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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Thu May 16 - 02:00 PM | Tue May 21 - 11:55 AM

After Further Review: Is the Patriots Offense Starting to Come Together Under Offensive Coordinator Bill O'Brien?

The Patriots offense scored a season-high 29 points in Sunday's upset win against the Bills, and the last six quarters suggest this group is starting to find its groove. 

WK7-2023-AfterFurtherReview (1)PDC

In the immediate aftermath of a stunning upset win over the Bills, we encouraged Patriots fans to enjoy Sunday's win in lieu of the bigger picture.

Winning is fun and should be celebrated, especially if you don't know when the next win will come. Regardless of your current rooting interest, whether you're #TeamTank or in favor of clawing back into this thing, upsetting the Bills as an 8.5-point home underdog will never get old.

However, while invoking the quarterback's own 24-hour rule, now it's time for the Patriots to face reality. One great win over the Bills doesn't erase the first six weeks of the season. New England is still 2-5, they'd still be picking sixth in the upcoming NFL Draft if the season ended today, and this season goes one of two ways from here: either the Patriots just won their Super Bowl in October, or this will spark them to go on a run.

The Patriots used to be on the Buffalo end of this movie script at their peak. A scrappy underdog would catch the giant sleeping on any given Sunday and then immediately lay an egg the following week, with the Pats treating it as a minor speed bump on the road to bigger things.

For now, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Mac Jones might hold off the critics calling for their jobs following a big win. But that goodwill can be short-lived if the Patriots revert to their bad habits next week. The realist would say we shouldn't overreact to one game. In reality, it's more likely that the Patriots just won their Super Bowl and will come back down to earth in Miami. But there's something about what we've seen from this offense over the last six quarters that's giving off good vibes.

It was always going to take time for offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to get his program up and running. O'Brien had to install his playbook, put the quarterback back together, coach the poor habits out of the holdovers from the last regime, and figure out what he had to best utilize his personnel. And O'Brien had to do all that with O-Line injuries and lacking talent in areas that are key to good offensive football. When you lay it all out, it sounds like a pretty easy gig, right? Nope, didn't think so.

O'Brien's master plan is coming together. For the record, we wrote about the positive glimpses in the second half in the loss to Vegas, so we saw some of this coming and aren't fully succumbing to recency bias. Is it replicable? That comes down to execution. But the scheming is there.

Table inside Article
Patriots Offense Last Two Games First Five Games
EPA/Play +0.09 (4th) -0.27 (last)
Rushing Success Rate 57.1% (1st) 34.1% (29th)
Motion Rate 76.4% (3rd) 53.6% (14th)
Play-Action Rate 18.8% (19th) 13.3% (23rd)

First, the Patriots have increased their motion rate, adding more window dressing and building up the threat by giving the ball on jet sweeps. Over the last two weeks, the Pats have dialed up motion/shifts at the third-highest rate in the NFL (76.4%). By adding more motion and pre-snap shifting, the Pats rushing success rate has increased from 34.1% in the first four weeks to 57.1% in the last two games. With the run game improving, O'Brien is also incorporating more play-action passes and run-pass options (RPO) to improve New England's early-down success. Jones's season-high 25% play-action rate on Sunday produced six completions for 95 yards (11.9 average).

O'Brien is figuring out how to use his personnel as well. Most importantly, with their four cemented starters finally available on Sunday, the Pats made a drastic but necessary switch, moving Mike Onwenu to right tackle, shoring up their weakest link on the offensive line (rookie Sidy Sow started at RG). The Pats OC is also amplifying his best skill players like Kendrick Bourne and rookie Demario Douglas and creating passing game advantages with the Patriots tight end depth.

The results were a season-high 29 points against the Bills, with Jones generating +0.34 expected points added per drop-back while orchestrating a game-winning touchdown drive for his first signature win. Despite the lowest average air yards in his career (4.4) and a blistering 2.19-second average time to throw, Jones generated a season-high 9.1 yards per pass attempt.

O'Brien is calling quick-hitting plays to make life easier on the offensive line while using the width of the field to stretch defenses horizontally since the Pats aren't efficiently attacking vertically. Plus, he's utilizing Jones's superpower, his brain, allowing the quarterback to download information pre-snap to make decisive decisions post-snap to distribute the ball to his receivers — the offensive style we all expected to see.

Now, it's fair to quell the optimism with the fact that it might be too late for these breakthroughs to matter. New England has an uphill battle to get back into the playoff hunt, and six quarters of improved offense doesn't get them out of a deep hole.

The theory is that the Patriots expected growing pains for O'Brien's offense. They knew it would take time for the offense to hit its stride, and they probably also knew they didn't have enough around the quarterback yet to truly contend. But the Pats brass was hopeful that the offense would do just enough while the defense won a few games to tread water until the offense found its groove. Unfortunately, injuries on defense, a difficult opening schedule, and complete ineptitude on offense might've sunk the Patriots in the first six weeks. Still, it's better late than never for O'Brien's offense, which still has nine more games to rewrite the story of this Patriots season.

Here are our big-picture takeaways on the defense's performance and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots win over the Bills After Further Review:

Defense Limiting Bills QB Josh Allen on Extended Plays a Big Key to Victory

Over the last several seasons, Bills quarterback Josh Allen has owned Bill Belichick's defense to the tune of a 6-1 record with 18 touchdowns to two interceptions vs. The Hoodie.

Although the Bills quarterback hasn't done much wrong in those seven matchups, the knockout blows have come via extended or out-of-structure plays, where Allen is an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. The Bills QB is impossible to bring down on first contact in the pocket, has Cam Newton-like mobility to run with the ball, and a rocket launcher that can make any throw downfield even on the run/off-platform, making him a "do your job" defense's kryptonite.

Table inside Article
Josh Allen, Extended Plays Week 7, 2023 Previous 7 Matchups
Completion % 18.2% 51.2%
Pass Avg. 3.2 7.6
Passer Rating 40.3 115.9
EPA/Drop-Back -0.63 +0.15

According to NextGen Stats, Allen generated +0.15 expected points added on throws that develop in over four-plus seconds against the Patriots defense from 2020-2022, routinely throwing haymakers at New England when plays break down. However, the Pats reversed that trend on Sunday by limiting Allen in those extended situations. This time, Allen only completed two of his 11 extended pass attempts.

Along with struggling in typically favorable conditions when the play broke down, the Bills quarterback was 1-of-7 on deep throws (20-plus yards) and 5-of-15 on throws over ten air yards. Allen was terrific in the quick game (22-of-24), but the Pats defense limited Buffalo's big-play ability with excellent team defense when Allen looked to create out of structure.

For example, the Bills have killed the Patriots recently with this gun-action rollout design, where Allen can move zone defenders with the threat of his legs to find downfield completions. Above, Allen has star WR Stefon Diggs for a touchdown on a corner-post out of the right slot. However, Pats linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley immediately recognizes Buffalo's staple concept and charges at Allen, causing the Bills QB to go off-script. With Bentley applying the pressure to disrupt the initial route concept, the coverage defenders to Allen's arm side (offense's right) do a great job of "plastering" to the receivers in their zones downfield.

When the quarterback goes off-script, plastering, which is finding the nearest receiver in your zone and staying connected to him, is critical to shutting down these plays. The Pats defense covers Allen's downfield options while the pass rush pins him to the sideline, and the Bills quarterback has to throw the ball away.

Next, the Patriots continued to heat up Allen with blitz schemes. New England blitzed Allen on half of his drop-backs, holding the Bills QB to 5.5 yards per pass attempt when blitzed with a 41.3% pressure rate.

In this example, the Pats send six rushers at the quarterback to get safety Adrian Phillips a free run at the quarterback. Ideally, Phillips would bring down the Bills QB for a sack, but Allen shrugs off the much smaller defender in the pocket and extends the play. In what looks like man coverage, the Pats DBs immediately plaster to the Bills receivers, and J.C. Jackson breaks up a deep pass in the end zone intended for Stefon Diggs.

Lastly, the Patriots made a critical fourth down stop early in the fourth quarter. After bringing pressure throughout the game, the Pats briefly show it here and then fall into a cover-two zone. Allen wants to work the quick-game concept at the bottom of the screen, slant-flat, but the Pats short zone defenders (Jack Jones and Kyle Dugger) have it covered well. That causes Allen to hold the ball in the pocket. He eventually tries to throw to TE Dawson Knox, but Bentley makes an excellent play to fall off the three-level flood concept into the field to knock the ball loose.

Although the Bills would eventually take the lead with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the Patriots defense did its part in Sunday's upset win by beating Allen at his own game. There were throws available to Allen that we've seen him make in the past. Yup, he finally missed some throws against you. For example, along the sideline to Stefon Diggs (QTR 2, 10:43) and Gabe Davis running the back of the end zone (QTR 2, 15:00). Overall, Allen's completion percentage over expected on extended throws was well below his average (-19.9%).

Still, New England's defense deserves credit for fighting fire with fire, which was our key to the game this week on defense. You can't play scared against the Bills offense; you have to attack them, and the Patriots defense went 12 rounds with Allen and won the fight.

Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Bills:

- The Patriots finally moved OL Mike Onwenu to right tackle, and the results speak for themselves. New England's O-Line allowed a season-low 21.9% pressure rate, with Buffalo blitzing 11 times. Some of that was due to the quarterback's quick release, but the integrity of the pocket was significantly improved. Mac looked comfortable with his footwork and could read out plays past the first read. The Patriots absolutely should stick with this five-man combination and start building continuity.

- According to PFF, Onwenu allowed one hurry at right tackle. I had him down for three losses, but maybe PFF deemed the pressure arrived too late to mark a few of them down as hurries. Regardless, Onwenu was far more competitive than Vederian Lowe. He has a shorter corner than you'd like at times, but he maintains inside-out positioning, making the edge rushers take the longer route to the quarterback around the arc, and his base/chest is too strong to go through him with power. He and Sidy Sow combined on eye-popping doubles in the run game. They can move some people on the right side. Onwenu staying at tackle is a no-brainer.

- LG Cole Strange had the tougher assignments in pass protection on the interior, allowing a team-high three QB pressures (all hurries). Strange's balance in his pass sets has improved, and he has tackle-like feet to mirror sudden movements by interior rushers. The Bills didn't test him much on stunts, and there are still instances where his lack of body mass leads to issues with generating power in the run game/dropping anchor. Still, he had some high-level one-on-one wins in pass pro on Sunday. I'll take this kind of performance from Strange, but it should be noted that the Bills interior D-Line was missing their two best pass-rushing IDLs, including Ed Oliver. Strange was fine, but he's still in prove-it mode to me.

- RG Sidy Sow has a very intriguing skill set at guard. He had a clean sheet on 13 true pass-blocking snaps (removes screens/play-action), has good playing strength in the running game, and is further along with his processing than fellow rookie Atonio Mafi. The Pats have done well to keep Sow from too many high-leverage one-on-one reps in pass protection, but he has held his own over the last two games and can move people in the run game. Sow being a servicable RG, allowing Onwenu to kick outside, might've saved their bacon.

- LT Trent Brown and C David Andrews were once again rock-solid. Brown allowed one QB hit on 12 true pass-blocking snaps and made an excellent cut block on Demario Douglas's jet sweep. Again, I'm telling you that Brown is the least of their worries. In fact, I'd say he has been one of their best overall players this season.

- WR Demario Douglas might be New England's best playmaker seven games into his first season. The Pats have eased Douglas in at this point, and it's understandable as the rookie growing pains are present on film, such as his third down route where he should've sat against zone but broke into the sideline instead, causing Mac to spike the ball mid-windup to avoid a turnover. He also needs to know when the journey is over as a ball carrier (cutback at the end of the jet sweep will be a coachable moment). Still, he beat man coverage throughout this game and is their most dynamic schemed touch threat. The rookie mistakes certainly don't outweigh the production when he's on the field.

- RB Rhamondre Stevenson's run after the catch on his 34-yard reception on the game-winning drive was nice, forcing two missed tackles. However, he's still wearing contact in the running game. He had more opportunities to get into the second and third levels this week but wasn't exploding into daylight as you'd want and often didn't make the first guy miss. Stevenson is still a capable back, and he produced more in the passing game this week, but something remains off with his ability to create yards after contact.

- RB Ezekiel Elliott is their best back between the tackles at this point. Zeke is running angry, getting vertical with good burst and decisiveness through the line, and is a tremendous asset in short-yardage/goal-line plays. Although he gave up a QB hit on one blitz pickup, his blitz pickup on Bourne's 33-yard catch was teach tape. I'm still giving Rhamondre reps to see if he can break out of this first-half slump, but Elliott has been the better back through seven games.

- WR Tyquan Thornton showed good vertical burst off the line when the Patriots tried to take a shot on the first play after the Jabrill Peppers interception. But I thought he should've sat between the zones on his over route (crosser) against cover-three rather than continuing across the field. If that's the correct coaching point, it would explain his low usage (three snaps). I don't think the quarterback fully trusts Thornton, and he's not going to play much in the running game, so that's why he can't get on the field.

- It was nice to see the coaching staff reward those who are making winning plays and doing the right things out there by playing Kendrick Bourne (56 snaps) and Douglas (37 snaps) over DeVante Parker (35). Bourne is a good receiver with dynamic routes and an extra burst after the catch. They should continue leaning on him and Douglas, which includes keeping JuJu Smith-Schuster on the bench for now as well.

- I have no idea where this version of TE Pharaoh Brown came from, but we are here for it. Brown is a legit pass-catching threat. He ran right by Bills LB Terrel Bernard up the seam, created legit separation there, and was a freight train after the catch. Who would've thought? Good for him.

- The third-and-8 conversion on the game-winning drive was an excellent throw, but TE Hunter Henry deserves credit. That's a tough catch in traffic over the middle in a big spot. He routinely makes those difficult catches.

- WR Jalen Reagor made a key block on Pop's jet sweep to block Douglas's man to spring the rookie, ran a good five-step slant for his one catch, and showed enough field-stretching ability to have a role if Thornton's struggles continue. It'll be interesting to see how they handle Reagor moving forward. He has used all three of his standard elevations from the practice squad, so they'll have to put him on the 53-man roster or risk losing him on waivers to make him active on game day.

- DT Christian Barmore is blossoming into a three-down game-wrecker precisely when the Patriots needed a first-level disruptor without Judon and Uche. Barmore, who told me he was disappointed in his pass rushing vs. Vegas, logged four QB pressures (sack, three hurries) and two more stops. He has figured out when to use his "best rush" to pressure quarterbacks and when he needs to play disciplined gap-sound ball against early-down offense. Barmore is someone the Patriots should look to build around moving forward. An 18.2% pass rush win rate is legit.

- NT Davon Godchaux always seems to own the Bills. Godchaux had two hurries and three stops, routinely holding the point of attack while the Bills RBs looked elsewhere for rushing lanes. Godchaux has feasted on this Bills O-Line since signing with the Pats in 2021.

- The Bills went at CB J.C. Jackson (team-high ten targets) all afternoon. It was a little up and down, as is usually the case with Jackson, but his end zone pass breakup was huge, and he held his own against Diggs on 11 routes lined up across from the Bills star WR. I put half of the missed deep shot to Diggs on Jackson, the other half on S Kyle Dugger, as the Pats appeared to be in quarters, and Diggs split the two defenders down the middle. The Pats also sent the house on the TD that Jackson allowed in coverage. He has to get Diggs down there, but it felt like an unnecessary risk to send all-out pressure up two scores with 5:40 to go. Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick would probably like to have that one back.

- CB Jack Jones had an eventful season debut. In 29 pass snaps, Jones was involved as a force defender/blitzer on two occasions, was called for an iffy roughing the passer, and was targeted twice in coverage. Jones's third-down stop on an under route to Diggs was clutch, showing off that great plant-and-close ability from off-man, and his boot/contain on Allen nearly won them the game if Dugger comes up with that INT. I marked down one instance where Jones was involved in a coverage bust. He was lucky the receiver tripped. That area of his game still needs to improve.

- DL Deatrich Wise was the beneficiary of multiple unblocked pressures, but his team-high six QB pressures were impactful nonetheless. He gave Bills RT Spencer Brown some problems, including on a good stab/rip rush to log a quarterback hit.

- Another solid all-around game for LB Anfernee Jennings with three QB pressures and five stops. Jennings doesn't have the quick-twitch talent to pile up sacks in the pass rush, but he can compress blocks to keep the QB inside the pocket and set the edge. Jennings is a huge asset to them right now with the injuries to Judon, Uche, and rookie Keion White.

- Always a tough matchup for the Pats off-ball linebackers against the spread/speed of the Bills. Bentley logged four hurries as a blitzer, sometimes unblocked thanks to the scheme, and others in a spy/low-hole role. However, the Pats captain had a tough day in coverage, with Allen going 6-for-6 for 80 yards throwing at Bentley, who had some challenging matchups with TE Dalton Kincaid and RB James Cook. Bentley's fourth-down PBU was excellent, though.

- S Jabrill Peppers's interception was an outstanding play to bait Allen into throwing the corner route. Peppers also logged a QB hit and a stuff. Obviously, he'd like the rep back against James Cook in the flat on a four-point play in the red zone. Peppers can make that tackle.

- You have to wonder how much more responsibility is on S Kyle Dugger's shoulders without Devin McCourty in the Pats secondary. Dugger looks a step slower to the action this year, maybe because he's overthinking and playing from different spots. But the impactful plays against the run aren't there. He's also not making plays on the ball, was partially responsible for Diggs getting behind the defense, as we referenced earlier, and gave up the two-point play to Dawson Knox. He also should've ended the game with an interception on Allen's ill-advised heave as Jack Jones tackled him. It's a tough play to read such a wild throw, but one that you'd like to see Dugger make to seal the win.

- It's nothing against Mack Wilson, but it was disappointing to see those passing game/QB spy snaps go to Wilson over third-rounder Marte Mapu. Wilson is a good athlete. But you wonder if Allen hits Cook on the 28-yarder if the spy is a step faster. Mapu's closing burst might've made a difference there.

- QB pressures: Wise (6), Barmore (4, sack), Bentley (4), Jennings (3), Godchaux (2), Roberts/Dugger/Tavai/Bryant/Jones/Peppers/Phillips (1 each); QB pressures allowed: Strange (3 hurries), Brown (QB hit), Onwenu (hurry), Andrews (hurry), Sow (hurry), Elliott (QB hit).

Coverage: Jackson (10/7/61/TD/PBU), Dugger (6/5/38), Bentley (6/680/PBU), Peppers (5/2/18/TD/INT), Bryant (3/3/26), Ja. Jones (2/2/22), Mills (2/1/8), Phillips (2/1/12), J. Jones (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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