Foxborough, MA – The Patriots are sinking even further to the bottom with a 20-17 loss to the Commanders at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Honestly, we are running out of ways to do an autopsy from another losing effort where New England didn't play enough winning football. A slow start (10-0), inconsistent offensively, overmatched in the passing game on defense, too many backbreaking penalties on special teams — same story for this team in seven losses this season.
The biggest takeaway from this game was the sloppiness in several areas where the Patriots need to be sharper to win on the margins. This wasn't a game where they were overwhelmed by the opponent's roster talent. Instead, they weren't sharp enough with their details to win in the NFL.
In my time covering this team, the one thing you could always count on was sound fundamentals. Even when the talent wasn't there, head coach Bill Belichick's team did the little things correctly. Defensively, you didn't see open receivers due to coverage busts because they knew their rules and were structurally sound as a defense. Sure, they give up plays, as all defenses do, but they made the offense earn every yard.
Furthermore, New England's average starting field position on three fourth-quarter drives in a one-score game was their own eight-yard line, with all three game-winning opportunities starting inside their own ten-yard line. Why? Sloppy special teams, including three accepted penalties on punt returns and an iffy decision by returner Demario Douglas to reverse field. For a team that focuses so much on special teams, those miscues make you question the whole program, and the offense isn't good enough to overcome it, as we all know.
Even in recent post-Brady seasons, they'd beat teams like Washington with a flawed quarterback and similar roster talent because they were the better-coached team. The Pats had chances to win this game and others like it this season, but football is often a game of details, as captain Matthew Slater put it after the game.
"I don't think effort and buy-in are issues," Slater told Patriots.com. "We've just been talking about details, being detailed in our work. We aren't coming out here and just laying down. But when we need to be at our best in crucial moments, we just come up a little short. The buy-in is there. The effort is there. The consistency is what we are lacking."
The Patriots aren't finger-pointing yet, and the team leaders insist the buy-in is there. Ultimately, this football team is as undisciplined with their fundamentals as any we've seen in this chapter of the Belichick era. At this point, this is who they are nine weeks into the season.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots drop to 2-7 on the season with a loss to the Commanders:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Rhamondre Stevenson's 64-Yard Touchdown Run
We considered a Commanders highlight here, given the fact that some will question pumping up a play for the Patriots in a loss.
However, we've been waiting for the Patriots to generate an explosive play off a run-pass option all season, so let's give them kudos for this one. When the Patriots brought in Bill O'Brien, the hope was that he'd bring Alabama's RPO package to Foxborough. O'Brien has installed RPO plays, but like everything offensively, the execution has been inconsistent.
On Stevenson's career-long 64-yard touchdown run that gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead at the half, it's a perfect storm against the defensive play call. Along with an RPO designed with downfield routes, Washington also has a blitz on that the Pats O-Line picks up. The downfield routes serve as blocks here, as Gesicki's man, the slot defender, would've likely filled as essentially the strong-side linebacker, but he needs to cover the Pats tight end's route. Then, Jones reads the weakside safety coming downhill as a "give" read to the back.
The well-blocked linebacker blitz, Gesicki's route pulling the nickel corner away from the action, and Jones giving the ball as the safeties rotate cause a chain reaction, while WR Jalen Reagor deserves credit for his downfield block that really sprung Stevenson to the house.
We've been clamoring for more run-pass options, something Jones did at a high level in college, because of the conflict it creates in the defense, and this play demonstrates that. Now, it would just be nice to see this offense execute these plays with more consistency moving forward.
It's also great that Stevenson, who generated +53 rushing yards over expected, is starting to round into 2022 form over the last two weeks.
2. Chicken or the Egg Debate Continues with Patriots QB Mac Jones
The Patriots are down starting outside receiver DeVante Parker (concussion), while their best wideout, Kendrick Bourne, is out for the season following an ACL tear in Miami last week.
For a team that doesn't have high-end receiver talent, testing their depth at the position made it an uphill battle for this passing offense. On Sunday, Jones only generated -0.08 expected points added on 44 pass attempts (30th percentile) against a Washington team that entered the week 30th in EPA per drop-back (+0.20). Oh, the Commanders also traded their two best pass-rushers at the deadline on Tuesday.
Although it was unfair to expect Jones to light up a shaky Commanders pass defense down two receivers and his starting left tackle, the results were still not good. There was a near-interception that caused Reagor to play defense on rookie Emmanuel Forbes (and he got away with OPI), another back-foot special where he under-threw RB Rhamondre Stevenson on a wheel route that would've been a big play, and an inaccurate pass to Tyquan Thornton on fourth down. In all, Jones's completion percentage over expectation was in the red at -7.1%.
On the other hand, the most troubling stat for the Patriots receivers in this game was that 29.5% of Jones's throws were into tight windows, a single-game career high (sans Buffalo wind game), compared to 8.9% for Howell. Tight-window rates can also speak to timing, as they generate a number depending on when the quarterback releases the ball. If the quarterback is late to a throw, the receiver might've created separation, but by the time the ball was released, he was covered. Still, that's a high rate of challenging throws (29.5%), which is partially why Mac was 3-of-15 on throws over ten air yards and hasn't completed a pass over 20-plus yards since Week 5 (0-4 on Sunday).
New England's quarterback has arm talent issues. That much is clear, and those are made worse when his footwork/mechanics are sloppy in the pocket (see: Stevenson wheel route). However, his supporting cast also isn't creating enough opportunities for him to make plays downfield, a combination that sums up why the Patriots offense is struggling.
With a quarterback that has warts as a deep passer, it's not a good formula when these games keep coming down to a few throws. The margins are way too thin for this offensive personnel.
3. Besides rookie Demario Douglas, Patriots Wide Receivers Are a Major Concern, and Why Was Kayshon Boutte Inactive?
The Patriots have one receiver who injects life into this offense, and that's sixth-round rookie Demario Douglas. Douglas's burst, jitterbug cuts through the break point, and after the catch, is a breath of fresh air. But it says a lot when your most dangerous receiver is a day-three rookie. Without Bourne and Parker, Douglas led all Pats receivers by running 36 routes, followed by Jalen Reagor (30), JuJu Smith-Schuster (18), and Tyquan Thornton (10).
Following two high-leverage incompletions on fourth down (more on Mac) and third down (awful route), Thornton was relegated to the bench. The other question that Belichick was pressed on post-game was why rookie Kayshon Boutte was inactive after the Pats head coach praised his week in practice. Belichick gave a classic non-answer answer on Boutte.
"We activated the players that we felt were the best players to put in the game," Belichick said to the first Boutte question, followed up by, "I thought he had a good week of practice. That's why I said that [earlier in the week]...we activated the other four receivers and Mike [Gesicki]. I mean, really, Mike is our fifth receiver."
Okay, so it was a good practice week by Boutte, but still good enough to be active for the game? I guess that's the explanation. Is the LSU product the savior? Nope. Is it possible that the coaches see in practice that Boutte just isn't good? Obviously. But, as the tight-window stat demonstrates, the four active wideouts struggled. It's not like Boutte is riding the inactive wave because prime Randy Moss and Wes Welker are ahead of him on the depth chart. If the other guys aren't performing, why not give Boutte a shot?
The Patriots can't figure out wide receivers: the 50th overall pick benched, the $33 million man having passes go through their hands to lose the game, and they refuse to play Boutte. It's frustrating.
4. Patriots Pass Coverage Falters Against Aggressive Commanders Passing Attack
The concern coming into the week in this matchup is that the Commanders were sneaky good in the passing game offensively. Howell has his warts, and he holds on to the ball forever, but Washington's receivers can play, and the second-year QB can sling it.
Howell making plays in the passing game against a shaky Pats secondary was one we got right; the scheme with OC Eric Bieniemy running the Reid offense and skill group was a bad matchup. When dividing up the blame pie for the Patriots allowing 325 passing yards (+0.12 EPA/play), it's always about marrying up the rush with the coverage. But the coverage in this one was poor.
Although the Pats capitalized on one mistake, Howell had six completions for 70 yards on throws where he was "on the run" while generating a +7.7 completion percentage over expected with a time to throw over 2.5 seconds on 28 attempts. The pressure could've been more impactful, but even when the pressure was there (see above), the Pats either had poor zone distribution or didn't "plaster" to the nearest receiver when Howell extended the play.
There were way more coverage breakdowns than usual, with backend defenders not on the same page (example: Logan Thomas wide-open out of a bunch formation), missing short zone defenders with guys on different pages, and iffy coverage rules on broken plays. Not to mention the one-on-one losses to Terry McLaurin and Dotson, which also happened.
The Patriots can't do anything about their cover talent. Christian Gonzalez is not coming back to save them. But they can't beat themselves with coverage busts, especially when there's pressure, or it becomes playground football. Uncharacteristically sloppy from this group.
5. Although Christian Barmore Continues Surge, Pats Pass Rush Struggles to Generate Pressure
Although it was a messy game in coverage for the defense, the Patriots have a one-man pass rush right now led by third-year DT Christian Barmore's continued surge in year three.
Barmore logged a game-high eight quarterback pressures with two batted passes at the line of scrimmage. The 2021 second-rounder is one of the lone bright spots from a rocky day against the pass, creating pressure and getting into passing lanes regularly.
However, outside of Barmore, the Patriots pass rush struggled to generate impactful pressure and didn't do a good job of keeping Howell in the pocket. The Commanders quarterback bought time to make throws downfield while converting a third-and-23 on a scramble because the pass rush let him out of the pocket, and then the tackling was a mess down the field. Overall, the Pats pressured Howell on 33.3% of his drop-backs despite the Washington QB having a 2.88-second average time to throw.
The most damning moment for the pass rush was on a cover zero blitz that ultimately led to a 33-yard touchdown for Commanders wideout Jahan Dotson. The Pats are simulating pressure by showing an all-out rush, with defenders coached to pop out of the rush into low zones if they're engaged by a blocker. It's supposed to get someone free to the quarterback, but look at that pocket for Howell. The blitz generates zero pressure, leaving man coverage defenders with zero help in a difficult position to cover Washington's receivers on a double post concept.
Outside of Barmore, the Patriots couldn't generate enough pressure for their front to take over the game like we've seen in other games for the Commanders this season. It's astonishing to see how much time Howell had on the Dotson touchdown with the Pats bringing the heat.
6. Despite Investment in Special Teams, Kicking Game Issues Continues to Lose Games
As we all know, the Patriots invest a ton of resources into special teams. They have three special teams-only coaches, carry several special-teams-only players on the 53-man roster (Slater, Schooler, Board, Montgomery, Davis), and became just the second team in the last 30 years to take a kicker and a punter in the same draft last spring. Yet, they were 29th in special teams DVOA and will only worsen after Sunday's disaster. In the wise words of Julian Edelman, what are we doing?
7. Patriots Offensive Line, at Least Live, Seems to Survive Without Trent Brown
As always, we'll get a better feel for how the Patriots offensive line performed after reviewing the coaches film. Based on our live viewing, they did some good things in this game in pass protection. Jones was only under pressure on 23.9% of his drop-backs, so pressure on the quarterback wasn't the issue this week. However, besides the Stevenson run, New England averaged 2.9 yards with four stuffs on the other 14 carries between the two backs. It still felt like the blocking in the running game was poor on the whole, but the one run by Rhamondre was nice. We'll see how it looks on the film. Stay tuned.
8. Other Good Plays Lost in Another "L" for the Patriots (Henry TD, Tavai peanut punch, etc.)
Lost in the abyss from another loss will be two outstanding football plays by the Patriots, so let's highlight them here as we wrap this baby up.
First, this was a great throw and catch between Mac and tight end Hunter Henry. With the defense in a single-high structure, it looks like Jones checks into "HOSS" from under-center, where they'll pair seams with hitches on the outside. Henry wins on his route, Mac places the ball perfectly into his catch radius, and the Patriots produce points off a turnover.
Speaking of the turnover, the Patriots offense began the drive at the Washington 25-yard line thanks to a great "Peanut Punch" from linebacker Jahlani Tavai. Tavai punched the ball out as Commanders running back Brian Robinson was being tackled by Davon Godchaux, setting up the Pats offense on a short field to flip the momentum in New England's favor.
Although the season hasn't gone to plan, Henry and Tavai have been two solid contributors all season. They'd be lunchpail guys who made big plays in the dynasty years.