The Patriots were short-handed entering their Week 4 clash with the Packers when Mac Jones was ruled out due to a high ankle sprain. They quickly went from short-handed to essentially only having a finger on each hand when backup Brian Hoyer left in the 1st quarter with a concussion, forcing 4th-rounder Bailey Zappe into the spotlight.
Coaches acknowledged during the week leading up to the game that Zappe wasn’t ready for significant NFL snaps after receiving almost no practice reps once preseason ended. But that didn’t stop the rookie from putting on a gutsy if uneven performance that led to him being the first player to ever throw a touchdown in their debut as a visitor at Lambeau Field, a record that stood since 1957.
Though the Patriots’ quarterback situation ultimately doomed their overtime comeback attempt, it was an admirable performance that saw OC Matt Patricia use different strategies than we saw through the first three weeks to accommodate his quarterbacks.
Here’s how the Patriots game-planned for Hoyer and Zappe against the Packers’ formidable pass defense.
The Patriots’ traditional dropback passing game was actually pretty similar to what we’ve with Mac Jones under center. It featured exclusively shotgun formations, typically from 3×1 formations with Rhamondre Stevenson in the backfield. Early in the game, New England used a tight-end as an isolated player backside. But when Rashan Gary started taking over the game, the team kept Hunter Henry and Marcus Cannon in to block and mixed in more 2×2 looks.
Most dropbacks seemed to be designed for inside receivers on crossing, deep in, and out routes. Nelson Agholor and Hunter Henry were able to uncover on crossers, but consistent pressure and a shaky performance from Bailey Zappe kept the Patriots from finding any consistency in their traditional passing attack.
Brian Hoyer did the best he could in minimal opportunities before his injury, but he was never afforded enough time to pass downfield effectively. Most attempts for both quarterbacks either went short to a running back or fell short of the receiver, and one dropback ended in a sack where Bailey didn’t feel pressure coming off the right edge.
The Patriots only needed 7 or fewer yards to convert on five of 11 3rd down attempts on Sunday, with four of the remaining six late downs requiring 10+ yards. This exacerbated New England’s quick pressure problem and each pass attempt in these situations failed to convert failed, though there appeared to be an egregious missed holding call on Kendrick Bourne during the offense’s final play of the game in overtime.
The biggest difference in Sunday’s plan from what we saw with Jones at quarterback was a significant uptick in under-center play-action. This was also expected in a game featuring backups and an emphasis on the run game. These were the only times the passing game looked functional thanks to play-fakes slowing the Packers’ rush and creating space downfield.
Nearly each of these attempts came from condensed formations and mimicked New England’s downhill “duo” runs. From these looks, the team loves using one receiver to clear out coverage while another comes underneath on a crosser to exploit distracted zone defenders over the middle. This concept, known as “Yankee,” led to DeVante Parker’s touchdown and could’ve led to another for Agholor had Zappe hit him in stride. The third time New England dialed up the play, the Packers did an excellent job passing off routes and smothered Zappe’s options, leading to a coverage sack that was also partly on the quarterback for not getting rid of the ball earlier.
The Patriots also wisely mixed in out-breaking routes to punish Green Bay for anticipating in-breaking routes.
There was one outlier on a McVay-esque bootleg attempt, but the defense took away Parker’s crosser and Zappe’s throw fell short of Bourne’s comeback route.
The Patriots attempted five screens against the Packers.
The first screen came on the offense’s opening drive with Hoyer in the gun. Following a quick play-fake to hold the defense, great open-field blocks from David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn opened a lane for Bourne to pick up a first down.
Once Zappe entered the game, New England mixed in a handful of RPOs, two of which resulted in passes to bubble screens. Zappe hit Lil’Jordan Humphrey for a nice gain on the rookie’s second attempt of the game, but the second pass to Agholor was stopped for a loss on an excellent play by Darnell Savage Jr.
Zappe also threw a pair of screens to Rhamondre Stevenson from the same look featuring the same pump fake to hold defenders. The first was essentially a white flag on 3rd & long, but Andrews gave Stevenson some space to work on the next attempt to set up a rare 3rd & manageable situation.