The Patriots are coming off a mini-bye week where they were officially eliminated from playoff contention following a Thursday Night Football win in Pittsburgh that complicates their lost season.
New England's five-game losing streak was disappointing. But it did bring clarity on a few important things. First, it likely ended the Mac Jones era in Foxborough, with the Pats now definitively in the quarterback market next offseason. Although it would've been ideal for Jones to turn into a franchise quarterback, at least we know he's not their guy, a question that needed to be answered with a fifth-year option decision looming.
The other silver lining from the Patriots plummeting to the worst record in the AFC was their stranglehold on the second overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. New England still holds the second pick in next April's draft through Week 14, but their odds for a top-two pick went from 60% to 41% by beating the Steelers, per ESPN Analytics — a feel-good win did slightly hurt #TheTank.
After snapping their five-game losing streak last week, the question is, which Patriots team will we get in the final four games of the season: the one that built a 21-3 lead in the first 23 minutes of game-time, or the one that reverted to bad habits in the final 37 minutes in Pittsburgh? The former might save coaches and players' jobs.
With the understanding that it's better for their long-term outlook to maintain their high draft pick, Bailey Zappe improved his record as a starter to 3-1 on Thursday night. Something about Zappe, whether opponent or play-calling driven or not, has sparked this team. Still, the second half and a shutout loss to the Chargers included zero points, 12 punts, two turnovers, and two more turnovers on downs. After generating +0.44 EPA per drop-back in the first half, Zappe lost -1.24 EPA on nine second-half drop-backs vs. the Steelers. The latter is more indicative of the Patriots offense this season, not the 21-point outburst in the first half.
Despite extra time to prepare for head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots understandably opened as heavy home underdogs against the defending champion Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday (KC -10.5). The one-game jolt Zappe gave the Patriots will be put to the test against an angry Chiefs team coming off a controversial loss to the Bills in Week 14.
With player evaluation at the top of mind at 3-10, we are again having the contender or pretender debate about a Pats quarterback. This time, it's whether or not Zappe is worthy of competing for the starting job next season, likely with a rookie. If he somehow outduels Mahomes, The Fever will spike.
Here are eight thoughts on the Patriots coming out of the mini-bye week with Kansas City looming:
1. Why did the Patriots Offense Take the Foot off the Gas up 21-3 in Pittsburgh?
Several factors contributed to the Patriots being conservative after building an 18-point lead over the Steelers, but here's some quick math. In their first six possessions, where they scored 21 points and accumulated 181 yards, the Pats had a 68% pass rate. In their last seven drives, New England only threw 43.3% of the time, resulting in six punts and an interception, nearly losing the lead.
In particular, the Patriots got the ball back on their own 14-yard line with 4:58 remaining, running it three consecutive times, including on third-and-2 with 3:32 remaining. The Pats ended up punting the ball back to Pittsburgh. They also threw well short of the sticks on a third-and-9 the drive before, two instances where they could've gone for the dagger but decided to play it safe. Naturally, teams with late-game leads will keep the clock ticking by running the ball. However, with 37 minutes remaining once they went up 21-3, that's way too much time to sit on the lead. Even Belichick said as much after the game.
"I don't think until you get to the end of the game you worry too much about the score," Belichick said following the game. "You just keep running plays. There's so much time left. You just keep running your offense, whatever it is. I don't think you start going to a whole different game plan because you're down by seven or up by seven, or down by ten or up by ten with 40 minutes to go in the game. That wouldn't really change me. I don't see it that way."
Here are a few theories as to why the Patriots were less aggressive, particularly in the second half:
- Zappe's interception was a poor read on a sped-up decision that might've indicated that the Steelers pass rush was starting to get to him following two sacks and a five percent increase in pressure rate. After his interception (1:09, third quarter), Zappe only threw the ball four times. Maybe the Pats didn't want to test their luck.
- The Steelers adjusted by blitzing far less in the second half. In Zappe's 23 first-half drop-backs, Pittsburgh blitzed over 39% of the time, dropping that to a 23% blitz rate in the second half. The Steelers thought they could heat up Zappe and still cover a depleted Pats receiving core, but that wasn't the case, so they committed more resources to pass coverage.
- The Patriots didn't believe Mitch Trubisky could drive the field on their defense. Trubisky orchestrated one legitimate touchdown drive in the second quarter, with Pittsburgh's other touchdown coming on a short field following a blocked punt. The Pats bet on their defense, put the Steelers on long fields, and played the field position game.
The Patriots escaped with a win. But they'll need to trust their passing offense to stay aggressive in the future, even to see if Zappe can be trusted with the game in his hands. They won't beat the Chiefs or Bills by parking the bus.
2. RB Ezekiel Elliott's Contributions as a Receiver
When the Patriots signed Elliott to a one-year deal in August, the hope was he'd combine forces with lead back Rhamondre Stevenson to create a potent one-two punch. Although it hasn't panned out offensively, Elliott has been a good addition. He brings a positive vibe to the locker room, has made good decisions while finishing runs, and is adding yards as a receiver.
Elliott generated +24 yards after catch over expected on his 72 receiving yards on Thursday night. That's the most for Elliott in a game since 2017. He has also produced +48 yards over expected on screen passes, tied for the sixth-most in the NFL. After playing 52 of 57 offensive snaps with 140 scrimmage yards and a score, Elliott is proving he still has gas left in the tank. He would be worth re-signing in the offseason, but Elliott might come at a higher price than the $3 million in total value his contract is worth in 2023.
3. Is WR JuJu Smith-Schuster Primed for A Strong Finish to the Season?
A major reason the Patriots are eliminated from the playoffs in early December is that swapping Jakobi Meyers for Smith-Schuster was a major flop. There's more to receiver production than the receiver himself. But the Pats splash free-agent signing has 29 catches for 260 yards and one touchdown through 13 games. Last season, Meyers led the Patriots with 67 catches for 804 yards and six scores. The swap, which was viewed as a like-for-like with JuJu stepping into Meyers's role, has not gone as planned.
Smith-Schuster has run a career-low 38.3% of his routes out of the slot, whereas Meyers ran slot routes on 59.9% of his snaps in 2022, so it hasn't been the same exact role for JuJu. Plus, there's recent evidence on film where Smith-Schuster is creating separation. JuJu is running routes with more burst, while his quarterback is trusting favorable leverage more often to allow Smith-Schuster to make plays at the catch point. The veteran wideout has never been an elite separator. Instead, he wins with body positioning and the ability to box out against man coverage, with heady route-running to find voids in zone coverages.
We saw the IQ against zone for a 28-yard gain, and Zappe gave him a chance on a 37-yard completion versus man coverage for a season-high 90 yards against his former team in Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster looked like the receiver the Pats thought they signed in March while building confidence with his QB will bring the best out of JuJu.
Whether it's to facilitate a trade or build momentum for year two, it behooves the Patriots for Smith-Schuster to finish the year strong.
4. What Browns S Grant Delpit Extension Means for Pats S Kyle Dugger's Free Agency
When the news broke that Cleveland extended Delpit, my Patriots brain immediately went to Dugger, who was in the same draft class as Delpit.
With the Patriots selecting Dugger with the 37th overall pick, Delpit went seven picks later in the 2020 NFL Draft (44th overall). The Browns gave Delpit a three-year, $36 million deal with $23 million in guarantees, which seems like a starting point for the Patriots with Dugger's representation.
After having four takeaways and three defensive touchdowns last season, Dugger's on-ball production has taken a slight step back this season. However, his recent film shows the playmaker he can be when playing to his strengths.
With the team replacing franchise legend Devin McCourty, Dugger's been playing more free safety this season, taking him further away from the ball. But he's making the most of his box reps lately, logging a sack, four QB pressures, and a run stuff against the Steelers. Dugger also nearly made a terrific interception, rotating into a short zone in a three-buzz coverage, where he broke on an RB screen and almost picked off the pass.
Dugger's reps at deep safety stood out on film vs. the Chargers, while his downhill game is still there when the Patriots unlock it. Dugger is a valuable piece in the defense worth retaining, and the Browns and Delpit just gave them a blueprint.
5. LB Anfernee Jennings Breaking Out in Year Four
We'll have a longer feature on Jennings at some point, but it's still worth highlighting his ascension. After sitting behind productive players like Matthew Judon for years, Jennings is finally getting an opportunity to play significant snaps in his fourth season. The 2020 third-round pick has blossomed into a standout run defender, ranking second among edge defenders with 24 run stops.
Jennings was terrific at the end of the line against the Steelers, tormenting Pittsburgh's tight ends in the running game. Darnell Washington and Pat Freiermuth found out the hard way about Jenning's play strength to defeat blocks, with the Pats LB logging three tackles for loss. He also logged a career-high six quarterback pressures and two sacks with more pass-rush opportunities against the Giants in Week 12.
As a pending free agent, Jennings's ability to set a sturdy edge could earn him a second contract in New England. He is a big reason the Patriots have the top-ranked run defense in DVOA, EPA, and success rate.
6. Is Second-Year LG Cole Strange Starting to Turn a Corner?
Another major reason the Patriots are here is poor personnel decisions on the interior offensive line in recent years.
First, New England failed to extend Pro Bowl guard Joe Thuney on the franchise tag, losing him to the Chiefs in free agency in 2021. Then, the Pats lost free-agent G/C Ted Karras to the Bengals and traded longtime starting right guard Shaq Mason to the Bucs in the 2022 offseason. The Patriots had an in-house replacement at right guard in Mike Onwenu. But the losses created an immediate need at left guard, while Karras was a valuable depth piece who could play all three interior spots, and the Pats haven't settled things down on the interior since.
After three major departures, the Patriots stunned the league by selecting UT Chattanooga OL Cole Strange in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft to fill the void at guard. A guard wouldn't move the needle significantly enough to justify the pick for a rebuilding team needing game-changing talent at the top of the roster. On top of that, Strange's had his ups and downs, with multiple benchings as a rookie and four games lost due to a knee injury in year two.
In fairness to Strange, the first-rounder is starting to turn a corner. On film, his play strength and finishing ability are beginning to take hold. Strange has always been an athletic mover. However, big DTs have overwhelmed him with power. He has improved in that area in year two. Most of his losses have been mental lapses lately. But he's also starting to clean those things up with an outstanding stunt pickup (above) as evidence. Strange has allowed just one hurry in the last two games, including several one-on-one reps against Steelers stud Cameron Heyward last week.
Strange wasn't the difference-making draft pick the team needed at the top of the 2022 draft. Still, it would lessen the blow if the light is coming on for him.
7. Does LB Mack Wilson Have a Future in New England?
Head coach Bill Belichick said Wilson is having an "outstanding" year for the Patriots as a versatile, athletic linebacker. Wilson has played a role in New England's rush package, where he's often used to spy/contain quarterbacks or as a wrap player on stunts. He has also played off the line, handling more stressful coverage assignments in short-middle zones while making two superb plays on the football lately in the flat.
One of those highly athletic plays came when the Steelers ran a trick play on the goal line last week. Pittsburgh handed the ball off to TE Connor Heyward on a jet sweep, then had Heyward attempt a pass. Wilson recognized the trick play, batting the pass down before it got to an open receiver in the end zone, saving a touchdown.
Wilson, who has played 26.6% of the defensive snaps and 70.1% on special teams, is a free agent next offseason. The former Alabama product could be finding a new home in New England.
8 Jayden Daniels Wins the Heisman, Penix Finishes in Second Place. What does it mean for the Patriots?
It's time for Patriots fans to consider the 2024 quarterback class a four-quarterback class and possibly a five-quarterback class, depending on your feelings on Bo Nix. After winning the Heisman, Daniels is a legit NFL prospect. His film shows a poised thrower with elite mobility, NFL-style reads and decision-making, and good arm talent to hit different clubs based on the coverage. He can easily throw with touch as velocity, which all good quarterbacks do at the next level. Penix, who finished second in the voting, has checked every box: excellent film, great intangibles, and superb production.
From a Patriots perspective, my big takeaway from the Heisman voting is this: drafting Marvin Harrison Jr. second overall, then Daniels/Penix at the top of the second round isn't happening. The NFL knows about these guys already. We are just catching up. Assuming everything checks out in the pre-draft process for Penix's medicals, the top four QBs are going in the top 20, if not sooner. Williams, Maye, Daniels, Penix: it's a four-quarterback class.