FOXBORO, Ma – The Patriots have a formula to get back into contention that was on full display in Sunday's 29-0 shutout victory over the Lions at Gillette Stadium.
With Detroit entering the week as the number one scoring offense in the NFL, Bill Belichick's defense dominated situational football and actually out-scored the Lions offense. New England stopped all six of Detroit's fourth-down attempts, intercepted a Jared Goff pass near the end zone, and scored on a Matthew Judon strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown by safety Kyle Dugger.
Offensively, Senior Football Advisor Matt Patricia and quarterbacks coach Joe Judge deserve credit for managing rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe over the last two weeks.
The Patriots used a diverse rushing attack to set up play-action and manageable passing situations for the first-year quarterback, who finished the game 17-of-21 for 188 yards with a touchdown and an interception that wasn't on him. Zappe is playing the game-manager role perfectly, taking what was there and protecting the football.
Although the Pats will need more than one offensive touchdown to compete with the NFL's elite teams, that's the blueprint until after Thanksgiving: play great defense, manage the game and get points where you can offensively, and don't beat yourselves.
As they did during a similar stretch last season, the mostly mistake-free football that the Patriots played vs. the Lions could spark a run in the win column during an easier portion of their schedule in the next six weeks.
Here are eight takeaways as the Patriots improve to 2-3 on the season with a win over the Lions on Sunday:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Matthew Judon's Strip-Sack Leads to Kyler Dugger's 59-Yard Touchdown Return On Fourth Down
Before we get to #ZappeFever, the story of the game was a historic showing by the Patriots defense on fourth down, becoming the first team in NFL history to stop all six fourth-down attempts by an opposing offense.
In a game-changing play late in the first half, the Patriots dialed up man coverage on fourth-and-9. The Pats disguise the coverage by putting safety Kyle Dugger over tight end T.J. Hockenson, signaling that's the man coverage matchup. However, Dugger actually takes the back, adding to the rush when the running back stays in to block, while Adrian Phillips plays Hockenson in man from depth. The defensive backs playing off coverage allows the Pats DBs to avoid the "mesh" rub concept over the middle (intersecting crossers), taking away Goff's initial read. In the pass rush, New England runs a three-man interior stunt, leaving Matthew Judon one-on-one with Lions right tackle Penei Sewell. Mack Wilson collapses the interior of the pocket, and the two edge rushers win their one-on-ones to take down Goff. As a free rusher, Dugger is there for the scoop-and-score.
The Patriots defense was terrific in critical situations, something they struggled with in the first four games, and Judon continues to be this team's best player every week.
2. #ZappeFever Picks Up Steam With First Career Start and Win vs. Lions
We won't subscribe to a QB controversy here, but the rookie is giving the Patriots everything they'd want while he keeps the seat warm for Mac Jones.
The Pats quarterback added 0.30 expected points per drop-back (80th percentile) with a completion percentage over expected of plus-12.8. What more can you want?
Zappe gave credit to his offensive line, calling them the "MVP" of the game, and tipped his cap to the coaching staff for his second career touchdown pass.
On the play, the Patriots stressed a cover-two zone with two vertical routes occupying the half-field safety on a good play design. The route concept gives Zappe a single-high beater (levels) and a split-safety answer (two verticals) to set up a post-snap decision. Zappe gets to his two-high beater when the defense falls into cover two, sees the deep safety staying over the top of tight end Hunter Henry's route, and throws the perfect type of pass to get the ball over the flat defender and beat the deep safety.
The first-year quarterback also maneuvered the pocket well and got through full-field progressions to his second, third, and even check-down options.
Zappe's comfort level in the system and poise as a rookie has certainly won everyone over in the building, including this scribe.
3. Pats RB Rhamondre Stevenson Sets Career-High in Rushing Yards With 161 Yards
The Patriots have themselves a three-down factor back in Stevenson. With Damien Harris (hamstring) injured during the game, Stevenson put the running game on his back and was superb in all phases.
"You have to give him a ton of credit. With Damien [Harris] out, we only carried two backs for the game, and he put it all on his shoulders," Belichick said of Stevenson. "He does a great job with the ball in his hands. He is a strong runner, but he can make people miss. He is a really good football player. Really a good football player. So glad we have him. Had a couple of blitz pickup plays right up the middle where he stepped up there. He is a good all-around back. Love him. Love him."
Stevenson's longest run went for 49 yards on a one-back counter scheme. With left guard Cole Strange pulling to kick out the rotating linebacker, Stevenson cuts back through the middle of the defense to take advantage of the aggressive rotation working off an Isaiah Wynn combination block. From there, it's all Stevenson, who breaks multiple tackles and runs to daylight.
Between his vision, contact balance, elusiveness, and growing fundamentals in blitz pickup, Stevenson is an all-purpose force.
4. Patriots Defense Keys on Lions TE T.J. Hockenson, Hold Pro Bowler to One Catch
One of the key elements of the Patriots shutout performance against the top-scoring offense in the league was eliminating tight end T.J. Hockenson from Jared Goff's arsenal. Last week, Hockenson went off for eight catches, 179 yards, and two touchdowns against the Seahawks. This week, the Patriots defense flipped the script, holding Hockenson to just one catch for eight yards. Here's what the head coach told Patriots.com about how the Pats got it done:
"Give credit to the players, the defensive coaches. We doubled him at times. We tried to disrupt the timing a little bit. I think some of the credit in our pass defense goes to the pass rush," Belichick said. "We tried to reroute them a little bit. Coach set a good game plan, and the guys that were on him, particularly Kyle [Dugger], but A.P. [Adrian Phillips] had him some, Devin [McCourty] had him some, Pep [Jabrill Peppers] had him some. The linebackers, Jahlani and Bentley, had a lot of awareness of him to just not make his routes easy, to try to reroute him, force him to go over or under the coverage, things like that. It's team defense. It's not just one guy. It's just good team defense."
5. Patriots Offensive Line Erases Lions Pass Rush, Paves the Way for Running Game
On initial viewing, this was an excellent performance against an overmatched Lions defensive front from start to finish. Zappe wasn't touched in the game, with Detroit registering zero sacks or quarterback hits, while the Pats had it rolling on the ground. Although it was a team effort, the standout performer was left tackle Trent Brown. Brown dominated several matchups against second-overall pick Aiden Hutchinson. The Pats left tackle has been terrific over the last month.
In the running game, the Patriots likely held serve as the top-ranked rushing unit in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric with 176 rushing yards on 35 carries.
New England continues to steamroll teams with a diverse rushing attack that includes a healthy mix of zone and gap schemes. Above, the Pats use a pin-pull sweep (zone) to create a huge hold for Stevenson on a 26-yard run off the right side.
For all the flack that Patricia and the offensive coaching staff took over, the Patriots offensive line has been an elite run-blocking unit and is trending in the right direction in pass protection.
6. Pats Wide Receiver Snap Counts as Tyquan Thornton Makes NFL Debut
The Patriots dressed all six wide receivers on their active 53-man roster for Sunday's game, so someone was bound to be the odd man out in terms of playing time. By playing most of the game in three-receiver sets, the Pats did find work for all six receivers, while Nelson Agholor (hamstring) exited the game due to injury. In the end, things changed pretty dramatically. Kendrick Bourne out-snapped DeVante Parker for the first time this season as rookie Tyquan Thornton dipped into Parker's snaps: Meyers (49), Kendrick Bourne (33), DeVante Parker (31), Tyquan Thornton (24), Lil'Jordan Humphrey (14), Nelson Agholor (7).
On Thornton, the Pats rookie had two catches for seven yards in more of a "get your feet wet" game rather than a breakout performance. He came open deep on a vertical route early on, but the pocket collapsed on Zappe before he could throw. Thornton's burst and game-breaking speed were there, but he needs to get off the line faster. He's trying to make too many moves in his releases at the line and wasting too much time.
7. Patriots Run Defense Answers the Call vs. Lions Potent Rushing Attack
After allowing a combined 387 rushing yards over the last two games, the Pats run defense had a stiff test against a Lions rushing attack that came in averaging a league-best 5.9 yards per attempt. Well, check another box for the defense, which limited Lions running back Jamaal Williams to 3.7 yards per rush (15 carries, 56 yards) and -0.25 EPA per attempt overall.
The big play came on Detroit's first drive, where head coach Dan Campbell decided to go for it on fourth down in his own territory. Patriots nose tackle Davon Godchaux, defensive end Deatrich Wise, and linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley stopped a fullback dive attempt in its tracks to get off the field. That set the tone for the 0-for-6 fourth-down shutout by the Pats defense.
8. Patriots Red Zone Woes Continue and Remain a Concern for Offense
We saved the one negative from a 29-zip shutout for last, and it's a trend that has carried through all five games. The Patriots need to be better in the red zone. We give credit for fringe red-zone touchdowns here, so score another in that department on Meyers's 24-yard TD. But the Pats were 0-for-2 from inside the 20 again on Sunday, bringing their season average to a 46 percent TD efficiency (six-of-13). New England wants to finish drives in the end zone as a power running team, which is fine. But they can't have drives stall out in the high red zone if that's their identity. The play-calling and creativity could be better, too. The high red-zone WR screen isn't working.