FOXBORO — The Patriots were overmatched in a way that we haven’t seen too often in their 33-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan exposed New England’s roster deficiencies on both sides, but the Patriots’ quarterback play remains the biggest issue with the team.
For the fourth consecutive game, New England’s quarterback, in this case, Cam Newton, were the worst offensive player on the field for the Patriots. There are other issues, it’s never on one player or position group, but the Pats have no chance if Newton continues to play this poorly.
Newton’s struggles began before his bout with the coronavirus knocked him out of the game in Kansas City, and out of practice, it started against the Raiders, and now it’s spiraling for him.
Blaming the ineptitude on offense on Newton will probably remain controversial given the group of skill players he’s working with, but that’s the reality. His decision making and processing speed aren’t sufficient for this style of offense, and it doesn’t help that it’s coming with a group of receivers that need good quarterback play.
On the other side of the ball, New England’s defense was overwhelmed in a poor personnel matchup against the Niners. Nobody is making excuses, but the 49ers are a tough matchup. They’re a “big” personnel team going up against an undersized defense, and it showed, as they were far more physical at the point of attack and as ball carriers.
The Patriots are now sitting at 2-4 through six games for the first time since the 2000 season, pre-Brady. Now, post-Brady, they’re searching for answers that might not be in-house.
Here are ten things we learned from a butt-kicking by the 49ers at Gillette Stadium:
1. Cam Newton Delivers Another Troubling Performance
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made it clear following Sunday’s loss that Newton will remain the starter, but Cam’s struggles are worrisome.
Based on NextGen’s completion percentage over expectation metric (CPOE), Newton’s downfield accuracy was acceptable, with a CPOE of minus-1, which isn’t awful.
On initial viewing, most of Newton’s issues were with poor timing and decision making. The Pats offense is built on precision and anticipation, and Newton isn’t correctly running the system.
The evidence of Newton failing to pull the trigger is all over this tape, and he continues to throw with poor timing off play-action. In the play above, Meyers is open if Newton throws the ball at the top of his drop. Instead, Newton holds the ball, locks onto Meyers, loses Fred Warner in the coverage, and throws another interception.
Here’s another example of a slow trigger-finger by Newton. The Pats are running a “sail” or flood concept on the left side, which was a throw that Newton missed last week. This time, he doesn’t miss, but he’s still late. If Newton anticipates his break, Meyers is open earlier. However, Newton doesn’t pull the trigger until the safety is closing on Meyers. Instead of a catch and run opportunity, it’s only a catch opportunity, leaving yards on the field.
On both those plays, if Newton gets the ball out on time, Meyers has a chance to make a productive play for the offense. Instead, Meyers was put in two bad spots by his quarterback.
We’ll get a better feel for Newton’s performance after reviewing the tape, but it’s clear that he’s hurting his team for the second consecutive week.
2. Patriots Defense Struggles in Bad Matchup With Motion-Heavy Niners
The Pats defense has personnel flaws in its front seven; they’re built to stop high-powered passing attacks like the Chiefs but can’t play a game against an offense like the 49ers.
New England opened the game playing its first snaps of the season in a base defense, facing an offense that likes to play with either a fullback or an extra tight end.
Although it was a good plan by Shanahan, there were also several plays where poor execution had more to do with it than offensive play design.
Here, Patriots linebacker John Simon is responsible for either the flat or the running back on this play with Samuel coming in motion. Simon takes the running back on a vertical route up the seam, vacating the flat. Based on how the Pats usually cover motion, Simon, if he was on the running back, should’ve passed him off to a player in the box (Jones?) so he can cut off Samuel. But Jones gets caught in traffic, and never makes it there. There’s nobody in the flat, and Samuel goes for 14 yards.
With Simon and Bentley, among others, struggling, Belichick’s adjustment was to put Jonathan Jones and Adrian Phillips on the line of scrimmage to get some speed in the flats.
However, the adjustment led to defensive backs turned edge defenders getting blown off the ball by the 49ers’ blockers. Above, Jones and Adrian Phillips set the edge for New England, and Kyle Juszczyk destroys Jones as a lead blocker to spring Brandon Aiyuk for a 20-yard gain.
The Patriots don’t have the athleticism or depth in their front seven to match up against a 49ers offense that leans on heavy personnel.
Blaming Simon or Bentley for failing to win a foot race with Samuel to the corner or Jones for getting blocked by Juszczyk is missing the point.
New England’s defense will struggle in matchups against offenses that are overpowering at the point of attack, which isn’t many of them anymore, but still enough to make it a problem.
3. How Much is Coaching to Blame for the Patriots’ Struggles?
Look, anyone that sits either in the press box or on their couch watching Sunday’s game knows less about football than Bill Belichick.
However, when you get beat like that two weeks in a row, it’s human nature to question the coaches, and there’s no doubt that they were out-coached by the 49ers on Sunday.
Still, and I don’t say this often, sometimes it’s more about the players than the X’s and O’s, and this feels like one of those times.
Maybe offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could craft an offense around Newton that wasn’t so reliant on Brady-like processing speed and accuracy. But that was never going to be the case this season.
The Patriots are stuck with relying on smoke and mirrors plus a running game offensively, and then Belichick’s ability to mask personnel issues in the front seven on the other side of the ball.
New England’s coaching staff isn’t free of blame, they never are, and Belichick the GM has to own up to plenty this season. But this isn’t about play-calling or game-planning.
The Patriots need their players currently on the roster to execute better, which falls on the coaches to get them sharper in their practice schemes.
4. Explaining Julian Edelman’s Struggles, Lack of Playing Time
Patriots fans are used to seeing Edelman produce at a high level every year, but his performance so far this season is an absolute head-scratcher outside of Week 2.
On Sunday, Edelman was on the field for 31 of New England’s 49 offensive snaps, which is consistent with his 70 percent snap rate in the first four games if we factor in the blowout aspect.
Along with fewer snaps, Edelman only saw three targets despite running 21 pass routes against the Niners. Using a Newton interception as evidence, I think we see the problem.
Here, Edelman is running his patented option route from the slot. He probably has 300 career catches on this route, but those are all mostly from Brady. On this play, Edelman sits against zone (he’ll break based on leverage against man) and is initially open underneath the defense. However, he decides to come off his spot to move inside the defender as Newton is coming to him in the progression. Newton expects him to be sitting down in the zone where he was initially, throws to that spot, and Edelman is no longer there.
From this vantage point, Edelman is struggling with learning a new quarterback. Option routes take years of repetition, and we’ve seen Edelman move late plenty of times with Brady.
However, he can’t move late with Cam, who doesn’t have that sixth-sense with Edelman, so those same plays that would be completions are now interceptions.
The Patriots offense could use a productive Julian Edelman, but Newton’s timing and anticipation are nowhere near where it needs to be for Edelman to succeed.
5. Patriots Pass Defense Makes Uncharacteristic and Costly Errors
Looking at this game on paper, one would expect the 49ers rushing attack to have their way with the Patriots run defense.
Still, one would expect the Patriots to force more than five incompletions and surrender less than 277 passing yards to Jimmy Garoppolo.
The biggest breakdown of the day came on a little pick route by the 49ers. The Pats corners get their wires crossed. Jonathan Jones thinks he’s switching on the release with Jason McCourty, but McCourty thinks they’re locked in man coverage. The result is both Jones and McCourty covering Kendrick Bourne with nobody on Aiyuk. With a better throw, Aiyuk scores.
Most of Garoppolo’s passes were of the shorter variety or even behind the line of scrimmage. But when he did throw down the field, there were costly mental errors by the Pats secondary.
6. Patriots’ Rushing Attack is Still Good, Didn’t Have a Chance
The only silver lining from this game for the Pats offense is that they can still run the ball, even when the 49ers expected them to go to the ground.
New England was successful on 47 percent of their running plays and had an early-down success rate of 47 percent as well, meaning they ran it relatively well on Sunday.
Pats running back Damien Harris led the way by adding 0.17 EPA per rush with an average of 5.8 yards per carry. Unfortunately, the score took the ball out of Harris’s hands.
New England had success with draw plays to the backs, using the 49ers’ aggressiveness against them. Above, the key block is by center David Andrews, who reaches the defensive lineman in the B-gap with Thuney fanning out to the edge defender. Andrews’s extremely challenging reach block allows left tackle Isaiah Wynn to put himself through immediately to the second level. Wynn, along with fullback Jakob Johnson, gets up the 49er linebackers to lead the way for Harris.
Although it’s difficult to do from behind, the Patriots offense desperately needs to get back to the formula from their two wins this season, where they ran for over 200 yards in both victories.
7. Chase Winovich’s Year-Two Growing Pains
Patriots second-year pass-rusher Chase Winovich is struggling, and as a result, his playing time is disappearing, which is hurting New England’s ability to get after the passer.
On the one hand, Winovich’s struggles can’t be ignored. But on the other hand, he’s this teams’ best pass rusher and needs to play more than 13 snaps for the defense to produce.
Winovich’s main issues are coming against the run, where he’s getting bullied off the ball at times because he’s playing too high in his stance and playing undisciplined football.
The undisciplined play is also coming on motion to his side. Here, Wino initially commits to defending Samuel in the flat but then decides to rush the passer, leaving Samuel wide-open. Based on Garoppolo’s cadences, you’d like to see Wino read out the quarterback there and try to take the throwing lane away. Instead, it’s a 23-yard gain for the Niners.
Adding insult to injury was a terrible illegal blindside block on McCourty’s interception return, which pushed the Pats back from the 49ers’ 37-yard line to their own 48-yard line.
Belichick wasn’t too pleased with the penalty, and the 2019 third-round pick struggled to see the field after that. The Pats need to get Winovich back on track to make this defense better.
8. Jakobi Meyers a Lone Bright Spot in Patriots Offense
After N’Keal Harry’s injury, the Patriots finally turned to 2019 UDFA Jakobi Meyers at wide receiver.
Meyers entered the game without a catch on the season but finished with four catches for 60 yards; he was New England’s best pass-catcher on Sunday, for better or worse.
Here, the Pats ran a levels concept with Edelman running a short dig from the slot and Meyers breaking on a deep dig route as the second read in the progression. For Newton, he’ll go to Edelman if he’s open. But if Edelman takes the coverage with him, he throws to the second receiver in or Meyers in this case. Meyers does a nice job of setting up his break and using the defenders’ outside leverage against him to cut on the break, and Newton finds him.
As the Patriots search for answers on offense, Meyers’s route-running was a bright spot on Sunday. Even though he doesn’t get up the field quickly, Meyers is a technician.
9. Patriots Lean on 21-Personnel on Offense
The Patriots rode their 21-personnel grouping on nearly half of their snaps on Sunday, although they succumbed to 11-personnel to try to pass their way back in the game late. Out of 21, the Pats could go either under-center with fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield or completely empty with Johnson, and whoever was in at running back flexed out wide. We’ve seen the Pats use empty formations out of heavy groupings in the past to get coverage indicators and favorable matchups on the inside, so maybe that’s something they can ride moving forward. The Pats also tried their “pony” package a few times, with two snaps in 20-personnel. Regardless of the grouping, none of it was fun for New England.
10. Play of the Game: Brandon Aiyuk’s 20-Yard “Pop” Pass
We already showed this play earlier, but it’s a perfect summation of New England’s issues matching up with the 49ers defensively. The Pats had to get more speed in the flats because Shanahan was putting their linebackers in a blender, which led to Jon Jones at the point of attack against 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and that wasn’t a fair fight.