CLNS Media Headquarters — the Patriots’ season effectively ended with a 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on Thursday night.
Although New England isn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the loss drops them to 6-7 on the season, with now a four percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.
After riding high following a blowout win over the Chargers just four days ago, Bill Belichick’s team got out-coached and out-played by Sean McVay’s Rams in a must-win game.
To his credit, McVay exercised his demons from the loss in Super Bowl 53 with an excellent game-plan that caught the Pats by surprise.
As a disciple of the Shanahan coaching tree, McVay’s scheme relies heavily on an outside zone rushing attack, with the Rams calling outside zone on 48% of their runs entering Week 14.
However, the Rams’ head coach knew Belichick had the foundation of his scheme figured out, so he crafted an opening script that featured a heavy dosage of gap and counter plays.
With the Patriots defense caught off guard, Los Angeles got out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, which proved too big of a deficit for New England’s inept offense.
In his post-game press conference, Belichick once again reiterated that quarterback Cam Newton is his starter, choosing to stick with Newton despite his struggles and the Pats’ record.
With Belichick, it’s hard to question a coach with his resume, but the season is quickly becoming more about seeing what the Pats have for the future rather than making a playoff push.
Still, Belichick, at least for now, isn’t making the switch to second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham and is prepared to ride out the rest of the season with Newton at the helm.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots’ fall to 6-7 in a rocky 2020 season:
1. McVay Out-Schemes Belichick in Run Game
After a shaky start, the Patriots defense righted the ship and only allowed seven points on the Rams’ final seven drives, but McVay was dealing early and gashed New England on the ground.
Los Angeles averaged 5.3 yards per rush thanks to a beautiful game-plan by McVay, starting with gap and counter runs in his opening script.
Belichick decided to play a five-man front with overhangs outside the five defenders between the tackles to set the edge against outside zone, so McVay gave him something different.
Here, the Rams ran GY counter instead of outside zone with the backside guard kicking out the edge defender and the tight end pulling through the hole. The two players adding into the left side of the formations allow for the left side of the offensive line to double-team Deatrich Wise at the point of attack, and they put Wise on skates, creating a massive rushing lane.
McVay anticipated that Belichick would adjust at halftime and went back to outside zone on a 16-play touchdown drive in the third quarter.
Once McVay went back to outside zone, the story became about the Rams head coach using his wide receivers in motion to create an extra gap and force the Pats’ DBs into the run fit.
Robert Woods comes in motion on this play and kicks out Stephon Gilmore to create a lane for Cam Akers. With Gilmore taking on Woods, the onus there is on the safety, Devin McCourty, to trigger down into the hole and fit the run. Still, McVay deserves credit for putting Gilmore and McCourty in the middle of the play as run defenders where they aren’t usually involved.
The Rams’ head coach can’t reverse the outcome of Super Bowl 53 with a regular-season victory, but he schooled Belichick’s run defense on Thursday night.
2. The Micro and Macro Discussion With Cam Newton
Cam Newton is in a difficult position with the supporting cast around him, which is the macro issue with New England’s offense; they don’t have the skill talent for the quarterback to be successful.
However, there’s also a micro-discussion to be had with Newton, where he’s failing to throw on-time to open receivers, and it costs the Pats when they do create opportunities to move the ball.
Newton made some good throws on Thursday night down the field, and he’s throwing with pretty good efficiency on downfield passes, finishing with a CPOE of -4.2, which isn’t awful.
Here’s an example of what we’ve seen all season from Cam when he’s struggling. To his right, N’Keal Harry’s vertical route will give Jakobi Meyers a pocket to sit down at the sticks, with Harry essentially picking the defender on Meyers. Instead of the ball coming out when the pocket was clean, Newton holds it, tries to slide up to elude the edge pressure, and is sacked.
Before you say there was too much pressure to make a throw, here’s what Cam is looking at as Meyers is hitting the top of the route. That’s a clean pocket and an open passing lane, which closes because Newton holds the ball for too long.
Even though offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has altered the scheme to Newton’s strengths, there are still plenty of plays in the passing game that rely on timing and anticipation.
Unfortunately, those aspects of New England’s scheme aren’t clicking with Newton, even 12 starts into his Patriots career, which begs the question: change the system or the quarterback?
3. Rams Superstar DT Aaron Donald Wrecks Thursday Night Football
In his first two games against the Pats, Donald didn’t register a sack and lost two one-on-one reps against Pats left guard Joe Thuney in the game-winning drive in Super Bowl 53.
Well, just like his head coach, Donald got some revenge on Thursday night with 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss, and a heads-up play on Newton’s pick-six.
On the pick-six, Donald sniffs out the screen to Damien Harris and legally grabs Harris before the Pats running back can release into his route. Newton needs to get rid of the ball with pressure in his face, and with Harris held up, Rams linebacker Kenny Young takes it back to the house. Young also pointed out after the game that Newton’s mannerisms gave away the screen pass. I’m not sure how, but that’s like a baseball pitcher tipping his pitches, which is not great.
Although blocking Donald is a nightmare for every offensive lineman, it’s worth noting the drop-off at left tackle without starter Isaiah Wynn.
On Donald’s sack, backup left tackle Jermaine Eluemunor is left one-on-one with the All-Pro, and Donald beats him clean with a cross-chop move to sack Newton for a big loss.
Eluemunor allowed another sack to the Rams’ Michael Brockers where he was blocking nobody, showing how much the Pats missed Wynn.
New England’s offensive line has certainly had better days than it did on Thursday night.
4. How Much is Josh McDaniels to Blame for Offenses Struggles?
After last week’s win, I credited McDaniels’s opening script against the Chargers for his creativity and variety of running plays that set the tone for the blowout victory.
As we did with Newton, it’s only fair to point out that McDaniels isn’t working with much, but there’s a predictably and conservatism offensively that has cost the Pats in multiple games.
Despite Newton hitting throws of 31, 30, and 25 yards to his receivers downfield, the Patriots, probably out of fear of negative plays, don’t want to let Newton open it up.
On the one hand, you can understand that interceptions and sacks as Newton tries to make plays downfield are killers, but Cam’s downfield passing is clearly better than his short game.
Then, a four-play sequence inside the Rams’ six-yard line was painfully obvious: back-to-back lead plays from different alignments that gained three yards, a QB draw (one yard), and an awful speed-option play on fourth down that went backward. Just way too predictable.
The Rams were ready for an option run on the fourth down play and had a scrape-exchange called, where the off-ball linebacker takes the pitch (RB), and the edge defender closes down the quarterback. Newton said he didn’t want to risk a turnover on the pitch after the game, but giving the ball to Harris in space was the only play there.
Instead, the Patriots turned the ball over on downs, squandering one of their best scoring chances of the night, and the lack of creativity by McDaniels deserves criticism there.
Again, it’s hard to scheme-up offense when your best receiver is Jakobi Meyers, there’s zero threat at tight end, and the quarterback is struggling to grasp the scheme’s intricacies.
But that doesn’t excuse the fact that it felt like the Rams were in Newton’s helmet as McDaniels relayed the play-calls in the sequence above.
5. Why Won’t Bill Belichick Turn to Jarrett Stidham at Quarterback?
For very different reasons, we’ve got a look at Stidham in mop-up duty, and he hasn’t looked terrible, especially against the Chargers.
Still, for whatever reason, Belichick is scoffing at the notion that the Patriots should start Stidham moving forward, which really can only be explained with two theories:
- Stidham isn’t very good: although he has made some nice throws in the last two games, Stidham’s issues with holding the ball in the pocket, downfield accuracy, and ball security are the same as Newton’s. Plus, he can’t run like Cam does — the football reasons.
- Benching Cam sends a bad message to the locker room: now we are starting to get into the sports radio conspiracies, but it’s possible that Belichick, who has watched Newton play for pennies on the dollar with a limited roster around him, doesn’t want to bench a player that owns the locker room and has earned the respect of his teammates. Newton’s teammates truly gravitate towards the veteran QB, and Belichick risks losing his players by benching Cam.
Until Belichick gives an honest assessment of Stidham, which is unlikely, there’s no way of knowing why the Pats head coach refuses to see if Stidham can provide them with a spark.
At this stage, it feels like New England needs to see what they have in Stidham as they evaluate their quarterback situation moving forward, yet Belichick is sticking with Cam.
When “the path” to the playoffs was still alive, it was a no-brainer to stay the course with Newton, but it’s getting harder to explain why Belichick won’t pull the plug unless it’s culture or contract related.
6. Patriots WR N’Keal Harry Breaks Out With Two Big Catches
As the broadcast booth took shots at New England’s dreadful early-round drafting at wide receiver, already-labeled bust wideout N’Keal Harry started to find a groove.
Those that read me know that I’ve given Harry a longer leash than most, and I’ll admit my patience has been tested, but the 2019 first-round pick gave us a glimmer of hope tonight.
On his 30-yard catch, Newton finally gave Harry a chance down the field to win a jump-ball, and the Pats wideout went above the rim to high-point the ball over Rams corner Darius Williams.
Earlier, in a good bit of eye manipulation by Newton, the Pats QB moved the defense towards Meyers’s route at the stick and threw high to Harry over the middle. Harry used his frame to box-out the oncoming safety and caught the ball over his head to move the chains.
Lastly, Harry put a decent double-move on Rams corner Troy Hill by getting on Hill’s toes in off-coverage, stopping down, and then opening up past him to get behind the defense. Unfortunately, the refs swallowed their whistles when Harry was clearly interfered with by Hill.
Ultimately, it might be too little too late with Harry. Still, it’s important to remember that development happens at different paces for players, and Harry is showing signs of growth.
7. Introducing Patriots UDFA DB Myles Bryant
After playing a career-high 33 snaps last week, Bryant made a splash on the national stage with a first-quarter interception that really should’ve flipped the momentum for New England.
However, the refs overturned the call on the field to rule Bryant down by contract, negating a pick-six, and Newton gave it right back on his pick-six on the ensuing drive, a 14-point swing.
On the pick, Bryant gets some help from Goff’s bad throw, but he does an excellent job of fighting over the top of a rub route and playing through the receivers’ hands.
In the win over the Chargers, Bryant was used more as a zone defender and deep safety. We saw his man coverage skills on his interception, and both skills stood out in training camp.
Plus, the undersized Bryant was always around the ball at the University of Washington, and if it wasn’t for his 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame, his tape was easily draftable last April.
By the looks of things, Belichick might’ve done it again with a UDFA defensive back in Bryant.
8. Pats’ Run Game, Damien Harris Doesn’t Get a Chance to Make Impact
As a team, the Patriots only averaged 3.7 yards per rush on their 29 carries, but Harris was one of the lone bright spots on offense averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 0.09 EPA per rush.
Harris’s longest run of the night, a 12-yard scamper, came on a wham play where right guard Shaq Mason lets the defender on the line of scrimmage through to fullback Jakob Johnson and climbs to the linebacker at the second level of the defense. Harris sets up the run nicely to peek inside before hitting the hole and then shows off his burst and finish at the end of the play.
In true 2020 fashion, Harris left the game with an injury that looked bad as he grimaced in pain. Add it to the list of bad things that happened to the Patriots on Thursday night.
9. Patriots Special Teams Stays Hot, Only Consistent Unit
New England once again got a great effort out of their special teams’ units, which is the only phase of the game they can count on every week. Punter Jake Bailey averaged 51.7 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards, and four downed inside the 20. I mean, that’s just sick. Gunner Olszewski also had another good performance returning punts, with a 21-yard return. Bailey should be considered for All-Pro honors this season.
10. Play of the Game: Rams LB Kenny Young’s Second-Quarter Pick-Six
We won’t break down the play in full again, but Young’s pick-six was the single-biggest play of the game from an expected points added perspective and completely flipped the game. At that point, the Pats defense survived McVay’s opening script, and Bryant seized the momentum with his interception, but Young and Donald grabbed it back to put the Rams up 17-0.
As much as there are big-picture issues, the decision to call back Bryant’s interception return followed by Young’s touchdown was the game.