The Patriots offense hit rock bottom in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, a lopsided outcome that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called surreal.
Dallas's football czar was stunned by the one-sided contest because the 35-point deficit was the largest margin of victory for a Patriots opponent in head coach Bill Belichick's coaching tenure in New England. Losses like these force teams to do some soul-searching, with the Pats season after a 1-3 start on the cusp of going off the rails in a way we haven't seen since 2000.
Offensively, a second-quarter implosion has the Patriots in some ugly statistical company in terms of offensive production. New England is now 31st in the NFL in scoring (13.8 PPG), 29th in expected points added per play (-0.18), has turned the ball over seven times in four games (T-7th most), and has generated just seven 20-plus yard plays (30th) – even with an experienced offensive coordinator, they've truly hit rock bottom.
You can point to a tough opening month to the schedule, nitpick the new OC, or blame a quarterback who lost his composure in his worst game as a Patriot. But placing the blame at the feet of the working class in this organization is like blaming mid-level management for a Fortune 500 company going bankrupt. These systemic issues pre-date Mac, who is far from the only one who played poorly on Sunday.
The book on stopping New England's offense for four-plus years has been the same regardless of the quarterback or coordinator. This season, Jones has faced the fifth-highest rate of single-high safety shells and cover-one man coverage schemes. Defenses are putting seven-plus defenders in the box to stop the run, muddying the middle of the field, and forcing Jones and his wide receivers to beat them. Without any real outside threats, Jones ranks 30th out of 31 qualified quarterbacks in total expected points added against man coverage (-21.8), with a 46.5 percent completion rate when defenses play man-to-man (27th out of 31). Plus, over the last two games, Jones has seen the two highest pressure rate of his career with the Cowboys (50%) and Jets (41.4%) constantly putting the QB under duress.
If you're out on the quarterback, we aren't going to pound the table for Jones, because he's not free of blame. Mac had five turnover-worthy plays, four in the second quarter alone, while handing the Cowboys two touchdowns. After a promising start, he completely lost his poise, allowing a strip-sack early in the second quarter to snowball into his worst performance as a pro. With a 50 percent pressure rate, partially due to a slow average release (3.18 seconds), Dallas rattled Jones, who also didn't see the field well, which is out of character for him. We've seen the Patriots offense struggle to move the ball and score plenty, but this was a different vibe.
Regardless of who's under center and calling plays, the issues for the offense won't go away until the talent level increases for the entire unit. If the offense continues down this same path, there's a chance they'll have a different quarterback next season. But whether it's this guy or the next guy, most quarterbacks are a product of their environment, and even the GOATs struggle relative to expectations when things around them go haywire (see: Brady, 2019).
If the Patriots don't address the root cause of their issues on offense, the fear is that they'll be spinning the tires for years until they put better talent around whoever is at quarterback.
Here are two more big-picture takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots loss to the Cowboys After Further Review:
1. How Opposing Defenses Are Game-Planning the Patriots Rushing Attack
Coming into the season, the Patriots had to feel good about their rushing attack being the foundational element for a successful year on offense.
Despite having two running backs who have produced in the past, New England has regressed in the running game to 29th in expected points added after finishing 22nd in the metric a year ago, and lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson continues to struggle. Since we know they have capable backs, the issues are mainly with the O-Line and scheme, which is usually the case when struggling to run the football.
O'Brien and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm can't do anything about the blocking personnel at their disposal (tight ends included). Still, whether it's due to poor continuity, talent, or coaching, the lack of diversity in the running game has made them predictable. The Patriots have majored in "duo" or a scheme also called "gap" this season, running it 26 times through four weeks (sixth-most in NFL), to the point where opposing defensive players are mentioning it in press conferences leading into games (see Jets CB Sauce Gardner last week).
Here is how opposing defenses are attacking the Pats duo schemes by freeing up the backside defensive end in a one-on-one to get early penetration and having their linebackers aggressively fill downhill to beat the combinations/lead blockers to the point of attack.
The Patriots found some success against the Cowboys with their trap schemes, using motion to get the linebacker level to bump over a gap to set up better blocking angles to the play side.
Still, they want to major in duo/gap and build play-action sequencing off those interior double teams and have only averaged 2.3 yards per rush on duo with over a 23% stuff rate as opponents game-plan all week to stop the gap schemes on Sundays.
New England needs to diversify their rushing attack with more power runs, fullback-lead plays and tosses to keep defenses from keying on duo every week.
2. Cowboys Expose Depleted Cornerback Depth in Patriots Secondary, What Now?
Heading into this matchup, we expected the Belichick's and Jerod Mayo to have the upper hand on Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
We couldn't be more wrong, at least in the sense that McCarthy and Schottenheimer had a great approach to expose a banged-up Patriots secondary by letting quarterback Dak Prescott cook. Knowing the Pats would have their defense ready to stop their under-center runs, which Dallas featured at a league-high rate in the first three weeks, Prescott threw the ball 18 times in their first four drives, going field goal, touchdown, field goal to build a double-digit lead. Honestly, I didn't think McCarthy had the aggressiveness in him, and Prescott responded by attacking the Patriots weak links to shred man coverage (10-of-12, 104 yards, TD).
Along with under-center play action, the Cowboys allowed Prescott to attack matchups on early downs from the shotgun, with Dallas having the advantage on the outside. The Cowboys started by going after CB Shaun Wade (six catches, 76 yards) and then immediately went after Myles Bryant against CeeDee Lamb after rookie Christian Gonzalez left the game due to injury.
After playing over 41 percent of their snaps in man coverage in the first quarter, the Patriots nearly cut their man coverage rate in half without Gonzalez (24%), which Belichick admitted after the game changed the entire game plan for defensive play-caller Steve Belichick.
Although the Patriots defense only gave up 24 points and wasn't the primary reason they lost, the Cowboys orchestrated three 70-plus yard drives in the first four possessions, winning the chess match, while the Pats defense also tackled poorly with 12 missed tackles. With the Pats likely becoming very zone-heavy without Gonzalez, the tackling and rallying to the ball needs to improve to be an effective zone coverage defense.
Hopefully, the Patriots will get Jonathan and Jack Jones back soon, with the younger Jones eligible to return off in-season injured reserve this week. That'll help fill the void left behind by Gonzalez, who reportedly will miss time with a dislocated shoulder.
Fair or not, the Patriots need more from their defense than bend-don't-break against good teams, as this unit has lacked impact plays against Miami and Dallas. One side of the ball has to make game-changing plays, and two takeaways in four weeks isn't good enough with this roster construction.
3. Quick-Hit Film Notes From the Patriots loss to the Cowboys
- One question I plan on asking offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien this week is how Jones is being coached to read RPOs. Based on the film, Jones's decision-making on run-pass options has been perplexing for several weeks. It's almost like these are pre-snap reads where he determines run or pass based on safety shell/box count rather than post-snap, where he can read the movement by the defense. Either way, it's costing them yards handing the ball off instead of throwing the perimeter route combinations to pick up easy yards.
- There are instances where you'd like to see RB Rhamondre Stevenson take the tough yards that are there rather than dancing in the backfield hunting for a bigger play. Stevenson isn't getting much to work with, and the book is out on this traditional running game already, but sometimes you need to take positive yards and live to play another down.
- TE Hunter Henry continues to be the only consistent threat in the passing game, and even he has separation limitations against man coverage. Henry at least gets open against zone and has built up the trust with Mac to have the quarterback put the ball in his catch radius on contested throws, where Henry shows excellent hands to haul in passes.
- OL Vederian Lowe might be the best the Patriots have at right tackle right now, but he has given up 17 quarterback pressures over the last two games, including a team-high nine pressures (sack, eight hurries) on Sunday. Lowe is aggressive with his hands in his pass sets, which usually allows him to establish first contact, but edge rushers bounce right off his punch and turn his corner quickly because his foot quickness isn't there. It might be Riley Reiff time when he returns from injury.
- Rookie LG Atonio Mafi wasn't great but was far down my list of issues in this one. Mafi allowed only two hurries, had some improved reps against D-Line movements (stunts), and successfully worked a few combination blocks. Mafi has limitations in pass protection, but if he was their biggest issue, they would've been competitive on Sunday.
- My guess is that Michael Onwenu is struggling because he didn't participate in training camp. His effectiveness is deteriorating as the game wears on, possibly due to conditioning, and three penalties in one game for him is extremely rare. Onwenu made some good blocks in the run game but the Pats desperately need the old Big Mike. He's not himself yet.
- Mac missed an open DeVante Parker on three occasions running shallow crossers (one INTable, one borderline INTable) and hardly ever throws him open against single coverage on the boundary. Parker doesn't bring any vertical juice at this point, but he was open more often on this film than his zero catches on two targets with Jones in the game suggestion.
- Felt it was clear on the strip-sack that Mac's trust in JuJu Smith-Schuster is waning. Smith-Schuster released on a Miami-like wheel motion and had some cushion to work with against Stephon Gilmore along the sideline. If the QB sees it the same way as the receiver, that's a completion on a back shoulder. Not sure what they do with JuJu, who also cut his route off a yard short of the sticks on third-and-15 (14:19, 2nd).
- WR Pop Douglas is the only dynamic route-runner at the second and third level in this offense, so you have to live with the route-running miscues. I marked the rookie down for three bad routes, including the initial stem on his 42-yarder, where he should've gotten more depth before breaking across the field. That's why he ran into Parker.
- TE Mike Gesicki should get more targets in this offense. He's one of a few who show some burst on film to separate against man coverage but only gets thrown to three times (one catch, 12 yards). The lack of blocking chops from the Henry-Gesicki duo is hurting their opportunities in the passing game because the Pats need to put '13' personnel on the field too often, meaning Henry and Gesicki are seeing better coverage defenders with fewer WRs on the field. They'd have more production against safeties and linebackers.
- I'm again asking where Ty Montgomery is as the third down back. He played one offensive snap in this one and is essentially a coverage ace on special teams.
- The Cowboys third-and-6 at the 5:57 mark of the second quarter grinds my gears. The Pats had a blitz on with man coverage behind it, and possibly due to slow communication, Kyle Dugger was late to line up and gave TE Jake Ferguson an easy conversion. You can't beat yourself like that, especially when you're missing pieces on defense.
- DL Deatrich Wise was their most disruptive player in this one. Wise logged five quarterback pressures (sack, hit, three hurries) and made first contact on a TFL by slanting inside on an outside zone run. Wise's play strength and recognition are much improved.
-Along with Wise, the other bright spot for the Patriots in this game was LB Jahlani Tavai. Tavai had a sack, three quarterback pressures, four stops, and a batted down pass. One of his best games as a Patriot, and they'll need him moving forward without Judon.
- After the Gonzalez injury, DB Jalen Mills was the primary nickel/slot corner, with Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade on the outside. Until reinforcements arrive via the Joneses, that might be what they have to roll with next week against the Saints. At least that's not a very explosive offense.
- Rookie DL Keion White only played nine defensive snaps in the first half, with most of his reps coming in mop-up duty. White got washed down trying to shoot a gap from a three-point stance on a counter run from the gun that gained 16 yards. The over-aggressiveness might be why he's not playing a bigger role. White needs on-the-job training now without Judon. He is the future at the position, and the reps are more valuable for him than Anfernee Jennings or Jahlani Tavai. If this staff plays Trey Flowers over White, that's a shame. Following a contract hold-in this summer, who knows where Judon will be next season?
- Rookie LB/S Marte Mapu played a season-high 35 snaps on defense with 19 snaps in the box. Mapu got lost in zone coverage on a 28-yarder on Dallas's opening drive and seemed to have a substitution snafu in the third quarter. But his size and play speed are different on film, and he'll improve his coverage awareness with more experience. He is another first-year player who should continue to learn on the fly for this team.
- Outside a bad missed tackle in the first half, Jalen Mills was solid in this game. I'm not sure why the coaching staff favors Shaun Wade over him at corner. Maybe they told Mills heading into the season he could play safety/nickel and want to stay true to their word? At this point, that can't matter. He's a better player than Wade.
- Quarterback pressures: Wise (5, sack), Tavai (3, sack), Judon (3), Uche (2, sack), Roberts (1), Dugger (1), Mills (1). QB pressures allowed: Lowe (9, sack), Andrews (3), Mafi (2), Onwenu (2), Brown (2).
- Coverage stats: Wade (8/6/76), Bryant (7/7/65), Dugger (4/4/41), Mapu (1/1/28), Wilson (2/2/20), Mills (3/3/18), Gonzalez (2/1/9), Tavai (1/1/8), Peppers (3/3/8), Bentley (4/2/7).