The Patriots have a two-game, eight-day west coast trip to unite as a group or face an uncertain future as an organization.
Although head coach Bill Belichick has already ruled out significant in-season adjustments to his coaching staff, the reality is that New England's two-game losing streak and flirting with a playoff-less season for the second time in three years will lead to major offseason changes.
At the NFL's annual owners meetings in March, Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft expressed his frustration with the fact that the Patriots haven't won a playoff game since 2018. Kraft's team is now heading down a path where they won't qualify to right that wrong this season, with a 25% chance to make the playoffs through 13 weeks, per FiveThirtyEight.
The Patriots making a late playoff push might seem unlikely, and where would another Wild Card weekend exit lead this team anyhow? Still, New England is on a potentially dark path three years removed from Tom Brady's departure, where completely letting go of the rope in the season's final five weeks would be downright scary.
If the Patriots want to avoid a second-half collapse, playing out the string competitively begins with a visit to State Farm Stadium for a matchup against the Cardinals on Monday night.
Arizona (4-8) is in a similar situation where it feels like it's not performing up to its talent level or expectations coming off an 11-win season a year ago. The Cardinals returned many of the same faces, and now head coach Kliff Kingsbury's future is in doubt due to star Kyler Murray's regression after back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons for the big-ticket quarterback.
Coming off a late bye week in Week 13, the Cardinals are 30th in total DVOA as a team with the 29th-ranked offense and are 24th on defense in Football Outsiders' efficiency metric. Even with All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins's return from suspension, Arizona is still 23rd in expected points added per play (-0.02) since Hopkins's return in Week 7.
On the one hand, the Cardinals are a dangerous team with the pieces on offense and a pressure-based scheme defensively to give the Patriots problems. But, on the other hand, this is a nice opportunity against a sub-.500 team that isn't playing well for New England to start feeling good about themselves again.
To be serious playoff contenders down the stretch, the Patriots need to bounce back with two wins during their week out West, or that could be all she wrote on the 2022 season.
Here is a three-step plan and key matchup as the Patriots try to get right in Arizona on Monday night:
1. Game-Planning the QB Run Game vs. One of the NFL's Best Runners in Kyler Murray
The most fearful aspect of this game for a Patriots defense that has been through the wringer the last two weeks is the mobility of quarterback Kyler Murray and Arizona's star power on offense.
Between Murray and another superstar receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the Pats defense will go up against a prolific QB-WR tandem for the third-straight week. Although they got off to a late start due to Hopkins's six-game suspension, Murray has a 113.9 passer rating targeting the five-time Pro Bowler, and Hopkins hasn't skipped a beat averaging 95.7 receiving yards in six games.
Starting with Murray's rushing abilities, the Cardinals have managed his workload as a runner after giving the former number one overall selection a five-year, $230.5 million contract last offseason. This season, Murray has only carried the ball on designed runs 26 times for 202 yards (7.8 average), meaning it's less frequent but still very dangerous when he keeps the ball.
|Kyler Murray on Traditional Drop-Backs||2022 Season||NFL Rank (out of 35 QBs)|
Along with designed runs, Murray is a defense's worst nightmare on scrambles where he regularly extends traditional drop-backs into first downs. The two-time Pro Bowler is also an efficient play-action and RPO passer. So, the name of the game for the Patriots defense is turning Murray into a traditional pocket passer where his numbers aren't as good.
We'll have to wait and see how often Kingsbury and Kyler are willing to run the Cardinals quarterback, especially now that Arizona is out of the playoff race. But the opportunities are there with Kingsbury potentially coaching for his job and the Pats issues vs. mobile QBs.
The Cardinals could repeat the gap-scheme quarterback runs that are giving New England problems. Murray typically runs behind gap schemes, with 20 of his 26 designed carries coming on these plays. The Ravens (Lamar Jackson) and Bears (Justin Fields) gave the Pats defense headaches with quarterback counter and power runs in matchups earlier this season.
Looking at Arizona's tape, it doesn't take long to see Murray exposing defenses on gap schemes with pullers. The Cardinals will use their mobile QB as the primary ball carrier on the inside run by following the pullers, or he'll serve as a decoy to hold the backside edge defender while running back James Connor comes downhill at the defense.
Following Bills quarterback Josh Allen got them on a QB counter-read attempt in the red zone last week, the Pats were able to adjust to these schemes better than before after that first run.
New England's best reps against these schemes come when they use two off-ball linebackers to take on the pullers and funnel plays to their more athletic defensive backs on the perimeter. By using Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, and Adrian Phillips on the edge, the beefy linebackers take on the inside blocks to force runs outside to the athletes setting the edge.
Although the two teams are vastly different personnel-wise, the Patriots kept a gimpy Murray in check by using a young Dugger and Phillips on the edge back in the 2020 matchup.
The other strategy that Belichick used against Murray that year was dialing up zero blitzes. The Pats blitzed Murray ten times in that one, with the idea that sending six rushers at the quarterback allowed the defense to keep Murray in the pocket by occupying all his escape routes with rushers, and adding DBs in the rush gave them athletes to track him down.
This season, the Pats have used linebacker Mack Wilson as a dedicated QB spy in man coverage schemes against mobile quarterbacks. But with Murray's running style as an elusive scrambler with a speedy top gear, Dugger, Peppers, or even Marcus Jones could draw the assignment this week.
If the Cardinals are willing to let their quarterback take over with his legs despite being out of playoff contention, Murray has the skill and Kingsbury has the schemes to spoil the Pats day.
2. How Will the Patriots Defense Scheme Up Against Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins?
The Patriots need to find a successful formula to slow down elite receivers defensively because the schedule down the stretch is ridiculous.
After facing Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs over the last two weeks, next on the docket is Hopkins, followed by Davante Adams, Ja'Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, and Diggs again. Insanity. With Jefferson and Diggs combining for 16 catches, 231 yards, and two touchdowns, let's just say that the first two tests didn't go very well.
If the Patriots have any hope of making the postseason, they need to do a better job of keeping these number-one receivers in check, and that starts with coaching the matchups better.
In some respects, you can't double a receiver the entire game. But the Patriots didn't do Jon Jones any favors against Jefferson or Diggs in the last two games, asking their de facto CB1 to cover those guys often on an island. Their strategy was basically off-man or cover-three (basically man on the outside) structures to protect over the top and pray that the opposing quarterback made enough mistakes to keep the game alive.
|Kyler Murray, This Season||Passes to Hopkins||All Other Receivers|
Since returning to the lineup, Hopkins ranks in the top five in several statistical categories. He is tied for third in targets (64), tied for second in receptions (49), and fifth in receiving yards (574) since returning from a six-game suspension in Week 7. Like most quarterbacks who play with a stud receiver, Murray's efficiency plummets on pass attempts to other receivers not named Hopkins. In 2022, Kyler has a passer rating of 113.9 targeting Hopkins, which decreases to 89.3 on targets to all other receivers. Furthermore, eight of Murray's nine interceptions this season are targeting non-Hopkins receivers. Force the ball elsewhere, and you give yourself a good chance.
With Hopkins's size and incredible contested-catch skills, this is a bad matchup on paper for Jones, who struggled to hang with Jefferson at the catch point downfield. Instead, it might be time to dust off an old Belichick classic where they double or roll the safety over the top of Hopkins with their number two corner on him (either Jack Jones or Jalen Mills) and have the elder Jones take Hollywood Brown in single coverage.
In their most recent matchups against Hopkins, the Patriots had Stephon Gilmore in his prime to shadow the former Texans wideout in man coverage. But, even with Gilmore, the Pats occasionally used their cover one-double or "cone" bracket calls to take D-Hop out of the game.
New England also used a newer approach in long down and distances against Diggs last week that was successful. In this coverage, they use physical safety, such as Jabrill Peppers, to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage, while Jonathan Jones played over the top of the Buffalo star in a cover-three technique.
The Patriots need a blueprint to mitigate the damage when they face Pro Bowl-caliber wideouts, with Monday night's matchup against Hopkins continuing a gauntlet of top receivers.
3. Pats Must Have Answers Prepared for a Zone-Blitz Defense Out in Arizona
When discussing Patriots quarterback Mac Jones's second-season struggles, one troublesome recurring trend is playing struggling under pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Pats second-year quarterback is 36th in both passing grade (24.4) and passer rating (29.2) among 37 qualified passers while under pressure. Jones also has the fifth-highest turnover-worthy play rate (8.5) and completes just 43.8% of his passes when he faces pressure.
Although Jones's play creation and accuracy while on the move could improve, performing well under pressure also relates to offensive line and receiver play. For the quarterback to find outlets, receivers need to get open quickly and be in the right spots, while operation time before the pressure arrives is also a factor. Still, the numbers for Jones and the Pats offense are not good when the quarterback isn't kept clean in the pocket.
Despite their team record being partially because of a 24th-ranked defense by DVOA, the Cardinals under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph pressure the quarterback with the best of them.
Arizona's defense is fifth in pressure rate (24.6%) and third in blitz rate (40.8%) this season. The Cardinals are a zone-based coverage system, but they're a multiple defense that uses several different fronts, personnel groupings, and coverages with an aggressive pressure package.
"Defensively, they run a lot of different things. They run multiple fronts and multiple coverages. They blitz, I don't know, call it 50 percent of the time, somewhere in there. They play a lot of different people. They have a lot of different personnel groups," Belichick told reporters.
For the Patriots offense to get back on track this week, they'll need to have a plan to handle the Cardinals pressure packages and quarterback, offensive line, and receivers need to be on the same page. On the surface, that sounds worrisome based on how things have gone lately from a coordination standpoint. But it's a good measuring stick against a secondary that has given up its fair share of plays when the pass rush doesn't get home.
New England's offensive line, which has struggled and been banged up as of late, will be tested, as will quarterback Mac Jones and his receiver to beat the blitz with a quick release.
- Pats RT Yodny Cajuste/Connor McDermott vs. Cardinals DE J.J. Watt: Although he's no longer at the peak of his powers, Watt still leads the Cardinals with 6.5 sacks. His jab-and-go move is legendary, his length and power are still a problem, and he's going up against a backup right tackle—a dangerous matchup for the Pats O-Line.
- Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Cardinals WR Hollywood Brown: As we said in the Hopkins section, it might be time to try the CB1 vs. WR2, CB2+help vs. WR1 strategy, especially since D-Hop wins at the catch point so often. That would leave JJones on Brown without much safety help in a speed-on-speed matchup. He'll have to take Hollywood on an island. But you like this matchup better than Jones (5-9) on Hopkins (6-1).
- Pats WR Jakobi Meyers vs. Cardinals CB Byron Murphy: The entire offense was a mess against Buffalo. Still, not having Meyers at 100 percent killed them. Hopefully, Jakobi, who took a nasty hit at the tail end of the loss to the Bills, is healthy with 11 days off between games. Arizona plays a lot of zone, but expect this to be the matchup on third down. Murphy has great ball skills and quickness to mirror routes. Good player.