Arlington, TX – Back in the 2001 season, the Patriots got their doors blown off by the Dolphins in a 30-10 shellacking in Miami to drop to 1-3.
After the game, head coach Bill Belichick took the entire team to literally bury the game ball somewhere in the fields in Foxborough to send a symbolic message to his team: move on.
The Patriots fell similarly in a 38-3 loss to the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, an outcome that might lead the head coach down a similar path in the coming days. With the offense handing the Cowboys multiple scores off turnovers, the defense had the wind taken out of its sails when rookie Christian Gonzalez left the game in the first quarter.
Gonzalez's injury forced the defense to play without their top four cornerbacks as the Joneses trio were also not available, and his absence was felt immediately when Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott went right to go-to receiver CeeDee Lamb for another Dallas touchdown.
New England's winning formula typically starts with a strong defensive effort, which became tougher once Gonzalez went down, especially given the depleted cornerback depth already. However, Sunday's loss was another reminder that this roster lacks offensive talent. In a game where the offense needed to lead the way, quarterback Mac Jones and company fell well short of the mark.
In three years of watching every snap by the Patriots quarterback in his NFL career, the opening half was the worst two quarters of football Jones has played. The Pats QB was responsible for two Dallas defensive touchdowns. First, trying to extend a play-action drop-back resulting in a strip-sack, and then an ill-advised decision to throw across the field that ended in a pick-six to open the game wide-open at 28-3 in the second quarter.
Although the quarterback takes the blame, the larger conversation continues about surrounding a non-toolsy passer with a supporting cast that doesn't elevate him. Some quarterbacks might've made plays where Jones turned the ball over, but that's not who he is, and it exacerbates the issue when he has to make plays late in the down. When Jones is in a rhythm, he can put the ball where it needs to go, but the issues will persist offensively if the Patriots don't create that environment for him more often.
At some point, we'll have the chicken or the egg conversation about the starting quarterback; is it Mac, or is it his supporting cast? For now, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke about the star power in Dallas earlier this week, and it was apparent how lopsided the top-end talent on the two offenses was in Sunday's loss, showing again that it's all not good enough and something needs to give because this combination isn't working.
Here are eight observations from the Patriots nightmare loss to the Cowboys to drop to 1-3 on Sunday:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Rookie WR Demario Douglas Explodes for 42-Yard Catch on Patriots Opening Drive
Before the game started to unravel, one rising playmaker in the Patriots offense flashed his big-play potential to get the offense moving.
Rookie Demario Douglas got a free release from a trips (3x1) alignment to set up a matchup against Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson. Douglas ran a deep over (crosser) to run away from Wilson in man coverage, used a sweet spin move to juke Wilson out of his shoes, and eventually went down for a 42-yard gain on the Patriots opening drive.
In the post-game locker room, Douglas lamented that he couldn't stay on his feet after the filthy juke, but his ability to run away from Wilson is a trait he only possesses amongst the Pats top pass-catchers.
With this offense desperate for explosive plays, the Patriots need to feed the rock to Douglas, their most dynamic playmaker on offense.
2. Patriots QB Mac Jones Struggles to Play Off-Script, Late in Down vs. Dallas Defense
The Patriots quarterback started this game with an in-rhythm throw on under-center play action that gained 14 yards to tight end Hunter Henry, a staple drive starter in O'Brien's offense.
However, the issues quickly snowballed on the Patriots quarterback when the Cowboys defense began taking away those rhythm throws to force Jones into being a playmaker, which isn't the direction the Pats want their quarterback going in, and it all came to roost late in the first half.
With the Cowboys zone structure taking away Jones's initial read, Mac gets antsy in a clean pocket while scanning the right side of the field and starts moving off his spot. Then, after resetting in the pocket, Jones threw across the field from the right hash into the left sideline where Cowboys corner DaRon Bland was eagerly waiting for a pick-six – a throw that any quarterback gets chewed out for making, regardless of physical tools.
In the first three games of the season, Jones mostly played with good poise despite an offensive line that routinely put him under pressure. But, on Sunday, Mac played non-competitive football by losing his wits in a way we've never seen in his 36 starts in a Patriots uniform.
The film will tell the complete story about how Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn rattled Jones, which is at least partially on the talent around him and could've been a Quinn masterclass where he out-schemed O'Brien to force the passing game into Jones's hands.
New England needs to pick up its starting quarterback to recalibrate Jones's decision-making process, or this season could go completely off the rails before we even get to Halloween. Belichick confirmed post-game that Jones will remain as the starter.
3. Patriots Defense Loses Two Key Playmakers to Injury in Nightmare Scenario
Although there are things the defense needs to clean up, it's hard to get on a group playing a talented Cowboys offense down several key contributors in the secondary.
Adding to the nightmare loss, the Patriots lost first-rounder Christian Gonzalez, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month, to a shoulder injury late in the first quarter. Gonzalez was injured when he lowered his shoulder to chop down Cowboys running back Tony Pollard and didn't return to the game after favoring his right arm walking off the field. After Gonzalez left the game, it sucked the energy out of the entire Patriots sideline, and Belichick even admitted it changed the entire game plan.
Then, the Pats lone Pro Bowler from a year ago, Matthew Judon, left the game with an elbow injury in the second half. According to NFL Network, Judon is being evaluated for a biceps tendon injury and is expected to miss time—nightmare becomes an even darker terror dream.
As we all know, the Patriots need to win games with their defense, and losing their two best defensive players in one game made a bad day even worse.
4. How Much of the Offense's Struggles Are on Offensive Coordinator Bill O'Brien?
My biggest gripe with O'Brien through four games isn't the lacking passing game because the Pats OC is doing his best with what he's got. O'Brien is trying to create natural rubs, favorable leverage with switch releases/stacks/bunches, and larger openings in zone coverage with play-action, and the players just aren't executing.
The nitpick for the Patriots offensive coordinator comes from a lack of creativity in the running game that isn't getting the most out of its running back duo. Say what you want about the offensive line. Lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott are better than this. The Pats are relatively predictable and don't do much to help the offensive line run block.
In two of the last three games, opposing defenses attacked the Patriots gap schemes that everyone is anticipating with run blitzes and slanting the defensive line to cross the blockers' faces to prevent New England's double teams from developing on the interior. On gap runs, the Pats want to move the line of scrimmage with two interior double teams, but if the aggressive fronts disconnect those double teams before they get rolling, it's game over.
O'Brien must find schematic twists to diversify this running game, which isn't living up to its potential at the moment.
The New England Patriots take on the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4 at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, September 29, 2023.
5. Patriots Route-Running Details Must Improve for Offense to Find its Footing
O'Brien has improved some aspects of the Patriots receivers, such as their route spacing and overall timing in the passing game, but this group still lacks attention to detail. On top of struggling to separate against man coverage, the Pats pass-catchers are hurting themselves with their routes, and the little miscues are starting to pile up again for this group.
For instance, New England isn't showing good awareness of the sticks. One example of this was a good third-and-15 throw by Jones to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who found the void against off-coverage on a deep curl but cut the route off short of the line to gain. The Patriots would go for it on fourth down, failing to convert on a quarterback sneak. Later on, DeVante Parker ran a 12-yard option route at 11 yards before another failed third down with Zappe at quarterback. The Patriots can't afford receivers who aren't dynamic separators or smart route-runners. They have to bring one of those two things to the table, or what are we doing here?
6. Patriots O-Line Bears Deeper Dive in After Further Review This Week
Although we'll need to dig into the film before making a final judgment, the pass protection didn't feel all that bad as the game got away. New England started rookie Atonio Mafi at left guard, with regular starter Cole Strange (knee) ruled out earlier in the week. Mafi worked with the same group as last week to handle Dallas's stunt techniques and blitzes well. There will always be instances where the pocket slowly deteriorates, and the run blocking is sometimes tough to watch, but this offensive implosion didn't feel O-Line related. Again, my opinion is subject to change because tracking pressures watching live is tough.
7. RB Ezekiel Elliott Doesn't Get Opportunity to Show Out in Return to Dallas
During the pre-game festivities in Jerry World, the Cowboys gave a quick shout-out to former franchise great Ezekiel Elliott, who was returning for the first time since being released by Dallas last offseason. Elliott had a few productive runs early, but the score getting out of hand took the game script in a different direction. Zeke looked ready to go, but he didn't get his opportunity.
8. Are Reinforcements Coming for the Patriots Next Week?
The Patriots might get some reinforcements, with several players now eligible to return heading into Week 5. New England has three players eligible to return from in-season injured reserve: WR Tyquan Thornton, CB Jack Jones, and OL Riley Reiff. DL Trey Flowers and special-teamer Cody Davis are also eligible to return from the reserve/PUP list this week.