The Patriots have sunk from an objectively limited yet functional unit to the worst offense in the NFL: how the heck did we get here in Foxborough?
Nobody expected offensive fireworks in New England this season. The Pats never had the talent to challenge opposing defenses like an elite offense would, and the quarterback remains a question mark with his own physical limitations added into the mix. Still, for all the big-picture faults that speak to Bill the GM's work as a roster builder, the Patriots were on target to be the middling group we expected under offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
In three competitive games where the offense might've come late but eventually found some success, New England was right where many expected, ranking 23rd in expected points added and a respectable 13th in success rate while averaging 17.3 points (26th in the NFL). With his third offensive coordinator in three years, quarterback Mac Jones and company showed signs that could've been seen as potential building blocks moving forward.
|Patriots Offense||First Three Games||Last Two Games|
|Points/Game||17.3 (26th)||1.5 (last)|
|EPA/Play||-0.11 (23rd)||-0.60 (last)|
|Mac, PFF Grade||70.9 (14th)||30.4 (last)|
|Mac, TO Worthy Play %||3.5% (21st)||14% (last)|
At that point, Jones and O'Brien were doing their jobs well enough to keep the train on the tracks. However, they couldn't hold it together any longer. The Patriots are now the NFL's worst offense in points scored, EPA per play, EPA per passing drop-back, and EPA per rushing attempt in a complete collapse over the last two weeks. New England hasn't scored a touchdown in their past 34 possessions, and its 55 points are the second-fewest in the last decade through a team's first five games – it's bad and way worse than anyone anticipated.
The warning signs were talking points all offseason as head coach Bill Belichick tried to fill holes along the offensive line with uninspiring acquisitions. Then, injuries to frontliners Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange made things worse. As a result, Jones has now faced his three-highest pressure rates in consecutive games, which has a lasting effect.
Whether you want to blame timing/protection, skill talent, or all the above, the Pats also rank dead last in target separation and total EPA against man coverage. Opposing defenses aren't blitzing because they don't have to, with the Saints generating a 44.8% pressure rate on four-man rushes, dropping seven defenders in coverage with heavy amounts of man coverage. On 56 drop-backs against man coverage, Jones ranks dead-last among 33 quarterbacks in EPA (-37.2) and passer rating (54.1), while he is 32nd in yards per attempt (4.2).
After all of that, we get to the quarterback, whose own issues are making these issues worse while, at the same time, it's more than fair to say that most quarterbacks would struggle in this environment. Jones has the NFL's worst pass protection, lacks a go-to receiver or big-time separator, and isn't maximizing the yards created by O'Brien's scheme, and all those things can be true. Mac is sped up because of the rush, skipping reads or not allowing plays to develop because he doesn't trust the line, and looks unsettled with his footwork in the pocket, which is hurting the zip on his throws for a QB that needs to max out velocity. He didn't draw outside the lines like he did last week, but the film still shows a quarterback that doesn't trust his surroundings, and it's negatively impacting even his strengths.
There's the long-winded answer to how the Patriots offense rapidly hit rock bottom. O'Brien, and partially Jones, held this thing together for as long as they could, but it's very telling that it all came apart by Week 5. There are a lot of simultaneous truths, including at quarterback, where Mac looks further away from a franchise guy than ever and isn't solely at fault.
There aren't any quick fixes to all these problems that have snowballed on the Patriots offense. Most importantly, this team isn't going anywhere unless the offensive line improves. An unstable pressure rate with a lousy rushing attack is not manageable. In the interest of "starting all over," as Belichick said, we'd suggest going back to the five-man combination they penciled in back in the spring: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Michael Onwenu, and RT Riley Reiff. From there, you hope that the quarterback settles down without constant pressure, the running game exists, and O'Brien can elevate the receivers for Jones to return to being a high IQ distributor. Still, even with all that, it will likely never be more than mediocre with this collection of players.
Here are two more big-picture takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Saints After Further Review:
1. Bailey Zappe's Struggles Leave the Patriots With Few Options at Quarterback
The Patriots could make a justifiable quarterback change given how poorly Mac has played over the last two weeks, but it's a slippery slope that feels like scapegoating Jones for Belichick's errors, and Zappe has been worse in mop-up duty.
Once you make the switch from a healthy Jones to Zappe, it's hard to go back, and seesawing between two struggling quarterbacks isn't the answer either. Plus, it's not like Zappe's 7-of-18 (38.9%) for 79 yards against two defenses that called off the dogs is overly inspiring. There is something to be said for Zappe being less broken than Jones from a pocket poise standpoint, but the sporadic accuracy for the Pats backup began seeping in over the summer, leading them to release him initially, and then rotate through QB3's looking for an upgrade.
Out of 40 qualified quarterbacks, Zappe ranks 39th in EPA per drop-back (-0.56) and is dead-last in completion percentage over expected (-19.1) in an admittedly small sample size. He flat-out missed an open Hunter Henry (fade) and Kendrick Bourne (crosser) off play-action and hasn't looked accurate making throws in O'Brien's offense since August.
The accuracy issues probably aren't any better in practice, so the Pats aren't seriously considering making a switch yet, per Belichick's support of Jones post-game. However, we'll give Zappe credit for making subtle movements in the pocket to avoid pressure. Although it's short on third down, Zappe still did a nice job in the play above to sense RG Riley Reiff losing to the inside, making a quick move to his right to buy time to find Elliott for the check down. Ultimately, it's a negative play that doesn't move the chains, but Zappe does show more bounce in the pocket to maneuver around in muddy conditions.
We've never believed in Zappe in the short term over Jones or the long-term as an NFL starter, but it's worth asking if his pocket movement would help the O-Line.
2. Patriots Defense Disappoints in the Trenches in First Game Without Matthew Judon
Moving over to the defense, the most disappointing aspect of this game was how lackluster the Patriots defensive front looked without star pass-rusher Matthew Judon.
Obviously, Judon is a great player, but it will be a long season even for the defense if they generate just a 24.1% pressure rate while allowing an expected rushing average of 4.5 yards in non-garbage time carries with only three run stuffs in 37 attempts. New England was pushed around up front by a Saints offensive line that struggled in the first month, and the lack of pressure on Derek Carr cost them in a zone-heavy plan without CB Christian Gonzalez.
Down their best pass-rusher and standout first-round rookie, New England played 20-of-26 drop-backs in zone coverage against New Orleans on Sunday. Unfortunately, they allowed a 127.9 passer rating in zone, with 144 yards and two touchdowns on a 75% completion rate. The main reason was that they ran 14 blitzes, leaving a five and six-man zone distribution in the secondary, and still couldn't disrupt the quarterback.
For example, the Patriots only dropped five defenders in coverage on Rashid Shaheed's 25-yard chunk play in the first quarter. With safety Kyle Dugger adding into the rush as a delayed blitzer, the Pats don't generate any pressure until late in the down when LB Anfernee Jennings finally gets home, which allows Carr to move the five-man zone with his eyes and then hit Shaheed on the deep over route against a single-high structure for a big play.
There also appears to be a coverage bust between Adrian Phillips and J.C. Jackson. Jackson follows his man on the crosser like he's locked into the backside receiver, which is possible in certain cover-three schemes, but then Adrian Phillips needs to stay connected to the deep over, or Jackson needs to fall off the crosser to pick up the over. Without knowing the call, that's anyone's guess.
Later, New England is in a six-man cover-two structure against a play-action fake by the Saints. This time, a five-man rush doesn't get home, leaving CB Shaun Wade in a tough spot in the right flat. With WR Michael Thomas running a crosser from the other side of the formation, Wade gets depth to help cut off the route as Chris Olave clears out the deep safety, leaving the Pats without a flat defender, which turns into a 33-yard check down to the back.
If the defense is going to send five-plus rushers on 11 passing plays, they have to generate a better pressure rate than 27.3% when they're adding in extra rushers, or the backend will get exposed because it's harder to cover the entire field without seven bodies in zone coverage.
The Patriots were going to take a step back without Gonzalez and Judon, but their zone-pressure plan fell short because they couldn't disrupt Carr even with a 48.3% blitz rate.
3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Saints After Further Review
- The failed pitch on the fake "tush" push was on Mac, in my opinion. With their lack of success on sneaks, I was waiting for O'Brien to call the toss, and it was set up for a massive gain. However, Jones pitched a dart behind Stevenson that led to the turnover.
-The Patriots running game also remains non-existent. Their gap runs (11) were more successful than their zone (5) schemes, with duo being an effective downhill option for them. But it's difficult to be a straight duo team without any outside run success, and pin-pull or wide-zone lead was an absolute disaster on Sunday. Besides one cutback read by Zeke, I thought the backs weren't at fault for any of it.
- At some point, the Patriots need to roll out their best five along the offensive line and hope they stay healthy for continuity's sake. It's great to have consistency, but what good is it when guys aren't getting the job done? Based on the film, we'd say their best five are Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Riley Reiff, and Mike Onwenu, which also happens to be the group they penciled in as starters heading into camp. Start all over, right?
- LT Trent Brown is who he is, which is far from their biggest issue. Brown has a few lapses in his effort per game that are puzzling, but, on the whole, he's been holding up his end of the bargain. We can talk about the long-term outlook, but Brown is far down their list of problems.
- G Riley Reiff looked solid in his debut for the Patriots. Reiff allowed only one hurry in pass protection that came late, and had some impressive one-on-one reps, including shutting down a spin move by rookie Bryan Bresee in the drive before the half. They seem set on playing Reiff at guard. Either way, Reiff needs to play, whether it's at guard or tackle.
- Rookie G Atonio Mafi had a rough outing and would've been benched for Reiff if it wasn't for Onwenu leaving the game. Mafi continues to struggle in pass protection with picking up stunts (recognition) and redirecting his feet to protect his edge on one-on-one reps, allowing a team-high six QB pressures (sack, five hurries). I thought the rookie made progress in Dallas, but this was a huge step backward and likely to the bench.
- Look, it's not his fault that he's playing, that's on Bill the GM, but RT Vederian Lowe isn't competitive enough to keep rolling him out there. Lowe has allowed 25 QB pressures in four starts, leading all OTs in pressures allowed despite missing a game. Reiff or Onwenu at RT.
- RG Mike Onwenu clearly isn't healthy based on them pulling him from this game after 21 snaps. His effectiveness is way down, as he's not the impact run blocker we are accustomed to seeing, but even Onwenu at this level is better than their other options. Andrews allowed his one hurry a game on the third-and-11 throw to Gesicki (+8) but was clean otherwise.
- Besides the contract, there are no reasons for WR JuJu Smith-Schuster to be out there. Smith-Schuster's routes lack any dynamic movements, he's unimaginative beating press-man, is last in the NFL in YAC over expected, and you wonder if he's converting routes correctly based on the coverage (like breaking inside on the juke/option in HOSS vs. inside leveraged LB). Cut your losses already. All the slot reps should go to a healthy Pop Douglas. But a healthy Tyquan Thornton should also get opportunities, and it's time to see what they have in Kayshon Boutte. Boutte can't be worse on the quick-hitters/YAC plays than JuJu.
- Both third down jump-balls to DeVante Parker were messy reps. Parker got tangled up with Adebo on the first one and had to attempt a one-handed catch, and then Jones underthrew the second one. It's mostly an indictment on the efficiency of contested lobs and that Parker is their only outside receiver. Teams are begging them to throw that 1-on-1.
- It would help this offense if the running backs were factors in the passing game. Elliott ran hard on his eight attempts, and Stevenson had four successful runs, but they take way too long to get into their routes when Mac needs them as quick outlets. They have to get out of the backfield quicker. I'm still not sure why Ty Montgomery is playing WR instead of third-down RB.
- The Patriots defense desperately needs more from S Kyle Dugger (one stop, one hurry) and pass-rusher Josh Uche (one hurry) now that they're playing shorthanded. Those two need to make impact plays, and they haven't so far, especially Dugger, who is playing further away from the ball to replace Devin McCourty but needs his nose in the action.
- The third-and-8 draw backed up against the Saints goal line was a perfect microcosm of this entire game defensively. Caught in a pass-rushing front in a 24-point deficit. Given the field position and score, it shouldn't have been that surprising that the Saints ran a draw there. Netted a +10 gain to give New Orleans a first down. Brutal.
- CB J.C. Jackson had a relatively quiet debut with so many reps in zone. Chris Olave beat him on a vertical route in man after the motion/release put him at a disadvantage, but the pass didn't keep Olave in bounds, and he lost on a 13-yard slant by Thomas in cover zero. I would've liked to have seen Jackson trust his eyes more on the slant. It looked like he had a read on it but was hesitant to jump it because nobody was behind him. Overall, it's not horrible, with some competitive reps in man and zone.
- Second-rounder Keion White got blown off the ball on his first run-defense snap for a +8 run, missed a pair of tackles, didn't ID and lost contain on an RB screen (+11), and didn't register any QB pressures in 13 pass-rush snaps—rough first exposure to significant playing time. White's play recognition, block anticipation, and pass-rush plan are very raw.
- NT Davon Godchaux (30.0) and Lawrence Guy (29.5) were the Patriots two-lowest graded defenders via PFF, and my eye test agrees. They got pushed around the entire afternoon, and the LB level didn't do much to help them absorb double-teams with an aggressive downhill trigger.
- LB Anfernee Jennings was the Patriots most impactful defensive player with a pressure and four stops. Jennings isn't flashy, but he'll do the job as an early-down edge setter.
- CB Shaun Wade made a great play to break up a seam shot to Michael Thomas in the first quarter but was bumped off the coverage on a deep hitch later on and was at least partially responsible for getting lost in space on Kendre Miller's explosive. Giveth and taketh away.
- QB pressures: Bentley (sack), Bryant (sack), Dugger (hurry), Uche (hurry), Jennings (hurry), Godchaux (hurry), Wise (hurry), Guy (hurry); QB pressures allowed: Mafi (sack, five hurries), Lowe (sack, four hurries), Brown (sack, hit, hurry), Reiff (hurry), Andrews (hurry).
- Coverage stats: Wade (3/47, PBU), Dugger (3/32, TD), Bentley (4/32, TD), Peppers (1/25), Bryant (2/17), Jackson (2/15), Wilson (1/7), Jon Jones (1/7), Tavai (1/1).