The Patriots offense has two weeks to fix what ails them before the games start counting in the regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones led the starting offense on seven drives in the preseason, and the results were as follows: three-and-out, three-and-out, touchdown, three-and-out, interception, three-and-out, field goal.
Ten points, four three-and-out's, and one turnover in seven drives isn't a winning formula. But harping on the struggles and trying to correct every mistake is a daunting task.
Instead, honing in on the positive plays New England's first-team offense has put on tape in their seven offensive possessions might be the best path to a victory at Hard Rock Stadium in two weeks.
Before we get to the passing game, the execution breakdowns really begin on the ground. The Patriots haven't run the ball particularly well all summer, including in training camp practices.
Although it's impossible to chart practice rushing attempts, we have seen the issues the Pats are having implementing a more outside zone-heavy rushing attack in training camp, and those struggles have carried over into the preseason games.
In Friday night's loss to the Raiders in the preseason finale, New England's starting offense ran four outside zone runs. Here were the results: -4 yards, holding penalty (Onwenu), two yards, three yards, for a total of one yard on four outside zone carries and a net of -9 yards factoring in the penalty.
The Patriots were much better when they went back to running their gap plays. On four gap runs, the Pats gained 28 yards: four yards, five yards, six yards, and 13 yards on a crack toss play with Rhamondre Stevenson.
The biggest difference between outside zone and downhill gap schemes is that the blocking on stretch plays moves horizontally rather than vertically. Instead of utilizing power at the point of attack, it's an athletic movement designed to create cutback lanes for the ball carriers.
In New England's case, the gap schemes feature power run-game fits in left tackle Trent Brown and right guard Mike Onwenu to generate movement on the line of scrimmage and create holes.
For example, the Pats ran a one-back power scheme from under-center here. On the left side, Brown and Cole Strange cave in the defensive tackle (#92) on the combination block, and tight end Hunter Henry kicks out the defensive end. The combination block folds the defensive front for Onwenu to pull up to the linebacker, and although he whiffs on the block, Brown and Strange generate so much movement at the point of attack that it still gains five yards.
On the Patriots longest run of the game, New England ran crack toss, another old staple. Crack toss has similar footwork for the offensive line as outside zone, but the crack blocks by the receivers help the play get on the perimeter faster than the stretch runs.
Over the years, the Patriots have majored in gap runs rather than zone schemes, so it's not surprising that the execution in the early going of the old stuff is better than the newer zone plays they're installing.
But the next time the Patriots take the field, it'll be for real, which begs the question: do you scrap the outside zone shift for a win-now focus or stay the course for potential long-term gain?
Installing an outside zone-based system takes time and repetition. It's not going to look perfect right away, and it could take months rather than a few weeks of training camp to get everyone on the same page.
In the long run, you hope the coaching points take hold, and the players adjust to what can be a highly-effective scheme when the blockers are executing it at a high level.
However, New England's struggles with outside zone might be a personnel-based rather than an execution problem. Teams such as the 49ers and Rams who major in outside zone runs target top-tier athletes along the offensive line, sacrificing strength and size for foot speed.
The Patriots could swap out offensive linemen who don't fit a zone scheme for more athletic options, but it might be in their best interest to play to the strengths of their current personnel.
Here are the rest of our film notes After Further Review of the Patriots loss to the Raiders:
1. Breaking Down QB Mac Jones's Struggles vs. Raiders
Several key factors that are out of Jones's control contributed to his struggles in the preseason. Jones hasn't looked comfortable with what's happening around him all summer, negatively impacting his internal clock, pocket poise, and decision-making.
As Jones told Patriots.com after the game, the Pats QB1 needs to do a better job of stepping up and navigating the pocket. Although pressure that wasn't on him became an issue, too, he was also making life harder on his offensive line by running into pressure.
Here, right tackle Isaiah Wynn protects the outside, knowing that he'll have help from Onwenu to the inside. Onwenu comes to help Wynn close off the inside, and there's no reason for Jones to leave this pocket. There's room to step up and hit DeVante Parker (starts left) on the shallow crosser for a chance at a third-down conversion, or Nelson Agholor gains the leverage advantage on a switch release with Jakobi Meyers to Jones's right. Instead, Mac runs into a sack.
Another theme this summer is that the pocket collapses before Jones can move on to his second read or let the play develop downfield.
On his first interception of the preseason, the Pats tried to take a shot off play-action. DeVante Parker attempts to clear out the sideline for Nelson Agholor's wheel route from the slot to Mac's left. The Raiders secondary does a good job of staying over the top of both verticals, so Jones has to move on to his next read in the progression. Unfortunately, when he goes to reset in the pocket to get to Kendrick Bourne's backside dig route, center David Andrews is getting walked back into Jones's lap. By the time Jones side-steps the pressure and throws, linebacker Luke Masterson moves into the passing lane. There's a chance to hit Bourne in the second window (to the left of Masterson) for a completion if the throw is on time.
In this example, the Patriots have the perfect play call to attack the end zone from inside the 20. New England dials up a mirrored smash concept, where shallow routes hold the underneath zones in cover-two for the corner routes to get outside the two deep safeties. Both Agholor and Parker are open for a chance at a touchdown on the seven routes. But when Jones throws a quick pump fake to influence the underneath defenders to jump the shallow routes, the pressure comes off the right side before he can deliver the ball to Agholor.
The Patriots don't design their offense to have Jones hold the football in the pocket, and his 3.03-second time to throw on Friday night cannot continue if they're going to find success.
2. Patriots Rookie CB Jack Jones a Silver Lining in Loss to Raiders
Although the fourth-round pick still needs some seasoning, as is the case with every rookie, Jones plays the game on fire and already looks at home in the Pats press-man coverages.
In the clip above, you can see Jones's smooth hips and compact technique in press-man coverage. He looked great funneling receivers into his leverage, matching vertical stems, and breaking down at the top of the route. Plus, we all know now that he can close and finish. The fourth-rounder from Arizona State will make the occasional rookie mistake in terms of positioning in zone. But he's a twitched-up athlete who might have the best physical tools in the current CB room.
3. Patriots LB Raekwon McMillan Makes a Huge Impact in Coverage
It didn't feel like a coincidence that the Patriots defense began turning things around when Raekwon McMillan came on the field. McMillan was in the middle of back-to-back passing plays to force a three-and-out on the Raiders third possession.
First, he showed off his closing speed and open-field tackling ability to take down Raiders running back Brittain Brown before Brown got loose on a screen pass. McMillan's athleticism to make that rangy play separates him from other inside linebackers on the roster. In the next play, McMillan caused the quarterback to hold the ball by providing inside help as a low rat/robber. Eventually, the rush got home, and the Pats defense got off the field. McMillan's speed in coverage is a welcomed sight for this defense.
4. Final Exam For the Backup Offensive Line Roster Battles
The backup offensive line roster battles are arguably the hardest position group to project each summer. Who makes the 53-man roster and who doesn't is often a complicated question to answer, but here is what we saw from the backup big boys in Friday night's final exam:
- This was a strong showing for second-year T/G Will Sherman, who is coming on of late in practice as well. Sherman allowed a QB hurry but looked strong in ten other pass-blocking snaps and smooth reaching defenders on the line of scrimmage in zone and toss schemes. Sherman might be a fit at guard if the Pats plan on staying the course with outside zone. His 5.19-second 40-yard dash at the 2021 combine ranked in the 74th percentile among guards. Arlington Hambright took a step back in this game, allowing a QB hit and hurry in just eight pass-blocking snaps.
- Both backup tackles had their issues, but despite what PFF says, the eye test here gave the nod to Cajuste over Herron. Cajuste wasn't perfect, but his breakdowns were less problematic. Herron is giving up the corner too often in pass protection.
- I'm intrigued by sixth-round pick Chasen Hines. He's a powerful, explosive run-blocker with active eyes and feet in pass protection. Hines is always looking for somebody to hit. Have to love that.
5. Could Undrafted Rookie EDGE DaMarcus Mitchell Sneak Onto 53-Man Roster?
With 2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins on season-ending injured reserve, the Patriots find themselves a little thin at outside linebacker. Mitchell projects as a core special teamer after working on multiple units this summer and had two hurries on defense that caught the eye in the preseason finale. Mitchell has some juice and can play in the kicking game, which might be enough. If not, he'll be a priority to re-sign on the practice squad.