After a disappointing 11 starts for a once-promising first-rounder, the Patriots appear ready to make a change at quarterback for Sunday's matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Although head coach Bill Belichick declined to name a starter publicly, indications from Patriots practice this week are New England will roll with backup QB Bailey Zappe at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. With his performance hitting rock-bottom in his last six quarters of football, Mac Jones was benched in consecutive games, including a halftime benching following two interceptions in a loss to the Giants last week. At this stage, the Patriots have to turn to Zappe to boost morale in the locker room and give Jones a much-needed mental break.
Still, let's not lose sight of what's at stake for Zappe. With all due respect, anyone who thinks Zappe is auditioning to be a future starter for the Patriots is mistaken. Zappe is not a long-term starting option for this franchise, but seeing what the 2022 fourth-rounder can do with a full week's worth of starter reps in practice and a game plan catered to what he has done well in the past is worth it. Then, we can better understand Zappe's future on this team, potentially as a capable backup who can spot-start when necessary.
Based on the practice performance and recent game film, the Patriots have tried telling us that Zappe might not have an NFL future. Despite Jones's struggles, the team cut the second-year quarterback at the end of training camp and has been reluctant to start Zappe. If the Pats roll with Zappe for a bit, we'll find out if he is a rosterable quarterback. Ideally, he is, and the Pats aren't blowing up the entire quarterback room next offseason.
Admittedly, many Patriots fans will probably want the team to continue losing games to improve their selection in next April's draft. However, as always in this space, we'll discuss how offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could design a game plan to put Zappe in a position to succeed.
First, one area where the offense has improved is running the football. After a slow start for lead back Rhamondre Stevenson, New England's rushing attack ranks second in expected points added (+0.08) since Week 6, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens. Stevenson is averaging 3.68 yards after contact per rush attempt in that span (seventh-best), which is more on par with his breakout second season one year ago, where he averaged 3.81 yards after contact.
The Pats top running back credited the offensive line's improvements for his uptick in production, saying, "The'yre doing a good job on their double teams blocks, and that's really making a difference up front," when he spoke with reporters on Monday. The numbers also bear that out, as Stevenson is now gaining 1.6 yards before contact per rush compared to a 0.6 average in the first five weeks, so the line is doing its job.
The success has yet to translate in a small sample size of six play-action drop-backs this season, but Zappe's success with play-action passes in his rookie season is a good place to start, especially with the run game's recent production. Last season, Zappe led all quarterbacks with at least 25 play-action attempts in yards per attempt (17.2) with a perfect 158.3 passer rating on a 26.3% play-action passing rate.
The Patriots former offensive staff created large passing windows for Zappe with two or three-man route combinations off play-action, using the extra bodies to keep the quarterback clean in the pocket. In the first clip, the Pats are running a downfield option route where former wideout Jakobi Meyers would break at the top of the route based on the defender's leverage against man coverage. As shown in the second clip, these schemes would also work against post-safety zone coverages, where a post and crossing route would flood cover-three zones.
Although running play-action all game long would be nice, that's obviously impossible. When the Pats have to run a traditional drop-back passing game, Zappe's had some success with a few O'Brien staples.
Here, the Patriots have a spot concept from a bunch formation to Zappe's right, with a "read" concept to the quarterback's left. With the defense using a box check at the top of the screen to cover the bunch, Zappe works the two-receiver side without help in the middle of the field to hit Parker on the in-cut for a completion.
This time, New England runs a post-wheel-out combination from a 3x1 formation against the Colts cover-3 (mable) coverage. With the defense zoning the passing strength, Zappe knows the no. three spot out of the inside slot (Henry) has a leverage read against the strong hook. Henry breaks away from the linebacker, and the Pats convert on third down.
Due to the shakiness at quarterback, O'Brien relied heavily on quick-game and screen passes against the Giants. In his 14 pass attempts last week in New York, which included six screen passes, Zappe's average target depth of 1.1 yards is the third-lowest for a quarterback in a game since the 2016 season (min. 10 attempts). Those will likely be on the call sheet again on Sunday, but Zappe's had some success with different play-action and traditional drop-back variations as the one's above. The Pats should let Zappe open things up. What do they have to lose? Let him cook.
As we turn the page to the Chargers, Los Angeles is a disappointing 4-7 themselves, with their head coach on the hottest seat in the NFL. After gaining steam in a ten-win regular season, Staley played his starters in a meaningless Week 18 game last January. Unfortunately for LA, star receiver Mike Williams and stud DE Joey Bosa were injured during the game, and then the Chargers blew a 27-point lead in a wild-card loss to the Jaguars. Along with underachieving as a whole, Staley's game management as an aggressive fourth-down decision-maker is constantly under fire.
The Chargers and Patriots are in much different places, with most viewing LA as a few pieces away from being Super Bowl contenders. Still, both head coaches could be coaching for their jobs down the stretch, while the Pats have won seven straight games over LA, including a 27-24 victory in Los Angeles in the 2021 season.
Here are our keys to the game for the Patriots in Sunday's matchup with the Chargers:
Offensive Key - Take Advantage of Brandon Staley's Fangio-Style Defense By Running the Dang Ball!
Since we've established that the Patriots rushing attack has found its stride, this weekend's clash against the Chargers defense is a decent matchup for a struggling New England offense.
Under head coach Brandon Staley, the Chargers have adopted similar principles from a structural standpoint as current Dolphins DC Vic Fangio. Staley worked for Fangio for three seasons before bringing the system to the Rams and now the Chargers. The scheme is primarily a 3-4 defense known for eliminating explosive pass plays by basing out of two-high safety shells and using match-zone coverages. Los Angeles's base coverages are cover six, cover three, and quarters, while they'll mix in man coverage on third downs.
Since becoming their head coach in 2021, the Chargers rank 31st in expected points added against the run and are in the bottom half of the league once again this season (21st). The reason is that they'll typically play a man short in the box to commit resources to the pass, leaving the defense vulnerable against the run. As we discussed earlier, the run hurts the bottom line less than effective passing, so it explains why Staley and others around the NFL like this Fangio system.
However, unlike peak Fangio-style defenses, such as the Rams in their Super Bowl years, the Chargers haven't been able to field a dominant defensive line that can play a man down in the box using gap-and-a-half techniques. The idea is for the defensive line to control a primary gap while working back to a secondary gap when necessary. As shown above, the Chargers stuck with their two-high structures even against the Ravens last week, who have the NFL's best rushing attack led by a running cheat code at quarterback in Lamar Jackson.
For a Patriots offense struggling to score points, the chess match between offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and Staley this week is how game-plan-heavy the LA head coach will be. Staley had great game plans last season, including blueprints to defend the Dolphins and Chiefs offenses. So, will Staley stack the box knowing the Pats aren't a threat to create explosive pass plays, or will LA continue to play out of two-deep safety shells? If the Chargers stick with their core defensive structures, the Patriots will have opportunities to run the ball, mainly using their downhill schemes into Los Angeles's light boxes.
The Patriots have run the ball successfully with their downhill gap schemes recently. First, the Pats base runs are typically duo plays where interior double-teams reset the line of scrimmage for the backs to get vertical on the defense. In this example, Ezekiel Elliott is reading the middle linebacker in the A-Gap. When the linebacker gets sealed inside by Mike Onwenu, Elliott runs behind the Pats right tackle for a chunk gain.
The other scheme the Patriots have run well that will work against the Chargers is their trap/counter plays. In these schemes, the Pats will add blockers to the weak side of the formation by pulling the backside guard to kick out the play-side defensive end, allowing the play-side tackle to work up to the second level. They'll also run the tight end across the formation to lead up through the hole, with Hunter Henry and Pharaoh Brown usually serving as lead blockers.
The Patriots are facing another vulnerable run defense. But they'll only score points off an efficient rushing attack if they get their play-action passing game going. This season, the Pats rank dead-last with a 61.1 passer rating off play-action and are tied for the league lead with five interceptions off play-action fakes, including one a piece for the QBs last week.
Whether it's Mac Jones or Bailey Zappe at quarterback, the Patriots need to do a better job marrying their runs with play-action concepts. In the loss to the Giants, their downfield play-action designs were more geared toward creating single-high coverages to threaten with post-crosser designs. However, without a threatening deep threat, safeties jump the intermediate crossers.
We'd like to see them return to play-action concepts that expose the second level of the defense, pulling linebackers out of passing lanes to hit seams and in-cuts. New England isn't threatening the deep part of the field, which is why Staley could forgo the two-high safeties to pack the box. But it also means the Pats need to adapt their play-action plays.
The Patriots should have better results using play-action passes than they are, given that their running game is becoming a legitimate threat.
Defensive Key - Patriots Must Start Eliminating Explosive Pass Plays and Examining Chargers OC Kellen Moore as a Head Coach Candidate
Two things come to mind while watching the Chargers offense: quarterback envy because Justin Herbert is a dude. And two, what about offensive coordinator Kellen Moore?
Focusing on Moore, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero listed the Chargers offensive coordinator in his annual list of rising coaching stars on the head coaching track. Moore's already had six head coach interviews over the past three offseasons and is now in his fifth season as an offensive coordinator after spending six seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback. With other successful backup QBs producing successful offenses, Moore fits the mold of a modern NFL head coach as a bright, young offensive mind.
This season, the Chargers are eighth in scoring and DVOA on offense. Plus, LA has generated the ninth-most explosive plays (48), with 40 coming through the air. Moore has unlocked Herbert's arm talent to increase his average target depth from a shockingly low 6.4 yards in 2022 (36th out of 37) to 7.7 yards this season (17th out of 33 quarterbacks).
Los Angeles is still efficient in the quick game, but a great vertical passing scheme helps. Herbert primarily works out of shotgun or pistol, with 82% of his drop-backs coming in those two formations, ranking eighth and fifth, respectively. The Chargers also use motion at a high clip, with 65.5% of their offensive plays featuring some motion or shift.
Moore designs vertical passing plays, knowing that Herbert can make throws that other quarterbacks simply cannot. For example, this dagger-style concept is a staple for the Chargers. With the middle-read route giving Herbert a read of the safety shell, he can throw the deep out one-on-one or into the cover-two hole, his favorite throw, or work the dagger (middle-read/dig) between the numbers. In this case, Herbert throws the deep out with anticipation from a muddied pocket to hit Keenan Allen.
The other deep passing concept the Chargers love is rolling Herbert out off play-action. Moving the pocket sets up the deep post across the field where the defense is probably not expecting him to throw. Why? Only a few quarterbacks can throw the ball that far.
During their current four-game losing streak, the Patriots defense has allowed 16 passes over 20 yards, the ninth-most in the NFL since Week 8. Last week, a Giants offense that struggles to generate big plays had three chunk gains, and it could've been much more.
The big question in the chess match between Moore and Belichick is if the Chargers OC can give Herbert more answers to the heavy pressure he has faced recently. Last week, Herbert was under pressure on 41% of his drop-backs as the Ravens defensive front took over the game. In a case study of how pressure can impact even elite quarterbacks, the Chargers sputtered out with ten points while Herbert generated -0.24 EPA per drop-back in a 20-10 loss.
Los Angeles's hopes in the game took a huge hit when Herbert was called for an intentional grounding penalty on a fourth down play late in the contest. With the Ravens disguising the pressure well with the extra rusher coming from the slot, Baltimore brings the house, and there's immediate pressure in Herbert's face without an outlet.
Herbert has faced the most cover zero blitzes of any quarterback in the NFL (34), ranking 20th out of 30 quarterbacks in EPA per drop-back against cover zero (-0.15). He is now facing a Pats defense with the second-highest cover zero rate in the league (8.7%). Based on recent issues in pass protection and solving blitz pressure, my guess is that the Patriots won't sit around and watch Herbert expose a secondary struggling to limit big plays. Instead, you'd think that Belichick would come after Herbert and put it on Moore to give him answers.
As we evaluate him as a potential head coaching candidate first-hand, Herbert and Moore solving a Belichick defense will be an interesting test.
1. Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Chargers WR Keenan Allen - As Belichick said this week, Allen is the Chargers "go-to" guy and Moore makes it difficult to find him. The stud receiver has a pretty even split between snaps in the slot (385) and out wide (268). Allen leads the NFL in receiving yards when used in pre-snap shift/motion and also leads all WRs in yards when the nearest defender isn't a defensive back. By moving him around, Moore gets Allen favorable matchups and leverage to unlock one of the NFL's best route runners. Allen is a problem.
2. Pats Linebackers/Safeties vs. Chargers RB Austin Ekeler - Ekeler has missed time this season due to injury, which interrupted his flow in the offense. Still, the dynamic back runs with a low center of gravity, excellent contact balance, and burst to break away from the defense. Ekeler is also a factor in the passing game, where he's a matchup problem on routes out of the backfield and on designed screens. It's a similar challenge to Saquon Barkley last week.
3. Pats OTs Trent Brown/Mike Onwenu vs. Chargers EDGE Khalil Mack - Mack is back to playing at an elite level this season with 13.0 sacks, 54 total pressures, and 32 stops. His 90.2 overall grade via PFF ranks sixth among edge rushers. Mack uses excellent upper-body strength to base his rushes off hump/long arm power rushes to collapse the pocket. He primarily lines up over the left tackle, but Staley will move him around.