Frankfurt, Germany — The Patriots left the States covered in negativity as a football team playing in a city that rightfully demands championships.
There are questions about the futures of the head coach and the quarterback, making the natives understandably restless. Not to mention, the team was leaving a starting cornerback (J.C. Jackson) and its starting left tackle (Trent Brown) at home, both partially due to undisclosed personal reasons.
New England arrived in Frankfurt on shaky ground. When they arrived in Deutschland, they found a passionate group of Patriots fans who were happy to watch their favorite team in person, regardless of the record. Pats fans from all around Europe took over Frankfurt, with lines down the street for fan events and a stadium packed with red, white, and blue in favor of the "home" team. The Patriots international contingent was realistic about the state of the team. They asked the same questions and had the same concerns as fans back in Boston, but they were enthusiastic and, once again, just happy to be here.
Unfortunately, Patriots Deutschland might've witnessed the end of the Mac Jones era in New England's home away from home on Sunday. The Pats produced an uninspiring, listless offensive performance in a 10-6 loss to the Colts that might've provided a definitive answer about the franchise's future, and that doesn't feel overstated.
In a game that owner Robert Kraft called "critical" to a group of the team's fans at Patriots Haus on Saturday, head coach Bill Belichick benched quarterback Mac Jones in a one-score game following a fourth-quarter interception with 4:16 to go. On the game's final drive, backup Bailey Zappe took over, throwing his own interception to end the game.
At 2-8, New England needed a win to quiet down the building narratives that the head coach and quarterback won't be back in 2024. Instead, if it is a total reboot in the offseason, Sunday's game in Germany will be considered the last straw for this regime. This was a massive game for this organization, and this performance won't sit well with anyone at 1 Patriot Place.
These last few weeks were winnable games against either inexperienced or backup quarterbacks. Even post-Brady, the Patriots have won pretty much all these types of games. With that edge gone now, it's hard to find any remaining Belichick mystique.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots drop to 2-8 on the season with a loss to the Colts on Sunday:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Colts S Julian Blackmon's Fourth-Quarter Interception Leads to QB Mac Jones's Benching
Although it's disappointing to discuss a lowlight for the Patriots, it's our job to be objective about where the turning points in a loss were at Frankfurt Stadium on Sunday.
With the Patriots generating a 57% success rate on the ground, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien called gun-action on second down to take a shot at the end zone from inside the red zone (Colts 15).
The run-action worked to influence Blackmon into the line of scrimmage. With tight end Hunter Henry drawing the outside corner away from the route, Mike Gesicki runs a crosser from the left slot. The run fake allowed Gesicki to get behind the defense, and a good throw likely produces the go-ahead touchdown for the Pats.
Unfortunately, Jones threw a back-foot fade away, a common occurrence for him lately, and short-armed the throw, floating the ball to Blackmon instead. The Patriots quarterback called the throw "terrible" following the game and said the team successfully practiced that play throughout the week.
The interception capped off a 0-for-4 showing in the red zone, so the Patriots had their chances to score points. But there were at least three instances where Jones left plays on the field in scoring territory that could've changed the outcome. At this point, it's anyone's guess who will be under center for the Patriots following the bye week when the team visits the New York Giants in Week 12.
2. Patriots Produce Season-High 167 Rushing Yards in Frankfurt
The one silver lining for the Patriots offense was that running back duo Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott finally produced how they imagined when the pairing came together.
Along with a season-high in rushing yards, the Pats also generated +0.08 expected points added with a 57% success rate on the ground. The Pats had a few game-planned runs like wham plays, while the backs were also a big part of the opening script in the passing game.
However, most of their successful runs came on simple gap plays where the offensive line was moving the line of scrimmage with relative ease. The Pats played most of the game out of heavy personnel groupings, with two or sometimes three tight ends. Belichick called Gesicki a pseudo-receiver last week, so they may view those packages as 11 personnel. But they still went heavy and ran the ball down Indy's throats with downhill schemes.
The Patriots rushing attack did their part to move the ball effectively in this one, but the third-down passing offense (6-14) and red zone offense prevented them from scoring more points.
3. Patriots Offensive Line Allows Five First-Half Sacks, Struggles on Third Down
Without offensive line coach Adrian Klemm (health-related absence), the Patriots offensive line had a disastrous first-half performance. The O-Line allowed five sacks, with a handful being non-competitive reps. Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was aggressive on third down, using simulated pressures and stunts to test New England's ability to identify where the rus was coming from post-snap.
These schemed rushes have been an effective strategy against the Patriots all season, with defensive line movement giving a young line that hasn't built necessary continuity problems. It was also a wise decision by Bradley to test how prepared the Patriots were without Klemm. Although the offensive line wasn't playing great with Klemm on the sideline, this gave off Cowboys vibes in the first half to the point where Jones was reacting to the rush rather than playing confidently in the pocket. It settled down in the final two quarters, but the damage was done at that point – the quarterback was rattled.
4. Breaking Down Colts QB Gardner Minshew's Performance vs. the Patriots Defense
This was a weird game to dissect from the Patriots defense against a limited Minshew, who was extremely antsy in the pocket whenever the Pats turned up the heat on the Colts QB.
Minshew overreacted to blitz pressure and simulated rushes, where the Pats put multiple blitzers across the line of scrimmage, and then dropped off into coverage. Although there were some five-plus rusher blitzes, watching live, the Pats seemed to play more coverage in this one, forcing Minshew to read out a crowded secondary to find open receivers. For the most part, the strategy worked, with Minshew generating -0.01 expected points added per drop-back.
For example, the Patriots blitz the backside safety on this play while dropping linebacker Jahlani Tavai off the line of scrimmage into the zone structure. The simulated rush gets a one-on-one for top interior rusher Christian Barmore on the right guard, and Barmore wins the rep to move Minshew off his spot. The Colts quarterback then tries to hit a receiver downfield, but Tavai tips the ball in the air, and Myles Bryant comes up with a huge interception.
Although the game plan defensively held the Colts to ten points and Minshew under 200 yards passing, Indianapolis still made some plays in the passing game. Mainly, those chunk gains came late in downs when New England's four-man rushes weren't getting home, with Minshew buying time in the pocket for receivers to uncovered downfield.
Ultimately, the Pats stopped the run (70 yards on 26 carries) and kept the Colts out of scoring territory. But the Indy offense made a few more plays than the Patriots, which was the difference. It was a good defensive performance but not good enough to carry the team to a win.
5. Patriots Special Teams Falters Once Again, Continuing Another Season-Long Theme
Statistically, the Patriots have one of the NFL's worst special teams units despite employing one current special teams coordinator (Cam Achord), a former special teams coordinator (Joe Judge), and at least five special teams-only players.
On Sunday, the Patriots tried to produce a blocked punt with a game-planned punt rush. With the Colts punting from their own end zone, the Pats opted not to have a returner deep. Instead, they put nine players on the line of scrimmage with a jammer over each gunner to protect against a fake. In all, that left nine rushing the punt. The idea was to overwhelm Indy's typical man-blocking punt block unit, but the Colts made a good adjustment to zone off the blocking, and they didn't bring in the gunner to man-block as the Patriots anticipated.
The end result was Indianapolis flipping the field on a 69-yard punt rather than setting the Patriots offense up for an easier drive. Patriots kicker Chad Ryland also missed a 35-yard field goal, and they allowed a 41-yard kickoff return by Colts returner Isaiah McKenzie. These aren't the results this unit expected this season, a sign of the times for this football team.
6. Rookie WR Kayshon Boutte Returns to Lineup, Makes First NFL Catch
Although receiver separation felt like an issue watching live once again, first-year wideout Kayshon Boutte returned to the lineup after an eight-week absence. Boutte played 26 snaps in Sunday's loss while making his first NFL catch on an 11-yard slant. We'll have to watch the tape to see if there were open receivers downfield to distribute the ball to, but at times, it definitely appeared that Jones was missing open guys. Other times, the receivers were blanketed, so it was a bit of both. The film will tell the true story.
7. CB Shaun Wade Starts in Place of J.C. Jackson, Jack Jones Plays a Limited Role
With the team leaving corner J.C. Jackson at home, the Patriots had reserve corner Shaun Wade play a full-time role opposite Jonathan Jones in this one, while Myles Bryant played in his usual spot in the slot. Wade looked competitive, matching one vertical route to force an incompletion and blowing up a screen to his size for a five-yard loss. Most of the breakdowns in the passing game came late in the down because Minshew had time to wait for plays to develop, and the Pats secondary cleaned up the coverage busts. In all, this was a competitive performance from this group, while Minshew missed his fair share of plays, too.
8. Patriots DT Christian Barmore Continues Playing Elite Football
The one player who continues to flash for this team is Barmore, who logged another quarterback hit and a tackle for loss with several quarterback pressures. Barmore is now on a five-game heater where he's playing great football. He deserves credit for playing his tail off for a team that isn't inspiring guys to keep pulling on the rope right now.