Gillette Stadium – The Patriots are heading into the bye week with a record that reflects where most prognosticators thought they'd roughly be at this point of their season.
New England got above .500 for the first time with a 26-3 victory over the Colts at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, bettering their record to 5-4 ahead of their week off in Week 10.
Outside of a stunning loss to the Bears, this is where the Patriots were expected to be right now; a five-win team with a level of uncertainty that can only be answered by how they get through a second-half schedule that is one of the toughest slates in the NFL.
The positive review is that the Patriots defense and special teams have established a baseline level that will keep them in most games. In particular, the Pats tied a franchise record with nine sacks, likely bolstering their pressure rate that ranked second-best heading into the weekend.
New England's pass rush can take over games. Without a dynamic running threat at QB, they've held up against traditional rush schemes to get Matthew Judon and company going in passing situations. At the same time, the coverage is good enough when aided by the rush. And the Pats put these pressure stats in the last two games without their best interior rusher, Christian Barmore.
Bill Belichick's defense trending towards another top-ten finish in points allowed, expected points added per play (EPA), and Football Outsiders' DVOA metric in 2022.
However, the bottom line for this football team is that playing good defense and impacting the game positively on special teams only gets you so far in this league. Whether it's a result of the quarterback not seeing the full picture, the offensive line making the environment difficult to operate in, or both, the offense needs to hold up its end of the bargain.
Until the group looks like it could compete with an AFC contender on the scoreboard, the Patriots are once again a team who can beat the likes of the Colts but aren't ready for the next step yet.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots improve to 5-4 with a win over the Colts:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Jonathan Jones Blocks Colts P Matt Haack's Punt, Recovered by Brendan Schooler at the Colts Two-Yard Line
Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord and his holdovers from last year had this one circled on the schedule. After a lousy performance in the kicking game against the Colts last season, the Pats were determined to flip the script on Indy on Sunday.
The Patriots did just that with Achord and all-around stud Jonathan Jones timing up a perfectly executed design and play-call to block a Matt Haack punt in the second quarter that led directly to a touchdown.
In the play, the Pats had two returners, with Jabrill Peppers as the short returner and rookie Marcus Jones back deep. Right at the snap, Jon Jones added to the punt rush, with Peppers replacing him as the "jammer" responsible for blocking the gunner to that side of the field. The Colts protection unit never saw Jones coming, and the Pats speedy corner snuck in to block Haack's punt, and undrafted rookie Brendan Schooler recovered the ball.
With former Patriot Bubba Ventrone coordinating the Colts special teams, the Pats made up for last season with a stellar day in the kicking game.
2. Patriots Tie Post-Merger Franchise Record With Nine Sacks, Three Each for Matthew Judon and Josh Uche
The Patriots defense put together a dominant performance by tying a franchise record with nine sacks and holding the Colts to 0-for-14 on third down. Yep, zero for 14. Ridiculous.
Everything is starting up front with only a 12% success rate for the Colts on early-down rushing attempts, which allows the Pats defense to unlock the pass rush in long down-and-distances.
Early on, the effective scheme was T/E stunts where the interior rusher (Lawrence Guy/Daniel Ekuale) penetrates the line like he's setting a pick and opens a path to the quarterback for the wrap player (Matt Judon) to close on the QB. Judon had two sacks on a T/E stunt in the first half.
With Judon doing his thing on one side, third-year edge rusher Josh Uche is playing some of his best football on the other side. Uche had three sacks using a "ghost" rush and finding Ehlinger as he climbed the pocket. Uche credited defensive line coach DaMarcus Convington and assistant Joe Kim with drilling those types of rushes in practice with his growth in staying level with the quarterback and finding Ehlinger in the pocket. Uche might've run behind the quarterback in his first two seasons rather than mirroring the QB. According to Judon, Uche also calls the third-down pass rush plays on the field for the defense.
The Patriots pass rush will be a problem all season, with the NFL's current sack leader (Judon) leading the way.
3. Number One Priority During Bye Week is Getting QB Mac Jones Back on Track
The biggest bye-week assignment for the Patriots coaching staff is getting their second-year quarterback on the right track. The Pats QB generated -0.25 expected points added per play with a completion percentage over expected (CPOE) of -3.4, both well below average.
Our initial evaluation changed slightly last week after reviewing the coaches tape, so we need to allow for that possibility again. But, watching live, it felt like Jones was zeroing in on his initial reads and trying to take the one-on-one matchup determined before the snap. At times, Mac failing to progress to his next reads is related to his lack of time in the pocket due to a struggling offensive line.
However, Jones was opening to the backside of the formation to read the single coverage rather than opening to the passing strength (three-receiver side) due to the defense's pre-snap alignment and coverage rotations. We'll show some examples in After Further Review. Still, we counted at least three drop-backs where he had better options on the multi-receiver side but was held up on the backside (X to check-down) read.
"It's all about where your eyes start, right, as a quarterback. What you're being told and where you're looking. Sometimes you miss things that people – you don't know if you missed it or not on the field. You walk off and are like, darn, I looked at the picture. Looked like it was there, but my eyes were starting where they were supposed to start. Sometimes that's how it is."
"It's all about timing and footwork. Does it match up to the play? Does your drop match up to the route to where your eyes are? Like I said, there's good players on the other side of the ball. There's a clock going on in your head. You've got to be ready for it. Can't sit there and hold the ball all day," Jones told Patriots.com following the game.
On a positive note, Jones snapped a streak of seven-straight games with an interception and made one of his best downfield throws in weeks up the seam. The seams are alive!
When the initial read came open, Mac hit a promising seam dart to Hunter Henry when the Pats got a cover three call against a two-vertical side that left Henry open between the zones.
The Patriots season is not going anywhere unless Jones starts seeing the whole field again.
4. Kendrick Bourne 'Disrespectful' for Colts Defense to Bracket Rhamondre Stevenson
After speaking to the Pats wideouts about the offense's struggles after the game, Kendrick Bourne pointed out to Patriots.com that the Colts defense was bracketing running back Rhamondre Stevenson on third down. On the one hand, that shows how Stevenson has grown into a threat in the passing game. But Bourne also felt like New England's receivers need to step up.
"They were kind of doubling Rhamondre today. Doubling the back instead of doubling one of us. It just shows they don't respect us in a sense. Nothing to the coaches or anything, but just that's their scouting report. What they watch is what they see. They're playing what our strength is, and Rhamondre has been balling," Bourne said after the game.
The obvious answer is for the Patriots to take advantage of that strategy by winning one-on-one matchups on the outside, right? Well, it's not always that easy, as Bourne explained.
"It's not that easy. The protection has to be right. He [Mac Jones] has to be able to see it. Sometimes, the defense can rotate away, and he goes the other way. It gets confusing sometimes. Sometimes I might be open, Kobi [Jakobi Meyers] might be open, but the read just didn't get there. There are so many scenarios."
Football is the ultimate team sport, and the issues with the Patriots passing attack right now stem from all the pieces coming together: timing, reads, pass protection, and receivers getting open. They have enough talent to figure this out, but they still have a long way to go offensively.
5. Patriots Offensive Play-Calling Struggles Out of the Gate vs. Colts
After finding success with a fast-paced shotgun passing plan last week, the Patriots coaching staff put the quarterback under center on 17 of their first 23 plays. They then ran the ball on early downs into the teeth of a stingy Colts run defense and finally called a tight end screen to Jonnu Smith that gained 24 yards, which is what they were setting up the whole first quarter. They got into the shotgun more as the game wore on, and it's possible that they didn't want to empty the bag against a team they knew couldn't score. But there are too many repeat plays (Shaq Leonard was supposedly calling them out), a lack of imagination in scoring territory, and not enough of what the quarterback is comfortable with running. Three run-pass options (RPO) based on our live charting – not nearly enough.
6. Patriots Shuffle Offensive Line With Isaiah Wynn at Left Guard, Yodny Cajuste at Right Tackle
Although it's never one thing, the lion's share of the dysfunction offensively from an execution standpoint starts in the trenches. The Pats offensive line is searching for a combination that works and has now reversed course on a four-plus year developmental track for Isaiah Wynn. Many draft pundits thought Wynn's body type was better suited for guard, but the Pats have stayed the course with him at tackle until now.
On Sunday, New England's primary five had Wynn at left guard and third-year OT Yodny Cajuste at right tackle. Based on our live viewing, Wynn was not much better at guard, with a sack allowed, hold, QB hit, and two stuffed runs. Cajuste was shaky early but seemed to settle in and had a highlight-reel block on Smith's screen.
The absence of David Andrews over the last two games has negatively impacted rookie Cole Strange in a big way. Andrews's eventual return should stabilize the interior. Hopefully, they found something with Cajuste at right tackle. The skill players are better than the current production, especially at running back.
7. Colts Rush Offense Lets Pats Run Defense Off the Hook With Rudimentary Play-Calling
Although he has some mobility, the Colts never tested the Patriots option run defense. There were a few zone reads in there, but most of the running plays by Indy were traditional runs without an option or QB element. When the Pats face a simple rush offense, they have zero issues stopping the run, and Sunday was another indication of that: 3.5 yards per rush, 11% success rate, and a stingy -0.25 EPA per play. If you want to run the ball on the Patriots, you better have some wrinkles in there.
8. Patriots Rookie Marcus Jones Continues to Impress With Return Skills
Let's not jinx the third-round pick too much here, so we'll say that Jones looks wise beyond his years. It's one thing to field punts cleanly and get yards behind good blocking. But Jones has excellent vision, patience, and quickness to make cuts off his blocks, set up his blockers' leverage, and find daylight. It's next-level stuff.