Film Review: What Went Wrong for the Patriots Defense in Jacksonville?

The Patriots defense showed little resistance against the Jaguars offense on Sunday, but where and why did the breakdowns happen?

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The Jaguars’ success on offense during Sunday’s loss probably brought back nightmares for many Patriots fans of last February’s Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.

Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles passed for 377 yards on 8.4 yards per attempt and did so in a very similar fashion to how the Eagles carved up the Pats pass defense in February.

On the one hand, you have to give credit where credit is due.

The Jaguars skill players and Bortles played a terrific game, and Doug Marrone and the Jacksonville coaching staff had a tremendous game plan.

The Jags receivers won numerous one-on-one battles and made some spectacular plays both downfield and in space with the ball in their hands.

However, the Patriots defense has now been carved up at least four times in the last year or so with very similar game plans, and their inability to stop certain concepts will haunt them.

Smart coaching staffs paired with solid execution by the players, which is what we saw in Jacksonville Sunday, will continue to run these same types of schemes until the Patriots defense proves it can stop them.

And the worry here is that, although there are ways to fix some of the issues, the Patriots could be overmatched physically in certain areas to combat the horizontal passing attacks we can continue to see deployed against them.

Below, I will go over the core concepts that gave the Patriots fits on Sunday, and shed some light on how exactly the Jaguars carved up the Pats defense:

ROUTE CONCEPTS

FLOOD CONCEPT

Let’s start with a simple one, both the Eagles and Jaguars picked apart the middle of the field on the Patriots with simple zone flood concepts.

The Patriots like to play forms of cover-1 and cover-3 with their middle linebackers dropping into underneath zones, and essentially, flood concepts aim to put multiple players in one defender’s area of the zone, leaving them in a two-on-one situation.

On this play, Jags wideouts Donte Moncrief and Keelan Cole converge in the middle of the Patriots defense with safety Nate Ebner dropping into an underneath zone. Moncrief runs an over route from the opposite slot while Cole runs a deep dig from a bunch set in a three by one formation. As you can see, that leaves Ebner in a lose-lose situation, as he has to slide under Cole’s route which leaves Moncrief open underneath him. You also see receiver Dede Westbrook run through Devin McCourty’s zone with McCourty serving as another defender between the numbers, which prevents him from helping out Ebner. This is a great play design by the Jags and a perfect call against the Patriots’ “rat” coverage, which is typically a cover-1/3 based scheme with McCourty dropping down into a robber position as the “rat” on the play. In this coverage, this is one play call that’s very difficult to stop, and Ebner does the right thing giving the Jags the underneath route and coming up to make the tackle.

MESH CONCEPT

Another concept that the Eagles ran on repeat in the Super Bowl and the Jags copied on Sunday was the mesh concept.

The mesh is taking over the NFL as many teams implement this strategy with the rule changes allowing for these types of pick and rub routes downfield to occur.

What gives a play away as mesh is the underneath crossing patterns that you see right around the 50-yard line here. The goal is for the receivers to create a mesh point where against man coverage they’ll set picks on each other’s men to get one of the two receivers free for a catch and run opportunity. However, on this play, the Jags do what Philadelphia did in the Super Bowl, and send a receiver on a spot route right to the area behind the linebackers in the middle of the field. Distracted by the crossers underneath, the Jags get the Pats linebackers to suck in closer to the line of scrimmage, and that leaves the receiver on the spot route wide open for an easy completion. Again, this is a good design by the Jags coaching staff.

Before we move on, I want to flip this play around to the end zone angle.

Notice the lack of interior pressure from the Patriots defensive line here. This was a recurring theme for the Pats all day, as Bortles’ lap was clean with very little penetration guard-to-guard. On this play, that allows Bortles to step up in the pocket and drive this throw through the heart of the Patriots defense. If there was interior pressure, it would likely throw off the timing of the route design and could give Kyle Van Noy that extra second he needs to get underneath Cole’s route.

SHALLOW CROSSERS

This next play design should come as no surprise to those that watched the game on Sunday.

The Jaguars offense destroyed the Pats defense on shallow crossing routes out of bunch formations.

Here, you’re going to see something that I think is fixable on these types of routes. First, the Patriots are in man coverage defending this bunch set, opting to stay in man rather than play the coverage inside-out. As a result, the player with inside leverage, safety Patrick Chung, isn’t the one that takes the crossing Dede Westbrook. Instead, it’s Jonathan Jones who’s off the line of scrimmage and out-leveraged by Westbrook that’s responsible for coming across the formation and beating Westbrook across the field, which is nearly impossible given Westbrook’s speed and the alignment. Also, rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley may have been spying Bortles on this play, but he allows Westbrook to run right across his face without any resistance. If Bentley does something to slow him down, it makes it easier on Jones to catch up. In the future, I’d like to see the Patriots pass off these routes out of bunch formations implementing inside-out principles, that way Chung ends up being the defender running across with Westbrook.

Once again, let’s flip this one around. As you can see, there’s zero interior pressure, leaving Bortles with plenty of space to step up in the pocket to improve his angle and drive the ball to Westbrook.

On Westbrook’s back-breaking touchdown, it was once again a shallow crosser that beat the Patriots defense. On this play, you can chalk this up to a coachable moment with multiple breakdowns that are easily fixable. First, although you can argue it was an illegal pick, Stephon Gilmore needs to do a better job of pressing the receiver blocking downfield to give Jonathan Jones a chance to get around Gilmore and the receiver. Second, two Patriot defenders ran to the same spot here, as both Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower converge on tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Without knowing the call, it appears that McCourty is at fault here, as he most likely should’ve picked up the crossing Westbrook. The communication and physical breakdowns on this play are all things that can be fixed and aren’t about a lack of speed that the Patriots may have on defense.

YARDS AFTER CATCH

In all, the Patriots defense allowed 212 yards after the catch to the Jaguars offense on Sunday, an incredibly high number, and as a team, they missed eight tackles.

The Jaguars skill players deserve credit, and they have some excellent playmakers, but the lack of team defense and tackling ability cost the Patriots defense big time in this one.

Head coach Bill Belichick summed it up nicely when told me, “ overall we have to do a better job of playing with leverage and tackling and using our help and getting the runner on the ground.”

Here’s a great example of what Belichick is talking about when he says they need to do a better job of playing with leverage and funneling ball carriers to their help. Devin McCourty sizes up Grant, who makes a fantastic move in the open field, but watch how McCourty loses his outside leverage and allows Grant to go up the sideline. If McCourty maintains his outside leverage, he’s going to force Grant back to the inside where his teammates can help him get the shifty running back on the ground.

The Jags did a great job of getting their skill players in space to create after the catch, but the Patriots need to allow themselves to gang tackle these elusive playmakers rather than continuously allowing one-on-one situations in the open field to play out as it did there.

LOSING CONTAIN ON MOBILE QUARTERBACKS

Lastly, another area that killed the Patriots defense on Sunday was losing contain on the edges, allowing quarterback Blake Bortles to convert three third-down plays with his legs.

Patriots defensive end Adrian Clayborn had an awful time trying to control his edge rushes against the mobile Bortles on Sunday, something the Patriots did very well the week before against Deshaun Watson.

Defensive play-caller Brian Flores said it best in his conference call with the media on Tuesday.

Flores said, “it’s a balance between being aggressive because you don’t want to be tentative, but at the same time, having a smart rush. So, you want to be aggressive but not overaggressive where you’re giving up step-up lanes and allowing guys to scramble.”

On this play, I saw two things that I didn’t love which resulted in a third-down conversion in the red zone for Bortles and the Jags. First, Clayborn blows past the quarterback in the pocket and gets caught too far upfield. That’s an egregious error he made multiple times on Sunday. You simply cannot run past the quarterback when you’re facing a mobile passer. And second, defensive tackle Adam Butler decides to go with a spin move here and gets bottled up by left guard Andrew Norwell. Those two overly aggressive upfield moves gave Bortles an easy escape route, and he takes it for a big first down late in the game.

CONCLUSION

Although no magic potion will fix all of these issues, so many of them are coachable errors that the Patriots defense will correct as the season goes on.

The first two route concepts above, flood and mesh, are good calls against the types of coverages that the Patriots run, and beat teams all over the NFL on a weekly basis.

Those are also concepts that take great execution, and the Jaguars were perfect on Sunday, something that we’re unlikely to see every week.

It’s also important to give credit to the Jags.

Their players get paid too, and they made a ton of terrific plays on Sunday.

However, the other three areas highlighted above (shallow crossers, YAC and mobile quarterbacks) are all areas where the Patriots can, and should, improve as the coaching staff points out the errors on film and the players lock in mentally on how to defend those types of plays.

Again, this isn’t necessarily about any physical limitations or a lack of speed.

Things such as defending bunch coverages inside-out, maintaining leverage and forcing ball carriers to help defenders, and a calculated pass rush against mobile quarterbacks are all mental things, not physical issues.

That’s the good news for the Patriots and Patriots fans.

However, the bad news is that we continuously see the Patriots defense make the same mistakes against these types of offenses, and I guarantee it’s got nothing to do with coaching.

The Patriots will have to go back to the film room to correct once again the mistakes that led to the Jaguars’ offensive explosion on Sunday.

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