Over the last 11 days, all the outside noise around the Patriots is that head coach Bill Belichick has lost his team, and it's time for a hard reset in New England.
If you're a Patriots fan who wants the team to tank after being out-scored 72-3 in their last two games without an offensive touchdown in 34 straight drives, it's understandable. This team has a talent shortage that isn't going away overnight. With that said, we aren't going to approach things at 1-4 or 1-14 any differently. If you want them to tank for a higher draft pick, we get it. But this space will remain a game preview filled with ways the Patriots can win a football game each week.
Although you need to call it how it is, the ugly nature of the last two games has likely led to some frustrating meetings and film sessions at 1 Patriots Place this week. If it were me, I'd quickly turn the page from making corrections to jazzing up this team like they're the 2007 Patriots, quarterback included. Yup, show the highlights, baby. Make them feel good about themselves, and remind them that they can play good football.
Offensively, I'd take them back to the opening week against the Eagles, where the Pats scored a season-high 20 points, and quarterback Mac Jones threw for over 300 yards with three touchdowns. Take the touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne and put it on the screen. Highlight the spacing, the scheme feeding the routes, and the throw by Jones, and remind them that they can make those plays.
Along with that play were two touchdown drives in the second quarter, where the Patriots hit several Bill O'Brien staples to move the ball down the field. Things like gun-action passes and in-breakers to the tight ends with O'Brien scheming open routes out of bunch formations, along with better protection, got things rolling in a positive direction.
Look, these are professional football players, and it's much deeper than pumping them up with highlights. Still, you can't let the negativity permeate the locker room. It's two lousy games, a mini-trend, but not a season-long trend yet, so stop the bleeding before it spirals.
O'Brien also publicly stated that they'll make schematic changes, but the sense in the locker room is that those changes will be more subtle rather than drastic shifts, while the team is sticking with quarterback Mac Jones for now. The bottom line is this team is like a basketball player in a shooting slump who has to keep shooting with the mentality that, eventually, the shots will start to fall, even if that's wishful thinking.
Here are our keys to victory for the Patriots as they head to Las Vegas for a matchup with the Raiders (2-3) on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium:
Offensive Key - Take Back Control of the Line of Scrimmage in Winnable Matchup, Don't Let Raiders Star EDGE Maxx Crosby Beat You
For the Patriots to turn things around offensively, it starts up front with the offensive line.
The quarterback and receivers aren't good enough to be a one-dimensional unit that can't run the ball and doesn't have time to let plays develop. Plus, Jones looks sped up from a processing standpoint and isn't trusting the pocket to throw from a solid base, which is making his already limited arm talent look even worse — it has to get better, and it is time for first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to make his money.
The former Pats draft pick had the built-in excuses of poor health and Belichick the GM's shortcomings. Belichick's two offseason acquisitions, Calvin Anderson and Riley Reiff, are either healthy scratches (Anderson) or moved inside to guard because they couldn't hang at OT (Reiff). Klemm has also had to deal with several injuries, including long-term absences over the summer for starting guards Cole Strange (still not playing) and Michael Onwenu (playing hurt). Having said that, harping on a lack of continuity and injuries is starting to get old five weeks into the season. There's enough there for Klemm to get functional line play out of this group, and their fundamentals (pad level, hand placement, footwork) are sloppy, and players don't look in-tuned with each other to pass off defensive line movement (stunts/twists). There needs to be an upward trajectory for the offensive line at some point.
Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said the coaching staff is focused on making schematic tweaks to specifically help the offensive line, which now has to face star edge rusher Maxx Crosby this week in Vegas, who had seven quarterback pressures and four tackles for loss in a game he took over defensively last Monday night vs. the Packers. The Raider film last week was a Crosby highlight reel.
Besides having Crosby, the Raiders defense is very beatable, with a weak interior that can be run on and a secondary that needs to play a lot of zone. Vegas's defensive coordinator, Patrick Graham, is a Belichick disciple, but he's not very exotic in his pass rush and is below league-average in man coverage rate, mainly because the Raiders are still building all over the defense. First-rounder Tyree Wilson has struggled with only four pressures on 86 pass-rush snaps. The secondary has solid starters in S Tre'von Moehrig and CB David Long, while LB Robert Spillane is having a nice start to the season. But this isn't a talent-rich defense like the Pats faced in the first five weeks. The Raiders defense is 23rd in drop-back EPA, 25th in rush EPA, and 28th in pressure rate, mainly because Crosby is keeping them out of the basement, making this the first matchup all season that the Patriots aren't facing a top defense – thank goodness.
In the running game, Green Bay found success using duo schemes and split-flow zone runs. The Patriots also used duo runs to rush for over 200 yards against the Raiders last season, running away from Crosby while attacking straight downhill at the weak spots on the interior. Instead of split-flow zone, the Pats used more trap schemes to use Crosby's aggressiveness against him.
From there, we'd expect one Patriots-specific adjustment to protect the O-Line to be more play-action with max protection. Above, the Pats leave both tight ends in to block in a seven-man protection. Plus, the back is in a "blitz scan" to block any penetrators. It's a simple crosser with a vertical to clear out the deep safety, and Bourne gains 28 yards on the crosser with Mac throwing from a clean pocket.
Although a 24th-ranked Raiders defense in DVOA is a comfy matchup to get right, the Patriots aren't in a position to assume their offense will move the ball on anyone, and Crosby is a game-wrecker that can quickly ruin your afternoon like Micah Parsons did two weeks ago.
Ultimately, the deciding chess match between O'Brien and Graham is a weakness-on-weakness battle: a Patriots receiver group that can't beat man coverage vs. a Raiders defense that struggles in man. As we know, the Pats rank dead-last in expected points added against man coverage, while the Raiders are allowing +0.34 expected points added per drop-back in man, the second-highest output in the league through five weeks.
Finding ways to control the line of scrimmage is at the top of O'Brien's to-do list this week, but whoever makes more plays, the Pats pass-catchers or Raiders defensive backs, will win on this side of the ball on Sunday.
Defensive Key - Take Away In-Breakers, Put Pressure on Raiders QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Moving over to the other side of the ball, it's been fun to see where former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is taking the Raiders offense in his second season in Las Vegas.
Vegas has two elite players offensively at wide receiver (Davante Adams) and running back (Josh Jacobs). At the same time, old friend Jakobi Meyers has acclimated well as a clear number two to Adams, with second-round TE Michael Mayer starting to emerge around quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has struggled out of the gate. The Raiders haven't run the ball effectively like they did when Jacobs won the rushing title in 2022, mainly due to offensive line issues. The change in quarterback, along with run-game struggles, has led McDaniels to shift some things schematically. There are still McDaniels staples, such as the fourth-highest under-center rate in the NFL, 21 personnel, gap/power run schemes sequenced with play-action, and quick-game concepts, all aimed to access the middle of the field in the passing game.
However, McDaniels is getting to some things differently as his personnel changes, integrating more Shanahan-style bootleg concepts and slightly fewer snaps with a fullback opting for more 12 personnel. Last season, the Raiders were in '21' on 20.2% of their offensive snaps, ranking fifth in the NFL, but that number has dropped to 17.7% this season. Plus, boot-action schemes seem more prevalent with Garoppolo coming from San Francisco.
The quarterback change, coupled with McDaniels's typical brand of offense, makes for a pretty clear game plan this week for the Pats defense. Along with slowing down Jacobs and the Raiders rushing attack, Garoppolo continues to live in the middle of the field as a plus-thrower on in-breaking routes and to the intermediate level (10-19 air yards).
|Jimmy Garoppolo, This Season||In-Breaking Routes||All Other Routes|
Garoppolo has wild splits when it comes to his efficiency on in-breaking routes like slants, crossers, and digs compared to all other routes. Jimmy G is completing 76.1 percent of his throws on in-breakers for a ten-yard average and a 101.6 passer rating. On all other routes, Garoppolo's passer rating plummets to 71.6. The same can be said for Garoppolo's splits when throwing to the intermediate areas compared to all other levels of the defense. On 41 intermediate pass attempts (fourth-most), Jimmy G is averaging 10.1 yards while adding +0.26 EPA per drop-back. But when the defense forces him to attack other areas downfield, Garoppolo's numbers are far more pedestrian. Despite having Adams to throw to, Garoppolo only has eight deep pass attempts (30th) and ranks dead-last among 33 quarterbacks in completion percentage over expected on deep attempts (-19.5).
The book has been the same on Garoppolo for years, which is why the 49ers moved on to a more aggressive and accurate downfield thrower in Brock Purdy. If you can take away his sweet spot, Jimmy G lacks the arm talent to beat you deep and isn't a late-in-the-down improviser. Although the numbers weren't off the charts, the Raiders offense did just enough to get a win last week against the Packers because Green Bay's soft zone coverages allowed Garoppolo to hit Vegas's preferred in-breaking routes, where Garoppolo attempted 45.2% of his passes going 10-of-14 for 138 yards with a 96.7 passer rating.
The other key is to pressure Jimmy G, who is 32nd among 35 quarterbacks in PFF passing grade under pressure (33.4). One of the most disturbing aspects of last week's blowout loss to the Saints that got lost with all the offensive struggles was how the Pats pass rush disappeared without star pass-rusher Matthew Judon. Despite blitzing over 48% of the time, the Pats only generated a 24.1% pressure rate last week. If they can't find a way to pressure the quarterback defensively, this team is porked, again.
Green Bay only pressured the Garoppolo on 25% of his drop-backs with a blitz rate of 33.3% last Monday. The Packers mostly played single-high structures with a buzz defender or robber rotating to close the middle of the field, but quick throws often beat the rotating defender to the spot before he could alter the throw (see above).
The Packers also played a more stagnant cover three, which failed because McDaniels used clear-out routes on dagger concepts to create windows for dig patterns, while the Packers handful of split-safety shells were way too soft underneath, allowing for easy yards. The Raiders are challenging to defend in man coverage because of their two elite separators in Adams and Meyers, so one would expect the Patriots to play mostly zone. However, they'll need to close the middle of the field and cover the slots better than the Packers did last week.
Last season, the Pats also took down the Raiders pass protection with creeper pressures, where LB Ja'Whaun Bentley blitzed up the middle with an edge defender dropping to replace him in zone coverage. Although it's a different quarterback, the Pats major in these zone pressure schemes, and maybe they saw something in Vegas's protection rules that allowed them to work.
There's a simple formula for New England's defense to take away Garoppolo's sweet spots and disrupt the Raiders quarterback. Like everything with this team, it's a matter of execution on Sunday.
Pats RT Vederian Lowe vs. Raiders EDGE Maxx Crosby - it's the same thing every week. If it's Lowe again at right tackle, this is a huge mismatch that needs to be managed by play-calling and aided with help for Lowe (chips, extra blockers/doubles). When it's your assignment to chip Crosby, freaking chip him. Make him feel the body blows.
Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Raiders WR Jakobi Meyers - Meyers will get a lot of media attention this week for obvious reasons. Whether they really tried or not, the Pats made a mistake letting Meyers walk in free agency. Now, it's up to Jones to take away Jimmy G's top slot receiver. I'd expect Jones to travel inside with Meyers, with J.C. Jackson lining up across from Adams.
Pats EDGE Josh Uche vs. Raiders RT Thayer Munford - As we mentioned, the Patriots need to find a way to disrupt the quarterback more than a 24.1% pressure rate last week. Without Judon on the other side, Uche needs to step up. I'd expect the Pats to attack a backup right tackle rather than starting LT Kolton Miller with their top pass-rusher.