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Game Observations: Eight Takeaways From the Patriots Loss to the Chargers in Week 13

Although the Patriots defense held their own, the offense struggled once again in a loss to the Chargers at a rainy Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

PDC

Foxborough, MA – Several statistics illustrate the Patriots offensive struggles following a 6-0 loss to the Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

For the first time in their 64-year history, New England has been shut out at home twice in the same season. The Patriots also became the first team in the Super Bowl era to lose three consecutive games while allowing ten or fewer points, and they're also the first team to allow 26 points over a three-game span and lose all three games since 1950.

During the post-Brady era under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots still could win low-scoring games where their defense carried them and the offense made just enough plays to come out on top. Those victories kept the Pats relevant throughout the 2022 season. The defense should hold their heads high, but the offense has gotten into such a funk that Belichick's team has sunk to 2-10 because the wins they used to inflate their record a year ago are no longer there. Last season, wins over the Jets and Colts come to mind. Those games aren't going in their favor anymore, and now that that's the case, what else is left for this team?

The vibe from the post-game locker room was that the defensive players felt defeated, and the offensive players understood their frustrations. New England has now tried two different starting quarterbacks, and with it all pointing back to head coach Bill Belichick's roster building, Bailey Zappe was similarly underwhelming as Mac Jones.

Although the Chargers drops in rainy conditions played a role, New England had its best defensive performance in over a month on Sunday. Unlike the last two games, LA's eighth-ranked scoring offense has an all-star quarterback with big-name skill players, and the Pats defense was well prepared for OC Kellen Moore's offense. Despite the team's record, the defense continues to play hard. The players and the defensive staff deserve credit for continuing to pull on the rope while the offense isn't producing.

"It's about playing with pride. It's about putting good stuff on film, representing your last name, representing your family. Going out there and competing because we are 2-10, we aren't going to the playoffs. But it's about pride, putting good stuff on film that people want to see."

"Held a top offense to six points. We hold them to six points and don't even get in the end zone. I have nothing to hang my head on. I'm proud of our defense. Next week, we have to shut them out. Goose egg," nose tackle Davon Godchaux told Patriots.com.

As a disgruntled Patriots fan, you can find hope that the defense isn't far from contending, especially when you factor in the major personnel losses due to injury. The other glimmer of hope is that with the Cardinals win over the Steelers, the Patriots now hold the second overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft – #TheTanks is alive and well. That's where we are at.

Here are eight observations as the Patriots drop to 2-10 on the season with a loss to the Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday:

1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Chargers S Derwin James Sacks QB Bailey Zappe on Fourth Down Attempt in Fourth Quarter

The defense deserves kudos for their performance on Sunday, but we can't in good conscience continue to highlight positive plays here when the Patriots are losing at this rate.

New England's best chance to put points on the board came midway through the fourth quarter after their longest play from scrimmage offensively since Week 9. Following a well-timed end around where second-year receiver Tyquan Thornton gained 39 yards, Zappe was sacked on back-to-back plays to end the drive, including a sack on fourth-and-5 from the LAC 30.

Due to rainy conditions, head coach Bill Belichick went for it on fourth down rather than attempt a roughly 47-yard field goal to make it a 6-3 score. Belichick said rookie kicker Chad Ryland had issues in warmups with long distances due to the conditions.

Although the decision to go for it on fourth down was justified, James's sack resulted in the biggest swing in the game, dropping the Pats win probability from 19% to 8%. With the Chargers in a five-man front, James adds to the rush as an off-ball blitzer, with LA dropping an on-the-line rusher into coverage. The pressure scheme set up a one-on-one with running back Ezekiel Elliott for James, and LA's safety fakes like he's coming off the edge before shooting into the inside gap to sack Zappe. That felt like game over, even with 6:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. 

Elliott took responsibility for the missed blitz pickup following the game in a perfect example of how a head coach can make the right fourth-down decision, but if the players don't execute the play call, or the offense doesn't call a good play, the decision itself is a moot point. 

The Patriots have more issues than one failed fourth-down attempt. Still, for an offense that needs to win on the margins, it's a major missed opportunity in another one-score loss. 

2. Patriots QB Bailey Zappe Doesn't Provide Offensive Spark in First Start This Season

It was wishful thinking if the Patriots thought Zappe was the solution to their problems offensively, with Coach Belichick saying after the game that Mac had his chances to keep the job. 

Although he started to settle in for the last two quarters, Zappe replaced Jones's turnovers and lack of poise with his own brand of unproductive offensive football. Zappe produced -0.32 expected points added per drop-back with a 19.4 QBR and a -11.2 completion percentage over expectation. The second-year QB took five sacks in the loss, including consecutive sacks to knock the Patriots out of field goal range in the third quarter and fourth quarters.

In the first half, Zappe's accuracy issues that have plagued him since the summer showed up in throws behind TE Hunter Henry (designed PA rollout) and missing Elliott wide-open in the flat. Zappe settled down a bit with his downfield ball placement, while his pocket movement was a bright spot as he was cooler and more active with his footwork than Jones.

For example, Zappe's best pass completion came on a 21-yarder to wide receiver DeVante Parker. With the Pats running intersecting crossing routes downfield, Zappe stepped up in the pocket to avoid edge pressure from Chargers LB Tuli Tuipulotu to connect with Parker. Zappe's ability to move off his spot and reset the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield is an advantage he has over Mac.

However, the results are still zero points with only 257 total yards against a Chargers defense that was 28th in yards allowed entering Week 13 (379.5 yards). We can point to areas where Zappe was okay in this game, but the quarterbacking remains a significant issue. He took too many sacks, left plays on the field, and the offense didn't score. 

To avoid putting lipstick on a pig, the Zappe offense wasn't much better, even if there were isolated moments and he took care of the ball. 

3. Defense Holds Up Its End of the Bargain by Limiting Chargers QB Justin Herbert Once Again

If there's one area where the Belichick mystique still exists, it's that the Patriots head coach owns Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Belichick's defense has allowed 30 points in three games against Hebert since the uber-talented quarterback entered the league in 2020. 

Herbert's receivers did him zero favors in the wet conditions. But the Pats spun the dial and took away Herbert's comfort zone, with the defense very prepared for OC Kellen Moore and the Chargers quarterback's staple concepts throughout the first half. New England played primarily zone coverage against the Chargers offense, with a 57.9% zone coverage rate, cycling between post-safety and cover two coverages to keep Herbert guessing. 

"Herbert is a really good quarterback, one of the best in the league. But just getting after him, getting pressure on him. We didn't have a sack today, but we were able to affect him. Obviously, making them one dimensional passing the ball because they couldn't run the ball,' Godchaux said. "Just trying to give him different looks. Whether it's pressure or a four-man rush, just give him different looks and get after him. Held him to six points. Should've won, should've won the last couple of games."

The Patriots seemed to get Hebert off his game early by taking away his favorite passing concepts. For example, the Chargers quarterback loves to hit the "honey hole" in cover two between the flat defender and the half-field safety. The Pats seemed to know that, so Jalen Mills carries the tight end in the two-safety shell rather than letting him go to the deep safety. Herbert thinks he has the passing window, but Mills swats the ball away.

There were also plays made away from the ball throughout the first half where the Patriots defense recognized a Chargers staple from film study. For example, safety Jabrill Peppers anticipated a deep post route off boot-action, staying on the post to leverage the deep route. Instead, Herbert had to come off the read and attempt a tight window throw elsewhere in the progression.

The Patriots defense was well-prepared by coaches Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick, and company for the Chargers offense. They were all over Moore's core schemes and made plays on high-leverage downs, such as Josh Uche's TFL and a zone-read stuff to get LA's offense off the field. Besides one coverage bust early on, the Pats seemed to clean those mental errors up and were much better at tackling in space in this one.

The defense improves each week by avoiding repeating errors and is prepared well for the opponent—major kudos to them for playing their butts off in a losing season.

4. Patriots RB Rhamondre Stevenson Leaves Game With Ankle Injury on "Hip Drop" Tackle

Adding to the Patriots season from hell was a devastating injury to lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson in the first quarter. Stevenson was tackled and lost the ball with his legs bending awkwardly underneath him on a "hip drop" tackle by Tuipulotu. Hip drop tackles will be legislated out of the game by the NFL next offseason, with several players suffering significant injuries due to the technique. While wrapping up ball carriers, defenders are dropping their hips toward the ground and using that momentum to tackle ball carriers. The technique is leading to awkward takedowns. Stevenson will reportedly undergo an MRI to determine the severity of the injury, but he needed help exiting the field, and the injury did not look good.

5. Despite Practice Reps and Offensive Struggles, QB Malik Cunningham Plays Zero Snaps in the Loss to the Chargers

The offense had a package of plays for the undrafted rookie in the game plan. Despite being active after a standard elevation from the practice squad, Cunningham didn't play an offensive snap. This surprised some, seeing that the offense wasn't moving the ball but was having success running the ball in the first half, where Cunningham could've added value. One thought that came to mind was that Cunningham's package might've been better suited for the red zone, so zero trips to the red area could explain his lack of playing time. However, Cunningham was prepared to enter the game regardless of the field position. The coaches decided not to call his number.

6. EDGE Khalil Mack Dominates in First Sign of Trouble for Mike Onwenu at Right Tackle

In the first down game for Onwenu at right tackle, Chargers edge rusher Khalil Mack had a dominant performance with two sacks, four quarterback pressures, and an excellent coverage stop. Mack's first-step explosiveness with an inside-out crossover rush gave Onwenu problems, with the Pats right tackle struggling to meet the star edge rusher at the top of his rush to push him past the quarterback. Zappe was under pressure on 36.4% of his drop-backs, with four of his five sacks going down in my notes as "no chance" plays. Zappe held onto the ball for too long on one sack, but the Chargers pass-rusher took over the drop-back pass game. Mack now leads the NFL in sacks with 16 through 13 weeks.

7. Patriots WR Tyquan Thornton's Continues Ups and Downs Continue Frustrating Career

Thornton's 4.28-speed flashes on film all the time but the second-year wideout continues to get in his own way every single game, making it all the more frustrating that he isn't producing.

Thornton produced the longest play of his career on an end-around flip where he broke free from the defense for a 39-yard gain. Thornton's explosiveness to turn the corner is evident while he runs through an arm tackle and nearly houses it down the sideline.

However, whether the pass was slightly too far or not, Thornton's drop on a go ball where he got behind the defense sums up his Patriots career to date. Thornton said he should've ran through the ball rather than leaving his feet to dive for it. Along with his route-running issues, Thornton's downfield ball skills are holding him back considerably. The 2022 second-rounder can fly but can't finish plays well enough to produce.

8. Patriots Lose Kicking Battle in Tough Conditions, But HC Bil Belichick Harping on Field Position is a Major Part of the Pats Philosophical Issues

The most frustrating element from a team-building perspective for the Patriots is that my sense is head coach Bill Belichick wants to win games 7-6 rather than out-score opponents.

In his own words, Belichick believes that the Patriots are losing games because of poor ball security offensively and a lack of complementary football, meaning his defense/special teams aren't setting up the offense. They'd be fine if they don't turn it over, and defense leads to offense. In another example of that, here was Belichick following Sunday's loss:

"We moved the ball, but we're on a long field. Just really didn't do a good job of field position. Couldn't play the complementary game that we needed to play," Belichick said.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like the head coach is more frustrated with his defense and special teams not flipping the field to set up easy offense rather than only managing 13 first downs. Moved the ball? The Patriots offense was never inside the Chargers 30-yard line. They didn't move the ball. Come on, man.

The notion that the offensive woes were largely because the D/ST didn't give them any short fields is an old-school mindset killing this football team. The Pats defense has given up 26 points in three games and he's blaming the loss on poor field position? Unbelievable.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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