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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Feb 20 - 02:00 PM | Thu Feb 22 - 09:55 AM

After Further Review: Patriots Uncertainty at Quarterback Leads to Struggles on Offense, Highlighting Positives on Defense

Although the Patriots offense needs a clear leader to get everyone on the same page, the defense continues to keep New England in games. 

WK12-2023-AfterFurtherReview (1)PDC

Let's take a step back from Tankapalooza 2023 (working title) to evaluate the loss to the Giants through the prism of trying to win a football game in the Meadowlands. 

Just take your tin foil hats off, don't look at the bright side of the importance of this loss to New England's 2024 draft, and work with me here on viewing this game in a vacuum. I have some things to say about how unprepared the Patriots offense was on Sunday against a Giants defense that reportedly is nearing a parting of ways with its defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, and was down its best player with stud nose tackle Dexter Lawrence inactive. 

Whether head coach Bill Belichick wants to publicly share an exact time or date, the Patriots dragged out a decision with some offensive players saying they found out on Sunday morning who was starting at quarterback when they arrived at the stadium. Belichick told reporters that he informed the quarterbacks before the team traveled to New Jersey, but when and where he notified Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe isn't the point. 

By trying to get two quarterbacks ready to play with Zappe cutting into Jones's reps at practice, the Patriots didn't get any quarterbacks ready, which was a disservice to both players. Not to mention that any confidence Jones has left is gone because Belichick keeps yanking him from games, while Zappe can't get a fair crack at the gig with a full week's worth of starter reps.

As a result, both quarterbacks weren't on the same page as their receivers, made poor decisions that led to turnovers, had assignment breakdowns in pass protection, and left bigger plays on the field. If you remove a combined 12 screen passes, which speak to the watered-down script against a blitz-heavy defense, the Pats two quarterbacks' stats were 11-of-23, 68 yards, three interceptions, 14.9 passer rating, -0.78 expected points added per drop-back. Woof.

My question to Belichick is this: what did you expect? How did you expect the offense to perform when you handle the quarterbacks this way? The Patriots offense looked like an operation that hadn't practiced together all week, and they really had two weeks to prepare for the Giants coming off a bye. The head coach is to blame for playing mind games at the most important position rather than putting the players in the best position to succeed against a beatable Giants defense. Here was Jones's answer after the game on if he was in the best position to succeed on Sunday:

"Yeah, I mean, it's my job to go out there and play well regardless of the circumstances. There's no excuse not to. I had a few bad throws, and I just wasn't on the same page with the offense today. So, I gotta do a better job creating that standard and making sure we communicate."

Again, why weren't you on the same page with the offense, Mac? The Patriots once-functional starter won't say it publicly, so we'll read between the lines for him. You can chalk the Pats offensive failures up to personnel, and they do need to significantly upgrade the offensive talent on this roster, including at quarterback. But we can add this loss to the growing list of ways this coaching staff has mishandled the quarterback position since the start of the 2022 season.

Here are our big-picture takeaways on the Patriots defense and quick-hit film notes from the loss to the Giants After Further Review:

Although Defensive Front Deserves Credit, Patriots Pass Coverage is Still a Major Issue

Look, I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer with the Patriots defense allowing only ten points for the second consecutive game – they're doing enough defensively to win games against the likes of Tommy DeVito and Gardner Minshew over the last couple of weeks.

New England's defensive front was highly competitive against the Giants, logging 20 quarterback pressures for a 36.4% pressure rate on DeVito. Plus, the Pats had 12 run stops on 19 rushing attempts, holding star RB Saquon Barkley to a 15% success rate. Barkley had gains of 19 and 14 yards but was bottled up for three yards or less on his other ten carries.

Although the front seven deserves credit for pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run, the Patriots secondary continues to have a tough time limiting explosive plays. New York generated three explosives through the air, all to rookie wideout Jalin Hyatt, but left at least four more big plays on the field. The Pats had two obvious coverage busts that should've been big plays, while CB J.C. Jackson was burnt on crossing routes that didn't develop into chunk plays because DeVito dropped his eyes to the rush.

Good pass defense is about marrying the rush to the coverage, so the glass-half-full angle is that the pass rush provided good team defense to bail out the coverage. However, the secondary is not in a good place right now, and this is just what the film shows. In particular, it wouldn't be surprising to see Jackson benched next week vs. the Chargers.

Starting with the Giants first explosive on a 29-yard completion to Hyatt on their opening drive, this is becoming a recurring issue for the Pats cover-three zones. With the receiver coming in motion, becoming the new number one, Hyatt becomes the number two receiver to the quarterback's left. Hyatt runs across the field on the over route from the two-receiver side, with the vertical route clearing out Jackson on the boundary. In this instance, LB Jahlani Tavai needs to get his eyes on the No. 2 receiver (Hyatt) and fall underneath the crosser. But he fails to do so, while Jackson has no choice here but to carry the go route down the field.

Although that particular play wasn't on Jackson, the Pats cornerback had issues all game long covering crossing routes. In this example, the Patriots are in man-free with a single-high safety and a five-man rush. Jackson gets beat easily by Giants WR Darius Slayton out of the left slot on a deep crossing pattern, but the three-man stunt rattles DeVito into tucking the ball and running for a short gain on third down. This should've been a huge play for Slayton, who beat Jackson on a similar crossing pattern later in the game that DeVito also missed.

Next, the Patriots had two obvious coverage busts that they were lucky didn't hit for touchdowns. First, the Giants use two vertical stems to the quarterback's left to flood the Pats cover three zone. With the outside corner (Jon Jones) having to cover number one vertical, the slot receiver is left uncovered down the seam for a wide-open TD. On the quarterback's right, Jackson looks lost, like he's playing man-to-man while the rest of the defense is in zone. Luckily, Jabrill Peppers bails him out. This should've been a touchdown to Robinson (#17) on the quarterback's left, and it is a shaky rep from Jackson to the quarterback's right. Not good.

New England let another receiver run free through the secondary here. This time, it appears that the Pats are in cover three with a five-man rush. In this case, Jackson should have the deep third, with Peppers likely "buzzing" into the flat to add to the short zone distribution. Instead, Jackson bites on the route into the flat, leaving tight end Daniel Bellinger wide-open behind the defense. The Pats were lucky that DeVito panicked in the pocket again.

We are now at the point with Jackson that the Patriots need to consider benching him for a Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, and Shaun Wade cornerback trio. Jackson allowed a team-high 107 receiving yards on seven catches into his coverage, and as shown above, it could've been even worse against a more seasoned quarterback.

Although it was mainly Jackson on the scene this week, the film looked similar without him for the Pats secondary against the Colts, while they allowed six explosives to the Commanders in Week 9 and five the week before that to Miami. Unfortunately, this is just who the Patriots are as a pass defense. They're short-handed, but the mental lapses are inexcusable.

The Patriots defense shouldn't be pointing fingers at the offense until they get their house in order. The coaches will see this film, and there will be no resting on the ten points allowed.

Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Giants:

- The Patriots offensive line, Billy Yates, Adrian Klemm, and O'Brien deserve credit for this unit's improvements in the run game. After a slow start, the Pats have the second-highest rush EPA per play in the NFL behind the Ravens (+0.08) and are second in success rate to Baltimore (49%). Their fundamentals on gap/duo schemes have improved tremendously. They're really good at trap/split-flow zone blocking, and they've figured out ways to utilize perimeter blockers at WR/TE. I'm impressed with how far they've come, especially on the double-team blocks.

- As predictable as it was at times, the Pats were effective on their 12 screen passes. They generated six positive plays with gains of 19, 15, 14, and 12 yards. O'Brien had a few well-timed tunnel screen designs and a nice complement to power/trap runs where they pulled Cole Strange to set up the angles for a screen into the short side of the field. It was a fine plan with two shaky quarterbacks against a defense that blitzed on 21-of-37 drop-backs.

- Although the pressure rate (24.3%) wasn't egregious with a combined average time to throw of 2.31 seconds, there were still too many assignment breakdowns on the interior OL. The Pats let three free runners through the middle and needed Rhamondre Stevenson to save Cole Strange on another. That's what Wink Martindale does, but it was another area where it seemed like the Pats weren't ready to go. The free runner on Mac's second INT wasn't a protection breakdown, though. That blitzer is the quarterback's responsibility.

- Route running by the Patriots receivers is a weekly issue that needs an internal audit in the offseason to find the root cause. The Pats WRs/TEs aren't on the same page with the quarterback, they aren't converting routes properly, are either missing hand signals or the messaging is lost in translation, and the spacing is always inconsistent. At some point, there needs to be repercussions for a two-year long problem for this group. Unfortunately, that might mean making a tough decision on Troy Brown. 

- RT Mike Onwenu was dominant as a tone-setting combo blocker with excellent fits up to the second level. Onwenu paved the way for Stevenson's touchdown run, and the Pats ran behind him and rookie RG Sidy Sow for most of the second half. In pass protection, Onwenu had a clean sheet. Pay the man and leave him at right tackle. What a stud. Sidy Sow allowed a sack but worked well with Onwenu on double teams.

- I'm a harsh critic of Cole Strange, which might be some bias toward the draft pick itself. He's still inconsistent in the passing game with a mental lapse that led to pressure on Mac's first interception, a sack allowed on a spin move, and he was late to release upfield on a screen that went for -5 yards. But the second-year LG is becoming a solid run blocker. Strange's balance/footwork and grit on double-teams is much better, and he's an athletic puller playing with much better pace on the move. I've seen progress in that regard for Strange, but this is a passing league, making pass protection the top priority for an offensive lineman.

- C David Andrews is the least of this team's worries, but I didn't think this was a great day for the Pats captain. Andrews allowed a sack, a pressure when he let a slanting rusher through, opened away from a blitz that led to another free runner, and another pressure occurred when Stevenson was up in the left A-Gap, and Andrews opened into the same gap rather than opening away. Maybe that one was on Stevenson/Zappe. But it caused a broken play regardless. Love Andrews. Consummate pro. Just not his best day.

- Besides an iffy effort on a cut block that led to a negative play, LT Trent Brown had a clean sheet in pass protection and graded out well as a run blocker (91.5). He's going to have head-scratching reps like the cut block, but he's solid on the whole most weeks.

- RB Rhamondre Stevenson continues to run well with 78 yards after contact and five forced missed tackles. Stevenson had three ten-plus yard runs and eight first-down runs. He was excellent in this game and is showing what he can do when the blocking is there.

- There were two instances where my mind wondered, "What if they had a more explosive ball carrier there?" Once when DeVante Parker broke away initially on a 19-yard screen, and Ezekiel Elliott found some daylight on a third-and-9 carry (and another bounced run later on that he probably should've gotten vertical on after the initial cut). Parker got caught from behind on the screen, while Zeke doesn't have the burst to get the edge anymore. Those are two plays that could've been bigger gains.

- WR Tyquan Thornton is a frustrating player. His speed plays on film, but it's hard for the quarterbacks to trust him due to his inconsistent route-running and hands. Thornton has too much wasted movement in his route breaks (Q1, 5:08), and struggles to finish through contact, and that seems to cause the quarterbacks to phase him out even when he's open in the progression. I'm not saying he's secretly a star being held back by quarterback play, but you do wonder what it would look like if the QBs got him the ball more regularly down the field.

- Along those same lines, Demario Douglas has separation talent and burst/quicks as a ball carrier. But he's not converting routes properly (Q1, 5:57), making it difficult for them to feed him on deeper targets. I'd challenge the coaching staff to get him the ball more often on locked overs/slants/fades to see if that gets him going. Douglas is their most dynamic offensive player, and it's on BOB to find ways to efficiently get him the ball until his route-running IQ in the system develops.

- One thing I'll try to get to the bottom of this week is what happened on those two targets to TE Mike Gesicki. There's a clear hand signal by Jones on the first one where Gesicki maybe should've converted his route to a fade vs. press-man, but that's a staple NE play with sticks to one side and slant-flat to the other where the fade doesn't come into play very often. The second one looked like a throwaway with pressure coming up the middle.

- Overall, the Pats defense missed five tackles in this one, including a missed tackle by Jonathan Jones that led to the Giants lone touchdown. But their discipline in pursuit and ability to finish sacks by playing under control is an area they need to correct. The pass rush gets caught chasing the chicken too much, putting the whole defense in a compromised position. It's not just the actual whiffs we log that count, it's also the poor angles/paths to the ball.

- LB Anfernee Jennings is having a nice contract year. He logged two sacks, six total QB pressures, and two stuffs on Sunday. If it's this regime or a Belichick disciple (Mayo) running the defense next season, Jennings is playing his way into a second contract as a solid, well-built edge-setter who will always have a role in this type of defense.

- Another monster effort from DT Christian Barmore: sack, three hurries, two stuffs, and a batted pass. Barmore's rep to split the combo block on the play-side of outside zone to stuff Barkley was next-level stuff and shows his continued improvement against the run. He has been playing like an elite IDL for two months now.

- LB Josh Uche had three hurries in this one with an impactful speed-to-power rush, a hurry on a three-man stunt as the wrap player, and another on a speed rush. However, Uche has to break down better when he gets one-on-one with the quarterback. He isn't finishing pressures like last season, playing too out of control to get the quarterback on the ground.

- Rookie EDGE Keion White's sack was a flash of his potential. White used a powerful swipe move to beat Giants LT Andrew Thomas, saving a big play on a coverage bust in the secondary. White also had another good rep pressing a block against the run, leading to a stuff.

- NT Davon Godchaux logged a team-high three run stuffs. He was taking to Giants center rookie center John Michael Schmitz on singles and held up well on doubles. Good stuff.

- The Pats will take two +10 runs against a back like Saquon Barkley, but they had an alignment issue that led to a 19-yard run on the Giants opening drive where a strong side rotation by Kyle Dugger left the vulnerable to outside zone to the weakside (away from the TE). That's rare for Ja'Whaun Bentley and company, as Bentley usually gets them in the right alignment.

- QB pressures: Jennings (2 sacks, 4 hurries), Barmore (sack, three hurries), White (sack), Bentley (sack), Wise (sack), Peppers (sack), Uche (3), Pharms (1), Dugger (1), Guy (1). Pressured allowed: Andrews (sack), Sow (sack), Strange (sack, hurry), McDermott (hit, hurry), Stevenson (2), Brown/Onwenu (0).

- Coverage stats: Jackson (8/7/107/PBU), Tavai (1/1/29), Jon Jones (4/4/26/TD), Bryant (5/3/13/PBU), Mills (1/1/10), Peppers (1/1/6), Dugger (1/0/0), Wade (2/0/0).

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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