Last week, Adrian Phillips said the defense would need to pitch shutouts after losing back-to-back games where the unit allowed just ten points. The unit didn’t achieve that goal, but they went 60 minutes without allowing a touchdown for the first time this season. Despite their Herculean effort, the offense failed to hold up its end of the bargain for the umpteenth time this season, scoring zero points. This performance continued a disturbing, season-long trend of New England setting unenviable records.
New England has been shut out at home twice this season, which had never happened in the franchise’s history. They’re the first team this season to allow 26 or fewer points in a three-game span, one of the best defensive stretches of 2023, and the first in the Super Bowl era to lose three consecutive games where they allowed ten or fewer points.
With the Patriots’ playoff hopes virtually dashed weeks ago, rooting for losses in pursuit of a top draft selection makes sense. In fact, the team went from the projected 3rd overall pick to the 2nd after the Cardinals’ win over the Steelers. That said, it’s hard not to feel for a defense playing excellent football with nothing but pride to show for it.
Some may point fingers at newly-anointed starter Bailey Zappe for the offense’s struggles. But it was clear throughout the game that New England’s issues run deeper than its lack of quality passers.
Here are my top takeaways from the Patriots’ 6-0 loss to the Chargers.
- DL Deatrich Wise (shoulder, illness)
- WR Demario Douglas (head)
- WR Kayshon Boutte (shoulder, illness)
- OT Vederian Lowe (healthy scratch)
- CB Alex Austin (healthy scratch)
- RB JaMycal Hasty (healthy scratch)
- Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle, did not return)
- Shaun Wade (illness, did not return)
NE-2-9 @ NE 25 (9:55 – 1st) T.Brown, Too Many Men on Field, 5 yards, enforced at NE 25 – No Play.
NE-3-7 @ LAC 45 (7:14 – 2nd) B.Zappe, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at LAC 45 – No Play.
NE-3-11 @ NE 8 (1:53 – 2nd)-D.Parker, False Start, 4 yards, enforced at NE 8 – No Play.
The Defense Deserves Better
Weather conditions and poor execution from the Chargers provided some assists, but this was a dominant display from the Patriots’ defense. Their turnover streak has been snapped, and the pass rush couldn’t beat Justin Herbert’s quick release, but defenders made plays throughout the matchup.
Hats off to the #Patriots defense for their efforts that half
They're getting no help from the offense and were handed some tough field position, but still managed to keep Justin Herbert and LAC out of the end zone pic.twitter.com/lB5CFxI87I
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 3, 2023
Four players had tackles for loss, and five broke up at least one pass (J.C. Jackson broke up two). Their only points allowed were field goals where the Chargers started in Patriots territory due to punting miscues.
Deatrich Wise has noted throughout the season how the Patriots have held teams below their season averages, and that was the case again on Sunday.
This afternoon’s game marked the first time LA scored fewer than 10 points this season. Justin Herbert’s 75.5 passer rating was his lowest since Week 9 against the Jets, which was his only other game without a touchdown pass. Keenan Allen, one of the league’s most productive receivers, had fewer than 60 receiving yards for just the third time this season and the first time since Week 7.
New England’s defense hasn’t been perfect, but no unit is. They’ve done their job over the past month, and it’s disappointing to see their efforts squandered by inept offense week in and week out.
Bailey Zappe Let Down by Supporting Cast in Up-and-Down Day
In one of his most candid responses this season, Bill Belichick explained to reporters postgame why he finally handed the reigns to Bailey Zappe after sticking with Mac Jones through 12 games. The head coach said he thought Zappe “deserved a chance to play,” explaining, “We gave Mac the opportunity to work through his progression with the offense and obviously hadn’t had a lot of production.”
Zappe’s turnover-free day was the first for a starting Patriots quarterback since Week 7’s upset against the Bills. He also deserves credit for a strong stretch in the 3rd quarter that included some smart decisions and looked good pushing the ball downfield.
Between these shots and his throw on the run to Henry, Bailey Zappe might be starting to find his rhythm pic.twitter.com/N59HGfP6uE
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 3, 2023
But the results in today’s game weren’t drastically different, as Zappe e earned a 68.9 passer rating, completed just 52% of his passes, and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt on 25 throws. The second-year passer took full responsibility after the game, responding to questions about inclement weather by saying, “Look, both teams gotta play through it. It’s not ideal. … No excuses. Just gotta play better.”
Zappe wasn’t blameless in today’s defeat, as his inconsistent accuracy sometimes made catches unnecessarily difficult and even impossible. But as has been the case with Mac Jones, his supporting cast did little to support their new starter. The Patriots allowed five sacks against LA, and clean pockets were hard to come by throughout. Zappe’s escapability helped keep plays alive, including an impressive 4th down conversion after pump-faking a defender to open a lane, but that heat derailed multiple promising drives.
Mike Onwenu had his hands full against future Hall of Famer Khalil Mack, who recorded a pair of sacks. Trent Brown, battling multiple lower body injuries, gave up a sack where his defender was barely touched, and a missed block by Ezekiel Elliott against Derwin James led to a critical 4th down sack late in the game. Zappe took responsibility for his sacks, saying he needed to understand field position and did too much, but both 4th quarter takedowns happened almost instantly.
Zappe’s receivers also let him down with multiple drops, including a deep bomb to Tyquan Thornton that went right through the receiver’s hands.
Tyquan Thornton had CB Deane Leonard beat, but had to dive and the ball went right through his hands.
Got to give Bailey Zappe credit. Was a well-thrown ball pic.twitter.com/3mKyVfAT22
— Sophie Weller (@sophieewellerr) December 3, 2023
The quarterback said he threw it too far, but Thornton took the blame and said he should’ve run under the ball instead of diving for it. DeVante Parker also dropped his first target of the game and failed to keep his feet in on a deep shot that could’ve been called for defensive pass interference. JuJu Smith-Schuster also stumbled and never recovered on a failed downfield target.
Zappe may not be the answer at quarterback for New England, and as I mentioned earlier, he was far from perfect. But it’s tough to criticize his 2nd performance, and the lack of help from veterans proved the Patriots are more than just a gifted passer away from fixing their aerial attack.
Offense Loses Top Weapon to Controversial Tackle
Rhamondre Stevenson started strong against a leaky Chargers run defense, averaging 4.3 yards on nine carries in the 1st quarter. Unfortunately, his day was cut short after being brought down on a “hip-drop” tackle, where the back’s legs were caught under the defender’s weight.
Looked like Onwenu missed a block and Mondre got hip-drop tackled pic.twitter.com/34ULl86GYd
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 3, 2023
Stevenson would later be ruled out with an ankle injury, and The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported he could miss multiple games with a sprain.
When asked about the controversial tackle, captain David Andrews alluded to all the rule changes he’s seen since entering the NFL, saying, “You’re eventually going to take away everything from the game, right?” Andrews also said he didn’t believe there was malicious intent behind the play, which I think was fairly clear when watching live.
With Stevenson out of the game, Ezekiel Elliott, who’s been dealing with a thigh injury, became the team’s sole running back. He was solid running the ball, averaging 3.1 yards on 17 carries, but his most explosive gain came on a 23-yard slip screen.
— Video from: @TSV__1 (@TSV__1) December 3, 2023
Elliott told reporters after the game his mindset is to go out and leave no drop-off with Stevenson set to miss time, but Stevenson has looked like one of the league’s best backs since Week 6. And with New England unable to rely on its passing attack, a struggling offense could be even more difficult to watch on a short week without its best weapon.
- Pre-snap penalties continue to hold the offense back. Zappe and Smith-Schuster bailed them out of the first, but the next two put the offense in 3rd & impossible situations that ended drives.
- Malik Cunningham confirmed he had a package of plays in today’s game plan but did not play an offensive snap today. He said he felt more himself playing quarterback this week.
- J.C. Jackson had a pair of pass breakups but continues to struggle in coverage. He failed to get depth on a hole shot to Quentin Johnston, though Kyle Dugger was the main culprit as the deep 1/2 safety, and drops covered up another pair of lapses.