The old cliche in football is that you need to stop losing before you can begin winning, and that's where the Patriots need to start in Sunday's contest with the Saints at Gillette Stadium.
After the most lopsided loss in Bill Belichick's head coaching career, New England can't dwell in the past, but they also need to immediately fix the main area that has led to a 1-3 start. In the first four weeks, the Patriots rank 27th in turnover differential with seven giveaways to two takeaways (-5), and as much as you want to discuss all the ways this team can improve, turning the ball over will get you beat faster than any nuanced discussion about the flaws with this team.
Turnover differential is the statistic that correlates the most to losing, so it's not surprising that the bottom-six teams in the metric are a combined 6-18 this season. The turnovers for the Patriots offense ballooned to three giveaways, leading to two defensive scores for the Cowboys in a 38-3 loss last week.
Moving forward, the question that the Patriots need to ask themselves is whether quarterback Mac Jones's second-quarter implosion was a one-off performance or something more cyclical because Jones is their starting quarterback, barring injury, so getting him off the mat is the top priority.
The Patriots quarterback's performance in Dallas was surprising because Jones's decisions were uncharacteristic of his typical processing, and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien echoed that sentiment in his Tuesday video conference. Mac's field vision and ability to avoid careless mistakes is usually solid, regardless of his limitations or lack of physical tools as a passer – that was not a typical Mac Jones performance.
"I thought the last game for Mac, some of the decisions he made were very uncharacteristic for Mac," O'Brien said. "We've got to do a better job of coaching up some things with him a little bit better, he's got to do a better job of making good decisions for us."
The Patriots offensive coordinator pointed to mechanics and where his eyes were on certain plays as areas the coaching staff will work with Jones on. He also said the quarterback had his own criticisms of himself last Sunday. Mechanically, it starts with Jones driving throws again instead of throwing off his back foot, while he also needs to make more decisive decisions with the ball by playing within the scheme's structure.
"It's what is the intention of the play, what is the read of it, where are my eyes and then usually that will take care of it. Try not to do anything crazy, just stay within the frame of the offense. That's what I've always done. I didn't do that last game," Jones told reporters earlier this week.
Before we get to any X's and O's against New Orleans, the Patriots need to get their quarterback back on track this week. Jones may never be a quarterback who wins you games, but he's not usually a quarterback who loses games like he did in Dallas. Although it would be nice to have higher expectations, that's the first step to a bounce-back win.
Without further ado, here are our keys to victory for the Patriots at home against the Saints on Sunday:
Offensive Key - Establish a Rhythm for QB Mac Jones By Improving Early-Down Offense
The best way to get back on track is to do things to make life easier for Jones on Sunday.
With a modest playmaker at quarterback, the offense needs to hit certain notes so that Jones is in more of a distributor role rather than asked to create on his own. That starts with better early-down offense, where the Pats rank 24th in expected points added on first and second down.
With Mac behind an inconsistent offensive line, you need an effective run game, sequence play-action and RPOs off the run, throw screen passes, and use quick-game concepts to keep the offense on schedule and the pressure off the quarterback.
For the Patriots, the starting point for fixing the offense is on the ground. The Pats need to find a way to run the ball, period. We are on the record stating that their duo/gap is not our favorite. The double teams aren't effective against aggressive second-levels, and the Saints are another team with attack-minded defenders in stud linebacker Demario Davis and athletic weakside linebacker Pete Wener.
With teams well-prepared to see duo runs against New England, the Patriots have only a 26.9% EPA success rate and a stuff percentage over 23 percent. They've been far more effective on runs with pulling guards, fullback-lead plays, and toss schemes that get blockers downfield and ask less of their tight ends to block at the point of attack.
From there, the Patriots can sell the run fake using a puller or lead-blocker with TE Pharaoh Brown at fullback to start dialing up more play-action. Due partially to playing from behind, the Pats have only called play-action on 16.4% of Jones's drop-backs this season. Out of 31 qualified quarterbacks, Jones ranks 28th in play-action pass attempts but is seventh-best in expected points added per play-action drop-back (+0.27).
Along with incorporating more play-action throws, New England needs to get better production out of run-pass options. In the first four games, the Patriots are averaging 5.0 yards per attempt on nine RPO passes and 3.5 yards per rush on 29 attempts. You notice on film that Jones is making some interesting decisions while reading defenses on RPOs. We can't say these are the wrong reads without direct knowledge of the coaching points, but understanding the post-snap decisions is tough based on the defense movement.
For example, the Patriots are running a pin-pull sweep scheme with the quick screen available to Jones in the right flat. The Cowboys are in a single-high shell with eight defenders in the box, leaving the defense 2-on-2 to the pass routes. With the numbers and post-snap movement as the linebackers flow to the run screaming for him to throw the screen, Mac hands it off.
Despite having issues containing the Cowboys pass rush, New England only dialed up two screen passes on Jones's 24 drop-backs last week, which was surprising given the circumstances. Some of that was because the RPOs with screens attached converted to runs, which, again, didn't always look like the right reads, even if it's impossible to know for sure.
Lastly, another solution to get the ball out of Jones's hands is to incorporate more quick-game concepts, which are usually prominent in O'Brien's offense. O'Brien called some quick game last Sunday, especially after the strip sack, and there were open receivers. Above, Jones has either the slant at the bottom of the screen or the flat route at the top of the screen, but he already doesn't trust the pocket, so he went immediately into a scramble instead.
The Patriots need to get their offense moving by finding more easy yards in the passing game, which also needs to be supplemented by a better rushing attack.
MORE ON THE SAINTS DEFENSE
New Orleans's defense under head coach Dennis Allen, much like the Patriots, is the strength of their team, ranking ninth in DVOA this season.
New Orleans has talent at all three levels, including an underrated secondary led by No. 1 corner Marshon Lattimore and big-name safety Tyrann Mathieu. CB Isaac Yiadom is having a career season opposite Lattimore, and slot corner Alontae Taylor is also coming into his own, while LB Demario Davis and DL Cameron Jordan anchor the front seven.
Allen throws a lot at opposing quarterbacks with a good mix last week of man vs. zone (56.4%zone/42.6% man), single-high and split-safety shells (48.7%/41%), and the Saints third-down package will get exotic with cover-zero/zero bluff sequencing.
They also hit a button that has been the Patriots Achilles heel this season. New Orleans plays man coverage at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL (39.5%) and has the sixth-best completion rate in man coverage (50%). At the same time, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones ranks 30th among 32 qualified passers in expected points added per man coverage attempt (-0.49).
New Orleans is not afraid to play man-to-man coverage, which we know has been the Patriots offense's kryptonite. The Bucs moved the ball against man coverage using crossers and inside option routes to create leverage throws for quarterback Baker Mayfield, who finished the game 10-of-16 for 114 yards and three touchdowns against man coverage.
The Patriots offense can win the matchup with the Saints defense by using plays that worked for Tampa Bay last week. But the expectation is that Allen will challenge the Pats receivers with man coverage to make Jones and company beat him in ways they haven't proven they can this season.
As the game declares, the question is whether Allen will increase his typical blitz/schemed pressure rate to turn up the heat on Jones, as a non-blitz-heavy Saints defense ranks 31st in pressure rate this season (31.1%). The Pats O-Line has struggled to pick up conventional four-man rushes, but the Saints haven't gotten home with four often this season. Although they have two good edge rushers, this is the worst defensive front the Patriots have seen yet, which speaks to the talented fronts they've already played because the Saints are no slouches.
Ultimately, this is an aggressive Saints defense that is very stingy against the pass, meaning points could be at a premium on Sunday.
Defensive Key - Get Ready for a Zone-Heavy Defense, Split-Safety Shells vs. Derek Carr
Moving over to the other side of the ball, the Saints offense is having almost as much trouble scoring points as the Patriots, and when you break it down, the situations are similar. These are two of the three teams that have yet to score 20-plus points in a game this season.
New Orleans has a starting quarterback struggling in a new system and an offensive line that hasn't performed to expectations in the first month of the season. The Saints have decent weapons, which makes it slightly different, but they're still just 25th in scoring (15.5 PPG) with the coaching staff under fire for a struggling offense that's been an issue for multiple seasons — this has all the makings of a low-scoring rock fight, similar to the Pats-Jets games in recent years.
With the Patriots injuries mounting in the secondary and a Saints offensive line that's also struggling like New England's, defensive play-caller Steve Belichick will likely rely mostly on zone coverage structures with schemed pressures (simulated or creepers) to both protect his cornerbacks and expose weaknesses in Saints quarterback Derek Carr's game.
The Saints quarterback is playing through an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder, so Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had Carr attempt a career-high 14 passes behind the line of scrimmage, which only gained 38 yards. Carr was also 0-of-5 on deep passes and just 5-of-13 on throws to boundary receivers. Although it wasn't obvious, based on his ability to generate velocity, Carr was hurt, the numbers weren't good, and the Bucs game plan was to limit big plays against a good group of receivers.
|Derek Carr, 2023 Season||Single-High Safety||Split-Safety|
Tampa Bay's strategy that held the Saints to nine points was to play primarily zone coverage (86.4%), particularly split-safety zones such as cover-two (61.4%), to make Carr attempt short throws. This season, even before the injury, the splits suggest Carr is far more effective against single-high safety coverages than split-safety shells, with a 66.4 passer rating against two-high safeties compared to an 89.9 rating versus single-high structures. When healthy, Carr went 12-of-14 for 170 yards and a score against single-high shells in Week 1 vs. Carolina.
Although it's more likely that Carr won't be at full strength as he was against the Panthers, when healthy, the Saints quarterback is a good deep ball thrower. The trends for Carr, combined with the circumstances for the Patriots defense, suggest the Pats will play mainly zone coverage. After rookie Christian Gonzalez left the game in Dallas, the Pats went from a 41% man coverage rate to a 24% man-to-man rate.
Plus, second-year wideout Chris Olave presents a challenging matchup for any of the Pats healthy corners in man coverage, while underrated speedster Rashid Shaheed is another big-play threat in New Orleans.
The Patriots need to adjust without Gonzalez and Pro Bowl pass-rusher Matthew Judon, likely bringing them down a path of zone coverage with schemed pressure this week and beyond.
Patriots RT Vederian Lowe vs. Saints DE Cam Jordan - If it were up to me, the Patriots would make a change at right tackle after Lowe allowed 17 QB pressures in his last two games. Lowe is not an NFL-caliber starting tackle. Now, they'll face Jordan, who rushes primarily over the right tackle and is still a problem even at age 34 (19 QB pressures in first four games).
Although a change is unlikely to come, we'd completely shake things up on the O-Line with the following combination: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Atonio Mafi, and RT Mike Onwenu, or we'd leave Mafi at LG with Riley Reiff returning to play right tackle. The O-Line has been so bad through four weeks that it warrants a massive change.
Patriots DT Christian Barmore vs. Saints RG James Hurst - Without Judon, the Patriots will need others to step up and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Hurst ranks 65th among 74 guards with a 31.3 pass-blocking grade this season, and Barmore has been disruptive this season. The Pats need rookie season Barmore to complement Josh Uche, who will get more attention now that Judon isn't rushing on the other side.
Patriots LBs/Safeties vs. Saints RB Alvin Kamara - The Saints didn't waste any time with Kamara coming off a three-game suspension to lead the team in rush attempts (11) and also set an NFL record for fewest receiving yards (33) on 13 receptions, so it wasn't a very good season debut. Still, Kamara had some positive runs on outside zone schemes and is still a matchup weapon that will need special attention in the passing game. You'd expect to see a safety like Kyle Dugger, defensive back Jalen Mills, or LB/S Marte Mapu on Kamara in obvious passing situations.
Patriots LT Trent Brown vs. Saints EDGE Carl Granderson - I'm highlighting this matchup because Brown has drawn easier assignments over the last two weeks, with the Jets typically lining up John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff off the right side and the Cowboys targeting Lowe with Micah Parsons last week. Brown has been solid in all three starts, but Granderson blends length and explosiveness to be arguably his toughest matchup yet. It'll be interesting to see how Brown does against an edge rusher that is more in his league.
Patriots Defense vs. Saints QB/TE Taysom Hill - Just don't be surprised when the Saints use Hill as a wildcat QB, that's all. Most of his designed runs are gap schemes, so you'd expect New Orleans to test the Pats defense on QB power/counter, which gave them issues in the past.