In the aftermath of the Patriots 34-0 loss to the Saints on Sunday, Bill Belichick's message seemed pretty clear: It's time to start over. Based on the recent results, it's a more than logical mindset for the coach and team to take going forward.
"Obviously it was a poor performance today, so just plain and simply, we've got to find a way to play and coach better than that," Belichick said to open his postgame press conference. "So, that's what we are going to do, start all over and get back on a better track than we're on right now."
But after being outscored 79-8 over the previous 10 quarters of football dating back to the second half of the Jets game in Week 3, saying you're going to start over and actually knowing how to do so are two entirely different things. The Patriots problems are widespread, ranging from health, line play, big play ability, running game and yes, quarterback. The defense looks like a group suffering both from a lack of depth due to the aforementioned injuries and perhaps a lack of belief in the other side of the ball. After forcing a pair of punts to open the Saints game, the defense watched Tyrann Mathieu's pick-six and then responded by allowing a pair of touchdown drives of their own.
Even the special teams, a unit that great time and effort went into restoring in the offseason, has been a spotty mess at times with penalties, poor execution in the kicking operation and shaky decision making leading to a current 32nd ranking in various metrics, including Football Outsiders DVOA.
So, waving a magic wand calling for a do-over isn't going to get the job done.
"I don't know where they can start over. They just might keep losing. New England – look out, you might have a top-five pick next year," former Patriots mainstay and current NBC commentator Devin McCourty said during halftime of the Sunday night game. "In New England it comes with a certain kind of pressure to produce, and right now they're not producing. And I don't know if it's going to look any better. That is the scary thing in New England right now."
Clearly the majority of starting over needs to take place on offense. Bill O'Brien has yet to prove he can get anything more out of Mac Jones and the offense than last year's tandem of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. How tough has it been for the offense through five weeks? Consider the following numbers:
- Points per game: 32nd
- Yards per game: 26th
- Yards per pass attempt: 29th
- Yards per rush: 29th
- EPA (expected points added) per play: 32nd
- Success rate: 30th
- EPA per dropback: 32nd
- Dropback success rate: 30th
- EPA per rush: 32nd
- Rush success rate: 29th
Starting over from there will require more of an overhaul rather than some tweaks. Jones is certainly not entirely to blame. The pass protection has been downright awful at times and his receivers lack the burst to consistently separate from man coverage on any consistent level. The running game has also provided very little to the attack as both Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott average less than 4 yards per carry.
That said, Jones needs to find ways to better deal with the pressure and to protect the football, particularly early in games. He's now thrown more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five) and the Patriots haven't registered a single touchdown in the first or third quarter this season. Those miscues are putting the team in a bind from the outset, which has led to the Patriots failing to hold the lead in any of their four losses to this point.
So, the best way to start over should begin with getting off to better starts. A good way to do that will be for O'Brien to figure out how to get more production out of Stevenson. On Sunday the Patriots first possession opened with a tough 8-yard run by Stevenson, but a pair of throws followed. The first one was a well-timed shot to pick up a chunk play with a deep throw to Kendrick Bourne. Unfortunately Jones was off target and the Patriots now faced third-and-2. Instead of allowing Stevenson to possibly pick up some momentum against a New Orleans defense that has struggled on short-yardage runs this season, O'Brien again went to the air and Jones again missed a downfield throw, this one toward Hunter Henry.
The second series ended when Trent Brown and Atonio Mafi failed to properly pick up a tackle-end stunt and Carl Granderson pressured Jones into Mathieu's pick-six. Two possessions into the game and the Patriots offense was already floundering.
Sticking with a steady diet of Stevenson early in games might not improve the overall production but it might allow Jones to slowly get comfortable and keep the pass rush at bay. Perhaps using more Pharaoh Brown as a fullback leading Stevenson would serve as a kickstart to the running game. Either way, generating more on the ground is paramount to improvement.
The issues on defense aren't as glaring, but the absence of Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez was noticeable against a Saints offense that had done almost nothing all season. Derek Carr missed a couple of easy throws early but settled in, and after the pick-six the Patriots defense seemed resigned to its fate on back-to-back touchdown drives for New Orleans.
The fixes on that side of the ball are tougher to envision given the losses of Judon and Gonzalez. Perhaps Belichick can lean more on young players such as Keion White and Marte Mapu and live through some inevitable mistakes. At least that could put the unit in better position down the road once they are more acclimated to NFL life. On Sunday White played 39 snaps (54 percent) and Mapu 29 (40 percent), and even though the pair combined for a single assisted tackle the increase in usage was a step in the right direction.
As McCourty mentioned there are no easy fixes, and Belichick seemed to acknowledge that by altering his schedule this week and swapping players' days off, giving him and his staff time to figure out a course of action on Monday before the players returned to work the next day.
"We need to make some improvements on where we are, so we will see what all that entails," Belichick said Monday morning. "Haven't gone into it yet, but we will."
Sunday in Vegas we'll get our first look at any changes, but starting over is never easy.
Second guessing fourth downs
Belichick opened the season throwing caution to the wind on fourth down, going for it four times in the loss to the Eagles including a fourth-and-3 within chip shot field goal range when the Patriots were down 22-14 with 10 minutes remaining. Things have changed greatly since.
Against Dallas Belichick opted for a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 6 on the opening drive, choosing to tie the game at 3 rather than going for the lead. Sunday against New Orleans, Jones hit Mike Gesicki for 8 yards on third-and-11, setting up a fourth-and-3 from the Saints 30. Trailing just 7-0 at the time, Belichick called for Chad Ryland and the rookie promptly hooked the 48-yarder to the left.
The more egregious example came later in the game with the Patriots in serious trouble down 24-0. Facing a fourth-and-3 from the Saints 40, Belichick chose to punt, later saying he felt the team's struggles on third and fourth down led to the decision.
The game was all but over at 24-0 with less than 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, but a punt in that situation all but represented a waving of the white flag. The offense's struggles have obviously affected Belichick's mindset with regard to his aggressiveness, but the change in approach has been staggering.
The Niners have easily been the league's most impressive team through the first five weeks of the season. The manner in which they've methodically dispatched their opponents on both sides of the ball has been eye-opening, especially Sunday night against a talented Cowboys team.
Dallas remained competitive through the first half and into the second, trailing just 21-10. Then the Niners defense, led by athletic linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner, completely took the game over. San Francsico's relentlessness on that side of the ball eventually led to three straight Dak Prescott interceptions and suddenly the game was a 42-10 laugher.
Still more than two-thirds of the season remaining but at this point it appears as if San Francisco is the team to beat.
Pittsburgh's George Pickens continues to make plays for a Steelers offense that has very little explosiveness. His 41-yard touchdown catch with 1:17 to go provided the winning points in Pittsburgh's 17-10 win over Baltimore, and he now has 22 receptions for 393 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and a pair of touchdowns. Making matters worse for New England, Pickens was chosen with the 52nd pick in the 2022 draft, just two spots after the Patriots grabbed Tyquan Thornton.
A week after voicing his frustration after a loss by claiming that he is always open, Bengals star wideout Ja'Marr Chase caught 15 balls for 192 yards and three touchdowns in Cincinnati's 34-20 victory in Arizona. It's one thing to squawk when things aren't going well but it's quite another to respond in dominating fashion. The better news for Bengals fans was the performance of Joe Burrow, who completed 36 of 46 passes for 317 yards and the three scores to Chase. It was the first time this season that Burrow appeared to shake off the effects of the calf injury that has plagued him the last two months.
- San Francisco (5-0) – The Niners look to be in a class by themselves.
- Miami (4-1) – Solid bounce back after the Dolphins first loss of the season.
- Philadelphia (5-0) – Jalen Hurts showed some 2022 form in a hard-fought road win over the Rams.
- Kansas City (4-1) – Death, taxes and Patrick Mahomes finding a way to win.
- Detroit (4-1) – I've been reluctant to include the Lions but Jared Goff keeps rolling along.