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Patriots Gameplan: How Opponents Defend Bailey Zappe, Keys to Victory, and Key Matchups vs. Broncos

With the Patriots heading to Denver on Christmas Eve, here's a breakdown of how defenses adjust to Bailey Zappe after strong first-half performances. 

PDC

You've probably heard by now the Patriots offensive success with quarterback Bailey Zappe under center is a tale of two halves. 

Although five starts isn't a huge sample size, the second-year quarterback's splits by half are staggering. Zappe has proven he's a fast starter who can execute the game-planned script out of the gate. However, the Pats current QB1 and the offense become much less effective as the game wears on.

Table inside Article
Bailey Zappe, Last Two Seasons (as starter) First Half Second Half
Completion Rate 69.2% 59.4%
Pass Avg. 7.2 5.8
Touchdown-Interception 4-0 0-2
EPA/Attempt +0.14 -0.96

In his three starts this season, Zappe is completing 69.2% of his passes while generating +0.14 expected points added per play in the first half. But those numbers plummet to a 59.4% completion rate with -0.96 expected points added per play in the last two quarters: why does the Fever break in the second half? This week, Zappe spoke about playing a complete game.

"I think it's important for me to put a full game together," Zappe told reporters on Wednesday. "First halves have been great. Second halves haven't been so good. So, I think if I'm able to go out there and execute and run the offense the way it's supposed to be run for two halves, I think we'll score a lot more points."

"I think a little bit of it is just continuing to go through the system. Do what the coaches are teaching you to do and what they're coaching us to do throughout the whole week," Zappe added. "Just going through your reads and taking the first up on a guy and not trying to make a play. Just not forcing anything, just playing within the system."

To better understand why the Zappe-led offense sputters after productive first halves, let's take a look at how defenses are scheming against him and how the Chiefs adjusted to flip the script on Zappe after a great first half (17-of-19 for 141 yards and a touchdown).

Kansas City followed a similar script as past opponents against the Patriots gap-heavy run game. With the Chiefs anticipating duo blocking, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up a run blitz on the very first play from scrimmage. As they emphasize stopping the run, defenses are attacking the line of scrimmage to prevent New England from executing their double-team blocks.

Here, the Chiefs prevent the Patriots from double-teaming on the interior as intended on duo by shifting a linebacker into the A-Gap. The linebacker being in line causes center David Andrews to come off his double-team, forcing LG Cole Strange to block one-on-one. The Chiefs also know LT Conor McDermott will block big-on-big on the backside, so the weak safety rotates down to blitz off the edge. Without the interior double-teams, the Pats fail to move the line of scrimmage, and the backside crumbles for a negative play.

New England's initial counter to Kansas City's run blitzes was to attack their single-high coverages with play-action. In this play, KC tries to send the weak safety off the backside again, so the Pats counter with Ezekiel Elliott picking up the safety with deep hitches off the run action against man coverage, and Zappe finds DeVante Parker. The Pats also used run-pass options (RPOs) to give Zappe an alternative to running the ball if the Chiefs stacked the box.

In the first half, Kansas City stuck with man coverage on straight drop-backs, with the Patriots getting man coverage from the Chiefs on 10 of 21 drop-backs (47.6%). Above, Kansas City plays two-man on third down, and Hunter Henry wins on an "all in" concept to move the chains.

After Zappe completed 8-of-10 passes for 103 yards and a 142.9 rating versus man coverage in the first two quarters, the Chiefs adjusted to run more zone blitzes. Kansas City only played man coverage on 4-of-14 drop-backs in the second half (28.6%) while maintaining a high blitz rate (42.9%). According to NextGen Stats, Zappe has faced the fourth-highest blitz rate of any quarterback with at least 100 drop-backs (36.2%).

When the Patriots dial-up play-action again, the Chiefs take away the downfield routes in zone coverage. Kansas City also changes up the pass rush, with the off-ball linebackers running a twist blitz with the Pats selling the run fake by mimicking duo. The protection leaves an unblocked rusher, and Zappe has no chance, as he's sacked for a seven-yard loss.

In the drop-back pass game, the Chiefs replaced their two-man schemes with mostly Tampa-2 zone on third downs. The Patriots bunches and stacks aimed to create separation for in-breaking routes weren't as effective, so Zappe had to throw the ball short of the sticks.

As we look at the big picture, there's some truth to defenses taking Zappe and New England lightly. They come out in man coverage and attack the line of scrimmage, and to his credit, Zappe has surprised them by making plays. There's also evidence that the Pats haven't been able to counter the defenses' adjustments effectively, and pressure on the QB is rising as the game progresses this season.

Ultimately, Zappe's future as a starter in this league hinges on his ability to play a complete game. If the Patriots consistently got first-half Zappe for four quarters, he'd have a real case to push for starts next season. However, the inability to keep up with adjusting defenses suggests he is a serviceable backup who can spot-start if your franchise QB is unavailable. With the next test against a beatable Broncos defense, Zappe has another chance to exercise his second-half demons on Christmas Eve.

Here are our keys to victory and key matchups as the Patriots travel to Denver on Sunday night:

Offensive Key - Get Ready for Another Aggressive Defense, Find More Success with Play-Action Game

Getting into the Broncos defense, Denver is not having the time of its life under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph this season.

For those who don't get the reference, Sergio Dipp is a Monday Night Football legend. Before the Patriots beat Arizona, Joseph also famously had this money quote about the Matt Patricia offense as the Cardinals defensive coordinator last year:

"It's like a defensive guy's calling offense. It's how a defensive guy would call offensive plays, right? Let's not turn the ball over, let's get four yards a play, try to burn clock, and that's what they're doing."

Although they played well during their five-game winning streak, the Broncos are 30th in DVOA on defense, ranking dead-last in run defense and 25th against the pass. Joseph comes from an odd front family (3-4), calling an aggressive defense that ranks eighth in blitz rate this season, with a combination of five-man pressures and creeper schemes to heat up quarterbacks.

However, unlike last year's Cardinals, Joseph has played more man coverage and is playing less cover two, with more cover one and quarters. Denver is building their coverage system around two studs in the secondary, CB Patrick Surtain and elite S Justin Simmons, so it makes sense that Joseph trusts his defense to play more man coverage. Still, this defense is extremely vulnerable in a few areas where the Patriots can exploit them on Sunday night.

Statistically, the Broncos have one of the league's worst run defenses. Denver is dead-last in DVOA, yards per carry allowed (5.2), and is 27th in EPA per rush. A big part of that is because the offense has a numbers advantage in the box on 78.4% of run plays against the Broncos defense, the fourth-highest rate in favor of the offense in the NFL this season. But, against the Pats, we'd expect Denver to commit its resources to stop the run like recent opponents.

With the Broncos likely using aggressive front mechanics and heavier boxes to stop the run, the Patriots eventually need to take advantage with their play-action passing game. To get defenses to stop loading the box, New England must make them pay through the air, which they've struggled to do consistently. Among 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop-backs, Zappe ranks dead-last in EPA per play (-0.55) off play-action, largely because of pass protection issues.

On Sunday night, we'll have a matchup of weakness-on-weakness in this department. New England has the worst-rated play-action passing game, while the Broncos have the worst pass defense against play-action in the NFL. Denver's defense ranks last against play-action in EPA per attempt (+0.32) and passer rating (137.7), allowing 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions.

The main way opposing offenses are feasting on the Broncos defense with play-action is by attacking their single-high match coverages. With the Lions anticipating that the slot defender will carry No. 2 vertical, Detroit runs a dagger concept here where the slot receiver clears out the middle of the field for the deep dig pattern while the backside shallow crosser gets the linebackers' attention. The route concept gets the outside receiver on an island with the corner, and Josh Reynolds wins on the route for a chunk gain.

As good as Surtain is on the outside, offenses are killing the Broncos defense by throwing at the other cornerbacks in their secondary. Surtain is typically the boundary corner over the X receiver, so offenses throw to the field corner normally lined up to the passing strength. Most recently, that's been veteran Fabian Moreau. Moreau has taken over for Damarri Mathis, who has been benched due to poor performance. 

Although he needs to know where Simmons and Surtain are at all times, Zappe should have opportunities to attack the weak links in the Broncos secondary on Sunday night. 

Defensive Key - Don't Let Russ Cook with Wilson's Late-Down Magic and Mobility

Moving over to the other side of the ball, it's been interesting to see this Russell Wilson-Sean Payton pairing at work in Payton's first season as the Broncos head coach. 

Denver is smack dab in the middle of the pack offensively. The Broncos are 16th in scoring (21.7 PPG) and 16th in DVOA; they're the median offense in the NFL this season. Payton's offenses are known for attacking coverage rules through formations and matchups. Denver is 26th in shift/motion rate (42.1%), ranks fourth in under-center rate (40.8%), and is near the top of the league in six-plus O-Line, two-back sets, and two-plus tight ends. Surprisingly, it's not an overly exotic or new-age scheme. In that sense, it's similar to what the Patriots run: attack rules/tendencies, out-formation opponents, and hunt matchups. 

The other interesting angle from a Broncos perspective is Russell Wilson's performance following a disappointing first season in Denver. In year 12, there were serious doubts about Wilson after the 2022 season: is Russ cooked? That was a real conversation. 

After reviewing the recent Broncos film, Wilson's QBR of 50.0, which ranks 20th in the NFL, means that he, like the entire offense, is average. However, Wilson is playing good football on the whole, and he's still got a little Russ magic as a play improviser. If I'm the Patriots defense, I'm far more worried about the individual players in this offense than the plays themselves.

For example, Wilson still can be Houdini in the pocket. Russ is known for having eyes in the back of his head, with an uncanny awareness of pass rushers in the pocket. Above, Wilson senses the rusher coming at the last second, dances out of a sack, and finds the running back leaking out late into the pattern for a big play.

Although his ability to drive the ball isn't at its peak any longer, Wilson still throws a pretty deep ball and isn't afraid to keep the play alive. Wilson's time to throw in this play is a whopping 6.64 seconds, and the ball travels 52 air yards. Eventually, Wilson gives Sutton a chance to make a play in the end zone for six.

Lastly, Payton has installed an RPO package to utilize Wilson's mobility. Denver isn't a frequent RPO team, but they'll mix it in on early downs and have generated explosives on in-breaking routes. The Broncos also run Philly-style run-run-pass options, where Wilson can hand the ball to the back, keep it, or throw to a receiver.

Denver's offense is still trying to find another gear in Payton's first year at the helm. Still, Wilson has those vintage moments where he'll turn back the clock and make big plays. Plus, the Broncos receiver duo, Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, are legit problems against man coverage particularly.

With a shorthanded secondary and the numbers favoring zone coverage, the Patriots could play more zone than usual to avoid matching up in man-to-man with the Broncos receivers.

Key Matchups

Pats Rookie Gs Atonio Mafi/Sidy Sow vs. Broncos DL Zach Allen - I've always been a fan of Allen's game, and thought he would've been a good free-agent fit last offseason. Allen has great play strength, blocking anticipation/instincts, and is a seasoned hand fighter. With a team-high 51 quarterback pressures, Allen is a sneaky difficult matchup for two rookie guards who have struggled with power and length.

Pats DT Christian Barmore vs. Broncos LG Ben Powers - The Patriots have a new weekly strategy of finding the weakest pass blockers on the interior and rushing Barmore over him. Last week, that was Chiefs RG Trey Smith, who Barmore dominated with four QB pressures and three stuffs. This week, Powers is the most likely target. I'm expecting another big game from the Pats best defensive player.

Pats CB Alex Austin/Shaun Wade vs. Broncos WR Courtland Sutton - At 6-4, 216 pounds, Sutton ranks third in the NFL with ten receiving touchdowns and leads the Broncos with 770 receiving yards. Sutton is a big target who consistently wins above the rim. With the Pats extremely thin at outside corner, Sutton will have a juicy matchup against inexperienced corners. I'm not sure what the Pats do here besides Austin or Wade with help. This is not a good matchup for Jon Jones, who will probably cover Jerry Jeudy in the Z/slot role. New England might need to live in zone coverage.

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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