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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Feb 20 - 02:00 PM | Thu Feb 22 - 09:55 AM

Patriots Gameplan: Evaluating Bailey Zappe's Chances to Start at Quarterback for the Pats vs. the Giants 

With a decision looming for the Patriots at quarterback, has backup Bailey Zappe shown enough to start against the Giants on Sunday?

PDC

The last time we saw the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick replaced quarterback Mac Jones following an interception late in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Colts in Frankfurt, Germany.

With 4:16 remaining in a 10-6 contest, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien dialed up a play-action pass that got tight end Mike Gesicki wide-open running into the end zone for the go-ahead score. After being under pressure throughout the game, Jones threw the ball off his back foot while fading away from the line of scrimmage, feeling the rush coming off the left side. As a result of poor footwork, the ball was thrown well short of Gesicki into the hands of Colts safety Julian Blackmon.

Following a stop by the Patriots defense, backup Bailey Zappe ran off the sideline to attempt a game-winning drive rather than Jones. The Pats first-round quarterback had been benched for the third time this season. In this case, it was a close, winnable game, clearly stating that this was a performance-based decision. At that moment, it felt like Jones's time as the Patriots starting quarterback was over.

With the Patriots currently holding the third overall pick in a 2024 NFL Draft filled with intriguing quarterback prospects, the Pats could be heading for a split with Jones as their starter. After the Pats HC told reporters it was "time for a change" in his post-game press conference in Germany, the biggest question for the Patriots coming out of their bye week is who will start at quarterback vs. the Giants?

On Tuesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was non-comittal about the quarterback situation, telling reporters that we'll find out on Sunday who will start against the Giants. 

"I told all the players the same thing: be ready to go, so hopefully they will be," Belichick said. "It will be based on what I think is best for the team."

Given how things ended in Frankfurt, it would suggest that Jones's benching would be permanent, with the team turning to backup Bailey Zappe. At this point, why not see what Zappe can do with a full week of starter reps at practice rather than coming off the bench cold either in mop-up duty or in a difficult situation against Indianapolis? If the Patriots have their answer about Jones as their franchise quarterback, giving Zappe a chance to audition would make sense. After all, he did go 2-0 as a starter last season, putting out some impressive film in place of an injured Jones.

With ample opportunities earlier in the season to make a switch at quarterback, Zappe's uninspiring play dating back to the summer hasn't given the coaching staff much reason to make a change. In training camp, Zappe struggled to grasp a new system that's mentally taxing for quarterbacks and was wildly inconsistent with his downfield accuracy. If there was a stealth quarterback competition, it wasn't competitive because Zappe never pushed Jones for reps in August.

Following a rocky first summer in O'Brien's system, the Patriots waived Zappe on roster cutdown day. Zappe would return to the practice squad and was later re-signed to the 53-man roster as Jones's backup. The Pats signed Will Grier, Matt Corral, and Ian Book at various times this season, looking for an upgrade at backup quarterback at every turn.

Table inside Article
Bailey Zappe, Last Two Seasons 2023 Season (NFL Rank) 2022 Season (NFL Rank)
EPA/Drop-Back -0.44 (49th) +0.07 (24th)
Comp. Pct Over Expectation -18.5 (49th) +5.8 (4th)
QBR 18.6 (n/a) 36.4 (n/a)

Ultimately, they continued to settle on Zappe, whose summer struggles have continued in 26 drop-backs during the regular season. Although it's fair to say he would be more prepared as the starter heading into the game, Zappe's numbers and film in his limited game reps are rough. Out of 50 qualified quarterbacks, Zappe ranks 49th in expected points added (-0.44) and completion percentage over expectation (-18.5). Last season, Zappe added +0.07 expected points with a +5.8 CPOE on 99 drop-backs. Although most of his big plays came off play-action, Zappe still hit the layups presented to him as a rookie, which can't be said about his film in 2023.

For example, the biggest shift in play-calling for Zappe compared to Jones last season was that 26.3% of the Pats backup's drop-backs were off play-action. Zappe averaged a ridiculous 17.2 passing yards per attempt off 26 play-action drop-backs. Jones only ran play-action on 16.7% of his drop-backs with Patricia calling plays in 2022.

Zappe generated several big plays off two-man route combinations paired with hard play-action and maximum pass protection. The Pats would run a vertical clear-out route to open space for an intermediate pattern, where oftentimes the crosser could convert to a post-corner style route depending on how the receiver read the coverage. With a clean pocket, Zappe routinely completed throws on these concepts.

This season, the Pats called the same concept for Zappe in his appearance against the Saints. But with the crosser coming open, Zappe misses the throw. Zappe might not have expected Bourne to cut as sharply as he did at the top of the route, which could be corrected in practice, but it's a wide-open miss nonetheless.

Zappe then missed another wide-open receiver under pressure in the same game. This time, tight end Hunter Henry beats the man coverage defender clean off the line. Zappe makes the correct decision, but the pressure off the left side leads to an errant throw and another missed opportunity.

Lastly, there have also been ball placement issues on more catchable passes. For example, Mike Gesicki wins on this route to present a target past the sticks on third down. However, Zappe's throw makes Gesicki attempt a far more challenging catch than necessary, and the Pats tight end drops the contested throw. That pass needs to be on Gesicki's outside hip.

Zappe's decision-making has been adequate outside a bad interception that ended a comeback bid vs. the Colts after replacing Jones. He looks more comfortable in O'Brien's offense now than in the summer and offers more pocket mobility to evade pressure. Still, Zappe's sporadic accuracy, which dates back to the preseason, is hard to overlook.

Following another lackluster performance that saw the most definitive benching yet for Jones, one would expect the Patriots to have a new starting quarterback in the Meadowlands on Sunday, and the bye week is a good time to make a change.

Turning the offense over to Zappe now would be as much about giving Jones a mental break as viewing Zappe as a long-term starting option. Sitting a quarterback down for a week or two to hit the pause button is not unprecedented. In fact, the Falcons just did it with Taylor Heinicke starting a few games to reset starter Desmond Ridder.

The reality is that the Patriots don't have a good quarterback option, at least in Jones's current mental state, meaning there aren't any easy answers on who should start against the Giants. The coaches have indicated that third-string QB Will Grier is way behind the other two, while undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham doesn't get many quarterback reps in practices besides scout-team work when facing a mobile QB.

New England is in a tough spot at quarterback without any inspiring options, but it's probably time to sit Jones down for a while as a hard reset, meaning we'd lean toward starting Zappe this week.

Here are our keys to victory and key matchups for the Patriots versus the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday:

Offensive Key - Prepare Whoever is at Quarterback for the Mad Scientist, Wink Martindale

Whoever is under center for the Patriots this week will need to be prepared for arguably the NFL's most aggressive defensive play-caller in Giants coordinator Wink Martindale.

Martindale will heat up opposing quarterbacks so much that Belichick indicated that he took exception to the veteran DC frequently blitzing in a preseason matchup in 2022. Martindale loves bringing pressure, with the Giants defense ranking only behind old friend Brian Flores's Vikings defense in blitz rate (42.4%), with the fourth-highest cover zero rate in the league (7.7%). New York also plays the second-highest rate of man coverage (44.7%), so this is an aggressive, man-to-man defense.

Despite Martindale's blitzing, the Giants have struggled to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks with standard rushes, ranking 29th in overall pressure rate (31.5%). However, Martindale's pressure schemes work, as the Giants pressure rate increases by 14.3% when they send five-plus rushers compared to a league-low 25.4% pressure rate on four-man rushes.

Similarly to the Patriots defense this season, the need to blitz to create pressure has sunk the Giants defense to 27th in DVOA through 11 weeks. But it all came together for them when New York caused six turnovers and sacked Commanders QB Sam Howell four times in a win last week. Given the state of the Patriots offense, facing a Giants defense that can rattle opposing quarterbacks with pressure schemes doesn't bode well for the Pats starting QB.

Martindale has two different types of rushes he likes in his rush package. First, the Giants will simulate pressure by putting six defenders on the line of scrimmage. Although they'll bring all-out pressure at times, they'll mostly overload one side with a "trailer" adding into the rush to attack the running back with two blitzers going through the same gap. The back can pick up the on-the-line rusher, but the Commanders don't have the numbers to pick up the blitzing safety. Howell makes the right initial decision to roll away from the pressure, knowing if that DB blitzes, he's out-numbered on the left side. However, the Washington QB makes an ill-advised decision to throw downfield, and the pass is intercepted.

The other pressure scheme the Giants will use frequently is a five-man rush package where they can spin stunts/twists to cause problems. This time, the Giants ran a four-man game with three rushers slanting inside as the wrap player came around the edge. The left tackle falls off Kayvon Thibodeaux to pick up the looper, but the interior doesn't sort it out properly, so Thibodeaux comes free for one of his two sacks in the game.

Martindale is very good at stressing protections by making the blockers diagnose post-snap where the extra rushers are coming from while also simply bringing more blitzers than blockers. The Patriots game plan will probably be centered around spreading the field so that the quarterback can ID where pressure is coming from pre-snap, using motion/misdirection and screens to beat man-blitzes, and downhill run schemes to expose an aggressive front.

The key to any offensive success against this Giants defense is everyone understanding the plan against pressure to give the quarterback easy answers when Martindale turns up the heat.

Defensive Key - Does Brian Daboll, Giants Offense's Struggles Say Anything About the Patriots Offensive System?

My first thought while digging into the Giants offense was that another Belichick-adjacent offensive mind was struggling, bringing more questions about the system in today's NFL.

Daboll was the darling offensive guru in the NFL after coaching Bills QB Josh Allen to a breakout 2021 season, then following that up with AP Coach of the Year honors in his first season as the Giants head coach. When you lead Daniel Jones to the playoffs at 9-7-1 in year one, it's an impressive coaching feat on Daboll's resume. However, year two in New York has been a disaster on offense. Before a season-ending injury, Jones regressed to his pre-Daboll form with the Giants ranked 32nd in scoring (13.5 PPG) and dead-last in DVOA on offense with a disappointing 3-8 record.

For those keeping track at home, Josh McDaniels (29th in DVOA) was fired mid-season, Daboll has the worst offense in the NFL, and Bill O'Brien's Patriots offense sits at 26th in DVOA through 11 weeks. Is the Patriots Erhardt-Perkins offensive system dying in the modern NFL?

Now, Daboll spent four seasons in Buffalo under head coach Sean McDermott, so he has experience away from the nest. Still, the Giants head coach began his coaching career as a grad assistant on Nick Saban's staff at Michigan State. He then broke into pro football under Belichick as a Patriots assistant for 11 seasons, with stints working for Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini on the offensive side of the ball.

Whether you consider him part of Belichick's coaching tree or not, Daboll's roots as a coach have strong Patriot ties. When you turn on the film, Daboll's drop-back passing game overlaps with what New England does offensively. In fact, we can call out their core offensive concepts. So, are the Giants struggles on offense another indictment on the Pats system?

The short answer is that both teams are coaching with limited offensive talent. For starters, both Joneses at quarterback have struggled at various times as pros, while the Giants O-Line ranks 28th in pass-block and run blocking win rate this season. Besides talented running back Saquon Barkley, the Giants skill group is also mostly uninspiring, and now explosive wideout Darius Slayton is injured.

Daboll has been failing to turn water into wine this season. It's a results-based business, and maybe some things about the system are archaically holding them back. But the Giants issues seem to be rooted more in execution and that they're now playing with a third-string quarterback, giving Daboll the benefit of the doubt based on his past success.

On Sunday, the Giants scored 24 offensive points in first-year quarterback Tommy DeVito's first win as a starter. DeVito is playing because Jones (torn ACL) and backup Tyrod Taylor (ribs) are injured, forcing the undrafted rookie into action. Although the offensive output was aided by the Giants defense forcing six turnovers and a pick-six, DeVito added +0.07 expected points with three touchdown passes on 37 drop-backs against Washington.

In particular, Daboll gave DeVito plenty of open receivers vs. the Commanders man coverages. The Giants QB went 11-for-15 with 145 passing yards and all three touchdowns for a 143.1 passer rating when Washington played man schemes. The Pats have the fifth-highest man coverage rate in the NFL through 11 weeks (39.9%), so Daboll finding leverage and matchups against man-to-man will headline Sunday's chess match.

The player that scares you the most while watching the Giants offense is still Barkley, who generated 140 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns on 18 touches last week (7.8 yards per touch). New York's running game got Barkley loose a few times on outside zone and crack toss schemes for gains of 36 and 31 yards. In the passing game, Barkley was often the answer in favorable matchups against Commanders linebacker Jamin Davis.

Barkley's 24-yard touchdown catch got the scoring started on a pretty throw by DeVito from just outside the red zone. In the Daboll/Patriots library, this play is often called a "goalie" concept, where the number one receiver runs a go route while the No. 2 (Barkley) releases from the backfield on a wheel pattern. New York gets single-high man coverage with the slower-footed Davis on Barkley, and the Giants running back produces the explosive TD.

Later, the Giants returned to Barkley in the red zone using a mesh "traffic" concept where the two inside receivers in a 3x1 formation cause chaos over the middle. With Barkley's man needing to run through all the congestion, the Giants running back gets just enough separation for DeVito to put it on him for the score. Buffalo ran a similar play for a touchdown to James Cook in their win over the Jets. It's becoming a trendy low-red zone scheme.

Daboll also presented easily defined leverage reads for DeVito to find the open receivers on in-breaking and crossing patterns. In this example, we'd label this Patriot-like concept HOSS H-Scat. HOSS is the Pats classic hitch-seam-juke to the three receiver side, while the backside has an in-cut with a "scat" route by Barkley, which is similar to a juke/option. The defense is in man-free (cover-1) with a delayed blitzer, so DeVito works the one-on-one matchup up top.

Lastly, it's also worth noting that DeVito averaged over 21 passing yards per attempt off play-action, with Daboll scheming wide-open receivers to create chunk plays from heavy personnel groupings, including using two-back alignments.

It's probably fair to get on Daboll for the lack of creativity in terms of motion, misdirection, and RPO concepts. Still, it's hard to say if the offense lacks that because of inexperience at quarterback or because that's just the system. Daboll has understandably been running basic concepts with DeVito. But this system is an execution-based scheme where precision, timing, and decision-making make this passing game tick.

The Giants offense's issues in DeVito's two starts were more on poor pass protection and the rookie quarterback taking nine sacks against the Commanders. DeVito still doesn't have the confidence to test tight windows, with a below-average tight-window rate of only 11.3%, while the pass protection has been lousy all year for New York.

We'd put most of the blame for the Giants offensive woes on player execution and that Daboll isn't unearthing his entire playbook because they're on a rookie third-string quarterback.

Key Matchups

1. Pats Interior O-Line vs. Giants NT Dexter Lawrence - Lawrence is the best defensive lineman I've seen on film all year, and PFF agrees with a 92.8 overall grade (best among IDLs). His first step is freaky at 340 pounds, using excellent snap and block recognition to penetrate the line against the run. As a pass rusher, he leads all IDLs with 53 quarterback pressures and is a problem as an interior penetrator on stunt schemes. Lawrence is a dude—a massive test for David Andrews, Cole Strange, and Sidy Sow.

2. Pats LBs Jahlani Tavai/Mack Wilson vs. Giants RB Saquon Barkley - The Patriots will probably treat Barkley differently in obvious passing situations, meaning he'll draw a coverage safety (Dugger, Peppers, Mills) rather than a linebacker. But there could be times when the Giants get him isolated on the Pats linebackers, who will want to avoid looking like Jamin Davis did against the explosive Giants running back.

3. Pats EDGE Josh Uche vs. Giants RT Tyre Phillips - Uche seems relieved that he's still a Patriot following the trade deadline while acknowledging that he can go up another level post-injury. The Pats seem to be asking Uche to play a more disciplined edge this season rather than going deep into his bag of pass-rush moves, as we saw in the second half a year ago. But we'd like to see them give Uche the freedom to pressure opposing QBs, starting with a matchup against Phillips, who has some trouble with speed rushers.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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