The most troubling realization about the Patriots offense is that you can't pinpoint their issues to one thing in any given week.
If there was a central theme to their struggles, it would be easier to fix or upgrade this scheme or personnel problem, and New England would be onto something offensively. Instead, watching their film is a weekly game of Whac-A-Mole where they clean up one thing to have another problem present itself. Onwenu stabilizes right tackle, and you lose your left tackle. Mac sees the field poorly in Miami, sees it well versus Washington, but misses throws. Understandably, fans want someone to blame, but it's not that simple. It's all problematic.
There's a never-ending sense that the entire Patriots offense is broken. Their receivers don't separate against man coverage, the pass protection is spotty, which makes the quarterback antsy, and Jones walks a tightrope every Sunday where you can feel the tension in real time. On Sunday, Mac's limited supporting cast was a concern heading into the game without regulars Kendrick Bourne, Trent Brown, and DeVante Parker.
The Patriots receivers generated 1.8 yards of separation, with 36% of Jones's throws going into tight windows when the Commanders defense played man coverage (25 attempts). In comparison, Washington's receivers generated 3.1 yards of separation against the Pats man coverage, while quarterback Sam Howell only threw into a tight window 4.5% of the time. Based on that, it should be as simple as upgrading Jones's supporting cast, right? Maybe dropping Tee Higgins or Marvin Harrison Jr. into this offense next offseason would open up everything for Mac to thrive. How easy would that be? Playoffs incoming in 2024, baby!
However, Jones is also a problem. Last week, Mac left plays on the field due to poor field vision and being unwilling to test downfield passing windows. This week, he missed throws due to poor mechanics. Jones has developed a bad habit of fading away in the pocket. Sometimes, it's subtle. Other times, he's Jayson Tatum in the post with the one-foot fadeaway jumper. He is playing with unsettled footwork in the pocket, making it harder to be precise with his throws.
For what it's worth, pressure on the quarterback wasn't a major issue in this one (33% pressure rate on "rhythm" throws between 2.5-4 seconds, league average - 41.1%); this all came down to receiver separation and quarterback play/accuracy. The clean pockets were there to make plays in the passing game, but the rest was not.
The Patriots offense, including the quarterback, doesn't do anything consistently enough to be a representable, winning operation on that side of the ball. It's a weekly roller coaster with this group, and something has to give because this formula with a subpar quarterback throwing to subpar receivers is why the offense is 30th in expected points added this season, which tells you that this offense is multiple key pieces away from being a playoff-caliber unit.
Here are two more big-picture takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Commanders After Further Review:
1. Commanders QB Sam Howell Lights Up the Patriots Blitz Schemes
Head coach Bill Belichick made it a point this week that New England wasn't very familiar with this Washington team, and it showed on Sunday, or maybe this is who this defense is after similar breakdowns against a divisional opponent in Miami.
Rather than causing a young quarterback's head to spin, Howell and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy flipped the script. The key for any pass defense is marrying good pass rush with tight coverage because, as they found out the hard way, when one area breaks down, it all breaks down. Sometimes, New England generated pressure but had lousy coverage. Other times, it was tight coverage with zero pressure or the perfect storm of zero pressure with bad coverage.
Starting with the zone breakdowns, the Patriots ran six zone blitzes that Howell generated an outstanding +0.52 expected points added while averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt. The big play came on a 26-yard completion when the Pats stunt-blitz got pass-rusher Josh Uche free. However, someone didn't properly run the scheme to have an even zone distribution. Most likely, this was supposed to be a six-man cover three zone, but the Patriots don't have a short zone defender in the right flat (bust), leaving a wide-open area for Howell to create off-script.
As mentioned, the marriage between rush and coverage wasn't good all afternoon. Over the years, several Pats defenders have told me that when you play cover zero without a deep safety, the rush better get home because those man coverage defenders are in a tough spot.
Although the coverage from Myles Bryant could've been better, the real story to Jahan Dotson's 33-yard touchdown was that the quarterback has a clean pocket. The Pats play the down in cover zero, without a deep safety, with eight defenders involved in the rush. As always, certain defenders will pop out when blockers engage them to play short zones, but the simulated pressure should still get a free runner to the quarterback. In this instance, Howell has all day to throw, leaving the downfield coverage vulnerable. If you're playing cover zero, the rush has to get home. Period. It doesn't here, and it's a touchdown.
Howell had one of his best days against the blitz this season, completing 13-of-18 pass attempts for 139 yards and a touchdown against the blitz. Not to take anything away from the Commanders QB, but the Patriots defense didn't execute their blitz schemes well. New England is typically a very assignment-sound defense. Lately, they've been giving up big plays because guys either are unsure or aren't executing their 1/11th's within the defense's structure.
As always, head coach Bill Belichick preaches a "do your job" mentality on defense, but for whatever reason, the players on the field weren't tied together over the last two weeks.
2. RB Rhamondre Stevenson's Breakout a Bright Spot for Patriots Offense
Since most of this review is piling on the Patriots at 2-7, let's highlight one silver lining. After all, the Patriots were competitive on the scoreboard in this game, so it wasn't all bad.
Over the last two weeks, Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson has been building momentum to return to his 2022 form. Stevenson, primarily due to poor run blocking, hasn't produced nearly as much as his breakout second season. Individually, he wasn't making defenders miss as often or creating as many yards after contact.
Some of it was because he needed a head of steam to activate his contact balance, but the production still wasn't there, regardless. As a runner, Stevenson has forced five missed tackles while generating 110 of his 126 rushing yards after contact in the last two games (5.8 average). In the first seven games, Stevenson only produced 1.75 yards after contact per rush.
Furthermore, Stevenson's career-long 64-yard touchdown run came on a run-pass option (RPO) scheme that we've been waiting all season to highlight. O'Brien labels these plays as "advantage" throws. The idea is for the quarterback to read the defense's structure before the snap to either hand the ball off or throw a pass. The read is based on the leverage of the coverage defenders and the number of defenders in the box. In this instance, Jones sees that the defense has two defenders over the pass routes to his right, lightning the box, with the defense in man coverage. If Gesicki is uncovered or has favorable leverage with a traditional box, Jones might throw the quick out. Instead, he takes the numbers advantage to the run, Gesicki's route pulls the slot defender out of the run fit, and the Pats O-Line picks up the blitzing linebackers to open a huge hole for Stevenson.
The other area where Stevenson's game has declined is as a pass-catcher. Last season, the Pats RB was a reliable underneath target with 69 receptions. This season, Stevenson was only on pace for 49 catches in the first eight weeks. On Sunday, he had four catches for 42 yards, which isn't eye-popping production, but the film showed significant progress.
Stevenson was far more explosive coming out of the backfield. In the first eight games, he was taking too long to shake man coverage defenders. This week, he got into his routes quicker and made himself available to the quarterback faster. Plus, Stevenson also dusted Commanders LB Jamin Davis on a wheel route, but the pass was under-thrown.
Although it was far from the only reason, Stevenson's dip in production this season compared to year two for the Pats running back is a big reason why the offense has taken a step back. Hopefully, the Patriots offense will have this Rhamondre Stevenson moving forward.
3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Commanders After Further Review
- This is the first time, maybe all season, where the Patriots RPOs/advantage throws worked with some regularity. The reads by the QB were much better, and the advantages they presented in the run game led to Rhamndre's 64-yard TD and another successful run by Zeke into a two-high shell on a screen-run option (+8). Some progress on the runs will hopefully lead to future opportunities on the pass routes.
- C David Andrews deserves so much credit for helping two young guards stay afloat in a tough matchup against Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Andrews routinely looked for work to save the guards on bad reps, only allowing one hurry himself. Andrews does his part every week. It's a shame that he has to be a part of this mess.
- RT Mike Onwenu has one bad rep per game in pass protection, where he gets beat quickly around his edge, this week on a QB hit. But he was clean otherwise and a difference-maker in the running game, kicking out ends/working doubles at OT. I've been in favor of Onwenu finding a permanent home at guard due to his body type, but it's hard to deny how well he plays at tackle. Right tackle is a guard-like spot for the Pats, too, so they might as well retain him with the possibility that he's a long-term starter at tackle.
- Rookie RG Sidy Sow has good feet, body control, and recovery talent when rushers beat his initial punch. However, he needs to work on establishing meaningful first contact and maintaining his leverage with better hand technique. Sow has some real tools to work with in his feet/base, but he's not sustaining blocks in the run game because of his hand technique and gets off-balance, firing too quickly out of his stance. Overall, two hurries and a run stuff (first run play of the game) isn't bad in this matchup. They can coach him up on the hand-fighting stuff.
- LG Cole Strange seems to be on the "down" list almost every week. He's a young player, and it's not his fault they drafted him in the first round. But we have to be honest with our evaluations. Strange allowed a team-high three quarterback pressures. He was put on skates on the missed wheel route to Stevenson, beat clean on an arm over/swim move on the game-ending INT (might've expected McDermott help on the twist, but still lost the rep), and Andrews bailed him out a few other times. Strange's lack of body mass and over-aggressiveness make him a target for opponents every week.
- LT Conor McDermott was serviceable as a spot starter/backup. Jones was only under pressure on 23.9% percent of his drop-backs, so having McDermott in there didn't anchor the whole thing. He gave up quick pressure on a play-action drop-back (JuJu completion) and was beaten by speed-to-power on another rep. But you'll take that in a small sample size until Trent Brown returns.
- The only receiver displaying separation skills also makes rookie mistakes/mental errors you'd expect from Pop Douglas. He ended up in the same spot as Henry on a third-down incompletion to Gesicki, and by taking an inside release on HOSS on the catch that was overturned via coaches challenge, he made that a circus catch for himself with the safety playing over the top. Douglas is an explosive mover with great route-running traits that are exciting, but his long-term target share will come down to whether or not he can clean up the mental errors.
- WR Tyquan Thornton might be a lost cause at this point, but they have no other options because Jalen Reagor (drop, couldn't separate on double move) brings nothing either. Thornton took forever to get out of his break on the fourth down target and then did the foot fire special on the third down in front of Forbes. His benching after the failed third down was warranted.
- WR JuJu Smith-Schuster was fine until the interception. He made a tough catch on fourth down on the final drive and made the most of the scheme on his 20-yard catch, but the lack of burst through the break on the interception was tough to watch. JuJu had the corner in off-man with outside leverage and couldn't break away to create separation. Right read by the quarterback. There was no juice on the route, and couldn't finish through contact at the catch point – the Smith-Schuster story in New England.
- TE Hunter Henry is a reliable safety blanket/red zone threat, but the combination of him and Gesicki, who is giving them nothing besides a few good routes per game, doesn't move the needle for this offense. Gesicki could've been thrown to twice in this game; one might've been a big play (see audio breakdown), but it's not consistent enough for the quarterback to look his way more often.
- Thank goodness for Christian Barmore giving us something positive to highlight on this defense. Barmore registered a team-high eight quarterback pressures with two QB hits and two batted passes. Barmore's hump move is devastating. He compliments that with a slap/rip move and uses his first step to penetrate gaps on stunts. Barmore might've wanted a few plays back in this one, mainly one +run and an instance where he didn't keep Howell in the pocket. But those are nitpicks on another great film for him.
- Rookie EDGE Keion White has pure athleticism that jumps off the film. White's movements are fluid, powerful, and he flashes a good first step on occasion. His two pressures came on a twist, and when he worked through a TE chip to turn the corner. With that said, White needs a rush plan and to play with more anticipation. That could come with more reps, or he'll be a bull in a China shop for a while. Developing improved play recognition and a pass-rush plan will determine his NFL future.
- DE Deatrich Wise had an impactful game with the Patriots trying to use stunts/twists up front to stress a weakness in the Commanders O-Line, something we expected them to do based on studying Washington's offense. Wise finished the game with a sack and six total pressures. His length to create a short corner was an issue for Washington's OTs.
- Marte Mapu looks lost playing deep safety. He was out of position playing the deep half in cover two and was lucky that Sam Howell was late to pull the trigger on a deep cross to McLaurin. It should've been six. Jabrill Peppers, who did what he could to save a TD, let Mapu hear it after the play. What are we doing here? Why draft him to play him out of position? Makes zero sense.
- This defense cannot defend a perimeter screen to save its life. They gave up 12 yards on a screen to Gibson, where the Commanders WR/RB fell as he caught the ball. Maybe if they had a fast linebacker to fly over there, they wouldn't give up so many yards on a simple perimeter screen. Oh, wait, they're playing that linebacker 15 yards off the ball.
- Uncharacteristically poor performance for LB Ja'Whaun Bentley. Bentley was out of sorts with his off-ball reads in the run game, false stepping toward misdirection/eye candy, especially when Washington went to the fullback. The Commanders were using the fullback to block the back side rather than at the point of attack, and Bentley was following the FB rather than the ball. It produced a +12 run for Gibson (3rd QTR, 7:38). He was still credited with three stuffs, even in an off-game by his standards.
- J.C. Jackson not ID'ing the "crack" block as the boundary corner to replace the edge/fit at the second level is now a weekly occurrence. It happened again on the Robinson TD. McLaurin wasn't running a route. Jackson just showed zero awareness. He wasn't very competitive on a third-down conversion to Pringle in man coverage, who beat him on a crosser. This version of Jackson that isn't producing turnovers is tough to watch. At least he used to make up for the plays he would give up in the past.
- LB Mack Wilson struggling to keep the QB in the pocket as a spy in the pass-rush package, another weekly occurrence (+13 to Pringle). Wilson has shown some potential as a wrap player on stunts. He closes in a hurry moving downhill (3 QB pressures).
- Third-and-3 with 4:15 to go in the game. Patriots drop into cover two with their short zone defenders falling eight yards off the ball. Eight yards. On third-and-3. A new set of downs, then an offside penalty on the punt return, hold on the next punt, and just like that, Washington pins the Pats at their own 9 for the final drive. Field position matters, especially with this offense.
- The special teams penalties were borderline, especially the offside on Wilson, but you can't give refs reasons to throw flags in those situations. Wilson definitely flinched before the snap, but it didn't look like he broke the neutral zone. If he did, it was the crown of his helmet by inches. That was a tough call.
- QB pressures: Barmore (7), Wise (sack, 6), Wilson (3), Dugger (2), White (2), Jennings (2), Bentley (1), Uche (1), Mills (1); Pressures allowed: Strange (3), McDermott (2), Sow (2), Stevenson (1), Onwenu (1), Andrews (1).
- Coverage: Bentley (5/5/80), Bryant (7/6/58, TD), Jon Jones (5/2/50), Ja. Jones (5/3/32), Peppers (4/1/26, 2 PBU), Tavai (4/3/24), Mapu (3/3/22), Jackson (2/1/16), Dugger (4/2/10, INT), Jennings (3/3/7).