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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Wed Jun 12 - 11:55 AM | Thu Jun 13 - 11:55 AM

Patriots Gameplan: Evaluating Bailey Zappe's Future, Keys to Victory vs. the Bills in Week 17

With the Patriots winning two of their last three games, could Bailey Zappe push for a role as a long-term starter in New England? Plus, previewing the red-hot Bills. 

PDC

With two games remaining in a disappointing 2023 campaign, the Patriots can use this time for second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe to audition for a starting role beyond this season. 

Before you scoff at hitching a wagon to a fourth-round pick who is half an inch over six feet tall and doesn't have overly impressive physical tools, let's play the game for a second. Over the summer, I was squarely in the camp that said this was Mac Jones's team. At times, I was overly dismissive of Zappe. In my defense, I was going off what the team and practice performance showed us. The Patriots were clearly prepping Jones to be the starter, and never at any point was there a quarterback competition. Zappe struggled in practice and couldn't move the ball in the preseason, so he was waived.

In hindsight, I should've given Zappe a fairer shake. Although he struggled with the opportunities he did get this season until recently, I'm no longer going to dismiss him as a viable NFL quarterback. I still see Zappe's ceiling as a high-end backup/spot starter. However, Zappe's play is opening my mind to him developing into more than that.

In his six career starts, Zappe has a 4-2 record. Since wins and losses aren't exclusively a quarterback stat, it's more important that his total QBR is 42.5, putting him in 24th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks this season, sandwiched between Sam Howell and Kenny Pickett. New England is averaging 14.5 points per game with Zappe compared to 14.1 with Mac as the starter, while giving Zappe a mulligan for the Chargers game improves their scoring average to 19 points in the Pats last three games (two wins).

Why not Zappe? It comes down to one big thing: consistency. The offense looks improved because Zappe is generating a much higher explosive play rate with solid deep passing and pocket mobility to extend plays. He's more poised under pressure, and his turnover-worthy play rate (3.5%) is lower than Jones's this season (5.8%). The Zappe-led offense has produced 12 explosive passes in 117 attempts (10.3%) compared to 15 passes of 20-plus yards in 345 pass attempts with Jones as the starter (4.3%).

However, the Patriots play success rate is worse with Zappe (37.5%) than with Jones (44.5%). Due to the volatility of explosive plays, it's fair to question if it's sustainable long-term. Zappe completed all three deep attempts in Denver, with DeVante Parker and Demario Douglas making notable contested catches. Those big plays are great. But 50-50 balls are considered toss-ups for a reason. Zappe's receivers made plays vs. the Broncos, but they didn't when he was 1-of-5 on 20-plus yard throws vs. the Chargers in his first start.

In the interest of sustainability, Zappe must improve his in-structure playmaking to be less reliant on big plays. For example, we pointed out Zappe's splits on short passes compared to throws over ten air yards in After Further Review earlier this week. On intermediate or deep attempts, Zappe is generating +0.57 expected points added per drop-back with a completion percentage over expectation of +14.9%. On throws under ten air yards, Zappe's numbers plummet to -0.35 EPA per drop-back and a CPOE of -3.0%.

Last week, Zappe's struggles throwing short passes showed up when the Broncos blitzed the Patriots quarterback. Above, Denver brings a zero blitz to produce an unblocked rusher. Rookie wideout Pop Douglas sits down in the vacated area behind the blitz, but the throw from Zappe is off-target. This is one of three examples where Zappe had open receivers to beat blitzes but missed the throw. He also missed Douglas on a third down attempt on the second drive of the game and might've had a touchdown if he made a better throw to RB Ezekiel Elliott in the first half.

As we move forward to the Bills, the Patriots winning formula vs. Buffalo's defense the first time around was carving the Bills pass defense up in the short and intermediate areas with a quick release (2.19 seconds). Although the Pats current QB1 may have a knack for producing big plays, to prove himself worthy of consideration as a starter moving forward, Zappe has to be more consistent in hitting the layups, or the offense will continue to ride a roller coaster with him under center.

Here are our keys to victory and key matchups for the Patriots to stun the heavily favored Bills once again at Highmark Stadium on Sunday:

Offensive Key - Find Overlap in Zappe's Playing Style Within Gameplan From Week 7

The Patriots upset the Bills earlier this season because then-starter Mac Jones successfully executed offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's game plan.

O'Brien used a 72.7% motion rate and play-acton on 25.8% of Jones's 30 pass attempts to produce +0.34 expected points added per play. Jones was highly efficient despite averaging just 3.3 air yards per attempt and a 2.19-second release time with zero deep throws. In his time as the Patriots starter, the victory over the Bills was Jones's signature win.

Buffalo has sustained significant losses on the defensive side of the ball to top defenders LB Matt Milano, CB Tre'Davious White, DL DaQuan Jones, DL Jordan Phillips, and now stud safety Micah Hyde and defensive end A.J. Epenesa are dealing with injuries. The Bills have held tough at 12th in DVOA, but their defense has had its ups and downs.

With head coach Sean McDermott now calling defensive plays, the Bills are still primarily an even front (4-3 over) zone defense with the ninth-highest zone coverage rate in the NFL (78%). Specifically, McDermott comes from a split-safety family with the third-highest rate of split-safety coverages (54.3%), with the Bills head coach majoring in cover two (18.4%, fifth-highest rate).

However, a big reason the motion and play-action heavy plan worked for the Patriots is that they caught the Bills in vulnerable early-down man coverages. Jones completed 6-of-7 passes for 67 yards (9.6 average) and two touchdowns when the Bills played man schemes. O'Brien's first game plan against the Bills was to build everything off motion.

ctly adjusts his route to sit down in the vacated area behind the blitz, but the throw from Zappe is off-target. This is one of three examples where Zappe had open receivers to beat blitzes but missed the throw. He also missed Douglas on a third down attempt on the second drive of the game and might've had a touchdown if he made a better throw to RB Ezekiel Elliott in the first half.

As we move forward to the Bills, the Patriots winning formula vs. Buffalo's defense the first time around was carving the Bills pass defense up in the short and intermediate areas with a quick release (2.19 seconds). Although the Pats current QB1 may have a knack for producing big plays, to prove himself worthy of consideration as a starter moving forward, Zappe has to be more consistent in hitting the layups, or the offense will continue to ride a roller coaster with him under center.

Here are our keys to victory and key matchups for the Patriots to stun the heavily favored Bills once again at Highmark Stadium on Sunday:

Offensive Key - Find Overlap in Zappe's Playing Style Within Gameplan From Week 7

The Patriots upset the Bills earlier this season because then-starter Mac Jones successfully executed offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's game plan.

O'Brien used a 72.7% motion rate and play-acton on 25.8% of Jones's 30 pass attempts to produce +0.34 expected points added per play. Jones was highly efficient despite averaging just 3.3 air yards per attempt and a 2.19-second release time with zero deep throws. In his time as the Patriots starter, the victory over the Bills was Jones's signature win.

Buffalo has sustained significant losses on the defensive side of the ball to top defenders LB Matt Milano, CB Tre'Davious White, DL DaQuan Jones, DL Jordan Phillips, and now stud safety Micah Hyde and defensive end A.J. Epenesa are dealing with injuries. The Bills have held tough at 12th in DVOA, but their defense has had its ups and downs.

With head coach Sean McDermott now calling defensive plays, the Bills are still primarily an even front (4-3 over) zone defense with the ninth-highest zone coverage rate in the NFL (78%). Specifically, McDermott comes from a split-safety family with the third-highest rate of split-safety coverages (54.3%), with the Bills head coach majoring in cover two (18.4%, fifth-highest rate).

However, a big reason the motion and play-action heavy plan worked for the Patriots is that they caught the Bills in vulnerable early-down man coverages. Jones completed 6-of-7 passes for 67 yards (9.6 average) and two touchdowns when the Bills played man schemes. O'Brien's first game plan against the Bills was to build everything off motion.

New England's opening drive started with a quick-game concept with a slant-flat combination that sent Pop Douglas in a "cheat" motion to get a rolling start into the route. With the Bills in man coverage, it's on slot corner Taron Johnson to chase Douglas across the formation, and the speedy Pats rookie gets a free release to turn upfield for a nine-yard gain.

Later, the Patriots send Douglas in jet motion again. This time, they hand the ball off to Douglas. With the Bills in man coverage again, WR Jalen Reagor wisely blocked Douglas's man, creating space for Pop to make the field corner miss for a 20-yard gain.

O'Brien then used motion at the snap as eye candy. Here, the motion creates a nub formation for a "goalie" concept where Pharaoh Brown runs a seam and Mike Gesicki runs the wheel. With the Bils matching 12 personnel in a nickel defense, Brown won a one-on-one matchup against LB Terrel Bernard for a 26-yard gain on Mac's longest completion.

Although the quick-game throws from under center are a Mac thing, using play-action to hit big plays with personnel and formations dictating matchups is a good place to start with Zappe.

For example, the Patriots used the exact same play-action concept with the "goalie" combination out of a nub formation to hit Brown up the seam last week vs. the Broncos. In this instance, they catch Denver in a blitz, so Brown wins a foot race against an on-ball linebacker dropping off the line of scrimmage. Still, it's a play Zappe is comfortable running. 

When the Patriots got zone coverage, which they mainly did with a 78.1% zone coverage rate for Buffalo in Week 7, O'Brien opened up the Bills defense with spread formations. New England leaned on HOSS Juke and level concepts to attack the intermediate middle of the field. But Zappe is much better at throwing outside the numbers against split-safety zones.

Instead, the Pats might attack the cover-two hole along the sideline from these spread looks. Above, Zappe uses a subtle shoulder fake to get the flat corner to fall off Jalen Reagor's vertical route, then hits Reagor on a back-shoulder go ball along the sideline to beat the half-field safety.

The Chargers flooded deep zones against Buffalo's cover-two defenses with different variations of all-go special. With the inside post occupying the backside safety, the safety to the three-receiver side has to mid-point the two vertical routes, opening up the seam for a big completion.

With the Bills injuries on defense, Buffalo's success covering the deep passes has taken a step back. The Bills are 26th in DVOA against deep passes this season, compared to 15th a year ago. If the Bills are also without Hyde (neck), their pass defense will be even more vulnerable. As a less efficient short-game passer than Jones, the Patriots might try to push the ball downfield more with Zappe at quarterback.

The Patriots have a blueprint for attacking the Bills defense. Now, it's adapting the game plan to Zappe's strengths and preparing for any wrinkles by Buffalo.

Defensive Key - Continue to Fight Captain Chaos with Chaos, Prep for Joe Brady's Tendencies

Since the last time the Patriots played the Bills, Buffalo has changed offensive coordinators from Ken Dorsey to current play-caller Joe Brady.

Brady was the quarterbacks coach on Dorsey's staff and has NFL coordinator experience with Carolina for two seasons. Before running the Panthers offense, Brady was LSU's passing game coordinator when Bengals QB Joe Burrow lit up the FBS en route to a national championship in 2019.

The Bills made the switch for several reasons. But the primary causes for Dorsey's firing were the offense being too basic, not adapting in-game, and being overly reliant on star QB Josh Allen and WR Stefon Diggs. The pressure on Allen to be Superman saw him regress. After ten weeks, Buffalo was 5-5, and Allen led the league in interceptions. The advanced metrics still liked the Bills offense, ranking third in EPA, but Allen was sped up and the team was underperforming.

Since making the switch, the Bills have won three straight games and four of their last five to climb back into an AFC wild-card spot. Their offensive efficiency is about the same, if not slightly worse, but differences in the play-calling are helping Buffalo be more stable offensively.

The main differences for the Bills under Brady are getting Allen involved in the running game, a heavier emphasis on run+play-action, and adding more motion and under-center. Buffalo is now calling runs or play-action on 62.6% of their offensive plays, compared to 55.6%, while their motion rate has increased from 54.6% to 67.7% with Brady calling plays.

As a result, second-year RB James Cook is emerging as a factor back, and the Bills are getting contributions from wideouts Gabriel Davis and Khalil Shakir. The secondary scorers are now contributing to making the Buffalo offense less Allen-to-Diggs centric, easing the stress on Buffalo's two stars.

The "it" play for the Bills under Brady is gap-read, where Buffalo pulls one of its two stud run-blocking tackles, Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown, with Allen reading the unblocked defender on the backside. If the backside defender sets the edge, Allen hands the ball off to Cook, or he can keep it around the edge himself if the red defender crashes inside.

For Allen, nine of his 15 designed runs have come in the last five games, while the threat of his legs is enough to hold the backside to give the Bills a numbers advantage to the play side. Buffalo also runs inverted gap-read concepts where Allen can keep up the middle with Cook threatening the edge and will attach routes to form run-pass options.

Along with a more creative running game, the Bills are using motion to get receivers free releases and give more pre-snap information to the quarterback. All the window dressing is making it easier for Allen to read the field and is creating easier throws within the structure of the offense. In his last five games, Allen's tight-window throw rate has improved from 15.7% to 14.3%, thanks to the added bells and whistles.

As for Sunday's matchup with the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick's defense finally had some answers for Allen in Week 7. The Bills quarterback still generated +0.18 expected points added per play. But the Pats defense was more competitive than the previous seven matchups, where the Bills were 6-1 against the Patriots, with Allen throwing 18 touchdowns to only two interceptions (+0.34 EPA per play).

After several coverage-heavy game plans versus Allen, New England didn't wait for the Bills quarterback to throw earlier this season. The Patriots blitzed Allen on 43.2% of his drop-backs, the highest for the Pats in a game against the Bills QB since 2020, pressuring Allen on 40.9% of his drop-backs. When they blitzed, the Patriots pressured Allen on 63.2% of his blitzed drop-backs, holding him to 5.7 yards per pass attempt.

With the second-most positive EPA plays on extended drop-backs (4+ seconds), trailing only Patrick Mahomes with 38, Allen has killed the Patriots on extended plays by buying time to open passing windows. Instead of allowing Allen to thrive in chaos, they fought fire with fire — beat Captain Chaos at his own game.

The two main components to the Patriots game plan defensively were an uptick in cover zero blitzes and "green dog" blitzes, where LB Ja'Whaun Bentley essentially became a QB spy. New England ran a season-high eight cover zero blitzes against Allen, which had mixed results but contributed to the bigger picture of speeding Allen up with pressure.

Here, the Patriots are playing their man-match cover zero scheme. When the receivers run crossing routes over the middle on the mesh concept, the backend passes off the routes like its zone rather than following the receivers in man, while safety Kyle Dugger matches the rail route by the running back, taking away Allen's initial "hot" read. In the pass rush, Adrian Phillips's blitz forces right tackle Spencer Brown to block down, leaving Deatrich Wise unblocked. The combination of the unblocked edge pressure and Dugger jumping Cook forces Allen into scramble mode up the middle, where Christian Barmore is waiting for the sack. 

The other successful scheme for the Patriots was unlocking linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley as a spy/green-dog blitzer. Green dog blitzes are when a man coverage defender blitzes after their man, typically a running back or tight end, stays in to block. Bentley logged a season-high four QB pressures in the win over the Bills in Week 7 as a de facto spy.

For example, Allen has previously tortured the Patriots on this boot-gun action concept. With the moving pocket stretching the defense, Allen had all day to throw, moving the Pats zone or throwing across the field as he strings the play out into the sideline. This time, New England was ready for it. Bentley blitzes downhill when the back mimics the stretch play, with edge defender Anfernee Jennings dropping into coverage on the back. Phillips also does a great job "roboting" under the crossing route, and the immediate pressure from Bentley surprises Allen. Eventually, the Bills quarterback has to throw the ball away harmlessly.

The Patriots combined a season-high 34.8% of plays in dime defense with their second-highest blitz rate in a game this season to play as fast as possible. The question is will they play cat-and-mouse with Allen by throwing a different plan at him this time, and how much of an impact does Joe Brady's play-calling have on their plan?

New England's coaching staff might believe Brady will give Allen better answers against blitz pressure and call off the dogs. But they've watched him torch their coverage-heavy plans in recent years, so that'll be the chess match that decides the game in Buffalo.

From this perspective, we'd much rather the Patriots bring the fight to Allen rather than sit back and pray he makes mistakes. If you're going down, go down swinging.

Key Matchups

Patriots CB Jonathan Jones vs. Bills WR Stefon Diggs - Jones only covered Diggs on two routes in the first matchup, with J.C. Jackson (11), Jack Jones (8), and Myles Bryant (8) drawing the Bills star. New England held Diggs to six catches for 58 yards on 12 targets, but those first two names aren't available to the Pats this time. The Pats relied on pressure to throw off the Allen-to-Diggs connection in Week 7. We'll see if they play more coverage in the second matchup, which could lead to more double teams on No. 14.

Patriots DT Christian Barmore vs. Bills Interior O-Line - The Patriots defensive line almost always dominates this matchup. Buffalo's interior of Connor McGovern (LG), Mitch Morse (C), and rookie O'Cyrus Torrence has a combined PFF grade of 60.0 out of 100. Coming off a three-sack performance, Barmore should have his way with the Bills IOLs. NT Davon Godchaux has also dominated Morse in the past.

Patriots LG Atonio Mafi vs. Bills DT Ed Oliver - A mismatch in every sense of the word with Oliver's first-step explosiveness and lateral agility versus Mafi's lack of foot speed/change of direction talent. Oliver ranks third in sacks (10) and fifth in quarterback pressures (59) among IDLs and will now face Mafi, who is not ready for the athleticism of NFL interior rushers. You will be holding your breath for four quarters with this matchup.

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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