The Patriots finally played a game from a positive game script in their Week 3 victory over the Jets, giving us real insight into Bill O'Brien's offense.
After trailing by multiple scores in the first two games, New England had an early lead thanks to a better start on Sunday. As a result, the offense had a stable run-pass ratio (40-to-29) and incorporated more under-center (27 plays) concepts to balance out the offense. The Pats didn't have to live in the gun in pass-game groupings, so it felt like we saw O'Brien's full Rolodex of plays for the first time.
The Patriots offensive coordinator is putting players in positions to succeed as he determines the best way to use his personnel. Although the gun concepts remained the same, O'Brien put quarterback Mac Jones under center way more often (27 plays) to dial up five play-action passes to hit some explosives, including a well-dressed 58-yard touchdown.
The Pats also incorporated more downhill run schemes along with duo and inside zone, using TE Pharaoh Brown in the backfield on lead draw plays and incorporating more trap schemes to run behind pullers. This Sunday's call sheet was what we were hoping O'Brien would do with the Patriots offense. Some under center, some spread/RPO/quick game, use stacks/bunches/switch releases to create leverage, and get the big backs moving downhill.
Ultimately, even though you see O'Brien's end game here, football is a results-based business, and the production suggests the Patriots offense isn't improving much from last season. In the first three weeks, New England ranks 23rd in expected points added (EPA), 24th in yards per play, and 28th in points per drive. Last season, those ranks were 24th, 18th, and 25th. Even though the film shows an offense that's being schemed up properly with improving details, the lack of production leads us to this either/or scenario.
There are two ways to look at the Patriots offense in its current state. Either they don't have the talent to win matchups that O'Brien is creating, or they'll start clicking with more reps to improve timing/execution. An optimistic fan looks at this Patriots offensive film and says O'Brien showed how he'll put players in a position to succeed, and the opportunities there will start hitting as the reps increase over the course of a season.
Along with closing out games by extending leads or with the ball (kneel-downs), one area the Patriots clearly need to improve as an offense is connecting on deep pass attempts. With defenses like the Jets challenging the Pats receivers in man coverage, quarterback Mac Jones has attempted a league-high 16 passes over 20-plus air yards with only two completions. Jones's 12.5% completion rate ranks 32nd among 33 qualified quarterbacks, and his 57.5 PFF deep passing grade ranks 30th. As always, it's never one thing when it comes to offensive execution. Some issues are protection-based, others timing/chemistry issues, and then there's decision-making and ball placement by the QB (see audio breakdown above).
It also goes beyond struggles to complete 20-plus yard throws into a deeper-rooted issue for the Patriots over the last several years. In the first three weeks, Mac has the fifth-most pass attempts against man coverage, ranking 27th in completion rate (47.2%) and dead-last among 34 qualified quarterbacks in expected points added (EPA) versus man. Based on a small three-game sample, the Patriots shortcomings against man coverage, likely due to a lack of elite separators at receiver, are continuing for another season.
A pessimistic Patriots fan says they don't have the offensive talent to win the matchups that O'Brien is creating, while the positive spin, as mentioned, is that this group is inching closer to scoring more points. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we'll see which side of the coin the Patriots land on over the next 14 games.
Lastly, the offense cannot give the ball back to the Jets offense twice inside 2:19 in the fourth quarter. The worst came after taking over on downs at the NYJ 46, and the Patriots couldn't kill the final 1:19 on the clock despite the Jets only having two timeouts. They ran three straight times for seven yards and punted from the Jets 39-yard line, setting up the final Hail Mary that reached the end zone — that's not winning football in a five-point game, whether it's 15-10 or 45-40.
There's hope that the offense can start gelling in a more well-coordinated attack, but until they do (or even if they don't), the least they can do offensively is ice the game for a defense that carried them to the winner's circle on Sunday in the Meadowlands.
Here are two more big-picture takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots win over the Jets After Further Review:
1. Patriots OC Bill O'Brien Improves Run-Game/Play-Action Script in Sunday's Win
As a self-aware football nerd, I love nothing more about offensive football than well-sequenced play-calling. It gets me hyped when the OC sets up play-action with good window dressing out of run formations. I'm not going to lie to you.
On Sunday, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien delivered the goods, with quarterback Mac Jones hitting three completions for 79 yards and a touchdown off play-action. In the first two weeks, Jones only attempted one play-action pass from under center, with Mac throwing five such attempts against the Jets in a positive game script that allowed for it to happen.
First, the Patriots set up the second-longest play from scrimmage in Jones's career by using a jumbo three-tight end package with Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, and blocking specialist Pharaoh Brown on the field together. New England ran 16 plays out of '13' personnel in the game, averaging 6.9 yards with a 50% success rate. However, they only threw two passes out of 13.
After running the ball on the first seven plays they used the grouping, O'Brien dialed up play-action against a single-high safety shell to hit the 58-yarder to Brown. In the play, the Pats also brought Gesicki on a motion they've used to change the run strength at the snap to catch the defense outnumbered. New York's defense had the safety shaded to the weak side, anticipating an outside run toward Gesicki's motion, but the Patriots hit them with the run fake and seam route to Brown instead.
Along with using the jumbo package to set up the touchdown to Brown, the Pats also used the veteran tight end from a fullback alignment on six snaps. Their first successful pay came off play-action, where Jets LB C.J. Mosley uses a "robot" technique to fall underneath Henry's crosser. With the middle linebacker's back to the line of scrimmage, it vacates the area for Brown to run on the check-down, and then the Pats TE does the rest after the catch to gain 13 yards (holy stiff arm, batman!).
Later, the Pats showed the same formation, with Brown motioning into the backfield. This time, New England ran a lead draw play and watch Mosley in the middle of the defense again (No. 57). He hesitated to come downhill at the blockers because the Pats had already got him on play-action earlier in the game. With Mosley sitting back, it's an easy six yards.
Along with incorporating more under-center concepts, the Patriots O-Line improved its running blocking, especially in the middle quarters, where they were moving the line of scrimmage with improving timing/technique on their double teams. The Pats could still use more from their tight ends, who were overmatched trying to block the Jets defensive ends. But this was the first time we saw the O-Line really create push in the middle.
The Patriots have to stick with this early-down sequencing to marry the run game to their play-action plays, which will continue generating explosives as it did on Sunday.
2. Rookie CB Christian Gonzalez is Off to a DROY-Like Start in New England
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's defensive system has always bred excellent cornerback play from Ty Law to Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and countless others. Some of whom haven't succeeded elsewhere.
What we're seeing with first-rounder Christian Gonzalez is what happens when you pair Belichick's ability to get the best out of corners with a rookie with outstanding cover talent. Really, it's a match made in heaven, and Gonzalez, who has faced a gauntlet of Pro Bowl-caliber receivers to start, should be the early favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.
While facing five of the league's best receivers on 74 routes, Gonzalez has allowed only ten catches for 102 yards and zero touchdowns with an interception and a pass breakup. Plus, the longest completion the rookie has allowed against those explosive wideouts is 23 yards.
Despite his inexperience, the Patriots first-year corner is holding up so well in these challenging matchups because Gonzalez is playing sound man coverage within the scheme's structure. In the Pats man schemes, they'll provide post-safety and often "robber" or "low hole" help to their man coverage defenders, allowing them to sit on certain routes.
For example, Gonzalez plays Patriots staple perfectly with "trail" technique on this rep against Wilson (bottom of the screen). With Wilson trying to open an inside release with an outside fake, Gonzalez funnels him back inside and then carries the Jets wideout across the field on his back hip. Knowing he has deep-safety help for a post or crosser over the top, Gonzalez can undercut any in-breakers by running underneath the route coming across the field—textbook technique.
In the red zone, Wilson tried to run a "whip" route against Gonzalez in man coverage (top of the screen). Again, you see the safety (Jabrill Peppers) there to cut off the middle of the field, so Gonzalez stays patient on the inside release and doesn't bite on the move at the top of the route. The quarterback tries to throw this one anyway and is lucky it's batted down at the line.
Lastly, on Gonzalez's pass breakup, he plays with textbook outside leverage technique again. This time, he has safety Kyle Dugger in a robber position to take away an in-breaking route, so Gonzalez can sit in trail technique again to match a vertical release or hitch/curl. When Lazard runs the deep curl, Gonzalez is all over it to break up the pass.
As soon as next week, the Patriots will have to face better quarterback play than they did against the Jets. Jets backup Zach Wilson struggled to see the field throughout, holding the ball all day because his eyes never seemed to be in the right places or he panicked under pressure. That's not to take too much away from the Pats defense; they did their part to force Wilson to self-destruct with their exotic disguises, but the Jets quarterback situation sans Rodgers is dire.
Although the quarterback play was poor, the wide receiver talent that Gonzalez faces every week is not, and the Patriots cornerback is off to an outstanding start in his rookie campaign. Next up, CeeDee Lamb in Dallas.
3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Jets Review
- Let's make one thing clear: the play designs weren't the problem on the deep throws on third down. The Pats got a lot of press-man (cover-1 robber) where Mac had one-on-one on the verticals with the defense funneling throws outside the numbers for obvious reasons against the Patriots receivers. There were routes at the sticks, sometimes open, sometimes too early in the down to determine if they would've been open, that Mac passed up to take shots early in the down. That's not on BOB.
- The poor game plans for the Jets offense in the Saleh era continue. For an offense that needed to run the ball, running between the tackles against this Pats defense is a death sentence, and slow-developing wide zone runs off-tackle don't count as true perimeter runs. Do you want to run the ball downhill at Bentley, Godchaux, Guy, Wise, etc.? Why? Plays right into the Pats hands every time – get the ball to the perimeter, guys. Make the big DTs and 'backers run sideline-to-sideline. On second thought, keep doing what you're doing, Jets.
- After a breakout second season, RB Rhamondre Stevenson is averaging only 2.9 yards on 46 carries, and his -42 rushing yards over expectation is fourth-worst in the NFL. My read on Stevenson is that he's a patient runner who wants to set up his blocks and manipulate the second level to burst into daylight, much like his idol, Le'Veon Bell. However, early penetrators or failures to reset the line of scrimmage have thrown off the timing of his process, which is why it looks like he's constantly dancing in the backfield. Stevenson could be more decisive until the blocking improves, but he's a back who wants to feel where the holes will present themselves, and he looks unsure as to where his opportunities will be right now. Zeke was more productive in this game because he was more decisive. That was obvious to everyone watching live.
- As for WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, O'Brien is realizing that JuJu is not a jitterbug slot that will win whip/return style routes. Yes, the Pats miss that player in the offense, but the vertical seams/fades from the slot paired with downfield in-breakers are Smith-Schuster's best routes. He shows more juice/comfortability when they allow him to run his preferred route tree. But those routes take precise timing with the quarterback to execute at a high level. Will that come with Mac? We'll see.
- LT Trent Brown was phenomenal, with a dominant effort in all areas. Brown mostly went against Jets EDGE Jermaine Johnson and had a clean sheet, primarily working one-on-one on the blindside with 19 true pass-blocking reps (removes screens/play-action). He was also punishing the D-Line on double-team blocks in the run game. This was one of the best OT performances for the Pats in recent memory.
- Tough first start at right tackle for Vederian Lowe, who had the tougher matchups with John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff. Lowe allowed a team-high eight quarterback pressures (two QB hits, six hurries). He struggled to combat Franklin-Myers's two-hand swipe/power sequence, and Huff beat him with speed. Lowe has good hand power and grip strength, but he's hit or miss at the apex of the rush, where he either connects on his punch to stall the rush or gets blown by with a short corner due to stalled footwork. Lowe has better functional power than the Pats other options, but he has to keep his feet moving around the arc. They can live with drawn-out hurries around his edge, but getting beat on the inside spin on the Douglas deep ball likely cost them six points. Lowe improved in the running game as the game wore on, with some solid doubles with Onwenu.
- The other weak link on the offensive line was at left guard. Starting LG Cole Strange got pushed around by stud DT Quinnen Williams, with the Jets targeting Strange with that matchup, knowing Williams would have the upper hand. Strange allowed three quarterback pressures, got called for a hold, and was consistently pushed back on base blocks in the run game. Strange did have better awareness to sniff out stunts in pass pro and made a good block on C.J. Mosley on a toss play in space, but the anchor/power remains a real concern – Williams dominated.
- Backup guard Atonio Mafi wasn't much better, allowing a hurry and getting stunned back on his first snap. Mafi looks overmatched in pass protection due to his foot speed.
- It wasn't peak Onwenu, but the Pats right guard seemed to find his stride in the second half. Onwenu allowed one QB hit and moved the line of scrimmage a bit more this week. My guess is that he knocked off the rest of the rust and will be his usual self moving forward.
- Although he is who he is as a run blocker, the Patriots offense would benefit from more targets for TE Mike Gesicki. He is their third-most dynamic route runner behind Bourne and Pop Douglas while drawing matchups against safeties rather than corners. Gesicki runs great vertical stems to set up his breaks.
- Speaking of Pop Douglas, there are still route-running details to iron out, but the rookie should be their chain-mover in the slot by the end of the season. The Pats need a shifty slot to pick up some of those third downs late in games, and Douglas should be running those routes.
- This offense really misses a pure receiving back. Where is Ty Montgomery? Also, the door is wide open for Tyquan Thornton to push for "X" receiver snaps over Parker when he returns.
- If you're still saying that Myles Bryant stinks, you weren't watching close enough in the first three works or are allowing your priors to drive that narrative. He's off to a great start.
- DL Christian Barmore has been on my "up" list in two out of three games. Barmore logged a team-high seven QB pressures with a sack and six hurries. He doesn't have the quick-twitch movements he flashed as a rookie, likely due to injuries taking their toll, but his upper-body power to compress the pocket is enough to make an impact in the pass rush.
- Really good showing from LB Anfernee Jennings, logging three QB pressures and consistently setting the edge against outside zone/sift blocks by the tight ends to force cutbacks into the teeth of New England's defense. Jennings is a solid edge-setter on early downs.
- Any time an offense tries to play in a phone booth against this defense, it'll be a good game for Bentley, Tavai, and Jabrill Peppers. Those dudes love to hulk smash. Peppers is a game-wrecker when he plays close to the line of scrimmage. Takes on blocks like a boss.
- Kyle Dugger bounced back in this game, splitting time at free safety and in the box/slot. He hasn't had the impact plays he did last season, but that might be because he's playing more from depth without DMac while Peppers takes more of the point-of-attack reps.
- Pressures: Barmore (7, sack), Uche (5), Judon (5, two sacks), Bentley (3), Jennings (3), Wise (3), White (2), Guy (2), Roberts (1), Dugger (1), Tavai (1). 11 different players with a 47.5% pressure rate!
- Coverage: Gonzalez (7/5/45, PBU), Dugger (5/3/26, PBU), Bentley (4/2/17, PBU), Peppers (4/2/3), Wade (2/1/12), Bryant (2/1/12), Phillips (2/2/38), Jennings (1/1/1), Judon (1/1/3).