Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn’t conduct a fire-sale of his best assets as some were hoping for at Tuesday’s trade deadline.
Of course, it takes two sides to reach an agreement in a trade, and the seller’s market at the deadline wasn’t robust due to future implications on the salary cap and other COVID-19 factors.
With uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season, teams were reluctant to give up draft capital and take on future contracts, making it challenging to trade blue-chip players at the deadline.
Stephon Gilmore, Joe Thuney, and other win-now veterans remain on the roster, which begs the question, what exactly is the plan for the rest of New England’s season?
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots currently have an 8% chance to make the playoffs, meaning Belichick is risking landing in purgatory by competing for the rest of the way.
However, New England’s schedule, which was the sixth-toughest to start the season, gets considerably easier with the ninth-easiest opponent DVOA in the final nine games.
Although the head coach himself admits that the Patriots roster is flawed, Belichick’s team does enough things well to expect at least a competitive second half of the season.
The Pats have one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses, their pass-defense is trending upwards, and first and second-year reinforcements are potential sparks on both sides of the ball.
As crazy as it sounds, with Belichick, we cannot rule out Monday night’s contest against the Jets turning the tide for a resurgent back-nine that puts the Patriots in the playoff mix.
Still, evaluating their roster with an eye towards the future, starting at quarterback, is at the very top of the priority list for the Patriots in their final nine games.
New England needs to find out if Cam Newton is a part of the solution moving forward, or are they aggressively in the market for a quarterback next offseason? Jarrett Stidham could also become a factor later in the season to gain experience.
The Pats should and probably will continue to add quarterbacks, but deciding if Newton is the bridge to the next guy or a one-year experiment should be a priority.
After struggling in three consecutive starts, Newton had his best performance since the first two weeks of the season in the Bills’ loss last week, despite how things ended.
Newton produced his highest EPA per drop-back, Pro Football Focus grade, QBR, and adjusted completion percentage in Buffalo with a much better game-plan from Josh McDaniels.
Following the loss to the 49ers, Newton said he was “thinking” too much on the field, something he put on himself but was more about play-calling and a failure to adapt to Newton’s strengths.
The Patriots called play-action 53.6 percent of the time, used bootlegs and other moving pockets, dialed up six RPOs, and seven read-options to make Newton comfortable against Buffalo.
Plus, McDaniels finally got aggressive by throwing the ball on 51 percent of first and second-downs, a noticeable shift from a conservative run-first approach.
If play-caller and QB can continue to merge their styles, maybe the Pats will have a future with Newton. If not, they need to move on, and answering that question is critical down the stretch.
Let’s craft a game plan for the Patriots as they’ll face the winless New York Jets on Monday night in the Meadowlands:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
As we mentioned, last week’s play-calling by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was a great fit for Newton’s skillset and utilized their available personnel properly.
For example, Newton struggled in his last three starts with Brady-like under-center play-action. Newton’s unfamiliarity with selling the fake by turning his back to the defense and then making quick reactions once he gets his eyes downfield leads to missed opportunities and turnovers.
In 12 attempts with play-action from under-center, Newton is averaging 6.3 yards per attempt with two interceptions and a -0.458 EPA per drop-back in his last three starts. In the past, those are very robust play-calls for New England.
The #Patriots went on a 7-play, 72-yd TD drive to tie the game that was one of their best of the year, both play-calling & execution.
1st play – Cam hits Byrd on the over route off shotgun play-action. Pump fake gets the outside CB & hook defender out of the crosser window. pic.twitter.com/IXyirpvONP
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 5, 2020
McDaniels’ adjustment was shotgun play-action, as Newton is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt with an EPA per attempt of 0.400 on those plays. Newton doesn’t need to turn his back to the defense keeps his eyes downfield on those second-level defenders.
When the Patriots put Newton under-center against Buffalo, McDaniels used bootlegs and other moving pockets to avoid traditional drop-backs to make life easier on his quarterback.
New England came up three points short against the Bills, but it was the first time Newton has looked like himself in over a month.
HANDLING THE BLITZ
Like last week, the story for the Patriots passing attack is more about themselves than the Jets, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will have some tricks up his sleeve for Newton.
Williams’s scheme is extremely complex and aggressive, with the seventh-highest blitz rate in the league. Newton and his teammates are also having issues against the blitz, where Cam is averaging only 5.4 yards per attempt with eight of his 12 sacks coming against blitzing defenses.
Last week, the Bills blitzed Newton 11 times with the Pats QB only completing 30 percent of those throws with an average of 3.8 yards per attempt.
Handling the blitz takes pre-snap communication, and post-snap chemistry, which comes with practice, something the Patriots haven’t had much of this season relative to other years.
Based on those struggles, expect Williams, who loves to come after quarterbacks anyway, to blitz the crap out of Newton and the Patriots offense until they prove they can execute.
Here’s a great example of one type of zone pressure that Williams loves. The Jets are running an inverted cover-three blitz, where they drop a defender off the line of scrimmage on the left into the curl window with an overload pressure coming to the quarterback’s right. The defender dropping off the line falls underneath Ryan Fitzpatrick’s first read, and he takes a sack.
Williams will run heavy zone-pressure at Newton with quirky coverage rotations and zone-droppers to give the Pats QB pause, leading to negative plays.
The Patriots will need to give Newton quick answers to those schemes, one of which might be a heavier dosage of RPOs that feast on the Jets defense’s aggressiveness.
MORE RUN-PASS OPTIONS
One way teams are finding success against zone-pressure from the Jets is by running RPOs into passing windows vacated by blitzers.
This season, the Jets allow nearly eight yards per attempt with an EPA per play of 0.271 on RPOs, taking advantage of Williams’s exotic coverages.
Here, the Jets run an outside cornerback blitz at the bottom of the screen with the box safety rotating to replace the corner in his zone. The Chiefs ran an RPO glance concept, and the glance, or skinny post, became a perfect hot read for Patrick Mahomes to beat the blitz.
The Patriots installed an RPO glance into their offense as it’s one of Newton’s favorite concepts.
New England ran six RPOs last week that all converted into running plays, but expect to see more run-pass options to give Newton quick outlets when Williams brings pressure.
The Patriots can pretty much run on anyone, but the Jets do boast the tenth-best run defense based on DVOA this season as one of their team’s few strengths.
New York changes their fronts often and runs their run defense through 2019 first-round pick Quinnen Williams, who is a powerful and disruptive run defender that anchors the unit.
With that said, McDaniels is beginning to open his bag of tricks from motions, fullback alignments, and misdirection that, coupled with their base schemes, is giving defenses problems.
Here, the Patriots ran a “belly trap” play with counter-action paving the way for Rex Burkhead after taking Newton’s handoff in a Wing-T style formation.
New England finally began to use fullback Jakob Johnson as lead-blocker on their option runs as well, music to my ears after teams started to figure out their read-option schemes.
And of course, the Pats can run traditional counter and power handoffs with the best of them.
This week, we’ll surely see a little bit of everything once again, but teams found success against the Jets by running crack tosses while attacking the edges of their defense away from Williams.
After seeing other teams succeed with those plays, expect a heavy dosage of crack tosses once again on Monday night.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Although Patriots fans probably think it couldn’t get worse offensively, the league’s worst offense resides in the Meadowlands with the winless Jets.
New York currently ranks dead-last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and quarterback Sam Darnold is dead-last in EPA and completion percentage over expected this season.
As we know in New England, it’s difficult to execute against man coverage with lackluster pass-catchers, and that, coupled with Darnold’s struggles, is leading to issues.
Darnold is only completing 46.4 percent of his passes with an average of 4.8 yards per attempt against man coverage this season, so expect to see plenty of man as usual.
The Patriots famously had Darnold “seeing ghosts” last season on Monday night football with their cover-zero blitzes and bluffs. New England’s plan could include more disguising, according to at least one defensive player.
“Disguise will be huge. Just trying to get after him and confuse him is going to be big for us,” defensive back Jonathan Jones said.
When teams play zone, Darnold is prone to mistakes when he loses defenders in underneath zones dropping off the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots defense should control this game, but there’s one way that Adam Gase could make things interesting.
OUTSIDE ZONE/BOOTLEG SERIES
Despite all those issues, the worry is New York’s rushing attack and their bootleg series off those run-actions, which is a pretty big part of their offense and attacks the Patriots’ weakness.
New England allows the most yards per rush in the league on outside zone runs (5.8), which happens to be the Jets’ most used run-blocking scheme behind rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton.
Becton looks like a home run draft pick as a Trent Brown-sized tackle that moves even better than the former Patriot. Here, the Jets ran outside zone to Becton’s side, and along with left guard Alex Lewis, Becton pancakes Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark on an eight-yard gain.
The Patriots continue to have issues with outside zone teams due to struggles setting the edge and poor play by inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley when ball carriers cut back inside.
Gase then incorporates a bootleg play-action series off those outside zone runs with limited effectiveness but is still a scheme that is giving New England issues.
This season, the Pats allow 11 yards per attempt and a lousy 0.218 EPA per drop-back against under-center play-action, the highest yards per attempt average in the league.
The Jets might not be able to execute an outside zone/play-action game as well as the 49ers and other teams, but Gase will pick on weaknesses, and that’s a glaring one for New England. Plus, the Pats could be without their best run defender, Lawrence Guy.
New England needs better play out of strong-side edge defender John Simon, linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, and their defensive line to hold up against outside zone runs.
As much as you want the Patriots defense to get back on track this week, the Jets have a formula that could give New England’s early-down defense problems.
1. Cam Newton vs. Gregg Williams: the Jets’ defensive personnel doesn’t scare you, but Williams’s exotic zone pressures will test Newton mentally. Williams will spin the dial and come after Newton with blitzes, so Cam needs to be ready.
2. Patriots Interior OL vs. Quinnen Williams: Williams is the one player on the Jets defense that can wreck New England’s game plan. The Jets’ defensive tackle is above-average in all areas and excellent at defeating blocks against the run, so blocking him will be critical.
3. Jakobi Meyers vs. Brian Poole: Poole is currently in the top five of PFF’s grading among slot corners, while Meyers is starting to carve out a role as a key weapon for Newton. Meyers won against Bills nickel corner Taron Johnson, but Poole is on a different level. Let’s see if Meyers can do it against better competition.
4. JC Jackson vs. Denzel Mims: the Jets rookie is starting to find his footing in the league and is a big-time vertical threat with an excellent athletic profile. Jackson stepped in nicely for Stephon Gilmore last week against Stefon Diggs, and Mims is still in the development stages, but he can beat you over the top if you aren’t careful.
5. Byron Cowart/Nick Thurman vs. Jets Interior OL: if Guy can’t go, it’ll be up to Cowart and Thurman to hold up inside on Monday night. Jets center Connor McGovern is one of the worst starters in the league at his position, but the Patriots might not have the horses to take advantage, or do they? We’ll find out.