The Patriots entered today’s game in the basement of the AFC, where they’ll stay for at least another week after losing to the Sam Howell-led Commanders this afternoon. I hate to say a professional team is tanking, but selling off two of their best defensive players pointed to a Washington franchise with 2024 in mind. Despite this future-forward mindset, Ron Rivera’s team outclassed the Patriots on their own turf in a 20-17 upset. As Bill Belichick and several others noted after the game, there were several opportunities to come out on top in this matchup, but New England failed to capitalize on those chances.
The offense entered this game with one arm tied behind its back at wide receiver, fielding a group consisting of Demario Douglas, Jalen Reagor, Tyquan Thornton, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alarmingly, explosive rookie Kayshon Boutte was a healthy scratch for the eighth consecutive game after having what Bill Belichick called his best week of practice. Trent Brown also missed today’s game with an ankle/knee injury, pushing Conor McDermott to the blindside. The impact of New England’s losses was felt throughout the game. There were multiple miscues from the receivers, and a sack where McDermott seemed to misdiagnose a Washington rush was overturned by a phantom roughing the passer call.
Defensively, J.C. Jackson and Jack Jones started the game on the bench, with Shaun Wade getting the nod at outside corner opposite Jonathan Jones. This was an unforeseen move that only lasted a couple of series’, and Belichick rejected the notion that Jackson and Jones were benched by noting that all three cornerbacks played. But it was an undeniable head-scratcher that, perhaps coincidentally, came one week after both corners gave up explosive touchdowns on blown assignments.
New England won the turnover battle (2-1) for the second week in a row but lost time of possession (37:10 vs 22:50) and struggled mightily on 3rd downs. Hunter Henry clarified postgame that time of possession was skewed by the use of no-huddle, instead pointing to an inability to sustain drives near midfield as the group’s main issue. This was best exemplified on the offense’s opening drive, which lasted 11 plays before a 4th-down failure resulted in a turnover on downs at Washington’s 39-yard line. The offense had eight series last five or fewer plays, including both of their touchdown drives. New England’s only drives that lasted longer, besides their opening failure, resulted in a field goal and a game-sealing interception.
The defense held Washington to just 20 points, forced two turnovers, and finished the game strong by forcing three consecutive punts. However, their inability to get off of the field on 3rd downs (9-17) was another major reason their offense was stuck on the sidelines for much of the game. Their most egregious lapse came on a 3rd & 23 scramble conversion by Howell, which nearly contributed to a Commanders touchdown drive before halftime before the quarterback bailed them out with an interception in scoring territory.
It was a poor day for all three of New England’s units, with special teams units committing several of its own errors. The Commanders started the day with a 37-yard kick return, Demario Douglas lost 2-yards after going lateral instead of vertical on a punt return, Bryce Baringer punted a touchback from New England’s own 47-yard line, Brenden Schooler was flagged twice, and Mack Wilson was called for an offside penalty that nearly ended the offense’s shot at a comeback.
Once propelled to the top of football by clutch play, discipline, and situational awareness, the Patriots can’t get out of their own way this season. That reality is reflected in their record, which has put fans in the difficult position of hoping for 2024 draft positioning over 2023 victories. Here are my takeaways from another demoralizing loss.
Wide Receiver Room Fails to Step Up
Demario Douglas did everything he could to keep a mostly flightless passing offense afloat, leading the offense with 55 yards on five catches. He made multiple tight-window catches, though his most impressive was challenged and overturned.
When Kendrick Bourne was floated as a trade candidate, I mentioned how I feared it might cripple an offense lacking in trustworthy pass-catchers. That fear materialized against Washington, as Jalen Reagor caught just one of six targets, while Thornton managed just one grab on four.
Reagor had a great blocking effort on Rhamondre Stevenson’s touchdown run but dropped a well-thrown deep ball that could’ve put New England in position to score. Instead, New England punted a few plays later.
Thornton had a well-run route on the early turnover on downs, which Mac Jones admitted was the fault of a poor throw despite good protection. But Thornton was on the wrong end of two other late-down misses that can’t be put on the quarterback. One was an objectively poor route that led to Emmanuel Forbes blanketing the receiver, while the other drew the ire of Mac Jones and seemingly led to Thornton being benched early in the 2nd quarter.
JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped up and had some solid plays early, including an explosive YAC play and two conversions during the offense’s final drive. But his drop on the game-sealing interception, which Smith-Schuster owned up to after the game, epitomized the offense’s razor-thin margin for error.
Poor Discipline Plagues Situational Defense
New England’s defense made the stops it needed to late, and you’ve gotta tip your cap to Sam Howell and the Commanders for some of their successes. But it would be malpractice to ignore how poorly the Patriots executed on 3rd downs in the middle of this game.
After a solid start on Washington’s first two possessions, Howell turned into Patrick Mahomes and used his mobility to pick the defense apart late in the down count. Poor rush lane integrity and contain, coupled with insufficient coverage on the backend, kept the Commanders on the field far longer than they should’ve been. Howell’s 27-yard run was an inexcusable gaffe that paired an undisciplined rush with lackluster tackling. Deatrich Wise took responsibility for the error after the game.
Tackling was a persistent issue on the night, which Bill Belichick acknowledged during his presser, and it speaks to the larger concern of the defense’s discipline. This could also be seen on Brian Robinson’s touchdown run, where Jabrill Peppers and Josh Uche rushed too far upfield, and J.C. Jackson was late diagnosing the play.
Jackson declined after the game.
Rhamondre Stevenson A Rare Bright Spot on Offense
Rhamondre Stevenson is looking more and more like his old self, and it might’ve flown under the radar if not for his 64-yard score.
As spectacular as that highlight was, there wasn’t much room for Stevenson to run, which made his contact balance and slipperiness tough to spot live. Stevenson also followed an early drop with some important catches, recording four catches for 42 yards. He also got wide open on a wheel route that could’ve gone for a big gain, but the pass hung for too long and was broken up.
There aren’t many bright spots for the Patriots offense, particularly among their veteran skill players, but the third-year back is providing some much-needed entertainment for Patriots fans.
Three Breakout Defenders Add to Career Seasons
Anfernee Jennings, Christian Barmore, and Jahlani Tavai are having the best seasons of their respective careers, and this week was another impressive performance for each.
Tavai’s peanut punch to force a fumble set up New England’s first score of the game.
Jennings had an impressive effort to help shut down a triple option, generated edge pressure that forced a Howell scramble and totaled four tackles.
Barmore had a pair of batted passes and quarterback hits, as well as some key pressures.
With the Patriots in a bend-but-don’t-break era in their defense, these three breakout players continue to be difference-makers.
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