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After Further Review: Patriots Pass Defense Among the NFL's Best Through Four Weeks

The Patriots pass defense is making life difficult on opposing quarterbacks.

20221004_AfterFurtherReview

The only way the Patriots can truly claim a moral victory is by building on the positive aspects of Sunday's loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field.

Eventually, New England needs to start stringing together some wins because this is not a league where nearly winning is good enough. With that said, the schedule is about to get easier and a few trends stand out from the first four weeks of the 2022 season that are legitimate building blocks for this team.

The Patriots pass defense is trending in the right direction. In the first month, the Pats are one of 11 teams holding opponents to a negative EPA per drop-back (-0.01) and are the fourth-best pass defense in limiting explosive plays through the air, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.

New England held two of the NFL's top passing attacks in Miami, Baltimore, and Green Bay with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers in check and is doing so with different game plans each week.

Table inside Article
STATMAN COVERAGE VS. PACKERS
COMP-ATT4-11
PASS YARDS16
TD-INT0-1
PASSER RATING7.01

Following a 24-yard completion to open the game, the Patriots quickly realized that sitting in zone coverage wasn't going to cut it against Rodgers. Instead, they played over 42 percent of their passing downs in man coverage, including 15 plays in cover-one man (most of any coverage), and the numbers above speak for themselves.

"You play the greats and you don't think they recognize zone and have receivers that understand how not to run and get covered into the zone, you can't live like that. I thought we did a good job of mixing it up," safety Devin McCourty told Patriots.com following the game on Sunday.

The Patriots did an excellent job of marrying rush and coverage throughout the first half to produce early swings in their favor against Green Bay. Although we usually think of the secondary while discussing pass defense, the pass rush also significantly impacts success.

Here, New England gets off the field on third down with an excellent five-man pass rush with cover-one (man free) in the backend. The Pats are playing man-to-man with a single-high safety, meaning there's no short (low hole) or intermediate (robber) help. Despite playing with only post-safety help, the downfield coverage holds up nicely. On the end zone angle, you can see the five-man rush utilize a long stunt on the interior and Matthew Judon's speed/rip move on the right tackle. With Christian Barmore and Mack Wilson as penetrators, Aaron Rodgers steps up in the pocket as Judon comes in off the edge, but Josh Uche wraps around to close the pocket. In the end, it's Judon's fourth sack of the young season.

Two Green Bay possessions later, the Patriots forced a quick three-and-out by challenging the Packers receivers in man coverage once again.

This time, it's a cover-one robber scheme with Adrian Phillips rotating into an intermediate help position for the outside corners and Devin McCourty staying over the top. With great coverage on the outside from Jonathan Jones (top of screen) and rookie Jack Jones (bottom of screen), the Pats add mirrored T/E stunts along the line of scrimmage. Judon and Deatrich Wise come in unblocked on Rodgers as they wrap around and force an overthrow into tight coverage.

As Hall of Fame quarterbacks tend to do, Rodgers eventually broke through with three "big-time" throws in the second half into tight coverage to spark the Packers offense.

But before Rodgers got rolling, the Patriots pass defense made one more impact play. New England is in man coverage across the board with another five-man rush (Adrian Phillips has the running back but gets into a help position when the back stays in the protection). Rodgers thinks he has the leverage advantage on a deep out to Allen Lazard. However, third-round pick Jack Jones uses an excellent "T" step to break on the football in a flash and step in front of Lazard for a pick-six.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said it best when he pointed to the team needing to "do things better in critical situations." New England's defense must improve against the run (29th), on third down (27th), in the red zone (21st), and at the end of games, as we saw in overtime last week.

Still, you come away from Sunday's loss and the first four weeks of the season feeling good about their ability to defend the pass. And in today's NFL, that'll keep you in most games.

Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit thoughts from Pats-Packers After Furth Review:

1. Patriots Offense Blossoming Into an Elite Rushing Attack in First Month

The other thing trending in the Patriots favor is that their rush offense is among the league leaders in most statistical categories. New England leads the NFL in rushing success rate (51%) and Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and is third in expected points added per rush.

After all the lamenting about Matt Patricia coaching the offensive line and a shift to an outside zone scheme, the Patriots are running the ball with a variety of schemes, and many key guys are putting out excellent run-blocking film.

For example, here's a fun rep of one-back power with wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey inserting as an extra lead blocker (who needs a fullback?). On the right side, Marcus Cannon and Mike Onwenu cave in the interior defensive lineman on a bulldozing double-team block. The duo generates the initial movement for left guard Cole Strange's pull block up to the MIKE linebacker, and Humphrey comes through to kick out the backside corner, springing Rhamondre Stevenson for a 12-yard gain.

New England clearly still has gap schemes in its bag, and watching Cannon and Onwenu was like seeing the Cannon-Shaq Mason doubles back in the day, but they can also execute zone.

In this play, the Pats ran outside zone away from the tight end (weak) and got several great blocks. First, center David Andrews can put himself through immediately to the second level because both guards (Onwenu and Strange) can handle their blocks one-on-one. Strange reaches and turns out Packers stud DT Kenny Clark to the play side, Trent Brown executes a "slingshot" technique to turn Preston Smith inside, and Andrews blocks the linebacker for Damien Harris to churn out another first-down run.

New England has good running backs, a diverse scheme with a few wrinkles (six OL, LJ Humphrey), and several offensive linemen are run-blocking at a high level.

The Patriots passing offense needs to find a turnover-free rhythm to keep up with the league's elite offenses on the scoreboard. But the running game is rolling in Foxboro.

2. Breaking Down Patriots Rookie QB Bailey Zappe's Performance

Look, it's hard to knock the 23-year-old rookie getting thrown into the Mecca of football as the third-string quarterback versus the reigning league MVP. Those circumstances are ridiculous, and nobody would've faulted Zappe for completely imploding at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

Instead, the fourth-round pick from Western Kentucky held it together and kept the Patriots in the game. With that said, it was far from a perfect performance, and there's a lot to improve.

Three throws stood out on film as good quarterback plays from Zappe: step-up and check it down to Stevenson, a deep comeback off play-action to Kendrick Bourne, and of course, the 25-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker.

The Patriots spammed this post-crosser combination off play-action with Zappe under center, dialing it up four times on his 18 drop-backs, and the rookie showed some nice touch to lay the ball over the second level to a wide-open Parker for six. The route combination stresses the cover-three, single-high structure, as Bourne takes two defenders with him on the post, leaving Parker all alone in the vacated deep third.

However, there's room for improvement regarding pocket poise and having a quicker internal clock, which is not surprising given that Zappe has been in the NFL for five months.

On third down in overtime, New England gets tight end Hunter Henry free by using a stack alignment to get him off the line of scrimmage (to Zappe's left). There isn't a ton of separation, but Henry beats safety Rudy Ford enough on the initial angle route to give the play a chance. On top of Henry winning on the route, Rhamondre Stevenson makes a sensational block to pick up a long stunt by the Packers on a five-man rush. Despite having time and an open receiver, Zappe panics and runs around before throwing too late. That is one the rookie wants back.

Generally, the confidence and ability to hit open throws from clean pockets were impressive for Zappe in his first real NFL action. But it was still a rookie performance.

3. What are the Issues With the Patriots Run Defense in the Early Going?

The Patriots run defense has allowed 387 rushing yards in the last two weeks and is now 29th in expected points added per rush and yards per rush allowed. Although we hate making excuses, it's worth mentioning that Baltimore and Green Bay are top-12 rushing attacks.

Still, the run defense woes caused head coach Bill Belichick to sign old friend Jamie Collins to the practice squad on Monday, and the tape suggests linebacker was the biggest issue on Sunday.

The game plan appeared to be to fire the play-side linebacker (usually Ja'Whaun Bentley) at the rush path to force the Packers backs to cut back into the teeth of the defense on outside zone.

However, due to Green Bay holding the backside with bootlegs, motion, RPOs, and an inability to get off blocks, the Pats weakside linebackers struggled to fill the cutback lanes.

Here, the front side forces Packers running back Aaron Jones to cut back into the middle of the line, but linebacker Mack Wilson gets caught with his eyes on wide receiver Christian Watson coming in motion. The motion is Myles Bryant and the DBs' responsibility, not Wilson's. Despite that, he is late to react to the handoff, and there's nobody at the second level to tackle Jones.

Wilson was benched shortly after that big run for veteran Jahlani Tavai. But Tavai couldn't get off the blocks by climbing guards to make a real impact on the game as an off-ball linebacker.

After reviewing the film, the Patriots quickly signing Collins the following day wasn't a surprise.

4. Other Quick-Hit Thoughts From Patriots-Packers Film Review

  • As a team, the Patriots allowed six QB pressures. Three of those were on RT Isaiah Wynn. In a savvy move by veteran Kenny Clark, Clark held Wynn on Rashan Gary's first sack, and the Pats right tackle tripped over some feet on the strip-sack (it happens). But he had a tough stretch in the first half: sack (injured Hoyer), false start, run stuff, failed to pass off a stunt on third down, holding penalty, strip-sack. Wynn needs to be better, or it's Cannon time.
  • Speaking of Cannon, he looks as strong as ever in the running game. The 34-year-old was moving people, and his double-teams/combos were excellent with Mike Onwenu. We'll need to see more true pass sets to gauge his pass blocking. But Cannon looks healthy and certainly can contribute to this team.
  • Rookie left guard Cole Strange gets better every week. He only allowed one pressure, picked up some of Green Bay's exotic rushes, and made excellent blocks in the running game. He won a few situational matchups against Clark. Impressive.
  • Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson is a smooth criminal. Watching him toy with second-level defenders on duo and inside zone to set up his cuts into daylight is fun. He also almost broke one on an angle route out of the backfield earlier in the game. Baller.
  • Patriots tight end Hunter Henry is having a rough start to the season. The run-blocking was better this week. But the third-down throw by Hoyer in the left flat was catchable even if it sailed on Hoyer a bit. That's a ball you'd like to see Henry adjust to and catch.
  • Rookie CB Jack Jones is an excellent coverage defender down the field. Twitched up movements, smooth hips and ability to stay in phase, and great ball skills. It's exciting. But it wasn't perfect. He'll be at a disadvantage tackling-wise until he gains weight and should've let up a long touchdown on a busted coverage (he thought it was cover-two, it was cover-three). Adrian Phillips bailed him out by trucking Aaron Jones on a blitz.
  • Speaking of Phillips, the dude is just great at football. Stands up all 250 pounds of AJ Dillon in the hole, runs over Jones on a game-saving blitz, plays robber, plays man. He does it all at a high level.

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