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Patriots vs. Cardinals game plan: How New England will find success in Week 14

New England needs a win to keep its realistic playoff hopes alive.

Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Their Week 14 game against the Arizona Cardinals is no true must-win for the New England Patriots yet — they will not be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss — but it very well might be: currently the No. 9 seed in a highly competitive AFC, the Patriots cannot afford to drop many more games, especially those they are expected to win.

Heading into Monday Night Football, that is precisely the case. The Patriots are currently listed as 2-point road favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, and anything but a victory would be a major disappointment and blow to their postseason hopes.

Of course, the status as pre-game favorite does not mean much if you cannot live up to the expectation. And the Patriots know that doing so will not be easy, despite the Cardinals entering the two teams’ matchup with a 4-8 record.

“Very explosive team,” said head coach Bill Belichick last week. “A lot of fire power. They make plays on offense. Pressure defense. Obviously, a couple of experienced specialists. Those guys probably have as much time together as that whole conference might have. But, obviously, a lot of familiarization work to do.”

With all that being said, how can New England find a way to come away victoriously to improve to 7-6 on the year and jump right back into the playoff picture? Based on its game against Arizona in 2020, and the Cardinals’ season so far, here is our best-guess estimation what they will do to earn the W.

Patriots offense vs. Cardinals defense

Coming off yet another disappointing performance in a 24-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots offense needs to get its act together quickly. Luckily, the unit will face a Cardinals defense that is a few tiers below Buffalo’s and has been rater mediocre throughout the season.

The numbers speak for themselves, with Arizona ranking below-average in several key statistics. The team is ranked 20th in EPA per play (0.035) — 21st versus the pass (0.087) and 17th versus the run (-0.062) — as well as 21st in yards per game (356.2), 28th on third down (45.0%), and 32nd in the red zone (68.9%).

Most importantly, the team entered Week 14 as the second worst team in points allowed per game: opponents are averaging 26.8 points a game versus the defense coordinated by Vance Joseph (who himself had some choice words when describing the Patriots offense last week).

Not counting any scores given up on offense and special teams, the unit is ranked even worse; as the 32nd team in the NFL it is surrendering 26.2 points per contest. Needless to say, if there ever is a week to get things right for the Patriots’ struggling offense this is it.

In general, teams have moved the ball on the Cardinals’ defense but it does not actually give up many explosive plays. That said, there seem to be a few moments in each recent game where the unit overreacted to play action, paid for poor tackles and pursuit angles, or simply blew coverages down the field.

While the Patriots cannot influence their opponent’s technique, they can put stress on a defense through their game plan and play design. And play-action concepts in particular are a way to attack what has been an aggressive, pressure-based defense this year.

Take the following play from the Cardinals’ Week 12 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers:

This is nothing exotic from either side of the ball, with Arizona showing a zone defense and Los Angeles running a motion to manipulate the strength of the formation before a fake handoff. This play-fake draws in off-ball linebackers Isaiah Simmons (9) and Zaven Collins (25), which in turn creates a significant bubble for wide receiver Josh Palmer (5) to exploit on his in-breaking route.

The Patriots have not relied all too much on play action to stress defenses, but they have shown an ability to properly run both classic play-fakes and run-pass option plays. If they go the latter route, they might want to go with a trap play such as the following which again stresses the space between the linebackers and third-level defenders:

The Patriots should get their chances to move the ball down the field against Arizona’s defense, but doing that has generally not been the main issue for the unit. Instead, sustaining series and turning them into touchdowns rather than field goals has been a problem for New England all year.

The Patriots are currently the worst team in the NFL in red zone percentage, scoring touchdowns on only 37.5 percent of their trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Luckily for New England, the Cardinals defense has struggled in this part of the field as well: they are dead-last in the league in red zone defense.

That is not the only reason why the matchup might be a favorable one for the Patriots. The Cardinals, after all, have also shown an inability to consistently defend some of the favorite red zone concepts used by play-caller Matt Patricia:

Obviously, all the schemes and play-designs will not matter if the players cannot execute. And one area has been a problem for New England as of late: the offensive line. This week might not look much better for the unit, unfortunately.

Right tackle Isaiah Wynn will again miss the game with a foot injury, while left tackle Trent Brown is still dealing with the effects of an illness that left him severely limited in Week 13; he is questionable to play. The same status was also placed upon third OT Yodny Cajuste, who is dealing with calf and back issues.

New England’s ability to create space in the running game and keep quarterback Mac Jones clean will again be crucial, regardless of who is on the field.

Pass protection in particular might be a concern, even if Brown and Cajuste are cleared to play. Arizona, after all, is ranked fourth in the league with a pressure rate of 24.6 percent.

The two players to keep an eye on are down-linemen J.J. Watt and Zach Taylor.

Watt is playing a lot of snaps for the Cardinals and still proving to be a disruptive presence. The future Hall of Famer spends most of his time along the interior line — thus going up against the Patriots’ trio of Cole Strange, David Andrews and Michael Onwenu — but also occasionally kicks out to the 5- or 7-technique spots.

The Patriots need to be mindful of his presence, and possibly use some help if he is lined up opposite the weakest links up front (Strange plus whoever is playing right tackle). But while Watt will draw considerable attention, Allen cannot be underestimated either.

While not as big a name as his teammate, the fourth-year man is a disruptive player in his own right and one of the league’s most underrated interior linemen this season. He is an explosive player with violent, precise hands and a white-hot motor — a great fit in the Cardinals’ aggressive, multiple-front scheme.

If the Patriots offensive line can give Mac Jones time, he has shown that he can operate the unit at a high level; look no further than the Minnesota Vikings game in Week 12. However, doing that has proven itself a problem for the group and could very well lead to issues again versus an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme.

And handling the blitz in general has not been Jones’ strong suit this year: he has a completion percentage of 56.6 percent when blitzed, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Arizona is blitzing at the third-highest rate in the league, sending extra rushers on 35.3 percent of dropbacks.

Patriots defense vs. Cardinals offense

Back in 2020, the Patriots defense did a solid job against the Cardinals offense led by head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray. Arizona scored 17 points, gained 298 yards of offense and turned the ball over once.

Obviously, a lot has changed for both teams over the last two years. Nonetheless, the Patriots using a similar approach on Monday night would not be a surprise because it helped them limit Murray’s impact especially as a passer: while he gained 31 yards on five carries for an average of 6.2 yards per attempt, he had only 170 passing yards, was sacked twice, and threw an interception to safety Adrian Phillips.

What did New England do? Rely mostly on zone defense.

The Patriots played very little man last time they faced Murray and the Cardinals, possibly a result of his athleticism and a close game. Most man snaps were Cover 0, which had some boom-or-bust results. While it seems unlikely that New England will rely on that high a number of Cover 0 calls outside of the red zone, the general idea could remain unchanged.

That is especially true given that Murray picked the Patriots apart the handful of times they went to their bread-and-butter coverage, Cover 1.

Regardless of coverage, the Patriots need to be able to limit Murray’s abilities as a dual-threat player at the quarterback position. And make no mistake, he is a threat on the ground.

The former first overall draft pick has carried the football on 61 non-kneel-down plays this season for 420 yards and three touchdowns. His average of 6.9 yards per attempt ranks fourth in the league among quarterbacks behind only the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields, the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen.

What can the Patriots do to limit Murray’s impact as a runner? Given that he is an elusive player who is going to make his plays, New England can’t make it easy by giving huge lanes without support behind them.

On this particular play versus the Chargers, linebacker Kenneth Murray (9) is the player to watch. He gets caught up in the middle of the field while accounting for running back James Conner (6); with him occupied with this assignment, Los Angeles has nobody on the second level solely focused on the quarterback run.

In order to counter Murray, the Patriots might rely on quarterback spies — linebacker Mack Wilson and safety Jabrill Peppers come to mind for that role — while also focusing on gap integrity.

“Just try to keep him in the pocket,” linebacker Matthew Judon said last week. “Make him throw from a tight pocket. Make him hit the receivers — he has really good receivers, it looks like their timing is getting better as the season’s progressed. But we have to frustrate him inside the pocket.

“We can’t let him get out and find running lanes, and kind of exploit the defense when he’s running and then find somebody open deep down the field. They do that very well: they extend plays, they get open, and they pick up a lot of first downs.”

What should help the Patriots is the fact that Arizona has gone through several offensive line combinations and neither has looked particularly good. If New England can play a sound game up front and get into Murray’s face, they should be able to increase their ability to generate errant throws.

His decision-making and accuracy, after all, can be significantly impacted by pressure or having to hold onto the ball. Add a willingness to let his receivers make plays and you get some passes going the defense’s way. New England finishing those plays should they happen will be crucial, and something the team lamented after last week’s loss to Buffalo.

Of course, Murray will not be the only focus point for the unit this week; the Cardinals also have an elite talent at the wide receiver position in DeAndre Hopkins. Despite missing the first six games of the year due to suspension, Hopkins is ranked first on the team with 49 receptions and 574 yards; he has also caught three touchdowns.

The Patriots held him to 55 yards on five receptions the last time these two teams met, and a similar output would likely be welcomed by them. It will not be easy to limit Hopkins and hold him below his impressive season average — 8.2 catches and 95.7 yards per game — but a thorough study can help; there are some pointers.

For example, the Patriots will need to be on high alert for back-shoulder fades anytime they line up in press versus Hopkins, especially if he’s aligned out wide. The Cardinals also like aligning him in the slot or in condensed looks close to the formation on third downs; his best plays in these situations have come on crossing routes, but he also switches things up with outs, sticks, or similar patterns.

Out routes have also been among his most productive this season, especially when faced with soft or zone coverages like the Patriots will likely run on Monday.

At the end of the day, the Patriots often talk about making an opponent play left-handed by taking away what it does best. In the Cardinals’ case, Murray rushing attempts and throws to Hopkins should be the main focus.

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