The Patriots have fallen to 2-8 after losing to the Colts in Germany. The offense won the time of possession battle for the first time in weeks but turned the ball over twice and didn’t convert any of its Red Zone opportunities. Mac Jones was far from the unit’s only issue, but he added some exclamation points to their self-inflicted defeat. The defense did an outstanding job keeping Jonathan Taylor in check, and 10 points should be enough to win you most games in the NFL. But a nonexistent pass rush and poor coverage made the game more competitive than it should’ve been, resulting in less opportunities for an offense that needed as many as it could get.
It’s hard to think this game did much for Bill Belichick’s job security past this season, but Matthew Slater deflected blame from his head coach after the game, saying, “The struggles that we’ve had on the field this year are due to us and our inability to execute. It’s got nothing to do with Coach Belichick.” The longtime captain is right; the team’s execution was its undoing today. But this has been the case almost every week in 2023, and as Belichick says, it all starts with him.
As New England dives deeper into “draft position over wins” territory, here are my top takeaways from their 10-6 loss.
Can the Patriots Trust Mac Jones?
This wasn’t Mac Jones’ first career benching, but it was the most definitive. In other situations, the game was far enough out of reach to justify New England taking out their top passer. But today, another inexcusable turnover from Jones opened the door for Bailey Zappe to attempt a comeback on the offense’s final possession.
When asked about his performance after the game, Jones called his interception a “terrible throw.” The candor was appreciated but far from comforting, as poor fundamentals and decision-making have haunted him since his disastrous day in Dallas. Jones’ fade-away pick wasn’t his only turnover-worthy play of the game, either. He was early and inaccurate on an end zone throw to Hunter Henry earlier in the half, and an ill-advised checkdown attempt while being sacked led to Jones getting an earful from Bill O’Brien on the sidelines.
Jones acknowledged that “there were a lot of open guys out there that I could’ve hit” when asked about the exchange. Like his loose mechanics and turnovers, missing open receivers has been a weeks-long problem for Jones. These missed opportunities have been back-breaking on an offense with as little margin for error as New England’s.
Bill Belichick didn’t spill who would start at quarterback in two weeks against the Giants but said he “thought it was time for a change” when asked about Jones’ benching. Zappe going 2-7 for 25 yards and a game-sealing interception wasn’t a great audition, and I don’t think the backup would last more than a few series if handed the starting job. There’s also no benefit to playing someone with virtually zero chance of contributing in 2024. But as Jones said when asked if his head coach still believes in him, he needs to start playing better and earn back some trust. Otherwise, he might force the coaching staff’s hand.
Pass Protection Proves Problematic Early
Losing Adrian Klemm to health-related issues and not having Trent Brown for injury and personal reasons were tough blows for New England’s offensive line. The unit also deserves credit 2or finding a groove in the 2nd half. That said, how they were bullied in the 1st half can’t be ignored.
Mac Jones was sacked 5 times through two quarters, 4 of which were 3rd down drive-killers, and took 9 hits overall. Only the All-22 will tell whether he had throwing opportunities on some of his takedowns, but the line suffered some objectively quick losses. The tackles weren’t blameless, but these plays were doomed by Jones having nowhere to step up,
While Cole Strange’s early loss to DeForest Buckner felt inevitable, he and Conor McDermott lost badly on a twist before halftime. Pass pro specialist Sidy Sow allowed a rare pressure on an inside move from Dayo Odeyingbo, who also pushed David Andrews into his quarterback’s lap on a twist. One of the sacks was more scheme-related, with a play-action protection scheme pitting Rhamondre Stevenson against a pass rusher.
Again, the Patriots’ front was dealt some difficult hands. But their pass protection issues were a big factor in their slow start.
Question Marks Abound on Offense
Mac Jones’ ball security and pass protection issues headlined New England’s offensive issues today. But the offensive execution felt disjointed and undisciplined throughout the game.
David Andrews saved Hunter Henry from turning the ball over after a fumble. JuJu Smith-Schuster (2x) and Conor McDermott were both called for pre-snap penalties, though Smith-Schuster’s quarterback may have been at fault for one. Jones and Ezekiel Elliott also ran into each other on a handoff.
From a play-calling perspective, I didn’t understand passing on 3rd & 3 after six straight runs got the Patriots into the Red Zone. If the Colts stop you from getting 3 yards on two straight runs, tip your cap. But throwing incomplete and attempting a field goal made Chad Ryland’s subsequent miss feel deserved.
Mac Jones also seemed confused by the offense opting for a screen instead of a Hail Mary near midfield with 00:02 left in the 1st half. When asked why the decision was made, he responded, “No clue. There’s 2 seconds left & we needed 60 yards, so… I don’t know.”
Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott Put the Team on Their Backs
If there’s been a bright spot in the Patriots’ anemic offense the past few weeks, it’s been Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott.
Stevenson has looked like his old self for a few games, running through defenders and slipping tacklers. But I thought Elliott showed the most burst and contact balance we’ve seen this season, though there have been flashes.
Like most weeks, Stevenson (4.4 yards/rush on 20 carries) and Elliott (4.2 yards/rush on 13 carries) didn’t put up gaudy stats. But they passed the eye test with flying colors, created plenty of their own yards, and had some key short-yardage conversions. Elliott also turned a screen pass into an explosive game.
I pointed to the rushing attack as a key to this week’s game, particularly with the Colts missing monster-in-the-middle Grover Stewart. New England’s backs and some excellent efforts from Mike Onwenu, David Andrews, and Sidy Sow didn’t disappoint.
Demario Douglas Leads Quiet Day for Receiving Corps
34 of Demario Douglas’ season-high 84 yards came on a stat-padding screen before halftime, but he once again was the only needle-mover in the Patriots’ passing game.
I’m not sure why it took until the 2nd quarter for Douglas to touch the football, but unless he’s drawing extra attention, that can’t happen again.
Run Defense Steps Up vs. Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss
If the Patriots wanted to win this game defensively, they had to contain Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss. That tall task seemed sky-high when it was announced that Ja’Whaun Bentley would be inactive with a hamstring injury. It seemed like a downright impossible ask when Taylor ran over the defense on Indy’s opening drive and Mack Wilson left with a head injury.
But New England tightened up after a slow start and showed why they’re one of the league’s best run defenses. Zack Taylor only took one handoff for a 2-yard gain, but Jonathan Taylor was held to 3.0 yards per rush on 23 carries, and the Patriots racked up 3 tackles for loss. Davon Godchaux continued his impressive season with a team-high 8 tackles, serving as a stout anchor against the Colts’ inside zone-heavy scheme. Zack Moss only
New England’s run defense has been the team’s only consistent positive through 10 weeks, and today’s performance may have been its best work yet.
Lack of Pass Rush Proving Problematic
The Patriots’ pass rush has been an issue since Matthew Judon went down, but this morning’s display was the worst it’s looked since that loss. Christian Barmore was the only player to register a hit against Gardner Minshew, who went all game without being sacked.
Blitzes weren’t getting home, rushers lost their gap integrity, and Minshew had all day to throw for most of the contest. His lack of poise made an almost non-existent pass rush look better than it was, as he missed several conversions and big play opportunities by not seeing open receivers or downright missing them.
Jahlani Tavai Continues Hot Streak in Expanded Role
Jahlani Tavai saw an increased role with Ja’Whaun Bentley down and seized the opportunity with another forced turnover, tipping a pass that Myles Bryant intercepted. The linebacker, who made 7 tackles in today’s game, was also punished on a tone-setting hit where he incidentally made contact with a receiver’s helmet on a bad throw. Tavai is making plays and delivering big hits weekly, and I think he’s someone New England should keep on the field every down.
Special Teams Round Out Poor Patriots Performance
It was another poor week for the Patriots’ special teams units. Chad Ryland missed a chip-shot 35-yard field goal that would’ve made the final offensive possession a hunt for a field goal rather than a touchdown. Bryce Baringer had 2 of his 4 punts bounce into the endzone for touchbacks. The kick return unit also allowed another big return that turned into a Colts field foal.
Lack of offense has been the main thing holding the Patriots back, but all three phases have contributed to their 2-8 record.
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