. But they shaved another 3:11 off the clock and pinned the Pats at their own one-yard line, settling things down to coast to a win.

Although the Patriots defense continues to battle, the Chiefs braintrust got the better of Belichick's staff on Sunday. Kansas City was a step ahead schematically, and their short-handed personnel was superior. 

Quick-Hit Film Notes from Patriots-Chiefs After Further Review

  • I am still trying to figure out what to make of the lack of tempo and fourth-down decision at the end of the game. It's interesting, that's for sure. Is it tanking or managing defeat? I'll let you decide. 
  • The offense ran a ton of quick-game to slow down the Chiefs pass rush and still allowed nearly a 50% pressure rate. 20 of Zappe's 31 attempts came in under 2.5 seconds, using the quick game as an extension of the run game – they still had blocking issues.
  • As he said after the game, the Chiefs game-planned to stop Ezekiel Elliott and the Patriots running game. New England has gotten a lot of aggressive front mechanics in their run game lately, whether that's run blitzes, slanting the D-Line, or upfield edges to counter gap schemes. The Chiefs's safeties were run-blitzing all game long.
  • As for Elliott himself, this was a step back after his best game as a Patriot in Pittsburgh. Elliott struggled to run through contact, mainly on a low red zone carry where Chiefs S Mike Edwards chopped him down. There was a hole there to score, but Elliott couldn't break the tackle, and the Pats eventually settled for a field goal. Elliott also allowed a team-high four QB pressures as he was on the scene for several breakdowns in blitz pickup. They need more from Zeke. 
  • TE Hunter Henry (seven catches, 66 yards, TD) was the Pats only consistent threat in the passing game. O'Brien did a nice job of using heavy personnel groupings and formations to get Henry on linebackers, and the Pats TE took advantage. It was a good game for Henry, who also had a second touchdown negated by a penalty. 
  • A typical game script for the Patriots wide receivers: one contested catch by Parker, a few flashes of burst from Pop Douglas, and the operation not allowing the QB to push the ball deep to Thornton (who may or may not catch it, anyway). I also didn't love this group's perimeter blocking in the run game. There were receivers open on this film, but there aren't any consistent winners for the quarterback to feel confident that certain guys will gain separation. 
  • Rookie RG Sidy Sow isn't ready for these matchups against experienced DCs who know how to attack a young player's weaknesses. Sow allowed a team-high four hurries, with most of those coming on schemed rushes (blitz, stunts). Sow has the physical tools to develop into a starting guard, but the line movement/lack of awareness is killing him in pass pro. 
  • Besides one tough rep where Chris Jones pancaked him, Cole Strange held his own before a knee injury knocked him out, including some one-on-one wins vs. Jones. That draft pick seems destined to fail. Strange is heading to IR, ending his season. 
  • RT Mike Onwenu has one or two ugly reps per game where he loses his technique blocking on an island in space, but he was solid on the whole at right tackle. Onwenu allowed just two hurries, grading out far down their list of problems. 
  • LT Conor McDermott is who he is: a backup/swing tackle. McDermott plays too tall in his slides, allowing edge rushers to get underneath and around him. At 6-8, his height works against him when it comes to pad level/leverage. Vederian Lowe only played eight pass-blocking snaps, but didn't allow any pressure.
  • C David Andrews is taking this season harder than anyone, but three hurries allowed for a center is three hurries allowed. It's tough to say how much Andrews is regressing versus the guys around him not doing their jobs. The run-blocking has stayed the same, but Andrews's pass-blocking has taken a step back this year. 
  • DT Christian Barmore did his best to wreck the Chiefs offense: sack, QB hit, two hurries, three run stuffs. He had a dominant performance, overwhelming Chiefs RG Trey Smith with pure power on several reps while going right through Pro Bowl center Creed Humphrey for another stuff. I don't like throwing around "special" or "elite" too often, but Barmore is earning it this season. He's consistently excellent every single week. 
  • This was probably the worst film I've ever seen for S Kyle Dugger in his Patriots career. Dugger allowed a team-high 111 receiving yards into his coverage. Clyde Edwards-Hailaire was his man on the 48-yard screen, and he gave up two third-down plays where he got lost/baited in zone. Dugger's head was spinning the entire game, overreacting to KC's window dressing and Mahomes's eye manipulation. 
  • S Jalen Mills was very involved in their plan to slow down Travis Kelce. Mills played some cross/cut coverages as the primary man defender on Kelce and did a nice job. The Pats showed great awareness of Kelce and had him leveraged throughout the game. It was good overall execution to hold him to five catches for 28 yards. 
  • All around good team defense by the Patriots on the Mapu interception: a great zone drop by LB Jahlani Tavai to take away two receivers in Mahomes's progression, a strong rush by Barmore to discard Smith for a hurry, and Mapu made the play on the ball. It's always good to see multiple efforts contributing to a takeaway. 
  • LB Josh Uche was productive in this game. He logged three hurries, including pancaking Chiefs LT Wanya Morris on one rep, did a nice job chasing down Mahomes, and had a run stuff with an explosive arm over/swim move again on Morris. Uche's sack regression will cost him some money this offseason, but he's still an explosive rusher on film who is very difficult to block.
  • Legit edge rush by Mack Wilson on his fourth-quarter sack. Straight speed rush with the rip/swipe as he turned the corner to keep Taylor's hands off him. He's got some juice. 
  • CB Alex Austin was thrown into an impossible situation starting for J.C. Jackson (personal). Austin had three mental errors, the hold on Skyy Moore's fumble was legit, and he was beat on third down but Mahomes froze in the pocket. Overall, he has some cover skills, with good length and enough play speed to play outside. On film, he looks like he belongs on an NFL field athletically.
  • CB Jonathan Jones gutted it out as he continues to play through a knee injury that flared up during the game. Without Jackson and Shaun Wade (healthy inactive), the Pats needed Jones to play through the injury, and he wasn't as effective as a result. 
  • Rookie DE Keion White logged a hurry but gave up an edge on an explosive when he rushed inside despite Bentley having that gap. You can't do that against Mahomes. 
  • I've seen enough from DT Jeremiah Pharms that I'm comfortable with him being a rotational interior rusher moving forward. Pharms had a hurry where he should've drawn a hold and he has a nice first step as a pass-rusher – a decent sub-rusher type. 
  • Another ho-hum game for the run defense with Anfernee Jennings (four), Barmore (three), Jahalani Tavai (two), Lawrence Guy (two), Dugger (one), and Uche (one) recording stuffs. CEH's 20-yard run was poor communication up front on a run blitz. Besides that, they held the Chiefs RBs to 28 yards on 16 carries. 
  • Pressures allowed: Elliott (sack, 4), Sow (4), McDermott (sack, 3), Andrews (3), Onwenu (2), Strange (1), Mafi (1); QB pressures: Barmore (sack, 3 hurries), Uche (3), Wilson (2 sacks), Wise (sack, hurry), Pharms (1), Dugger (1), White (1), Bentley (1), Godchaux (1). 
  • Coverage: Dugger (7/7/111), Jones (4/2/63/PBU/penalty), Austin (7/5/35/TD/2 penalties), Bryant (4/3/26), Peppers (3/3/18), Jennings (1/1/17), Tavai (3/3/15/TD/INT), Mills (2/2/11), Mapu (2/1/8/TD/INT), Wilson (1/1/4), Bentley (1/0/0).

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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