The Patriots playoff hopes are alive and well after defeating the Cardinals 27-13 with a convincing second-half performance on Monday night in Arizona.
The Matt Patricia-led offense found enough points (20) to come away with a victory against Cardinals backup quarterback Colt McCoy. Still, it was another week where Patricia felt the heat for an up-and-down performance and a Mac-era single-game high 12 screen passes that weren't always productive (4.8 yards per screen).
However, after reviewing the film, we are on board with Patricia's game plan and like where the Patriots offense could be heading if they expand on Monday night's script. Call me a homer. Call me a blind optimism in Pats footie pajamas. Sunshine.com, whatever. I don't care.
Everyone would prefer the offense to open up their passing game more often to create big plays, and obviously, they'll need more than 20 points to beat the Bengals, Dolphins, Bills, and even Raiders down the stretch.
The reality is that the Patriots don't have an offensive line that can consistently hold up in pass protection to be a high-volume deep passing attack, and the line is also struggling to block traditional runs as well to be a run-first team. Plus, the quarterback turned the ball over at an alarming rate when they aired it out in the first three weeks of the season.
Instead, the coaching staff has pivoted to maximizing the game-breaking ability of three-phase weapon Marcus Jones and others to keep the chains moving, hopefully break a few big plays off the quick-game, screens, and RPOs, and take timely shots downfield.
When you have a shaky offensive line and a quarterback who doesn't thrive out of structure in playground mode, this is what you do, for better or worse, and it's not about a defensive coach calling offensive plays.
The offense started moving the ball when the Patriots brought Marcus Jones into the game late in the first quarter to show the Cardinals defense their foundational play in the game plan.
In the play, they send Jones on an orbit motion behind the QB across the formation and then run a screen to the explosive rookie into the flat that gains 12 yards.
By showing this motion screen in the first quarter, the Patriots were able to use Jones as a decoy to run complementary plays off the motions that created openings elsewhere for the rest of the game.
For example, the Pats bring the rookie on a jet motion into a trips bunch here. With Jones releasing into the flat on a stick concept and Mac staring him down to influence the flat defender, it expands the short zones in the Cardinals coverage structure to open up space for Tyquan Thornton's route that gains another 12 yards.
This time, its orbit motion again creating a run-pass option for the quarterback to read out, and when the second level stays back in anticipation of another screen, the Patriots have the numbers and advantageous blocking angles to pave the way for rookie Kevin Harris, who gains nine yards and tacks on another 15 when he's brought down by his face mask.
Lastly, the Patriots got first-year running back Pierre Strong into space on screens and RPOs on a few occasions, allowing the fourth-round pick to show off that 4.37-speed in the open field. The next play had arguably New England's fastest personnel group on the field in years: Thornton, Jones, Strong, Nelson Agholor, and Jonnu Smith.
Jones serves as a decoy again on orbit motion, and watch the impact it has on the defense when Mac fakes the ball to the rookie, sucking up the defensive line into the backfield. The Pats QB does a good job of getting the pass off, and Strong has blockers and plenty of room to run for a 16-yard gain that gets the Pats out of a second-and-12 hole.
Then, once the Patriots had more freedom to attack vertically against a Cardinals defense anticipating more quick-game concepts, RPOs, and screens, they successfully took some shots downfield.
New England's longest play from scrimmage was a four verticals concept on first down, where the defensive line has to respect the threat of a run or another screen and can't just pin its ears back. Plus, the Cardinals play the down out of a single-high structure, so the four vertical routes flood the deep part of the zone. Mac looks off the deep safety in his drop by looking left, then comes back to a wide-open Hunter Henry for a 39-yard completion that was effectively the final nail in the Cardinals coffin.
For those who have read and listened all season long, you know New England's motion and RPO-heavy game plan brought a smile to my face. We've been clamoring for it all season to mask a struggling offensive line, create early-down opportunities in space for their playmakers, and allow Mac to thrive in an offense that resembles his Alabama days.
The Patriots generated 0.07 expected points added per play on first and second down against Arizona with this style of play, which is a big improvement from losing 0.04 EPA per play on early downs in their first 12 games of the season (28th in the NFL).
As they continue to expand on this, more early-down success will hopefully lead to fewer third downs and easier down and distances in the future. The offense can execute this stuff more consistently, thus avoiding negative plays and unwanted late-down situations.
The onus is now on Patricia and the rest of the staff to get the most out of this style of play. Patricia did a good job building plays off of Jones's motions. But they need to have a variety of combinations out of these looks and try to bait defenses to come downhill and hit deeper routes with receivers on the move (please, a bluff screen).
With the pieces that the Patriots have offensively, from the coaching staff to personnel, this is how the 2022 offense will hit its ceiling. Now, go buck wild with it, Matty P.
Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots win over the Cardinals After Further Review:
1. Why Aren't the Patriots Calling More Play-Action? Here's the Answer and an Adjustment They'll Hopefully Stick With Moving Forward
Heading into the matchup, the Patriots statistical advantage over the Cardinals defense was the top-ranked play-action offense vs. the 30th-ranked play-action defense.
Although the Zappe games skew those play-action numbers, it was a potential weakness they could've exploited in Arizona's defense. However, New England only called four play-action passes, and a few were fakes on screens rather than downfield designs.
Based on the film over the last two weeks, struggling to protect the quarterback off play-action has become a consistent problem for the offense when they dial up run fakes, which could explain why they're not calling as many play-action passes as we'd all like them to call.
In the audio breakdown above, we explain the blocking scheme that led to Mac Jones's first interception in six weeks, where the protection call left tight end Hunter Henry and running back Kevin Harris (blitz pickup) in disadvantageous pass-blocking situations, leading to the turnover.
As we also break down, the good news is that they seemed to adjust later in the game by running play-action with two tight ends on the field and giving the more challenging blocking assignment to Jonnu Smith rather than Henry, which kept Mac clean and should've produced a big play.
To get the play-action passes going again and call more of them in games moving forward, keeping both tight ends in to block with Smith on the outside could fix the protection issues.
2. Patriots Defense Continues to Problem-Solve Facing Elite Wide Receivers
The Patriots defense is trying to get through a ridiculous run of elite wide receivers without a true shutdown cornerback, and it hasn't always gone well.
In two games before the west coast trip, Stefon Diggs and Justin Jefferson combined for 16 catches, 231 yards, and two touchdowns against Bill Belichick's defense. Not exactly taking away the opponents' number one threat, as we are accustomed to seeing around here.
Without a lockdown corner, we've seen the Patriots play third downs, especially in the high red zone, with double teams or brackets on Jefferson, Diggs, and now DeAndre Hopkins. However, the problem New England is having is that the cover one-double calls are leaving their other cornerbacks in single coverage against the other receivers.
For example, the Pats double Hopkins out of the quarterback's progression in this play, leaving cornerback Shaun Wade one-on-one with Robbie Anderson in man coverage. Opposing coaches get paid, too, so they know Wade is out-leveraged against crossing routes and doesn't have help to the inside. Anderson easily wins the foot race and sets the Cards up with a new set of downs.
After seeing Arizona's counter to the one-double strategy, the Patriots might've found a solution to their problem of needing to double-team elite wideouts like Hopkins in these critical situations.
This time, the Patriots use two deep safeties in a cover-seven call to bracket both Hopkins (left) and Hollywood Brown (right slot) as they anticipate Brown to run another crosser with the double team going towards Hopkins, as Anderson did before. By having two brackets, the Pats take out both options for the quarterback, and McCoy has to settle for a jump ball to Hopkins that is barely incomplete but incomplete nonetheless on the circus catch.
Although it's tougher to get to their five-man rushes with two-high safety shells, the Pats might not have a choice as good offenses continue to hunt one-on-one matchups with capable depth receivers.
The one-double coverages might take out Tyreek Hill in two weeks, but what about Jaylen Waddle in single coverage, is one example. And New England doesn't have the top dog to live in single coverage against the likes of Hopkins, Adams, Hill, Chase, or Diggs – two-high it up.
3. The Breakout Season for Patriots EDGE Josh Uche is Finally Here
New England's pass rush began to pile on the quarterback pressures and sacks late when the Cardinals tried to mount a comeback, but Uche's breakout is still very impressive.
Over the last seven games, Uche has tallied tens sacks and 28 quarterback pressures. In that span, Uche's ten sacks are tied for the second-most in the NFL, and his pass-rush win rate ranks second only to Browns superstar Myles Garrett (26.9% win rate).
The third-year edge rusher took over Monday night's game with back-to-back rushes on Cardinals left tackle, Josh Jones, showing an advanced approach to getting after the QB.
On the first rush that resulted in a sack, Uche uses a hesitation move off the line like he's going to convert speed to power in an attempt to turn the corner. When Jones sets back to protect his edge, Uche uses a two-hand swipe and rip move to jump inside Jones for the sack.
In the very next play, Uche uses a more subtle version of the hesitation step to keep Jones from gaining depth out of his stance, with the Cardinals left tackle thinking about the inside move on the play before. This time, Uche uses a speed-to-power rush with a rip finisher to turn the corner on Jones and hits McCoy as he releases the ball to cause an interception.
Since the day he arrived at Patriots training camp as a rookie, it was evident that the Michigan product could rush the passer at a high level. But injuries always derailed his progress whenever it felt like Uche was starting to break out in the past.
This season, knock on wood, Uche is healthy and thriving as a double-digit sack guy opposite Pro Bowler Matthew Judon, who calls his teammate the best pass-rusher on the Patriots roster.
4. Other Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Cardinals After Further Review
- The Patriots will take this game from Mac Jones. He got them out of some crappy protection situations with his legs, took his shots downfield when the opportunities presented themselves and made good decisions on the RPOs. I'd like to see him be more explosive to cover more ground in his climbs up the pocket, but you can see the lack of trust in the protection on his drop-backs. No major gripes with him this week.
- After both rookie running backs ran well on Monday night, there's no reason for the coaching staff to ride Rhamondre Stevenson into the ground when healthy. Strong's burst, vision, and jump-cut ability were impressive, while Harris also ran hard. They are more than capable spell-backs for Stevenson, who is starting to show signs of wearing down due to the heavy workload. Let the kids play.
- Offensive tackle is a high-priority need for the Patriots in the offseason. Connor McDermott is giving them his best effort out there. But he's easily slipped in the run game and has too many assignment miscues. Trent Brown's play has also fallen off since coming down with an illness, and he'll also be 30 years old and in a contract year in 2023. First-round pick incoming?
- The Pats offensive line needs to get better at passing off T/E stunts between their tackles and guards. They gave up a sack early off the left side on one, and then a right-side T/E caused a check down later on. The chemistry and timing aren't there. That's usually a strength of this offensive line over the years.
- There were instances where Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne ran into leverage rather than breaking away from the defender. Once in the red zone where Mac was waiting for Bourne to break out, but he never did. And another instance off play-action late in the game for Agholor. The receivers need to make these route conversions/sight adjustments on the fly. The space was there if they ran the routes correctly.
- The good news for the Pats receivers is that Tyquan Thornton was open in this game. He was open on Mac's interception and again on third down late, but Mac left the pocket. His third-down route could've hit quicker, something the rookie needs to work on.
- If the Pats are going to be screen-heavy, they'd benefit from more than two targets to Jonnu Smith. Also, Hunter Henry up the seam is automatic. Henry is still a plus receiver, just in over his head with some of these blocking assignments.
- The Patriots D-Line needs to penetrate the line of scrimmage more in the run game than in the last two weeks. All for two-gapping and building a wall. But backs like Conner are tough to tackle once they get rolling, and the lack of penetration allows them to get downhill, push piles, and run through arm tackles. They're failing to force negative plays against the run for two weeks in a row now.
- If the Pats can get four pressures per game from Daniel Ekuale until Christian Barmore returns, this pass rush will come back to life. They've been missing that interior presence.
- It's incredible what Marcus Jones is doing from a mental standpoint as a rookie. Playing in all three phases (67 defensive snaps, 11 special teams snaps, eight offensive snaps) and making plays in all three phases. He got lucky on the fourth down throw to Hollywood Brown. But was solid in coverage otherwise. Stayed glued to Hopkins on verticals. One of the most exciting young players they've had in a while.
- Pats LB Jahlani Tavai continues to make plays and set the edge on early downs. His fourth-down stop was a great recovery to get underneath the route after the play-action fake. Tavai also nearly had an interception as a cover-three short zone dropper. He has come a long way since the summer—props to him.
- The Pats will play their fair share of zone with this defensive personnel. But they need to cover the middle of the field better. Linebackers and safeties are giving up too much space there.
- Tough game for Kyle Dugger. Team-high eight catches allowed for 66 yards in coverage and two missed tackles that led to big plays. The raw talent is undeniable. But his technique and coverage awareness is still a work in progress.