The New England Patriots entered their Week 15 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders with momentum on their side, and a good opportunity ahead of them. Several of their closest rivals in the AFC had lost their games that weekend, giving the Patriots a chance to make up some ground in the wild card race.
At first, it very much looked like they would not be able to do that. With the offense struggling once again and New England giving up a blocked up, the team found itself in a 17-3 hole at the half. Coming out of intermission, however, the tides started to turn: the Patriots scored 21 unanswered points to take a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, they failed to hang onto it. Not only did the Raiders tie the game with 32 seconds left on the clock, the Patriots completely collapsed on the next drive: the infamous final play of the game saw Rhamondre Stevenson and Jakobi Meyers outsmart themselves by going for a series of laterals that ended up in the arms of Las Vegas’ Chandler Jones, who returned the ball for a game-winning touchdown.
It was a disappointing ending to what had been another up-and-down day for the Patriots, especially on the offensive side of the ball. So, without any further ado, let’s jump right into our film preview.
The Raiders entered Week 15 as one of the worst defenses in football, with particular issues against the pass. Ranking only 31st in the league in expected points added per game (0.172), the Patriots’ opponent was bad. On the flip side, New England had a prime opportunity to get its struggling pass offense back on track.
The team spectacularly failed to do that, and a look at the numbers shows it: Mac Jones completed just 13 of his 31 pass attempts for 112 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He did have a successful two-point conversion to Jakobi Meyers, but overall played one of the worst games of his young career.
His EPA was just -0.16, while his completion percentage even after removing batted passes and drops (46.7) ranked a whopping 20.4 points below expectation (67.0). That’s bad.
So, what happened? As with all things 2022 New England offense, there is not one simple answer.
One definitive problem, however, was that Mac Jones just did not play good football. The sophomore quarterback had his streakiest performance of the season despite not committing a turnover-worthy play. He had several off-target throws in the underneath portion of the field, and also missed a couple of downfield opportunities.
One of Jones’ biggest issue was a general lack of accuracy. The numbers posted above are just the result of a breakdown elsewhere: his technique was sloppy for much of the day.
Take his first incomplete pass of the game, a sideline target to wide receiver Tyquan Thornton that Jones sends wide toward the boundary:
Although the design itself is a bit strange with no route attacking deeper than five yards downfield (and therefore short of the sticks), the call itself is a good one against Las Vegas’ Cover 5 defense: Thornton (11) stresses the outside leverage against cornerback Tyler Hall (37), and gets open in the flat. Jones (10), however, leads the ball too far.
Obviously, plays like that can happen. The very next one, however, was more of the same:
Here, Jones again attempts to throw from the far-side hash to his right. Once again, he over-leads his intended target — Jakobi Meyers (16) — on the throw.
Jones had a similar incompletion later in the game, when he overshot tight end Jonnu Smith in the end zone. On that play, he threw from center between the two hash marks and also led his target too far.
What was the issue on those three incompletions? A look at Jones’ feet shows that they appear to not be properly set; his front-foot toes are pointing too far to the boundary resulting in both of the passes drifting away from him. Why that is the case is anyone’s guess, but it appears his process was speed up either by the play call itself or by a lack of trust in the offensive line (a unit that did play well on Sunday).
Besides those breakdowns there were also plays where he simply seemed to make the wrong reads:
There were also plays where he seemed to miss reads and throws— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 20, 2022
1. Passes up the slant despite the LB charging toward the swing route, TFL
2. NE tries the double pump > MOF route but Mac doesn't take it, TFL
3. Targets Henry despite Meyers having a ton of space under the mesh pic.twitter.com/QM8b6wJEEV
Jones’ inconsistent play was not the only issue, though. Two of his passes were dropped — one by Nelson Agholor, another by Hunter Henry — while route-running and play design also was a problem.
After an incomplete goal-line slant intended for Agholor, for example, Jones shouted at Rhamondre Stevenson; the running back had led the coverage directly into his throwing window. Later in the game, on the ill-fated final drive, the Patriots ran two post patterns as a variation of their topper concept:
Hunter Henry (85) and Tyquan Thornton (11) appeared to be too close to one another on this particular play, however, effectively taking one target (Henry) out of the equation. Mac Jones checked the ball down to Jakobi Meyers underneath for a modest gain even though he could have had Thornton on the interior of the two deep posts:
This particular play is a good example of what went wrong for the Patriots passing offense against Las Vegas — from Jones’ decision-making, to route-running, to spacing, to play-design, to the QB and his receivers possibly not being on the same page. All of those are little things in a vacuum, but they add up.
Of course, not all went bad for the New England offense on Sunday. Two performances in particular are worth highlighting: the offensive line’s and the running backs’.
Rhamondre Stevenson played one of the best games of his career, carrying the ball 19 times for 172 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore showed some good vision and patience, and also quick feet on zone cutbacks and the ability to finish runs with excellent contact balance.
Of course, his performance was supported by some good play up front. The Patriots’ much-maligned offensive line was able to open up holes against an above-average run defense, giving Stevenson an opportunity to work his magic.
Take the following third-quarter run as an example:
The Patriots run power with Cole Strange (69) serving as a pull blocker from his left guard position. Strange takes on Maxx Crosby (98) to help create an opening for Stevenson, who bursts through the C-gap between him and the double-team block on Jerry Tillery (90). The blocking up front is solid, which gives the ball-carrier enough space to build up speed and push the pile upon contact.
As far as the other backs — Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris — are concerned, they had different levels of success. While Harris gained just 19 yards on five carries, Strong Jr. showed some impressive quickness and elusiveness en route to gaining 25 yards on four attempts.
What could have been a standout day for the running back position was, of course, overshadowed by the final play; Stevenson kicked off a chain reaction of panic moves when he tossed the ball back to Meyers. Needless to say that that play deserves all the scrutiny it can get — from the Patriots’ most reliable skill position players failing to adjust to the situation, to New England not simply running out the clock to begin with.
Of course, that latter decision goes both ways. Being aggressive in that situation could very well have worked, with Stevenson getting deep into the defense and being only one broken tackle away from potentially taking the play the distance.
Sometimes doing the unexpected works — take the Week 6 win in Cleveland, when he scored on a draw — and sometimes it does not. And in the ever so rare occasion, it completely crushes a team’s hopes of at least taking a game to overtime.
At least on paper, the Patriots defense was in for a much tougher challenge than the offense. The Raiders entered Week 15 ranking 12th in the league with an EPA of 0.036 per play, and they got two of their starters back from injury: tight end Darren Waller and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow were both activated from IR ahead of the contest.
Despite all of that and the Patriots being down two of their top three cornerbacks — Jalen Mills (groin), Jack Jones (knee) — the unit mostly held its own. Las Vegas gained only 4.8 yards per play for a total of 308, failed to top 100 rushing yards for the first time in five weeks, and scored 13 of its points as a direct results of breakdowns on offense and special teams rather than simply due to defensive issues.
Of course, none of it mattered in the end because the unit gave up a touchdown drive when it mattered most.
With the Patriots up 24-17 with a little over two minutes left in the game, Las Vegas was able to go on a nine-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. The final play of the series created the most post-game controversy — it very well could have been ruled an incompletion, with wide receiver Keelan Cole’s toes appearing to touch the boundary upon making the catch — but breakdowns happened before that as well.
Take the following play, a 4th-and-10 with only 1:54 left on the clock. A stop here, and the game is over:
“It’s hard to put it on one thing as far as what contributed, but we just have to play better together,” said safety Kyle Dugger after the game. “I know I had some plays myself where I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, helping the defense out as best as I could. That’s what it came down to, doing the little things right, the fundamentals the right way in crucial moments and finish it.”
On this particular play, the Patriots are playing a prevent-style defense, with rookie cornerback Marcus Jones (25) playing off and opening his hips to help protect against a potential double-move. Quarterback Derek Carr (4) and wide receiver Mack Hollins (10) took advantage of the soft coverage to gain 12 yards on the play and keep the drive alive.
While that play was not the only negative one involving the Patriots’ third-round pick — Jones also was in coverage on the Keelan Cole touchdown mentioned above — the rookie did have a solid overall game highlighted by his work against Davante Adams. New England was able to keep the All-Pro to his lowest output since Week 8 (28 yards on four catches) in large part because of Jones’ play.
The signature moment of the matchup came on the game’s opening possession:
New England appeared to be in Cover 4, with Devin McCourty (32) being either supposed to come down on the dig route or read the quarterback. Either way, he did not carry Adams (17) up the field leaving the rookie Jones (25) in a tough spot with outside leverage.
However, the youngster executed the play beautifully. He closed in on Adams on the deep attempt and got his hands around the receiver just in time to prevent a penalty and break up the pass.
In general, the Patriots clearly made Adams a focal point of their defensive game plan. He even prompted New England to play multiple snaps of Cover 1 Double for the first time this season; each came in the red zone or in long-yardage situations with Adams outside the numbers.
However, Carr had success throwing elsewhere when he was given time — something that led to a slight shift in coverage in the second half: New England went to more zone in the third and fourth quarters.
One of those zone snaps resulted in the Patriots’ biggest defensive play of the game:
With New England down 17-3 and in dire need of some momentum, Kyle Dugger (23) made an impressive play when he undercut a screen pass from Carr (4) intended for Adams (17). The third-year safety shot down from the slot out of the Cover 3 structure the Patriots were in to get in the throwing lane and pick off the pass; 16 yards later he was in the end zone to kick off what would eventually be a 21-point rally.
Dugger later credited his pre-game preparation for the play, and it appears he saw it on film from the Raiders’ game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13:
Here's what may have tipped off Dugger— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 18, 2022
Raiders ran the same play vs the Chargers a few weeks ago pic.twitter.com/VjItnt0t4V
The looks are a bit different because Raiders head coach (and former Patriots offensive coordinator) Josh McDaniels likes protecting plays with formation tweaks. However, the two-receiver side, New England playing off-coverage, and Adams’ short motion usually means an option or screen pass. That might have given it away for Dugger.
Dugger’s play was the best for New England’s defense against Las Vegas from a results perspective. However, the unit had several encouraging moments on the day both in the secondary and up front.
As noted above, for example, New England held the Raiders and their league-leading running back Josh Jacobs to just 97 yards on the day. Additionally, they generated considerable pressure in the passing game: Derek Carr was sacked three times, with Pro Football Focus crediting the defense with 15 total pressures.
Getting Christian Barmore back from injured reserve obviously helped, but so did the designs used by New England. As a result, the unit was able to bring the heat even on a day when Matthew Judon did not register any stats.
Josh Uche continued to be a handful on passing downs, but the off-the-ball linebackers also played a role in putting pressure on Carr and his offensive line — a relatively new wrinkle against a coach knowing the Patriots in and out.
New England had particular success rushing from five-plus fronts to influence one-on-one matchups and test the Raiders’ interior:
Here, the Patriots align in a 5-1 look with three down-linemen, standup edges Jahlani Tavai (48) and Matthew Judon (9), and off-ball linebacker Raekwon McMillan (50). Additionally, Kyle Dugger (23) is also close to the box as a potential second-level blitzer.
Pressure did indeed come from the second level, but it was McMillan to burst through the line and force an incomplete pass. The former Raider attacked through the left-side A-gap and was not picked up quickly enough by left guard Jordan Meredith (61). Meredith, of course, was only in the game because regular starter Dylan Parham was out with an injury; the Patriots wasted no time attacking this lack of continuity up front.
All in all, the unit did play some solid football against the Raiders. While the final drive was a disappointing one, New England’s defense once again put the team in a position to be successful — a position not taken advantage of by the other two units.
As noted above, one of the Raiders’ touchdowns came on a short field. That short field was generated by a blocked punt, courtesy of New England’s protection team not being on the same page as long snapper Joe Cardona: Cardona snapped the ball, seemingly to prevent a delay-of-game penalty, but the protection was not yet set.
The problem appeared to stem from the play clock, with New England’s Jabrill Peppers asking officials to pump the clock back to 25 seconds. As a result of this, neither he nor most of the protection were ready for the snap.
Raiders edge rusher Malcolm Koonce took advantage, and was able to get into the backfield untouched to block the kick. Peppers, who normally would have blocked Koonce, recovered the football but the play still allowed the Raiders to set up shop at the Patriots 20-yard line.
“It’s something we talked about but you never know for sure if the officials are going to bump the clock or not,” Patriots special teams coach Cam Achord told reporters on Tuesday. “You know they sometimes bump them in game sometimes they don’t. We just got to continue to communicate on the sideline and be alert for those situations when they come up.”