The Patriots aren't in the position they thought they'd be in as the team quickly turns the page to Sunday's showdown in the Meadowlands with the red-hot New York Jets.
Our lede was supposed to be about how New England was riding a three-game winning streak, but after learning our lesson last season, it's difficult to trust it. Instead, it's worse, with the Patriots losing a stunner at home to the Bears.
To keep the train on the tracks with four winnable games between now and Thanksgiving night in Minnesota, here's our quick three-step plan to correct the mistakes from Monday night:
- Get back to winning in the trenches - there's one common denominator in the Pats three wins, and that's they've won the line of scrimmage. Whether it's Mac or Zappe, it starts up front. Run the ball, protect the QB, stop the run, and pressure the QB. They're not good enough in the other areas to lose those battles.
- Stick to the Zappe script - this offense is at its best when it's under center and working the short and intermediate passing game. Run the football, create big plays off early-down play-action, and leave the spread stuff for third down.
- Fix the Issues vs. Mobile Quarterbacks - the Patriots made Bears QB Justin Fields look like Lamar Jackson. It's a copycat league. The Ravens did it, now Chicago did it, and the next team with a running quarterback will do it, too.
In the interest of not overreacting to one game, the Patriots need to recapture the formula that led them to two-straight wins over the Lions and Browns. But, with two years as proof, they also need to recognize that not every game script allows them to play with a lead.
There's plenty to fix from a disappointing loss to the Bears this past week, but New England has shown it can play significantly better football than it did on Monday night.
Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag as we head into Week 8:
Q: Any thoughts on why it seems like the offense is called so differently for the two QBs? I know they want to develop Mac, but they're making it rough on him. - @PlurlRuralJuror
My theory is that they're calling the game the way each quarterback is comfortable with playing. Mac comes from a smashmouth spread system at Alabama, where they were three wide receivers, almost exclusively shotgun, downfield passing concepts, and RPOs instead of traditional play-action. Although it's not working, that's the offense they run with him in the game, whereas the Zappe offense looks more like the old-school Patriots we saw last year and the 20-plus seasons before that. The only healthy way to explain it is that they are catering to what Mac's more comfortable with, but it's time to look in the mirror and recognize that he isn't in Tuscaloosa anymore. The play-calling, personnel around him, and increased level of competition are all different. Jones and the Pats coaching staff need to adjust to his new strengths at the pro level.
Q: Is there anything you've seen from Mac that can explain the sudden drop-off? Decision-making seems to be the biggest issue, but I think that's a product of the playcalling. - @James_Dubz
Please read After Further Review for a full breakdown of Mac Jones's regression. But the short of it is that the Patriots have decided to turn Jones into a vertical passer, and it's setting him up for failure. They've gone full Bruce Arians with Mac in the game rather than the efficient offense we saw last season or the orchestrated shot plays they run with Zappe. Mac is not to blame here. This is a coaching failure.
Q: Hey Evan, considering the QBs in the league who have the ability to run, is our defense not equipped to handle them well enough, or would it have more to do with coaching/game-planning being wrong? - @BelfastPatsFan
We also broke this down in more detail in After Further Review this week. There's a strong case to be made that the Patriots front seven doesn't have the team speed to stick with athletic QBs like Lamar and Fields. But their rush plans against these quarterbacks and eye discipline on designed QB runs leave much to be desired. They are either rushing too far upfield and allowing the QB out of the pocket, not rushing at all and allowing him to sit there in clean pockets, or getting baited out of their gaps by fakes and reads. Do your job.
Q: Do you think the Pats QBs will start hitting the wide-open Thornton more? He's always open. Five targets, one catch, poorly thrown balls. - @CheyenneSulli14
There are probably one or two chances per game to get the ball to Thornton downfield, and with better quarterback play and protection, hopefully, they'll start hitting those shots. The coaching staff can help Thornton get free from physical coverage more with alignment and motion. Motion him and send him into the pattern, or line him up in a stack or bunch for a free release. They need to scheme around his slight frame. The speed and separation are clearly there when he doesn't have to run through too much contact.
Q: While I understand the QB situation is questionable, is there any talk or chatter of NE possibly looking to trade for a faster or younger LB? - @LLSlim
As of right now, none. And I wouldn't expect a major in-season acquisition at linebacker with their current cap situation ($1.9 million in cap space, per @PatsCap). In some respects, you can understand the team's thinking that they'd rather play better coverage players in their three-safety package than spend resources on more athletic linebackers. They have their early-down thumper in Bentley, a role that will always exist in Belichick's defense, and a sub-package linebacker in Mack Wilson to supplement the three safeties. Eventually, you'd like to see a premium asset used to add a playmaking linebacker. But that'll likely need to wait till the draft.
Q: Who's the #1 RB the rest of the season? Or will it be a 1A/1B? - @gudgeinoliver
This is not a shot at the questioner. But I'm not sure what Damien Harris did other than not being Rhamondre Stevenson to earn some of these narratives about him. You hear he should be demoted to a small role, traded, etc. Harris is still a starting-caliber NFL running back, and the best thing for the offense, and Stevenson, is to platoon the two backs. That might not work out for Rhamondre owners in fantasy football. But keeping Stevenson fresh and healthy for the season should be a priority, and you have a capable ball carrier in Harris to manage Rhamondre's workload. Stevenson will play more as the lead back and preferred passing downs player, but that doesn't mean Harris has zero value as a 1B.
Q: Are the Patriots trading players away before the trade deadline? - @ReallJayr
I would listen to trade offers for both Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Parker, Meyers, and Thornton are your top three when healthy. Keep one of the two as depth and get something back for the other. Ultimately, I'd need to get blown away by an offer for Bourne. Let's call it a second-rounder. Agholor could net them a fourth or a fifth, and you'd be satisfied.