FOXBORO, MA — the Patriots’ season is still alive following a 20-17 last-second victory over the Arizona Cardinals on a 50-yard field goal by kicker Nick Folk.
Although Cam Newton struggled, the story of the game was Bill Belichick’s defense delivering its best performance of the season to shut down Kyler Murray and the Cardinals’ offense.
Last week, the rightful owner of our blame pie’s biggest piece was the Patriots defense, which was shredded by Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson in the loss.
This week, the Pats defense held Arizona to a season-low 4.3 yards per play thanks to a great game plan and play-calling by Steve Belichick, who got a nod from his father post-game.
New England contained the Cardinals’ rushing attack by forcing Murray to hand the ball off on zone-read and dialing up exotic pressure schemes in obvious passing situations.
Also making up for the offense’s issues was stellar special teams, as the Pats got two massive returns, a punt downed at the three, and more clutch kicking from Folk on the game-winner.
The Patriots are still searching for a complete game where all three phases play well at the same time. This week, it was the offense that struggled. Last week, the defense, leaving New England searching for that brand of complementary football we love.
Still, there were times where all three phases were contributing together, and most importantly, a victory means that “the path” to the playoffs is intact for one more week.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improved to 5-6 on the season:
1. Pats Run Defense Limits Arizona’s Top-Ranked Rushing Offense
Entering Week 12, the Cardinals had the fifth-best rushing attack in the league based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA efficiency metric.
New England held Arizona’s potent rushing attack to 4.1 yards per rush and an EPA per play of -0.10 by virtually eliminating quarterback Kyler Murray from the equation as a runner.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told CLNS Media this week that the zone-read play was a significant part of Arizona’s rushing attack, so the Pats focused their game plan on read-options.
With Murray’s electric running abilities, the game plan was to force the Cardinals quarterback to hand the ball off to the back by giving him “give” reads all game long.
Belichick pointed out that the Patriots defense got gashed by outside runs early but adjusted late and shut things down in a few critical short-yardage situations (goal-line, third/fourth down).
Here, the Cardinals ran an inside zone read with rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings and slot corner Jonathan Jones setting the edge against Murray. Jennings staying outside rather than crashing down on the running back tells Murray to hand the ball off, and when he does, Lawrence Guy defeats a double-team on the interior to limit the offense to a short gain.
With the Patriots’ edge-setters shutting down zone-read, the adjustment for Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was to shift to power-read plays with pullers rather than zone blocking.
However, the Pats defense approach didn’t change, as the goal was still to influence Murray into handing the ball off rather than keeping it himself.
In this critical third-down stop in the fourth quarter, both John Simon and Adrian Phillips stayed outside to force Murray into a handoff. On the play side, Chase Winovich does an excellent job of disrupting the pullers, and the rest of the Pats defense holds its ground to make the stop.
Lastly, the Patriots made a massive fourth-down stop right before the half on a conventional handoff, where newcomer Akeem Spence and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley met Kenyan Drake short of the goal line.
The goal-line stop was the difference between a three-point deficit at the half and a ten-point lead for the Cardinals, a massive turning point in the game.
In all, New England held Murray to five carries for 31 yards, mostly on scrambles rather than designed quarterback runs, limiting the effectiveness of Arizona’s ground attack.
2. Pats Defense Pressures Kyler Murray Into Passing Game Struggles
After last week’s loss against the Texans, the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks became a hot-button topic.
Belichick opted for coverage over pass rush against Watson, blitzing the Houston quarterback just five times, but the spinning of the dial that we saw in 2018-19 was back on Sunday.
Patriots defensive play-caller Steve Belichick ran a series of zero blitzes and simulated pressures against Murray, who looked confused at times.
Here’s a tremendous two-play sequence by New England’s defense that hammers home the point.
On second down, the Patriots got a free rusher off the edge in rookie Josh Uche by bringing a zero blitz against an empty formation. With only a five-man protection against six-man blitz, Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries let Uche go off the edge to block Ja’Whaun Bentley, the inside rusher. Uche gets on Murray in a hurry, rattling the Cardinals QB into a short sack.
On third down, New England dials up a simulated pressure, where the defense shows a five-man pressure that becomes four. At the snap, safety Adrian Phillips drops off the right side into coverage, leaving the right tackle and guard to essentially double-teaming Deatrich Wise. By simulating the blitz off the right side, the Patriots get a three-on-three on the left side and add in an ILB/NT stunt between Winovich and Adam Butler, and Winovich applies the pressure on Murray to nearly force an interception.
The Patriots blitzed Murray on nine of his 36 drop-backs, holding him to 4.4 yards per attempt with two forced scrambles, which set up the rest of New England’s game plan defensively.
3. Pats QB Cam Newton Struggles as a Passer
Although the Patriots got the win, their offense was anemic, accumulating 3.5 yards and -0.18 expected points per play with short fields leading to most of their points.
Newton, who will undoubtedly receive most of the blame, had poor accuracy, timing, and decision making for most of the afternoon, with an EPA per drop-back of -0.45.
The Pats quarterback’s completion percentage over expected was -16.9 in one of his worst performances of the season, including his two-game rut following his COVID diagnosis.
In his post-game press conference, Newton chalked his second interception on a pass intended for Damiere Byrd up to a bad throw and decision by the quarterback, harping on the fact that he needs to give his team a chance to win games by protecting the football.
However, the more troubling development for Newton was the return of a slow trigger finger and poor timing, which mostly went away post-COVID.
Here’s one example in the first quarter against the blitz, which continues to be a bit of an issue for the Pats offense. This time, Newton is well protected, but he’s either too late or too early to his throw. It appears that Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers are running some sort of mesh concept where they intersect downfield. Byrd beats his man at the line in his release on a slant and is open right away, but Newton waits too long for Byrd but not long enough for the pick or rub to occur. If he throws a beat earlier, it’s complete to Byrd. A moment later, and maybe Meyers is open on the crossing pattern.
We’ll know more about Newton’s passing performance once I review the coaches tape, but based on my live viewing, Newton missed quite a few open receivers on Sunday.
4. Two Big Returns Spark Patriots Offense
On a day where the Patriots’ offense struggled, they got two short fields thanks to big returns by new kickoff returner Donte Moncrief (53 yards) and a 58-yard punt return by Gunner Olszewski.
On Moncrief’s return, the Pats’ practice squad call-up showed outstanding contact balance to run through the initial tackle attempt and to get into the open field. Although he was caught from behind, that was the most explosive return by a Patriot this season.
On Olszewski’s return, Gunner got a running start thanks to a short punt and used his forward momentum to spark a massive return. Unfortunately, rookie Anfernee Jennings was called for an illegal blindside block, which negated a touchdown.
Understandably, Patriots fans didn’t like the call, which was borderline at best, but head ref Bill Vinovich sighted a rule that does apply in that situation, even if it was an iffy judgment call.
“It was a block back towards his own end line with forcible contact,” Vinovich said.
The rule stinks as it puts Jennings in an awkward situation where he essentially becomes a speed-bump rather than a blocker, but they’re trying to officiate hits like that out of the game.
Either way, the two returns led to ten of New England’s 20 points and were exactly what they needed to flip the field.
5. Pats Running Game Mostly Silent, Still Delivers in Big Moments
Due to their struggles through the air, New England’s rushing attack managed only 3.7 yards and 0.01 EPA per rush in another quiet day.
This week, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tried to establish a running game with 30 rushes, and 25 out of 40 play-calls were runs on first and second down.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals had no fear of the Pats’ downfield passing game and had all 11 defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage at times to key on the running game.
Still, the Patriots got some big plays on the ground in critical situations in Sunday’s victory.
Following Gunner Olszweki’s called-back punt return, Damien Harris’s 15-yard gain put the Patriots inside the ten. The scheme was split-zone, where the line blocks zone to the right, and the fullback comes across the formation to kick-out the backside end. Harris sets it up by running inside initially and then breaks a tackle in the hole as he cuts back towards Johnson’s block.
Then, New England got a massive 14-yard by Cam Newton that set up the game-winning field goal, as the designed quarterback runs for the Pats QB were a significant part of the game plan.
The Patriots ran a power-read with Joe Thuney as the puller. McDaniels dials up the play at a perfect time, catching Arizona safety Budda Baker in a blitz. With Baker blitzing off the edge, the end also crashes down to the running back, and Newton goes untouched out the backside for 14 yards plus a questionable 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on Cardinals rookie Isaiah Simmons.
Regardless of the call, the run by Newton gave Nick Folk a chance to win the game.
6. Pats DT Adam Butler Goes Off With Sack, Three QB Hits, Two TFLs, Batted Pass
A significant aspect of New England’s turnaround in the pressure department was the reemergence of Adam Butler, who was dealing with an injury last week.
Butler finished the game with an outstanding stat-line and made some timely plays in critical down and distances to get the Patriots defense off the field.
On his sack, Butler, as he often is, was the inside penetrator on a stunt with Winovich wrapping around him. Instead of occupying the blockers for Winovich, Butler took advantage of a sloppy pass-off between the center and left guard to split the two blockers for the sack.
Although he won’t fill up the stat sheet quite like this every week, Butler’s breakout game is a massive development for a Patriots defense that desperately needs playmakers on the D-Line.
7. Pats CB Stephon Gilmore Battles With DeAndre Hopkins
As he hinted at during the week, Patriots All-Pro Stephon Gilmore shadowed Cardinals’ top weapon, DeAndre Hopkins, for most of the afternoon and held Hopkins in check.
In a 2019-like performance, Gilmore held Hopkins to five catches for 55 yards, with his lone blemishes coming on a holding penalty in the end zone and one third-down conversion.
On this goal-line fade attempt to Hopkins, Gilmore was terrific in coverage. Hopkins tries to open a passing window to the pylon by using an inside release to get Gilmore off his spot. However, the Pats corner stays patient in his soft-press technique and doesn’t commit his hips until late in the down when Hopkins needs to declare his route. Hopkins gives away his intentions on the fade, and Gilmore smothers him.
The Patriots needed a great performance out of their top corner with all eyes on Murray, and Gilmore limited Hopkins without much help.
8. Pats Rookies Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche Continue to Make Plays
Earlier, we highlighted a play where rookie linebacker Josh Uche pressured Murray on a zero blitz and contained the Cardinals quarterback.
Uche continues to show off his athleticism in space, as does fellow rookie Kyle Dugger, who once again was very impactful playing both in the slot and off the line.
Here, Dugger recovers after false-stepping towards the motion to fill against an outside zone toss. His sideline-to-sideline speed makes it an easy recovery, and he tackles the ball carrier in the hole to save a touchdown and nearly forced a fumble as well.
Earlier, Dugger made a great play in the slot to recognize jet motion in his direction. Once Dugger sees the jet motion, he gets outside leverage on his blocker and gets upfield to cut off the angle. Although he doesn’t make the tackle, he forces the runner to widen his path, allowing his teammates to rally to the football and make the play.
The Patriots needed an infusion of speed defensively, and Dugger and Uche are giving them two players that can chase and tackle in space.
9. Pats Kicker Nick Folk’s Career Renaissance Continues
When the Patriots signed Folk in October of 2019, he hadn’t played for an NFL team since 2017, and now he has two lengthy game-winners and is remarkably consistent for New England. Folk is 19-of-21 on field goals this season and only has two misses on extra points, along with two game-winning kicks of over 50 yards. For better or worse, Folk and punter Jake Bailey are the most consistent players on New England’s roster.
10. Play of the Game: Adrian Phillips’s Third-Quarter Interception
From an expected points added perspective, Phillips’s interception was the biggest net-gain for the Patriots on the day, subtracting 4.6 expected points from the Cardinals offense.
The Patriots put six defenders near the line of scrimmage, showing a zero blitz. Three defenders drop into coverage at the snap, with two of them popping out into “hot” zones to fall underneath Murray’s quick outlets. The pop-outs force Murray to hold the ball, allowing Butler enough time to get into Murray’s face, and the Pats DT deflects the ball to Phillips.