GREEN BAY, Wis – The Patriots won't rest on moral victories after their third loss of the young season, but pushing the Packers to overtime with their third-string quarterback took guts.
New England eventually fell to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers by a final score of 27-24 at Lambeau Field on Sunday, coming up just short of the upset in Green Bay. Although a 1-3 record is all that matters, this Patriots team showed it has the potential to turn their season around as it did a year ago when they started 1-3 and finished 10-7 in the playoffs.
When backup quarterback Brian Hoyer (head) was knocked out of the game after starting for an injured Mac Jones, the Patriots running game and defense nearly carried them to a win.
The defense challenged Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers's receivers to make plays against man coverage, dominating the reigning MVP in the first half to keep the game close. The Pats played more man coverage in this one than any game this season, and it held the Packers to 0.04 expected points added per drop-back (46th percentile).
Offensively, a Bailey Zappe-led operation was mostly turnover-free and still ran the ball effectively despite playing with a rookie QB. By bringing back a six offensive line package, the Pats averaged 5.1 yards per rush and a 64 percent success rate.
Before the moral victory training gets rolling too fast, the Patriots must start stacking wins together quickly. Yes, they recovered from a similar early-season hole a year ago. But this team is starting from a different place, especially offensively, with a different coaching staff on that side of the ball. However, if they can add Mac Jones to that formula, the Patriots will give themselves a chance to win most games.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots fall to 1-3 on the season with a loss in Green Bay:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Jack Jones's Pick-Six in the First Half
With starting cornerback Jalen Mills inactive, rookie corner Jack Jones took full advantage of his opportunities by forcing two turnovers in the game.
One of those takeaways was an interception returned for a touchdown where Rodgers attempted an out route that Jones said was "disrespectful" after the game. Jones added that he feels the need to jump out routes because good corners don't get beat outside. The play, where he was in off-man, showed excellent closing burst on the ball and awareness of the route.
The rookie also forced and recovered a fumble on Green Bay's first possession. Although it wasn't perfect from a tackling perspective, Jones has the knack for forcing turnovers that the Patriots need.
2. Breaking Down the Patriots Running Game vs. Packers
New England's top-ranked rushing attack continues to find ways to pound the rock, even though the Packers likely emphasized stopping the run with Zappe under center. The Pats did so by mixing in duo schemes and outside zone runs with six offensive linemen. Many of the straight-ahead runs you saw were duo, where the interior line double teams and works its way up to the linebacker level.
On their outside zone or stretch attempts, the Pats ran to the weak side of the unbalanced line. Adding numbers to the line scrimmage created more gaps to defend, and New England was able to get the edge and create cutback lanes as they did on Damien Harris's late touchdown above.
The Patriots came into the week as the top-ranked rushing attack in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and will likely stay atop the rankings.
3. Rookie QB Bailey Zappe Rises to the Occasion in Hostile Environment
Like most players in the game, Zappe will learn from his mistakes and hopefully get the ball out quicker in certain situations. But his poise, competitiveness, and a few downfield completions off play-action were impressive, especially given the circumstances.
The Patriots dialed up eight play-action attempts, six of them with Zappe, attempting to stress single-high defenses with post-crosser combinations. On a few occasions, like DeVante Parker's touchdown, the Pats got what they wanted, and Zappe delivered catchable balls. Zappe told Patriots.com that the post-crosser combination was a play they discussed as something he felt comfortable throwing.
4. Patriots LB Matthew Judon Continues to Disrupt the Quarterback
With the Patriots frequently in man coverage in the backend, they needed their pass rush to get to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and force some errant throws. Judon led the way in that department with a sack and five quarterback pressures on initial viewing. Judin's third-down hurry in overtime forced a Rodgers throwaway and nearly got the Patriots over the hump. After an explosive get-off to fire off the ball, Judon used a two-hand swipe move to get around Packers right tackle Elgton Jenkins and nearly sacked Rodgers. Instead, the Packers QB threw the ball away, and Green Bay was forced to punt. With four sacks in four games, Judon's off to another terrific start in his second season with the Patriots.
5. Patriots Right Tackle Situation Worth Monitoring Moving Forward
After allowing two sacks and getting called for two more penalties, the Patriots began rotating veteran tackle Marcus Cannon in at right tackle over starter Isaiah Wynn. At times, Wynn returned to the game on the five-man line, while the two played together in the six-man line grouping. With the Pats bringing back the three-time Super Bowl champ on the practice squad and then elevating him for Sunday's game, Cannon is showing the coaches what they want to see at practice. It won't be surprising if he surpasses Wynn as the starting right tackle shortly.
6. Patriots Run Defense Evens Things Out as Game Progresses
Early on, the Patriots were playing out of split-safety shells with fewer defenders in the box to load up in coverage against Rodgers. As a result, the Packers running game got off to a great start. Eventually, New England went to more single-high coverages and base defense. Plus, they put Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux at the five techniques (DE) with nose tackle Carl Davis in the game. Things evened out a bit, but with the game in his hands, Rodgers proved too much in the end.
7. Patriots Rookie Marcus Jones Becomes Primary Kick and Punt Returner
The Marcus Jones era on special teams is finally here for the Patriots. After trying out Myles Bryant in the role, the rookie third-rounder got the nod on both kick and punt returns and didn't disappoint. Jones was an All-American at the University of Houston as a return man and had returns of 29 (punt) and 37 yards (kickoff) to flip field position. The one potential error came when he tried to "deke" out the coverage unit rather than fair catching a punt inside the ten-yard line late in the game. He'd probably like to have that one back. New England's special teams units were also called for three critical penalties in this one, so there are things to be cleaned up there.
8. Patriots Lose TE Jonnu Smith (ankle) and QB Brian Hoyer (head) to Injury
With the Patriots now down to just Bailey Zappe at quarterback, one would expect the team to sign a quarterback even for practice purposes this week. The six offensive line package might've come out this week due to Smith's Injury, as he has been the offense's most consistent run-blocker at tight end. The Pats roster is pretty banged up at this point.