Film Review: Breaking Down all the Issues with the Patriots Passing Game

The Patriots offense and quarterback Tom Brady are arguably having their worst season of the decade.

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The Patriots offense and quarterback Tom Brady are in a battle to figure things out before the postseason. 

Brady’s frustrations with his offense have manifested itself in the public eye, both in interviews and on the sideline during games. 

Although the six-time Super Bowl isn’t used to struggling, it’s important to put New England’s offensive woes in context to gain a better understanding of where they stand.  

Currently, the Patriots sit at tenth in both Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) metric and offensive points per game (23.3). 

As for Brady, the statistics that are now driving intelligent quarterback discussions are ESPN’s QBR, expected points added (EPA), and completion percentage over expected (CPOE). 

Based on QBR, Brady ranks 16th among 31 quarterbacks in the metric through Week 13.

According to The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin, Brady’s composite score that merges EPA with CPOE puts him 21st among 34 qualified quarterbacks. 

And if you are into Pro Football Focus grades, those are kinder to Brady, as he ranks seventh with at 83.1 (out of 100). But that would be his lowest mark since 2013. 

Brady is having one of his worst seasons in years, and the Patriots offense is trending outside of the top ten in DVOA for the first time since 2003, bringing us to the burning question: how do we hand out the pieces of the blame pie and who has the biggest slice? 

There are certainly qualms with everyone, including offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is misusing first-round pick N’Keal Harry and struggling to get his players on the same page.

Harry’s route running issues, which include an inability to separate on horizontal breaks, was apparent in college. So why use him on timing and precision routes? Fades, back shoulders, screens, and crossing patterns into space should make up his route tree, giving him chances to use his jump-ball and run after the catch skills.

The rookie first-rounder is far from the only Patriots receiver struggling.

If there’s a big-picture issue with Brady’s pass-catchers, it’s that things are slow to develop at times. Guys aren’t getting into their routes and out of their breaks fast enough, which screws with the timing of the operation.

Based on the tape, the Pats offense had opportunities to make plays, and there were open receivers in the secondary, but other missteps led to an ugly Sunday night performance. 

Let’s get into some of the film now to illustrate what’s going on with the Patriots offense:

GOOD PLAYS BY THE QUARTERBACK

Before we get into the negatives, it’s important to remind ourselves that Brady can still sling it. 

There’s evidence throughout Sunday’s night loss that Brady isn’t in a physical decline, but instead suffering from a crumbling foundation that’s leading to subpar play by his lofty standards. 

Many national pundits will tell you that Brady’s arm strength is in decline, yet he still makes far-hash throws of over 20 yards in the air to the sidelines with plenty of zip. 

He can also rip it up the seem when necessary. On Julian Edelman’s late touchdown, the Texans are in match quarters coverage where the slot defender over Edelman is expecting inside help from the safety. The Pats occupy that safety by sending tight end Ben Watson on a post pattern, which opens some space for Edelman to split the coverage, and Brady puts it on him. 

The Pats QB still has plenty of athleticism to move around the pocket and extend plays as well.

On James White’s second score, the Texans have good initial coverage with the Pats trying to high-low the defense on both sides. White is doubled at first, but Brady dances around pressure up the middle, runs up the pocket, and White works himself open to give him an outlet. 

Brady can still make high-end plays and all the throws necessary to be the quarterback of a productive offense, but he struggled with field vision and missed some opportunities. 

BAD PLAYS BY THE QUARTERBACK

Upon review, there were four plays where Brady made a bad read beyond a reasonable doubt. We aren’t nitpicking here, just the obvious ones. 

We’ll begin with a few instances where Brady made the wrong throws based on the coverage. 

Here, the Patriots have a high-low read set up on the weak, or in this case, left side of the field. Brady has the option for a bigger play to Edelman on the corner route or a shorter gain to tight end Matt LaCosse in the flat. Edelman bumps the flat defender on his way upfield, and the Houston defender tries to undercut the corner route, leaving the flat wide open. Brady should take LaCosse on second and seven, but he forces a late throw to Edelman that leads the Pats wideout out of bounds. If the ball comes out sooner, he might’ve had a chance at Edelman. But as the old saying goes, if the receiver sees you release the ball, it’s too late. 

Another missed read came on a play-action attempt. Edelman runs one of his staple routes out of the left slot, an over route, and he’s open for a first down. Brady saw the safety drop to the middle of the field and probably expected him to either jump or double Edelman, so he moved on in his progression. Everyone else is covered, and Brady has to throws it away. 

Brady also seemed to shy away from a few opportunities for bigger plays downfield. 

On this second down play, the Patriots ran an intermediate mesh concept with Edelman and Meyers crossing downfield. The Texans are in a cover-3 zone, and there’s plenty of space behind the linebackers, especially if he hits Meyers. Instead, Brady checks it down. 

Lastly, my charting had Brady with eight poor throws on the night. On the whole, Brady’s ball placement is among the best in the league, but you hate to see him miss the easy ones.

On another second-down incompletion, the Patriots clear out the right sidelined for running back Rex Burkhead against a linebacker in coverage. Both receivers run quick in-cuts, and they’re open too, but Burkhead has the matchup. Brady takes a quick peek to this left before coming back to Rex in the flat. Instead of flipping his hips towards the sideline, Brady throws with his hips still pointed forward, and the pass is off-target. 

Based on these examples alone, the narratives that there was nobody open are already dead. 

TURNOVER WORTHY PLAYS

The turnover worthy plays by Brady on Sunday night deserve a separate section because they highlight several issues that the Patriots dealt with in the loss. 

Brady had four throws that could’ve been intercepted, and that doesn’t include an interception by Bradley Roby that was called back by a penalty.

Let’s start with the only pass of the four that was picked, the first example of many where Brady’s receiver let him down. Harry is isolated with Roby at the top of the screen and is running a slant. Harry’s technique at the top of the route is abysmal, as he gets too far upfield in his break instead of cutting it flat and gets out-muscled by Roby. Brady might’ve had a split-second to bail out of this throw if he sees Roby already pointed inside to break on the slant, but if Harry holds up to contact, it’s an incomplete pass at worst. 

To their credit, the Houston safeties were ready for the staple route combinations that the Patriots like off of play-action. Again, Edelman runs an over route with the hard play fake. Brady wants it and sees the safety staying back, but Justin Reid baits him into the throw. Reid slowplayed the crosser and then jumped it as soon as Brady released the ball. 

In other instances, Brady took some “screw it” deep shots that nearly led to interceptions. 

Here’s a great example of the coverage strategy by the Texans defense. Brady’s first read when he comes out of the play fake is to Meyers on an out at the top of the screen. Knowing it’s a possibility, the Texans roaming safety smartly moves underneath the route to take it away. Dorsett is covered at the bottom of the screen, and Brady heaves it deep to Edelman in double coverage. Double Edelman, and who else will beat you? Nobody there. 

The last turnover worthy play for Brady came late in the game when he tried to hit Phillip Dorsett on a deep post. Dorsett has the inside track on the safety but let the safety undercut the route. 

Brady would be the first to tell you that he needs to take better care of the ball, but his receivers also need to finish routes and compete at the catch point to help out their quarterback. 

COMMUNICATION & RECEIVER BREAKDOWNS

Before you think we are piling on Brady here, the truth is that his receivers are doing him zero favors and need to be more competitive across the board. 

We are 12 games into the season, and for a rookie like Jakobi Meyers or a player in his third year in the system like Phillip Dorsett, there are no more excuses for mental mistakes. 

We’ll start with a missed opportunity in the red zone that’s a snapshot of a much bigger issue. The Pats are 24th in red zone touchdown efficiency at 49 percent on the season. 

On their first drive of the game, the Patriots had back-to-back plays from the Houston five to punch it in for six, and settled for a field goal. 

The Patriots ran a designed rollout concept on second down, which fans don’t seem to like, but it would’ve worked with better wide receiver play. Instead of cutting at a sharp angle, Jakobi Meyers rounds his route off as he works towards the pylon. Meyers’ drifting route allows Johnathan Joseph to get into the passing lane. 

On third down, they run a little spot concept out of the bunch with LaCosse sitting in the zone over the middle, Edelman hooking to the flat, and Dorsett running a vertical. If Dorsett continues his route across as he should, it’s a catchable touchdown pass. Dorsett stops, the ball sails out of the end zone, and three points. 

Here’s former Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola running a very similar route for a touchdown in the 2017 AFC Championship Game.

Now it’s Meyers’s turn again. This time, the Texans are in a quarters coverage with two deep safeties. Meyers is running a seam route right into one of those Houston defenders. Brady throws the ball short, expecting Meyers to sit the route down, but he continues downfield into the safety. Never run into coverage. 

Brady and his receivers weren’t on the same page at all on Sunday night, and the struggles continued throughout the game. 

On this first down play first pointed out by former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, Brady gives Dorsett a hand signal before the snap to change his route, you can see him raise his arm in Dorsett’s direction right before the snap. Brady saw that Edelman’s post route would occupy both the safety in that fourth of the match quarters coverage and the slot defender, meaning Dorsett was one-on-one without inside help. Brady likely wanted Dorsett to run a skinny post, changing the route combination into a double-post concept, which is a quarters beater. Dorsett never gets the hand signal, and Brady throws the ball to nobody. 

Finally, here’s one more example of Brady and his receivers being on different wavelengths.

The Pats face another third down, and Brady wants to work Ben Watson on a fade or wheel route from a standup tight end position. Watson doesn’t separate, so Brady comes back right and steps around the edge rush. When he reloads, he expects Meyers to break up the sideline. Instead, Meyers runs to the sticks and breaks back to the quarterback, then watches the ball like the rest of us sail over his head. You can see offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels give a look of disgust and then immediately head to the bench at the tail end of the clip. 

The Patriots have both young and new faces around Tom Brady at wide receiver, but his pass-catchers can’t make so many mental errors at this stage of the season. It’s basic execution. 

PROTECTION BREAKDOWNS 

The Pats offensive line was solid in the loss. Brady was only under pressure on 31.4 percent of his drop-backs despite holding onto the ball for a season-high 3.21 seconds on average.

The last clip is meant to illustrate further that there were open receivers, but other circumstances got in the way, rather than taking a shot at the offensive line. 

On the play, the Pats ran a high-low crossing concept with Edelman and Meyers passing at different levels in opposite directions. Working out of the left slot, Meyers has a few steps on his man, but Marcus Cannon gets beat around the edge, forcing Brady to dodge the pressure. By the time Brady resets, it’s too late to hit Meyers, and he takes a sack. 

The Patriots’ issues in the passing game aren’t on one person. It’s not only Brady’s fault or McDaniels or the receivers, it’s everyone. And only the guys in the locker room can fix them.

There are breakdowns in execution at every level, but the foundation is there to improve before the postseason. Now, they have to do their jobs.