Foxborough, MA – Last week in Jerry World felt like rock bottom, but the Patriots found a lower level in a spiritless 34-0 loss to the Saints at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The Patriots suffered their largest shutout loss of the Belichick era in their first scoreless game since the 2016 season when they were down to an injured third-string quarterback in the final game before Tom Brady returned from a suspension to lead New England to its fifth Super Bowl.
Based on the last two weeks, we couldn't be further from those days where a bad early-season stretch would eventually be a blip on the radar. Following the two most one-sided losses in the Belichick era to sink to 1-4, the futures for the top figures at 1 Patriot Place are in question.
Although there are plenty of things to pick apart at the player level, the pressure on Belichick is at an all-time high. The Pats head coach put together a flawed roster with glaring weaknesses heading into the season, and those have all shown themselves on the field. While when you get beat by a combined 69 points in back-to-back weeks, it's fair to wonder if the players are still buying into the coaching.
"Obviously, it was a poor performance today. So just plain and simple, we've got to find a way to play and coach better than that. So that is what we are going to do, start all over and get back on a better track than we're on right now," Belichick said following the loss.
In my time covering the team, I've never seen the Patriots play with such little wind in their sails, especially in a spot where they needed to bounce back from a bad loss. Honestly, it's difficult to say where the Patriots go from here. They've gone from mediocre to non-competitive, and you get the sense that there's more to this story that has yet to be unearthed.
New England's roster talent is in the bottom half of the league, especially after losing star pass-rusher Matthew Judon and impressive first-rounder Christian Gonzalez to long-term injuries last week. However, that doesn't explain losing the last two games by a combined score of 72-3, with the offense completely coming undone under Bill O'Brien. This roster has issues, but they're better than the product they've put on film lately.
Here are eight observations from a shutout loss as the Patriots dropped to 1-4 on the season
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Ja'Whaun Bentley Forces Punt With First-Quarter Sack as Defense Moves On Without Matthew Judon, Christian Gonzalez
One main storyline for the Patriots heading into this game was how the defense would survive without Judon and Gonzalez moving forward.
New England's defense hung in there at times to remain competitive in a game where they never stood a chance due to the lack of offensive production. The Pats tweaked their game plan in the secondary to play only six snaps in man coverage, rotating between single-high and split-safety zones. Rather than playing a heavy dosage of man coverage, it was mostly fire zones, with the Pats blitzing Saints quarterback Derek Carr on 13 drop-backs, with only one being a cover-zero blitz.
On Bentley's sack, the Pats used a simulated pressure to get Bentley free. With two rushers over the left side, Saints left guard James Hurst opens with his eyes outside toward Deatrich Wise, while four rushers line up over the right side in an all-out pressure look. The Pats make the Saints O-Line sort out who's rushing and dropping after the snap, and Bentley comes through the line untouched to bring Carr down for the sack.
Although it's hard to say the Patriots did anything competitively enough to win on Sunday, the Pats defense looked like it could still make impact plays without two of their best playmakers. Now, the offense needs to hold up its end of the bargain.
2. QB Mac Jones Benched for the Second Straight Week, With Six Turnovers in the Last Two Games
In the first three weeks of the season, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was playing fine football in what could've been chalked up to an adjustment period in a new offensive system.
Jones wasn't playing like an elite passer or anything like that, but he was functional, ranking 18th among 34 quarterbacks in PFF grade (71.4), ninth in passing yards, and 17th in completion percentage over expectation with a 5-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio. Again, it was satisfactory.
Over the last two games, Jones has completely regressed, and despite at least equal talent and a better offensive coordinator, Mac looks worse than he did in year two. Along with the offense only scoring three points, Jones's PFF passing grade has plummeted to 32.6 with six turnover-worthy plays, and his CPOE has gone from +0.1 to -16.7 – it's bad.
Before watching the film, Jones's internal clock and poise in the pocket appear completely shot. He's sped up, skipping his reads with his eyes focused on the rush, and is losing all confidence with his struggling offensive line flustering him into holding the ball rather than throwing on time. On Sunday, Jones looked shaky from the start with two non-competitive throws against man coverage on a quick three-and-out followed by his second pick-six in as many weeks on the second drive.
On the pick-six, the Patriots have two in-breaking routes to Jones's right, with tight end Hunter Henry releasing from a stack alignment. The Saints are in a cover-1 robber scheme, and the help defender takes away the first in-breaker, which should lead Jones to hit the second in-cut as the Pats TE wins on his release. However, a T/E stunt to Mac's left beats LG Atonio Mafi and LT Trent Brown, and with Jones's eye looking down at the rush, he throws late as Saints pass-rusher Carl Granderson is hitting him, and Tyrann Matthiue does the rest.
"I don't know. I'll have to watch the film. But, I mean, it's the NFL. They have good defensive linemen that are coming every play and they're trying to hit the quarterback, so I have to do a better job," Jones said when asked about being hyper-focused on the pass rush.
The Patriots coaching staff will need to ask themselves this week whether they can recalibrate Jones's internal clock to get him back to being comfortable in the pocket. Unfortunately, that's sometimes a death sentence for a quarterback, but the Pats have 12 more games to see if they can put Jones back together because his process is broken.
3. Pats O-Line Still Searching for a Five-Man Combination That Gets the Job Done
Simply put, the Patriots aren't getting NFL-quality offensive line play, and there's plenty of blame to go around. First, you have to look at the decisions in the offseason to use low-level resources on offensive tackles, which led them down a road to starting Vikings castoff Vederian Lowe at right tackle over the last three games, 2022 first-rounder Cole Strange (inactive) is unavailable, and LT Trent Brown is always streaky.
The Patriots allowed a 45.8% pressure rate with Jones in the game (24 drop-backs), which is the third-straight week they've been over 43%, and the Pats RBs were stuffed on five of their 17 runs. Lowe isn't the only one struggling, and it's not his fault that he's playing, but he allowed a sack and another four hurries to bring his tally to 25 quarterback pressures in four starts. Rookie LG Atonio Mafi, who is playing for an injured Strange, gave up a team-high six QB pressures and was benched for veteran Riley Reiff at one point, who then needed to slide over to right guard when Mike Onwenu (ankle) was injured and did not return to the game.
In some areas along the offensive line, the Patriots are underperforming, which speaks to coaching, and the running game still has scheme-related issues. But this goes back to the talent on the roster, which always had questions, and the offense as a whole is now paying for it.
4. Backup QB Bailey Zappe Struggles in Mop-Up Duty, Fields Questions About Starting in Vegas
Backup quarterback Bailey Zappe entered the game at the start of the fourth quarter and was 3-of-9 with an -23.2% CPOE in a lackluster effort. Zappe owned his two wide-open misses after the game, sailing throws over TE Hunter Henry (seam/fade) and WR Kendrick Bourne (crosser) where the receivers were open for big plays. Although he looked calmer in the pocket than Jones, Zappe's erratic accuracy is something we saw in the summer, and he's still holding the ball with a 3.03-second average time to throw. The Pats second-year QB told reporters that he knows as much as us (nothing) about who will start next week, and Belichick didn't hesitate when he said it would be Mac in Vegas. But it wouldn't be surprising to hear that Zappe continues to see an uptick in practice reps.
5. Rookie WR Demario Douglas Remains Bright Spot but Leaves Game With Head Injury
For the second straight week, the lone bright spot for the Patriots offense was an explosive play to rookie wideout Demario Douglas. Unfortunately, because when it rains, it pours, Douglas took a blow to the head as he went to the ground, which landed him in concussion protocol.
On the play, which was one of two big-time throws by Jones, the Pats flooded the Saints zone coverage structure with Douglas running an inverted over route, where Douglas will make the route stem look like he's running a crosser, but then he breaks late on the corner to throw off the coverage. Douglas makes the catch in front of the defender for a 24-yard gain on third down.
Hopefully, the Patriots rookie receiver won't miss significant time, as he continues to be the one big play threat this offense has on a weekly basis (where is Tyquan Thornton? Anyone?).
6. CB J.C. Jackson Immediately Feels "At Home" in Return to Patriots Defense
After being re-acquired earlier this week, cornerback J.C. Jackson was immediately active and played 36 snaps in his return to the Patriots (51.4%). Jackson said Foxborough feels like home to him, and he mostly looked at home in a defense that he's very familiar with. Although he nearly gave up a big play to Saints WR Chris Olave, Jackson allowed only two catches for 15 yards on four targets into his coverage. He looked competitive for the most part in man schemes and passed off routes pretty well in zone. We'll take a look at the film to have a complete evaluation. But this was a standard coverage performance from Jackson, who said after the game that he wants to lead the way in helping the defense create more turnovers. They'll need him to do that as his playing time increases as Gonzalez's replacement.
7. Rookie DL Keion White, LB Anfernee Jennings See Increased Snaps Without Matt Judon
As expected, Patriots second-rounder Keion White and veteran linebacker Anfernee Jennings saw an increased workload without Judon in the lineup. White, who played 33.2% of the defensive snaps in the first four weeks, logged a tackle and one QB pressure in a career-high 37 snaps. White was blown off the ball as an edge-setter on one of his early reps but settled down and set a good edge, but they'll need him to disrupt the quarterback more than he did on Sunday. Jennings continues to be solid with five tackles, a run stuff, and a QB pressure in a season-high 46 snaps. You'd expect Jennings to continue being a prominent early-down player.
8. Add the Rookie Specialists and LS Joe Cardona to List the Patriots Issues
In a long list of things that head coach Bill Belichick needs to fix to turn this thing around, rookie kicker Chad Ryland missed a 48-yard field goal to bring his season average to 50% (4-of-8), while long snapper Joe Cardona is struggling. Cardona had two bad snaps to rookie first-year punter Bryce Baringer, who saved Cardona from a disaster on one punt near their own end zone. Cardona wasn't on the injury report this week, but maybe he is dealing with something, which could lead the Pats to host long snappers for workouts this week. This is a multi-game issue for Cardona, who didn't snap well in the Meadowlands a few weeks ago.
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