Foxborough, MA – On a day when Tom Brady returned to Gillette Stadium for a proper sendoff into retirement, the Patriots fell to the Eagles in a familiar post-Brady script by a final score of 25-20 on Sunday.
New England's offense dug themselves into an insurmountable hole right out of the gate. The Pats fell behind quickly following a Mac Jones pick-six and an Ezekiel Elliott fumble that set the Eagles up on a short field for a touchdown — just 13 minutes into the game, and the Pats were down 16-0 to the defending NFC champs. Not where you want to be.
The Patriots defense kept them in the game, holding a high-powered Philly offense to 252 total yards and one touchdown drive, where the Eagles took over at the Pats 26-yard line. At the same time, the offense rebounded with Mac Jones's fourth career three-touchdown game and fifth 300-yard performance to lead a comeback attempt. In the end, Philly made enough plays to hold the Patriots off when a promising game-winning drive stalled at the Philly 20-yard line.
"We didn't play good enough to win. Did enough things to make it competitive, but not enough to win. Got to coach better. Got to play better," head coach Bill Belichick said following the loss. "We had our chances today. Got off to a slow start. Made it competitive, but just couldn't make enough plays here or the ones we needed to make."
There were positive takeaways from a tough regular-season opener. The Patriots defense stood toe-to-toe with an excellent offense, while there were moments where this scribe wrote down, "that's what the Bill O'Brien offense is supposed to look like" throughout the last three quarters.
Still, the silver linings they've had over the last two-plus years need to start turning into wins. Eventually, the Pats need to complete more fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, with Jones still stuck at one apiece in his 33 NFL games (vs. Houston in his rookie season). The Mac-led Patriots are also now 0-11 in Jones starts when the opponent scores 25 points or more.
The Patriots don't want to put themselves into 16-point deficits, especially against good teams. But stuff happens in football. As nice as it is to see the team keep fighting, those clutch moments are still fleeting in the Mac era. They need to win games like these at some point because constantly playing on your terms and with a lead is unrealistic.
Here are eight observations from the Patriots season-opening loss to the Eagles on Sunday:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Mac Jones connects with Kendrick Bourne for 19-yard touchdown
A moment where the Bill O'Brien offense was clicking came on a 19-yard dart from the Patriots quarterback to one of his favorite targets, Kendrick Bourne. Bourne tied for a team-high with six catches for 64 yards and already surpassed his touchdown total (one) from a bumpy 2022 season in one game with two scores on Sunday.
The play design was a condensed bunch formation that became a repeat call after it started giving the Philadelphia defense fits. Bourne is running a skinny post from the outside spot, while tight end Mike Gesicki switch releases on the flat route, and JuJu Smith-Schuster runs a shallow drag to put the post-safety in conflict. With corner James Bradberry sitting outside of him, both the quarterback and receiver know that Bourne is breaking inside on the post, and all Mac needs to do is throw on time, and it's a touchdown – that, folks, is Bill O'Brien's offense.
"[James] Bradberry was kind of in no-man's land. It's a tough position he was in, and I think we just exposed it. Threatening him both ways. I think that's the scheme of the offense to threaten that outside area, but that area [the post] is open, too. It puts him [Bradberry] in a tough predicament, and we were able to take advantage," Bourne told Patriots.com.
Although it would've been nice for Bourne and the Patriots to come away with a win, that's one example of a building block moving forward with the season in its very early stages. Plus, it was nice to see Bourne back involved as a go-to target for Jones, which is where he belongs.
2. Patriots QB Mac Jones Hard on Himself Following Failed Comeback Attempt
The Patriots quarterback took full responsibility for the loss during his post-game press conference, repeating multiple times that he had two chances to win the game and failed.
"They gave me the ball twice to win the game, and I couldn't do it. I just got to go back and watch and see what I can do better, but as a quarterback, that hurts, right? You get a chance to win the game twice and can't do it." Jones told reporters following the loss.
On the one hand, a high throw that slipped out of Jones's hand in rainy conditions bounced off Bourne's hands into Darius Slay's lap for a pick-six, contributing to the initial deficit, and there were other instances where the ball placement was slightly off making life harder on the receivers. Jones finished with a completion percentage over expected of -3.3, despite having a 7.2 average target depth, which ranks in the 28th percentile.
As the Pats QB1 pointed out, he also had two fourth-quarter possessions in a one-score game with a chance to take the lead, and the Patriots offense turned the ball over on downs in both instances. That's not all on the quarterback, but this was a so-so performance from Jones. Some good, like the dart highlighted above to Bourne, but too much bad to win.
Playing the silver linings game with Jones, there is a tad more zip on his drive throws down the field, while his internal clock and ability to operate under pressure are resetting itself after those things were completely out of whack a year ago. On Sunday, Jones was 10-of-19 for 88 yards and a touchdown while under pressure on 35.7% of his drop-backs with an average time to throw of 2.52 seconds, keeping the Eagles vaunted pass rush from taking over the game against a banged-up Pats offensive line.
The pieces are coming together for Jones as he looks to rebound from a rocky year two, and we are seeing his calling cards of fast processing, eye manipulating, and downfield accuracy flash consistently again. But Mac was the first to say that's on him to come through in the clutch.
3. Offensive Coordinator Bill O'Brien Showcases New-Look Patriots Offense
Some things that initially stood out from O'Brien's return to calling plays for the Patriots in a regular season game were tempo, spread elements, and using formations to create openings in the passing game.
The veteran offensive coordinator mostly ditched under-center elements to his Patriots offense 2.0. Jones attempted 51 of his 52 passes from the shotgun, with only seven plays, six runs, coming from under center. New England dialed up just four play-action passes, mainly gun-action, which might've been because they didn't want to jeopardize the offensive line. Although you can get the defensive line to hesitate with run fakes, they're typically longer developing plays where the quarterback needs to turn his back to the defense, so there's a risk.
Along with majoring in shotgun concepts, the Patriots mainly featured trap/counter schemes, duo, and inside zone runs that often had pass combinations attached to them on RPOs. The Patriots have also clearly established a go-to play call where they'll utilize a two-receiver stack alignment. Like bunch formations, stacks stress coverage rules by causing post-snap confusion and giving receivers options to present a clear picture to the quarterback.
Here, the Patriots run an O'Brien staple on third-and-4 to generate an 18-yard gain. The on-the-line receiver, Kayshon Boutte, runs a vertical release to give Bourne space off the line. Bourne can sit down against zone coverage or break away from man coverage. In this example, Philly is in zone, so Bourne sits, and Mac gets him the ball quickly, allowing him to cut upfield against an over-pursuing secondary for 14 yards after the catch.
We expect to see more under-center sequencing with play-action in the future. Still, RPOs, stacks/bunches, empty formations, and shorter passes are O'Brien's staples - get used to seeing these things, which were very successful with good execution.
4. Patriots Defense Limits QB Jalen Hurts, Eagles Offense to 251 Total Yards, 18 Points
Although the overall rankings have been good over the last few seasons, the Patriots defense has taken flack for not performing against top quarterbacks and failing in the clutch.
Some will explain their success in Sunday's opener away by saying that the Eagles, who rested their offensive starters in the preseason, were rusty. But the Patriots defense checked every box possible by holding Philly to a stingy 4.1 yards per play, one touchdown drive on a short field, and producing two late fourth-quarter stops to give the offense a chance.
New England mostly played out of single-high defensive structures with 24 plays in zone coverage (66.7%) and 77.8% of their plays with one deep safety (single high). Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick did a good job mixing in different calls, but the corners mainly were in single coverage on the outside, and top tandem Christian Gonzalez and Jonathan Jones held up well (more on Gonzalez later). Along with playing single-high coverages, the Patriots also dialed up four "zero" blitzes without deep safety that were highly successful.
In the run game, there were several instances where safety Kyle Dugger, in particular, came rotating down to set the edge against a QB run, and Jabrill Peppers' forced fumble on a QB draw was excellent.
We'll have a more detailed breakdown of how the Patriots slowed down the Eagles top-ranked offense in After Further Review, but this was a legitimately great effort by the defense.
5. Rookie CB Christian Gonzalez Makes Strong First Impression in Regular-Season Debut
The coverage stats might not be overly kind to Gonzalez, who gave up some plays in off-coverage while playing every single defensive snap in his debut. But the eye test tells a different story.
New England's first-round pick stood in the middle of the ring with Philadelphia's elite wide receiver tandem, taking A.J. Brown for most of the game with some reps across from DeVonta Smith. Gonzalez was competitive in coverage throughout, making a critical fourth-down pass breakup and playing a deep ball to Brown perfectly. He also had a sack on a well-timed corner blitz and made several open-field tackles (seven total tackles).
It's not overstating things to say that Gonzalez's fourth-down pass breakup was a tremendous play, especially for a rookie in his first NFL game. With the game on the line on a fourth-and-2, the Pats ran a traditional cover zero blitz where the defenders were in man coverage, with Gonzo on Smith. The Pats rookie credited film study and heightened awareness of the game situation for making a big-time play to force a turnover on downs with two minutes remaining.
Between the moment and the physicality against a power receiver like Brown, Gonzalez looked ready to compete in an NFL game right out of the gate, let alone stay afloat. Great stuff.
6. Patriots TE Hunter Henry Starts Season With Another Professional Performance
Fresh off being named a team captain for the first time in his NFL career, the Patriots tight end remains a reliable target for quarterback Mac Jones.
Henry's five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown might not jump out of the box score, but he continues to be a go-to option in the red zone, and his fourth-down catch was vital to making this game competitive. On his touchdown grab, Henry ran a stick-nod route where he's going to fake a "stick" route and then break upfield on a seam, and the timing with Mac is a beautiful thing.
Then, the Pats tight end kept the game alive with a one-handed catch to move the chains on a critical fourth-and-8. The play is the same design as the Bourne catch highlighted in the O'Brien section, a short option route where Henry sits between the zones and helps his quarterback by snagging the slightly off-target throw with one hand.
New England's offense is more productive when Henry is involved in the passing game. With O'Brien's history of feeding tight ends, Henry will surely have a huge role this season.
7. Patriots Rookie DL Keion White Also Impresses in Regular-Season Debut
White also had an impressive regular-season debut by tallying four quarterback pressures in 23 defensive snaps for a solid 28.6% pressure rate. White lined up over Eagles All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson on a few of those pressures, using an explosive first step to convert speed-to-power as he hurried Hurts out of the pocket. A rookie pass-rusher winning reps against a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in his NFL debut? Yeah, that's good.
8. HC Bill Belichick's Aggressive Fourth Down Decisions, Yay or Nay?
Lastly, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick uncharacteristically went for it four times on fourth down late in Sunday's game, with the offense only converting once. As Belichick noted in his post-game presser, it's easy to say they were the wrong decisions in hindsight, but even some win probability calculators that typically favor going for it would've kicked a field goal in an eight-point game with 9:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was shocking to see Belichick, a typically conservative decision-maker, go for it on fourth-and-three instead of making it a five-point game there. His explanation for going for it on the second-to-last possession made more sense, with Belichick saying they couldn't count on getting the ball back. But making the score 22-17 earlier in the fourth quarter would've made things easier for the offense later in the game.