Coming off a 37-20 loss against the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots will have two weeks to straighten out the ship again before heading into a four-game stretch against some of the league’s best teams. And as Sunday’s primetime defeat showed, there are certainly areas that could need some fine-tuning during the team’s Week 10 bye — despite the Patriots still sitting firmly atop the AFC’s playoff picture with an 8-1 record.
After all, the game in Baltimore magnified some of the issues that have already plagued the team entering the weekend but were in parts overshadowed by success elsewhere. The Ravens, for example, were able to take advantage of an inconsistent run defense and seemingly moved the football on the ground without much resistance. Meanwhile, they also were able to challenge an offensive line early on that has yet to properly gel.
“We’ll sit on this one for an extra week, but I think sometimes an extra week can be good,” said safety Devin McCourty during his postgame press conference after Sunday’s game when addressing the upcoming bye week. “We’ll get to watch the film. When a team has success on you, you’re going to see some of those plays again. Nobody has Lamar Jackson, but we’d be crazy to think things that they did tonight, we won’t see again.”
“It’ll be good as a defense and as a team to be able to get in-depth on some of the things that have hurt us throughout the season. We have to be mature enough to get better as a football team,” the veteran defender continued before also pointing out that a bye is no magic elixir to fix the team’s issues by itself. “We can’t think we’re going to fix every problem we’ve had during the season, during the bye week; it just doesn’t work like that.”
So what are those issues that need to be addressed over the two weeks? Essentially, there are five areas the Patriots need to either improve in or simply reevaluate in order to field the best possible version of themselves when they face the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 12.
For as good as the Patriots defense had been playing through the first eight weeks of the season, there were some visible albeit small chinks in the armor — especially when it came to stopping the run. Opponents, of course, regularly had to abandon their ground game after falling behind early during games but New England was generally not playing consistently enough on the ground to prevent teams from regularly gaining positive yardage.
The game against the Ravens certainly showed this to an extreme. With quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Mark Ingram II as the one-two punch out of the backfield, Baltimore was able to gain 213 yards on 38 attempts while averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns. This success on the ground also helped the team control the tempo of the game, as McCourty pointed out on Sunday night.
“We knew they had one of the best running attacks in the NFL. They were really able to run the ball, and I think because we struggled to stop the run, that pretty much gave them control of the game. Possessions, down and distance; they got to be comfortable all game,” the Patriots’ defensive captain said before also noting that the issues that plagued the team had less to do with scheme but rather with execution and fundamentals.
“There were a couple of plays where it didn’t matter who the quarterback was because we had no edge of the defense. It wasn’t like he outran a guy that had the edge. They just got out there and ran their plays,” he said when addressing the issues on the ground. “I think it was more of playing fundamentally together. It was a ‘do your job’ game. If each guy doesn’t do their job and do it well, then we’re going to struggle.”
What can the Patriots therefore take from their defeat in Baltimore as it relates to the run defense? Essentially, there are two things:
1.) Fundamentals. Players cannot miss tackles or shoot the gaps too aggressively; they also need to properly set the edge instead of veering off into the middle of the field.
2.) Scheme. New England, as was explained in HP Football’s latest film breakdown, used plenty of run blitzes and two-gap concepts in order to slow down the Ravens — to no avail. While not all teams have the ability to attack the Patriots in the same fashion, Bill Belichick and company will need to self-scout and reevaluate its battle plan against the teams that do.
Red zone offense
While leading the league in scoring through eight weeks, the Patriots’ offense has had its fair share of inconsistent play: the running game was producing at a lower rate as during last year’s playoff run, the pass protection forced Tom Brady to move off the spot too often, and the tight ends were unable to integrate themselves into the passing game. One of the biggest issues, however, might have been the red zone offense.
Pats Pulpit’s own Rich Hill illustrated the team’s struggles inside the opponents’ 20-yard line earlier this week, when he shared the following numbers on social media:
The Patriots have scored on 75.6% of their trips to the red zone, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
They’ve scored a touchdown on 48.9% of red zone drives, which ranks 23rd in the NFL.
Needless to say that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to find ways to finish drives, something that hurt his unit against Baltimore: the Patriots drove into the red zone four times on Sunday night, but found the end zone just twice. The team had to settle for field goals from 22 and 19 yards out, respectively, on its other two attempts. Untimely errors forced New England in unfavorable situations and ultimately to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
Once again, the answer to the issue might be as simple as execution and keeping mental errors to a minimum. However, the bye week also gives McDaniels additional time to look at what did and did not work over the first nine games of the season — and to recognize patterns that potentially need to be worked on in the red zone.
Entering Week 9’s game in Baltimore, the Patriots had eight players listed as questionable on their final injury report. While only two of the men — tight end Matt LaCosse (knee) and wide receiver/punt returner Gunner Olszewski (ankle/hamstring) — would eventually miss the contest, the general message this report sent was clear: New England was not at full strength after having played a game in eight straight weeks.
The bye therefore comes at an opportune time as the club heads into the home-stretch portion of the regular season: players getting some time off will help those who are still recovering from injuries, even if they are classified as minor, to get some much-needed rest. It will also help two men take another step towards returning to the field and helping the offense after it had an up-and-down performance over the first half of the season.
Wide receiver N’Keal Harry was placed on injured reserve shortly after roster cutdowns, but rejoined the active roster the day before the Patriots’ game against the Ravens. However, the first-round rookie was not yet deemed ready to participate in the high-speed game plan constructed by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Getting some additional time to get back into game shape will certainly benefit the 23-year-old.
The same goes for offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn, whose toe injury forced the team to place him on IR after the Week 2 game in Miami. Under NFL rules, Wynn will have to miss eight games before being eligible to return to the 53-man squad again so the bye actually pushes his return back a week — which in turn gives him more time to recover and prepare to fill the starting left tackle spot again versus the Dallas Cowboys in Week 12.
Speaking of Isaiah Wynn, his return is expected to be a big boost for an offensive line that — as mentioned above — has yet to properly gel and work as a unit on a consistent down-to-down basis. This lack of consistency is not just due to individual performance, however, but also because of personnel turnover at essentially all but one position:
- Left tackle: Isaiah Wynn was moved to injured reserve after Week 2. He was replaced by Marshall Newhouse who has been had his fair share of ups and downs since.
- Left guard: Joe Thuney remains the Patriots’ iron man and the best offensive lineman on the roster.
- Center: David Andrews was placed on IR ahead during roster cutdown day after blood clots were discovered in his lungs. Ted Karras has been impressive as a stand-in, however.
- Right guard: Shaq Mason missed New England’s Week 8 game against the Cleveland Browns due to an ankle injury, pushing James Ferentz into the starting lineup. Mason returned in Week 9 but was among those listed as questionable heading into the contest.
- Right tackle: Marcus Cannon hurt his shoulder on opening day and was forced to sit out the game against Miami one week later (Newhouse and Korey Cunningham replaced him). He has started all seven games since his return, however, and appears to be back at full strength.
While the left tackle position is the main area of attention — Newhouse has surrendered a team-high 21 quarterback pressures so far this season, six of which in the form of sacks — and one that should be upgraded upon Wynn getting reinserted into the lineup, the rest of the line has also yet to perform at peak level. The bye week, however, gives the unit additional time to build on its chemistry and improve heading into the second half of the season.
There certainly is reason for optimism that this happens beyond Wynn’s eventual return. Just go back to last year, when the offensive line surrendered 74 quarterback pressures before its Week 11 bye compared to only 57 in the eight games afterwards — including the playoffs. On a per-game basis, the O-line did give up more hurries (4.3 vs 3.4) but it also saw its number of sacks (0.6 vs 1.0) and hits (2.3 vs 3.0) improve.
If a similar development can take place this season, the Patriots’ offensive line and by extension the entire offense should improve — not just in the passing game, but when it comes to attacking opponents on the ground as well.
Despite ultimately coming up short, the Patriots had one of their most encouraging offensive performances of the season against Baltimore: running an attack that relied on 11-personnel packages and the use of no-huddle, New England moved the football well while trying to come back from a 17-0 first quarter deficit. Along the way, however, quarterback Tom Brady keyed in on two members of the offense: Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu combined to the be on the other end of 25 of his 41 pass attempts.
Playing offense and defense in the NFL has a lot to do with finding tendencies and calling plays to take advantage of them. New England, therefore, can expect teams to invest additional resources into slowing down Edelman and Sanu moving forward. This, in turn, would free up other options — among them receiving back James White and number three wide receiver Phillip Dorsett II — but they need to be able to get onto the same page as Brady.
White and Dorsett have shown an ability to do that in the past, but the other skill position players on New England’s roster have yet to establish a rhythm with the future Hall of Famer. Tight ends Benjamin Watson, Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse are part of this group, as is the aforementioned N’Keal Harry as well as fellow rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers. The Patriots will not rely on them to carry the offense, but they could turn into valuable rotational options if their chemistry with Brady improves. The bye week is a good time for that.
Of course, the Patriots cannot expect to immediately solve all the problems they have in the areas mentioned here over the course of their bye — something Devin McCourty pointed out after the game against the Ravens: “We can’t think we’re going to fix every problem we’ve had during the season, during the bye week; it just doesn’t work like that. I think if it did, you’d see a lot of better football teams.”
That being said, the bye week still presents the team with an opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate what went well and what did not — and how to address potential issues.