The best defense in the National Football League plays its home games in Foxborough, Massachusetts through the first 11 weeks of the 2022 regular season.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's defense is first in expected points added (EPA), number one in drop-back EPA, number one in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and second in points allowed per game (16.9) heading into Thanksgiving weekend.
However, with the defense facing three top-ten offenses in four of its final seven games, the days of holding opponents to three points and 103 total yards as the Patriots did to the Jets on Sunday are numbered.
New England's defense deserves its flowers for Sunday's masterclass against an overwhelmed quarterback in Zach Wilson. But as good as the defense has been, the Pats offense has been that bad since Mac Jones returned from his ankle injury.
Since Mac's return in a full-time capacity in Week 7, the Patriots offense is dead-last in expected points added per play and is the only team losing more than -0.2 points per play (-0.22).
Furthermore, New England is drifting towards its worst finish in DVOA (26th) and points per game (21.3) since Bill Belichick's first season with the team in 2000. We are beyond growing pains with a new offensive staff. We can explain away recent struggles against two good defenses in the Jets and Colts or blame the windy weather conditions and a banged-up offensive line. But the harsh truth is that the Patriots have one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
How did an above league-average offense a year ago with mostly the same faces around quarterback Mac Jones get to this point? And is it fixable this season?
There are several reasons why the Patriots offense is where it is, from quarterback regression, offensive line woes, receiving talent and execution, play-calling, and overall play design.
But the biggest thing holding this offense back on Sunday was that it doesn't have a core set of plays that the group can execute consistently to string drives together. We often hear that this offense is an outside zone system (Shanahan/McVay), a spread offense (KC), or a throwback style like the Pats of the past with power-gap schemes and heavy play-action.
The 2022 Patriots offense has no identity. It's not foundationally majoring in any one thing, and the talent and play-to-play execution aren't good enough to major in everything. As we saw on Sunday, the Patriots had some good plays against a stingy Jets defense: five plays of 20-plus yards, a few nice formations, and third-down wrinkles, but four drives stalled inside the New York 40-yard line leading to only three points.
New England's offense is disjointed and inconsistent because they're calling individual plays in a vacuum rather than sequencing together complementary schemes. When you can't lean on a strong foundation as an offensive play-caller, those game-planned calls and big plays off play-action eventually run out on you. Let's explain.
Here's a five-play sequence in the third quarter that perfectly exemplifies the Patriots lacking consistency because they simply do not have a base offense that they can trust.
The Patriots opened the drive on their own 15-yard line under center. New England motions wide receiver Jakobi Meyers toward the formation as they often do in their run schemes to get Meyers in a better position to block a defender in the box. The Pats then ran a Zappe-playbook concept with seven in the protection to keep Mac clean and a two-man route combination. With DeVante Parker's vertical route clearing out the deep coverage, Meyers breaks on the flag pattern to put the outside corner in conflict and gains 20 yards on first down.
In the next play, they lined up under-center and sent Hunter Henry in motion toward the formation. The motion tells the defense that this could be a crack toss since the Pats often show that on film. Instead, they fake the toss scheme to run bootleg action with Henry working across the formation on the shallow drag, and it's another chunk play on an easy completion.
Both play-action completions are well-designed with run actions and motion marrying up to New England's core run-blocking schemes to sell the fake to the defense. Good stuff.
What did they do next? Did they pair the same motion and formation to run crack toss from under center, helping the offensive line by complementing the play-action fakes with run designs to pause the defense? Keep spamming play-action until it stops working? Nope.
After generating two explosive plays off under-center play-action, the Patriots immediately pivoted to a shotgun formation out of 11-personnel.
The Patriots ran a same-side toss play out of a completely different formation as the Henry play-action completion (not complementary) for two yards, a second-and-eight draw that losses two yards, and then a third-and-ten sack where Jones is brought down in three seconds.
If you think we are cherry-picking plays, an almost identical drive occurred earlier where the Patriots got down the field with under-center schemes and bailed on it in scoring territory. The next two plays: a seven-yard loss on a shotgun sack and an offensive holding penalty on a run from the gun. Just like that, a promising drive is second-and-27.
Until the Patriots pick a direction and stick with it, this Patricia-led offense operates like its training camp. Working on different styles of plays one by one to get practice reps in, but it's not building up to anything in particular. It's simply not good enough to score points in an NFL game.
Now that it worked against a good defense, the identity the Patriots rediscovered after the bye was that they're best suited to run the ball from under center and build play-action off those runs, as they did with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe. It's not the path we'd like them to go down long term, but it's what they're built best to do at this juncture.
Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from Patriots-Jets After Further Review:
1. Evaluating All Six of the Jets Sacks to Provide Context Into Each Play
There's absolutely some truth to the sentiment that sacks and pressures are a quarterback stat. Quarterbacks who hold the ball for too long, miss open outlets before the pressure arrives, or run into pressure as mobile quarterbacks tend to do more than others, are part of the problem.
For many, Mac Jones taking six sacks in Sunday's win is partially on the QB. Does he need to get rid of the ball quicker? Should he throw it away and live to play another down? For those that want Mac to fling it into the front row when he's pressured in the pocket, here's a link to the NFL's explanation of intentional grounding.
By most standards, any sack that happens in under three seconds is a major problem. The QB might have a built-in "hot" against a blitz. But that kind of quick pressure gives him no time to work with; it's an immediate open receiver at the top of the drop or a sack.
Before we break down each sack, let's provide some context. First, Jones's average time to throw in this game was a relatively quick 2.53 seconds on his 27 attempts. His average time to sack was 2.93 seconds, while half of those six sacks happened in three seconds or less.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mac has only been responsible for causing pressure on 8.3% of his pressured drop-backs this season, eighth lowest among 39 qualified quarterbacks, so the folks at PFF don't view Jones causing his own pressure as a significant issue for the Pats QB.
Here is an audio breakdown of all six sacks where we do our best to explain why the Patriots quarterback ended up on the ground and if other options were available.
2. Pats Defensive Front Dominates, But Coverage Needs to Improve With Tougher Tests Ahead
The Patriots defensive front flat-out dominated the Jets in the trenches on Sunday; a 48.3% pressure rate, four sacks, three TFLs against the run, and just a 15% rushing success rate.
However, it's hard not to watch the Patriots defense with an eye toward future matchups against significantly better passing attacks, such as Buffalo, Miami, and Cincinnati. To that point, they played a dangerous game against the Jets that won't work down the road.
For instance, the Jets dialed up a play-action pass from the gun, where the play is designed to suck up the linebacker level to hit the crossing route by the tight end behind it. Knowing what's coming, Devin McCourty vacates the deep middle to jump the tight end, forcing Wilson to hold the ball, and Deatrich Wise beats his block to pressure the Jets QB into a throwaway. But look at the route starting at the top of the screen, where Jalen Mills is left without inside help on a deep post route. If the pressure doesn't arrive from Wise, a better QB will likely see McCourty jump the tight end and look for that deep post, which is open for a big play. You can see Mills gesture towards his teammates as if to say, "Hey, where's my help?" Jack Jones (bottom of the screen) may be supposed to replace DMac in the deep part of the field since nobody runs a route into his zone.
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson missed his fair share of open throws where the coverage broke down. Above, the Pats bust the coverage and leave a receiver wide-open for an easy touchdown to the QB's right. But Wilson misses it and is eventually hurried into a scramble.
The Patriots defense did great things in this game, especially the front, and will game plan better quarterbacks totally differently. But they will be judged against stiffer competition and need to clean things up in the backend.
3. Patriots Finally Use Motion to Their Advantage to Help Jakobi Meyers on Third Down
Everyone that reads my weekly film reviews knows that I've been clamoring to see more motion and play-action in the Patriots offense (and, yes, RPOs). We'll have to settle for motion and play-action this week, as RPOs weren't a major part of the plan, but they did some good things.
For example, we've been banging the table to see the Pats use a jet motion release that is taking over the NFL offensively, and they finally schemed it up for Jakobi Meyers on third down.
The Patriots send Meyers in motion to get him off the line of scrimmage against man coverage. Then, New England runs its levels concept with an underneath in-breaker (Bourne) and a deeper in-cut (Meyers). With the Jets in man-free coverage without a robber, Jones steps up and delivers a good ball to Meyers, who runs a filthy route to get open.
"They can't really line up and square you up. You have to come over and adjust to the route. It's just fast. It makes them think fast and play fast. It's easy to mess up when things are fast," Meyers told Patriots.com.
The Patriots need to continue incorporating more motion at the snap into their offense to make things easier for their top receivers to get open.
4. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Jets
- Jones's processing and decision-making were mostly good, but he left a touchdown on the field when the Patriots flooded a cover-four zone out of trips with three verticals. Mac spoke after the game about taking profits with the Jets playing soft zones, like quarters, to take away big plays. But if he held on the read a beat longer, he could've dotted Henry with up the seam for six. Instead, he checked it down to Stevenson.
- From a spacing and timing standpoint, this was an improvement. If they can get Jones some protection, there were available receivers on the rhythm or second-read throws.
- Isaiah Wynn was tough to watch before his injury, falling off blocks in the run game and getting walked back into the QB in pass pro. His set points were better on the left side, but he was getting bull rushed instead. Not sure what to do with him at this point.
- Cole Strange is fighting to survive against power rushers on the interior. Quinnen Williams tossed him aside on the third-and-one run late, and he had others where he could not generate any movement—overwhelmed by NFL power.
- Uncharacteristically poor run-blocking game by Mike Onwenu. Got slipped at times on his base blocks and was off-balance as a puller. It's unfair to bury the guy over one game, but he's better than that, and they need him to be a lot better without Andrews.
- We cannot stress enough how crucial it is for the Pats to stay on schedule and allow Patricia to call pass plays that protect the tackles. They'll need to work around it.
- Great Godchaux game getting immediate penetration and forcing runners to cut back on outside zone from under center. Kudos to him for beating that center-backside guard combination block that gets outside zone rolling.
- Another monster game by Deatrich Wise: sack, three hurries, batted pass at the line, and a TFL with solid two-gapping. He's constantly disrupting things.
- Matthew Judon is a scary dude on T/E stunts. He does a great job timing them up and making his wrap tight around the pick to challenge the line to pass it off, like Ray Allen coming off a screen to shoot a three. Great stuff.
- Jonathan Jones is a phenomenal football player. Press, off-man, zone from the boundary. Follow receivers in motion. Click and close on screens/quick throws. It's just so consistent every single week.
- Monster game from Kyle Dugger. He wears so many different hats: edge run force, two-high, robber, linebacker assignments, blitz, cover in man—a three-level playmaker.
- Myles Bryant and Jalen Mills will get targeted often when the competition gets more challenging. Whether or not those guys can hold up, or their replacements can, will likely determine if this defense can keep up with the Bills, Dolphins, etc.
- The all-around effort from the punt return unit was spectacular to see on film. Jones's initial setup, speed to the corner, and final cut around the punter were electric. But all 11 had a hand in that one.