Good news: The Patriots have played record-breaking football over their past three games.
Bad news: Most of those records are far from enviable.
New England is the first team this season to allow 26 or fewer points in a three-game span. But they’re also the first team in the Super Bowl era to lose three consecutive games where they allowed ten or fewer points.
Their defense has capitalized on some favorable matchups against Gardner Minshew, Tommy Devito, and a Chargers offense whose sole weapon is an 11-year veteran. They’ve also been far from perfect, as a mostly dull pass rush tries to cover up a breakdown-prone secondary. That said, this is the NFL, and the level of effort the group has shown, with just two wins to show for it, has been remarkable. Holding opponents to 10 or fewer in the NFL deserves to be celebrated, regardless of ppponent. But offensive incompetence continues to drown any hopes for a moral (and yes, potentially draft-altering) victory.
New England was shut out at home for the second time in 12 games yesterday against the Chargers. The first donut came after Mac Jones’ epic spiral against the Cowboys, with the Saints picking at his carcass before the Foxboro Faithful. This time, Bailey Zappe was given the reigns, and he was pretty okay.
There were problems you’d expect from an inexperienced passer working with unfamiliar targets. He seemed hesitant on dropbacks where JuJu Smith-Schuster or Tyquan Thornton were primary reads, having limited experience with either receiver in live action. His accuracy was also spotty in the short passing game and on the run, leading to unnecessarily tough adjustments for receivers.
For all his faults (which we’ll dive deeper into later), Zappe ended a five-game turnover streak for New England’s quarterback room. His willingness to step up in the pocket (to mixed results) and throw downfield was a refreshing change of pace with Jones wilting in recent weeks.
Zappe’s average target depth jumped from 2.3 yards against the Giants to 11.4 against the Chargers, higher than any game from Jones. Zappe said he got more comfortable as the game went on, adding the offense’s aggressive second half was an adjustment made at halftime. This tweak allowed the second-year quarterback to play his game and lean into his strengths.
Zappe completed just 1 of 5 deep attempts, but PFF charted four as catchable, which is the most for a Patriots passer since Week 1. His only uncatchable deep pass came on a rhythm throw where JuJu Smith-Schuster slipped out of the gate.
Zappe also had a pair of intermediate completions to DeVante Parker, highlighted by a tight window throw with pressure at his feet, where Jones has often dropped his eyes this season.
But despite the best quarterback play the offense has seen in weeks, missed opportunities throughout the game led to zero points. Certain failures in critical situations disproportionately affected the outcome, including the final plays of a possession, plays that create 3rd-and-impossible situations and end-of-half sequences. For obvious reasons, I call these plays drive-killers, and New England’s wealth of them pointed to issues throughout the offense.
Here are my top drive-killers that kept the Patriots’ offense off the scoreboard against the Chargers.
The offensive line seemed to stabilize when Sidy Sow and Mike Onwenu started locking down the right side in Week 7. The duo has consistently bulldozed defensive lines, with David Andrews providing strong run blocking and solid-if-spotty protection. Cole Strange has been inconsistent, and Conor McDermott has played significant snaps with Trent Brown working through an ankle injury. Still, the group seemed more cohesive and wasn’t actively sinking the offense.
The group took a big step back against the Chargers, suffering swift losses that ended several drives.
Rhamondre Stevenson injured his ankle on a run where Mike Onwenu whiffed against a blitzing linebacker.
Ezekiel Elliott was tackled in the backfield on two drive-ending stuff. The first was a six-yard loss on 3rd & 2 where Andrews failed to pick up a stunt, and Smith-Schuster gave up penetration attempting to crack block Khalil Mack. The second led to a 3rd & long out of the two-minute warning when a linebacker came unblocked due to Sidy Sow falling on a combo. Sow got backdoored by a stunt on a later 3rd & 2 stop, but Zappe bailed the offense out with a miraculous 4th down scramble.
The Patriots also had three different drives end because of sacks, including four takedowns in the 2nd half.
Zappe deserves blame pie for being hesitant when throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyquan Thornton, which made the difference on several dropbacks. But there were also several quick losses the group would like to have back.
Trent Brown missed on a punch and barely got a hand on his rusher, resulting in a 3rd & 16. On the next play, Onwenu was late out his stance and instantly lost the edge to Khalil Mack, ending an 11-play drive.
Zappe held the ball for too long on a play-action dropback that turned 2nd & 5 into 3rd & an impossible 16. But Sow and Onwenu also allowed penetration on a double team, while Conor McDermott seemed confused and late against Mack.
The Chargers’ final sack came midway through the 4th quarter. Derwin James pretended to rush the edge on 4th & 5, getting Elliott to commit outside. then redirected toward the pocket for an easy sack.
Zappe needs to be more decisive to help out his offensive line. Expecting a quick turnaround in that department on a short week is asking a lot, so the offensive line must step up. No offense can sustain unblocked defenders wreaking havoc in the backfield, and things will only get tougher against a formidable Steelers front.
One of the first factors Bill Belichick alluded to when recapping the team’s loss yesterday was missed opportunities. As mentioned in the previous section, some stemmed from slow processing. Zappe’s most glaring miss came early in the game with Smith-Schuster open for a 3rd & 4 conversion.
After showing good poise to climb the pocket, the quarterback waits too long to pull the trigger and throws behind his target.
DeVante Parker also missed two big-play opportunities on the offense’s final possession. The first was a deep shot where Parker hauled in the pass but couldn’t keep his feet in bounds. You could argue for defensive pass interference on the play, as there was a lot of contact at the top of the route. But working the sideline and out-muscling defenders are supposed to be calling cards for the veteran, and he couldn’t get it done on that play.
His second missed opportunity was another tough one for the big-bodied wideout, losing at the catch point for a breakup on the game’s final third down. New England tried converting on 4th & 8 just before the two-minute warning, but Onwenu suffered another quick loss to Mack, flushing Zappe from the pocket. The quarterback made an ill-advised throw into double coverage, but it was understandable with no open receiver on a gotta-have-it down.
As Zappe’s most, and possibly his only trusted receiving threat, Parker needs to step up for his young signal-caller in these situations. His effort and execution have been question marks all season, and there’s no better time to prove doubters wrong than in a tough road environment with the world watching.
I’m all for giving quarterbacks options, but this season, the Patriots’ CVS receipt of pre-snap checks and adjustments has seemed more cumbersome than helpful. Regardless of who’s under center, the operation feels disjointed, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time to complete everything.
The Patriots were called for a delay of game midway through the 2nd quarter, turning a manageable 3rd and 6 in Chargers territory into a 3rd & 11. Mack quickly beat Onwenu on the next play to flush Zappe, who threw the ball away without receiving options downfield.
On 3rd & 11, just before halftime, Parker was flagged for a false start that backed the offense up to its 4-yard line.
The ensuing conversion attempt could also fall in the missed opportunity bucket, as Zappe thwarted a big catch-and-run opportunity with an errant pass. Still, you can never bank on a 3rd & forever.
With the Terrible Towels sure to be flying in a rowdy Pittsburgh crowd, the task of running a smooth ship will be even taller on Thursday.