The New England Patriots are above .500 for the first time all season, have won back-to-back games, and might just move into the playoff picture in Week 10 without even taking the field. From that perspective, things are looking well heading into the upcoming bye.
That all said, the Patriots have plenty of questions they need to answer over the coming weeks especially on the offensive side of the ball. Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts, after all, was a rough one for the unit led by quarterback Mac Jones and play-caller Matt Patricia: it struggled to string positive plays together and was bailed out by impressive performances on defense and special teams.
The end result was a 26-3 win that followed the general pattern of Patriots games over the first half of the season. It was not pretty by any means, but enough plays were made in all three phases to improve to 5-4 on the year (and get Colts head coach Frank Reich fired along the way).
For now, however, let’s focus on what went right and what went wrong for New England in Week 9. Welcome to our Patriots Film Review.
As was mentioned in our Game Plan preview heading into the contest against the Colts, the Indianapolis offense is similar to the one the Patriots faced the previous week. Like the New York Jets, who limited New England to 22 points and 3.8 yards per play, the Colts also featured a disruptive front accompanied by a zone-heavy coverage scheme in the backend.
Building off that foundation allowed them to enter Week 9 tied for seventh in points given up per game (19.6), ninth in yards (319.8) and 15th in EPA per play (-0.005) despite only ranking 22nd in takeaways (8). The unit was a stout one that limited throws into the deep areas and, led by talented interior duo Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner, stood its ground versus the run.
The Patriots knew all this as well, and yet their offense chose a curious mode of attack which brings us to our first issue of the day: the battle plan and in-game operation.
Assistant coach Matt Patricia is not the only person to blame for New England’s offensive insufficiency, but at least on Sunday he did not appear to help the unit out. His play-calling was curious at times and a lack of creativity led to some serious issues on early downs.
Just look at it this way: the Colts defense entered Week 9 ranked sixth in the NFL in expected points added per run play (-0.129). And yet, Patricia insisted on trying to establish the run throughout the day leading to predictable results particularly early on: the Patriots’ first and second possessions both began with a run for loss, putting the unit behind the chains early and eventually leading to consecutive three-and-outs to start the game.
The Patriots offense in its present state simply is not good enough to recover from such negative plays on early downs, especially with the offensive line currently having major issues in pass protections (although that is a different story entirely). It also cannot allow itself to waste possessions by immediately falling behind the chains.
Mac Jones himself said as much after the game.
“First and second downs is a big part of the NFL,” he said. “I think really good teams are good on first and second down. Third down, they’re in a better spot and convert more. You want to be above whatever percentage mark we set, and we’ve got to be better and extend drives that way.
“Every drive can’t seem like it’s so hard to get yards. We’ve got to be able to skip some third downs and move the ball and get explosive plays.”
At least against the Colts, the Patriots did not do that consistently enough to build any rhythm on offense. Opting to run the ball on 15 of 23 first down plays against a top-tier run defense certainly was part of the issue: New England gained 1.8 yards per carry in those situations and had six runs for negative yards. Ouch.
The play selection itself was not the only problem for the unit, though. There also was an issue with play design as illustrated by the following 2nd-and-9 in the late first quarter:
Usually you see the post-wheel combo on the right side of the offensive formation paired with an out route to flood coverage. Here, however, neither receiver is a viable option and Rhamondre Stevenson (38) is merely serving as a check-down rather than a player manipulating coverage as part of the design.
Meanwhile, the high-low concept on the left takes too long to develop and Mac Jones (10) gets sacked for a loss of 6 yards. The Patriots went to 3rd-and-15, gained only 10 yards, and had to punt.
The Colts’ identity is mostly having a dominant interior rush and playing zones designed to take away downfield throws. Attempting plays like this, even off play-action, is asking for trouble: Indianapolis is not the team to try without a legitimate underneath option against deep coverage drops.
As for Mac Jones, there was some good and some bad.
New England’s quarterback went 20-for-30 for 147 yards and a touchdown, primarily taking the safe play and attacking the underneath areas of the field. That much was not a surprise given the Colts’ aforementioned affinity for deep drops in their zone coverage shells; as much as he and the offense would like to attack deeper areas of the field Indianapolis was not the team to consistently threaten this way.
The numbers beyond 10 yards were therefore not necessarily impressive. Jones went 2-for-6 for 47 yards when targeting underneath and deep zones.
The problem is that he and the offense left some plays on the field in the short areas as well. Take look at the following 3rd-and-4 in the third quarter.
The Patriots come out in a 1x3 formation with Jones (10) in shotgun and Rhamondre Stevenson (38) flanking him. Needing three yards to move the chain, the expectation would be to go with a quick concept to a) get the ball out of the QB’s hands behind a suspect offensive line, and b) get the yardage needed.
Once again, however, the play design is a problem. When Jones is at the top of his drop, only one wide receiver — Kendrick Bourne (84) — is facing his way with as a potential target; Tyquan Thornton (11), Hunter Henry (85) and Jakobi Meyers (16) are all running deeper patterns with Stevenson not yet through the line of scrimmage.
The design is doing Jones no favors, and neither is him locking into the left side of the formation. Thornton appears to be his first read on the play, but he fails to get open against ex-Patriot Stephon Gilmore (1).
This forces Jones to climb the pocket, but instead of simply sliding forward he resets his feet entirely and thus effectively eliminates the right side of the field entirely. Bourne, at that point, was still open. With Jones’ entire base now looking left, Stevenson is his only remaining target. The pass ends up incomplete.
“It’s all about where your eyes start as a quarterback,” Jones said after the game. “What you’re being told and where you’re looking. Sometimes you miss things that people — you don’t know if you missed it or not on the field. You walk off and are like, ‘Darn, I looked at the picture. Looked like it was there, but my eyes were starting where they were supposed to start.’ Sometimes that’s how it is.”
Whether it is Jones not going through his progressions quickly enough or the Patriots running too many half-field reads, the fact of the matter is that he left some plays on the field. The one above is one example, as are an attempted deep shot for Thornton on the previous play and a wheel route to Stevenson in the second quarter.
Not all was bad, though. Jones did make a few good throws as well — the 30-yarder down the seam to Hunter Henry in the early fourth quarter was well-executed by all involved — and also did not have any turnover worthy plays. Given that he has thrown at least one interception in all five of his previous starts, that is some definitive improvement.
What did not improve, however, was the play of the pass catchers and offensive line.
The wide receiver group in particular left a lot to be desired on Sunday. Whether it was Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne coughing up the ball, with Meyers’ fumble being recovered by the defense, or the group oftentimes taking too long to get open, there were some problems against the 21st-ranked pass defense in terms of EPA entering Week 9 (0.091).
As for the offensive line, it continued its personnel shuffle. Not only did center David Andrews miss another week due to a concussion, the Patriots also made changes at left guard and right tackle.
At tackle, Yodny Cajuste started the game and went wire-to-wire. The former third-round draft pick was pretty dominant as a run blocker versus the Colts, but he also struggled with the length and hand fighting of their edge defenders in pass protection, specifically Kwity Paye. To Cajuste’s credit he did have a quiet second half, so it will be interesting to see if New England sticks with him at right tackle over Isaiah Wynn.
Speaking of Wynn, the former first-rounder saw extensive action at left guard again replacing nominal starter Cole Strange. Strange, the Patriots’ first-round draft pick this year, had another rough outing with Andrews absent: he was involved in two negative runs, surrendered a quarterback pressure, and was flagged for an illegal-hands-to-the-face-penalty.
Wynn replaced him after two drives, and while the experiment was not perfect it was an upgrade. He shut down Grover Stewart 1-on-1 in pass protection, mostly kept DeForest Buckner quiet on combo blocks with replacement center James Ferentz (and solo on some lower-difficulty reps), and helped out left tackle Trent Brown while looking for work. He also had a solid day in the run game with some well-executed doubles and more nice reps versus Stewart and Buckner.
Are Wynn and Cajuste the answers to the Patriots’ offensive line woes? That remains to be seen. Against the Colts, however, the unit as a whole struggled regardless of who was on the field.
New England finished the game with 10 negative plays. Additionally, the run game gained just 72 yards on 27 non-kneel down carries, an average of just 2.7 yards per attempt, while Jones was pressured on 13 of his 34 dropbacks for a rate of 38.2 percent. None of these numbers are particularly encouraging.
For as bad as New England’s offense looked against the Colts, the team’s defense was that good. Sure, it was facing an offense that had benched its starting quarterback two weeks ago and fired its coordinator five days before the game, but it did what it was supposed to do: shut down the Sam Ehlinger-led attack.
Ehlinger, the Colts’ sophomore quarterback starting his second NFL game, was under constant pressure and never able to get into any sort of rhythm (sounds familiar?). When the day was over, he had been sacked nine times — tying a post-merger franchise record — and pressured on 19 of 42 dropbacks.
The sacks were the result of several factors. For one, the Colts offensive line simply could not pick up stunts to safe their lives. Indianapolis’ first offensive play of the day with 14:11 left to go in the first quarter was a sign of things to come:
In a two-point stance from a wide-9 alignment, outside linebacker Matthew Judon (9) loops inside after the snap behind teammate Lawrence Guy (93). Ideally, the Colts’ right guard and tackle would switch assignments in that case to pick up the game but a lack of chemistry up front was apparent all day. This play was no exception.
By the time guard Matt Pryor (69) reacts to Judon penetrating through the A-gap, it is already to late. Ehlinger (4) does his best to reach his potential escape lane but the Pro Bowl defender wraps him up for a loss of three yards.
Judon ended up with three sacks on the day, as did teammate Josh Uche. The former second-round draft pick, however, produced his sacks in a slightly different fashion: whereas Judon’s first two came on stunts, with the third seeing him overpower running back Deon Jackson, two of Uche’s three were cleanup-type plays.
His third sack, on the other hand, which was actually his first of the day, was a straight win via speed rush:
Going up against rookie left tackle Bernhard Raimann (79), Uche (55) showcases some elite bend around the edge to slip underneath the block attempt. Ehlinger (4) was taken down in a mere 2.7 seconds after the ball was snapped.
His performance against the Colts was arguably the best of Uche’s young career, and the third-year man showed the disruptive power he can bring to New England’s pass rush. With him and Judon on the field, and with Deatrich Wise Jr. continuing his high-level play — look no further than his half-sack that saw him put All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson on skates — the Patriots field one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the game right now.
Their nine sacks and 10 additional pressures were not just the result of scheme or individual play, however. The coverage in the backend also played an important role as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out.
“Any time you have a good pass rush, you have good coverage. Any time you have good coverage, you’ll have a good pass rush,” he said during his postgame press conference. “Some of those sacks looked like coverage sacks, where there was nobody to throw to. Some of them were great rush sacks where they didn’t have time to execute the passing game. But good team defense is really what it’s about.”
The coverage shined throughout the day, highlighted by cornerback Jonathan intercepting a tipped pass and taking it back 16 yards for a touchdown. That was not the only play worth mentioning, though.
The one before the Uche sack shown above, for example, also is a great illustration of New England simply playing better in the backend than the wide receivers and tight ends it went up against.
Facing a 2nd-and-9, the Colts used their standard 11-personnel group with Ehlinger (4) in the shotgun. New England counters with a 3-3-5 nickel look out of a two-deep formation, with man-to-man coverage across the board.
That Cover 2 defense pitched Jalen Mills (2) against Colts No. 1 wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (11) on the offensive left-side perimeter. As the wideout was moving into his route, Mills slightly opens his hips to invite him to the outside — going for inside leverage to use the sideline as his ally, a classic man coverage tactic.
Pittman Jr., however, countered by running an in-breaking route. Based on his leverage, he had a natural advantage over Mills but the Patriots cornerback was able to recover quickly and close in on the receiver when it became clear that Ehlinger was targeting him; his ability to close the gap and knock the ball away at arrival without interfering can be described as “textbook”.
But even if Pittman Jr. had caught the ball in stride — Ehlinger threw it slightly behind, forcing him to slow down — the success of the play was not guaranteed: linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (8) also reacted quickly, and moved down from his zone to deliver a hit if a connection was made.
New England did not just shut down the Colts’ passing game, though, it also did a good job versus the run. Indianapolis ended the day with only 78 yards on 22 carries for an average of 3.5 yards per attempt; Ehlinger was actually the most productive ball-carrier for his team with 39 yards on five rushes.
The Colts not having their leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor, due to injury did make matters easier for the defense. However, it did make some impressive plays regardless of who was or wasn’t on the field.
The following stop on 4th-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter is a good example of that:
With the offense in a heavy set, the defense counters with a 5-1 look with three down-linemen flanked by two standup linebackers. One of those, aligning over the right side of the offensive line, is Matthew Judon (9) who will shows that he is a complete edge defender and more than “only” a pass rusher.
On this run, he initially bursts into the backfield but quickly resets his hips once he sees Ehlinger (4) pitch the ball to Deon Jackson (35). The play call itself was questionable with only one blocker in front to help clear a lane, but that does not mean that Judon’s individual effort is not worth pointing out: he chases Jackson down quickly to team up with Ja’Whaun Bentley (8) and Jabrill Peppers (3) to stop the run short of the line to gain.
“One thing we talked about was stepping up in big moments, honestly, and big areas on the field,” defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. said after the game. “When it was on the third down plays, our goal was to affect the quarterback and get after him. When it was fourth down, we kind of took it as disrespect, like if you’re going to run the ball on us, we’re going to stop you and we did that twice. That’s kind of our motto, our mindset, is to stop anything that comes our way.”
The Patriots sure did that on third and fourth down. The Colts went a combined 0-for-16 in those situations, turning the football over on downs two times.
Obviously, Indianapolis is near the bottom of the league when it comes to playing competent offensive football this season. That said, New England did what any good defense is supposed to do in a setting like that: dominate the opponent from start to finish, and help put the offense in a position to succeed as well.
New England’s dominant performance on defense was partially duplicated in the kicking game as well. Reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Nick Folk made all four of his field goal tries, with both the return and coverage teams looking very good as well.
The biggest play made by the group, however, was a blocked punt in the second quarter — a play that set up New England’s lone offensive touchdown of the day.
Originally aligning as the defensive right-side vice opposite Colts gunner Dallis Flowers (33), Jonathan Jones (31) leaves his man uncovered before the snap to move inside. The Colts never saw him coming, resulting in Jones bursting around the edge to get a hand on the football. Teammate Brenden Schooler (41) ended up with the ball in his hands, giving New England possession at the Indianapolis 2-yard line.
“It’s a lot of rhythm,” Jones said after the game. “They were kind of doing the same thing throughout the year. It’s something we worked on this week to go after and we were able to connect on it.”
Credit goes to Jones for executing, and for special teams coaches Cameron Achord and Joe Houston calling the play to take advantage of Indianapolis’ tendencies.
Not all was perfect on special teams, though. Punter Jake Bailey, after all, had another rough outing. The former first-team All-Pro had an ugly 36-yarder in the first quarter, seemingly rolling it off his foot after receiving a low snap from Joe Cardona. In the fourth quarter and with the game already decided, he then had a complete miss to send the ball just seven yards downfield.
All in all, though, those miscues did not hurt the Patriots on Sunday. And after last year’s special teams debacle against the Colts, the overall performance of the group was some nice payback.