We are going to the silver linings playbook with the Patriots offense shortly, but we need to get a few things off the chest first.
In game observations this week, we noted that the Patriots are now 0-8 with Mac Jones at quarterback when opponents score more than 25 points. Taking it a step further, the second-year quarterback has also led only one game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback in his career (at Houston in 2021).
New England's offense, which was good most of the night and playing a different sport than last week, managed just 58 yards on their final 13 real plays, with 40 of those yards coming from one screen to Rhamondre Stevenson. Two punts and a turnover on downs on three fourth-quarter drives (excluding the last-gasp final possession).
In the first three quarters, the Patriots offense generated +0.32 expected points added, but that fell off to -0.35 EPA per play in the final quarter. Yes, Hunter Henry caught the ball, which would've given them a red-zone score. But the Pats were 0-3 in the red zone and 3-10 on third down. Just ask the head coach about his offense's performance.
"Good at times, three-for-10 on 3rd down. Not really good enough. Couldn't get the ball in the red area on a couple drives. Room for improvement," Belichick said of his offense.
Led by a career-high 382 passing yards by quarterback Mac Jones, the Patriots offense made huge strides in Thursday night's loss to the Vikings.
But this team is still a step away from true contender status because it's missing that clutch gene late in close games against other playoff teams. Until they find it, it's silver-lining city. That's where we are at, so let's get to the good stuff.
There were worrisome signs of regression in Mac Jones's game that we've spoken about this season: struggling under pressure, slower progressions, and iffy decision-making.
His teammates can help Jones eliminate one of those weaknesses by giving him better pass protection, which he got with a 28.6% pressure rate by the Vikings defense. As a result, we saw a quarterback who was a very capable distributor when kept clean and not trying to overcome a crap sandwich around him. Overall, the entire operation was better.
Accurate downfield throws (three big-time throws), full-field progressions, and coverage manipulation are back on the table when Mac feels comfortable in the pocket. Jones also didn't commit a turnover-worthy play for the second straight game, according to Pro Football Focus. By all accounts, one of his best passing performances in the NFL.
Along with improved offensive line play, the Patriots got Jones cooking by using a downfield passing script almost identical to a McDaniels game plan. Some of Mac's best plays have come off these concepts, including double in-breakers, dagger concepts, and crossers and seam throws off under center play-action.
The Patriots can win with this version of Mac Jones. The version making aggressive downfield throws, working through his reads while not locking on to things pre-snap, and playmaking from the pocket. Still, it's not about how you start, it's about how you finish. We remember the dominance, but how many games did the Pats pull wins out of their rear ends? A lot. In that department, this team is not there yet.
Here are four more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Vikings:
1. Pre-Season Concerns About the Lack of a True CB1, Coverage Linebackers Are Beginning to Show Up
Coming out of training camp, there were concerns about the high-end cover talent in the Pats secondary. A combination of pass rush, the emergence of Jon and rookie Jack Jones as perimeter options, and playing inferior passing offenses have quelled those worries to this point.
However, this was precisely why we wrote last week that, despite holding the Jets to 103 yards of offense, the coverage wasn't good enough. Despite a 39.5% pressure rate, a better quarterback in Kirk Cousins carved Belichick's defense up even under pressure.
Cousins finished Thursday night's game with a ridiculous stat line on 15 pressured drop-backs: 13-of-14, 168 yards, 2 TDs, INT. Believe it or not, he was less effective when kept clean.
|Stat (via PFF)||Man Coverage||Zone Coverage|
New England's early-down zone coverages were particularly rough against the Vikings. In 19 pass attempts in zone coverage, the Patriots allowed 17 completions for 186 yards and 9.8 yards per pass attempt. In man, the yards per attempt was a more modest 7.8 yards on 13 attempts.
The chess match between Belichick and Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connel came down to New England's inability to cover the middle of the field in zone coverage and handle Justin Jefferson in man schemes without help. In particular, the Vikings exposed the Pats linebackers in middle of the field zones.
The Patriots playing shaky zone coverage forced them into early-down man schemes in situations where they typically prefer zone structures. For example, in the high red zone, the Pats have called more quarters coverage (cover-4) to take away end zone shots.
Instead, they had to lean on their one-cross schemes. In one cross, the defense is in man coverage, but the defender on Jefferson (Jack Jones) passes his man off to the deep safety, who cuts off the receiver as he works across the field. Then, Jones falls off Jefferson and replaces Devin McCourty in the deep-middle zone.
Minnesota anticipated the call on Adam Thielen's game-winning touchdown, running intersecting crossers. Jefferson draws three defenders, and Jones falls off in a position where he's not providing help to Jalen Mills, who has Thielen. It's also possible that the Pats wanted Jabrill Peppers to drop deeper here to make it a tougher throw. But, ultimately, Mills is on his own to stick with Thielen and losses.
As Belichick said post-game, the schedule doesn't get any easier with Buffalo twice (Diggs), Cincinnati (Chase), Miami (Hill), and Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins licking their chops after Minnesota's performance.
Without a lockdown corner, it also tests their depth at the position since WR2s like Thielen or Gabriel Davis next week see a lot of single coverage. If the Patriots can't find better ways to contain elite receivers, it could do them in defensively.
2. What Happened to the Patriots Offense in the Fourth Quarter?
The Patriots late-game offense fell apart because it fell back into bad habits. It didn't seem like everyone was on the same page in critical situations, which is how you lose close games. On the third-and-seven sack that effectively ended the game, the conversion was there if the left tackle and quarterback executed better.
The Patriots are running a double in-breaker concept just past the sticks, with Nelson Agholor (inside) and Parker (outside) working against man coverage. Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks falls into a help position in the middle of the field, taking away Agholor and leaving Parker open against an out-leveraged corner. However, left tackle Trent Brown tries to throw a cut block in a situation where that makes very little sense. Cut blocks are typically used for quick throws, such as perimeter screens, but not in this spot. The quarterback needs to be better here, too. Mac got happy feet and went down when there was a window to Parker. Gotta pull the trigger.
Those are winning-time plays that great teams move the chains and eventually score the game-tying touchdown—the next frontier for this Patriots team.
3. Hard to Narrow Down Red Zone Issues to One Thing, It All Needs to be Sharper
Each red zone possession has its own unique set of circumstances, so it's challenging to pinpoint one thing that is leading to their struggles.
New England is now 31st in red zone touchdown efficiency at 38.7 percent, finishing 0-3 against the Vikings on Thursday night due to a combination of things. There's some poor play-calling (Bourne reverse, shotgun runs from inside the five), inconsistent pass protection, and Mac will want the throw to Henry on the overturned touchdown back (it was behind the tight end).
On the whole, the Patriots first red zone trip set up by Jonathan Jones's interception is the most common sequence of errors that lead to stalled drives.
After a three-yard run on first down, Patricia calls a well-designed but poorly-timed double reverse to Kendrick Bourne, which loses seven yards.
On third down, they actually had a chance. However, right tackle Yodny Cajuste gets too much depth out of his kick slide when he's getting a chip from Parker on Danielle Hunter. Cajuste needs to anticipate the chip from his teammate and come out of his stance to protect against an inside move. Instead, he opens the door for Hunter, and Mac has to check the ball down instead of hitting an open Hunter Henry (left) for six.
The Pats need sharper execution and fewer head-scratchers from the play-caller to avoid negative plays in the red zone, which are the main reasons they're leaving points on the board.
4. The Return of 'Charles Barkley' to the Patriots Offense
In the McDaniels playbook, the Patriots would have one-word associations for plays named after legendary basketball players. For example, HOSS-Juke, a Brady staple that won Super Bowl 53, was named after the GOAT in another sport, Michael Jordan. The best for the best play.
Another former NBA legend who made the play sheet was Sir Charles. For the downhill gap-scheme Pats, it was a perfect play-action complement to their pulling guard blocking schemes. New England hit the Vikings with 'Charles Barkley' after running several gap schemes on Thursday night.
In the play, the Pats pull left guard Cole Strange at the snap like it's going to be another downhill run. Instead, it's a play-action pass. Tight end Hunter Henry gets behind the linebackers, who are influenced into their run responsibilities by the pulling guard action, and Mac hits Henry for a 37-yard touchdown.
The offense is at its best when Henry is involved, especially in the red zone and off play-action, and the play-caller needs to take notice. They desperately need more play-action in this offense (5-of-7, 80 yards, TD).
Other Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Vikings
- Although it might not be their best five on paper, the continuity from playing together for basically two full weeks with this offensive line showed on game day. They were on a string pretty much all night.
- Solid performance by backup center James Ferentz. He had a few nice interior combo blocks on inside zone, fold blocks on gap schemes, picked up a stunt and a blitz with good awareness, and made a nice block on Rhamondre's 40-yard screen. Played well.
- Bounce-back game from Mike Onwenu. I'd still like to see him kick guys out better as a puller. But he was rock-solid in pass pro and moved some bodies in the run game.
- Cole Strange allowed four hurries in pass protection, where power rushers put him on skates again. But he held up well enough and made some nice blocks on the move.
- The Pats can live with this performance by their tackles, but one of Cajuste's two hurries took four points off the board, and Trent Brown's sack was a killer. They need Brown to lock in mentally because he's their best tackle on the roster.
- Rhamondre Stevenson was terrific in the passing game. He had one of the best games in pass protection for a Pats RB in recent memory. His blitz pickup to keep a third-down heave to Meyers alive was insane. Lining up in the A-Gap to handle the mug front, he sees the interior drop off and gets out to the edge pressure to save the play. Filthy. He also ran a good route on a linebacker and had the 40-yard screen.
- I'm enjoying DeVante Parker in New England. People will want to upgrade in the offseason. But he gets open a lot on film as a more fluid and explosive big-bodied X. He's exactly what they thought they were getting in N'Keal Harry.
- The fourth down prayer to Nelson Agholor was against cover-six, where the corner had outside position. He wasn't really open. I get why some feel he gave up on the route, and he has these moments too often. Frustrating because he does get separation.
- Kudos to Kirk Cousins. He made some elite throws under pressure, including a third-down out to T.J. Hockenson and the second deep ball to Jefferson with Judon in his face. Big-time stuff.
- The Pats four-man rushes on early downs went cold in this one. We are also seeing the QB attract too much attention, moving the zone by extending plays in the pocket and finding open guys when defenders vacate their coverage responsibilities to close on the QB.
- Hate harping on coverage at linebacker. But Bentley and Tavai got exposed in the middle of the field. They need to play the safeties at linebacker against Buffalo and hope the D-Line holds up against the run.
- LB Raekwon McMillan was a bright spot for the defense. He made a terrific read and showed off his range on a screen. Took advantage of an unblocked opportunity on his TFL/run stop. I would like to see him play more off the ball against faster offenses.
- Judon wasn't as quiet in this game as it felt live. Three hurries, one drawn hold, and probably could've had a few other flags. They ran at him and chipped him a bit. It was a good plan by Minnesota to prevent him from taking over the game.
- As much as you want to blame rookie Pierre Strong for running into the punter, the coaching decision to aggressively rush the punter was also suspect. The Pats used the same punt rush as Jonathan Jones's blocked punt in Week 9, where Strong came over from the jammer spot and added on late to the rush. However, this time, it was fourth-and-three from the Minnesota 36 in a game where your offense is moving the ball, and you have the reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week back deep to return the punt. Jones's blocked punt came with less risk on fourth-and-nine and in a game where the offense needed the help.
- The Patriots cost themselves 7.9 expected points on penalties in a seven-point loss. Things like not stepping out of bounds, not throwing the ball away in the two-minute drill before the half, running into the punter on fourth-and-three, and four other penalties that resulted in first downs for the Vikings are not winning football. It needs to stop.