As the Cincinnati Bengals marched up and down the field with three straight scoring drives to start Saturday’s game, New England’s offense could not extend a drive past three plays.
Excluding the last drive of the first half where the Patriots completed one pass before taking a knee to enter halftime, New England punted the ball on their first six possessions Saturday. Three of those drives featured three-and-outs, including the first two possessions of the game.
On the opening third-down of the day, New England’s offense faced a third-and-four. Despite needing just four yards, New England dialed up a downfield concept which resulted in no open receivers. To make matters worse, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith collided, injuring Henry and taking an open Smith out of the play.
The play summarized much of the struggles the Patriots offense has battled with this season: Poor design from the staff and bad execution from the players.
“We had a couple mistakes on the play,” Bill Belichick said Monday morning. “It’s not the play we were trying to run.”
Speaking with reporters Tuesday morning, de facto offensive coordinator Matt Patricia uttered a similar message.
“The first third-down, we usually go in on third-downs we have typically a couple different options on the play depending on the coverage we’re going to see,” he said. “And Cincy had a couple different packages they run both vs. a nickel defense and dime defense. When we went into that play we had a really good play that we practiced and thought we had a couple good options on it. I think we saw the play a little bit different on the field and got to just clean that up from that standpoint.”
The next third-down was not much better. With Cincinnati showing pressure, Mac Jones can be seen making a signal to audible to a screen. However, the year-long communication issues continue as it appears Jakobi Meyers does not pick up the audible. Jones is left with no option besides throwing the ball at Rhamondre Stevenson’s feet.
“Just a little bit of a miscommunication,” Jones explained Monday on WEEI. “Things that we kind of talk through and want to get fixed. But, as a quarterback we just got to make sure everyone is on the same page. … Obviously didn’t do a good job there.”
Coming out in the second half, New England found more success on third-down. After two opening second half punts, the Patriots put together an 11- and seven-play scoring drive that featured five third-down conversions - two resulting in touchdowns.
While the numbers were better, the conversions were more of just Mac Jones and Kendrick Bourne making plays, however. The Hail Mary touchdown to Jakobi Meyers was also one of third-down conversions.
“Certainly, I think those plays came up later in the game and we executed them well, later in the game,” Patricia said. “We obviously didn’t do a very good job on third-down in the first half, trying to get a feel for some of the different looks they had. Came out in the second half and think we went 6-for-6 to start the second half - somewhere around the end.
“So we got a lot of that cleaned up at halftime, some of the different packages they had, the people in positions that they had them in. Cause that was a little - as we were going into the game unsure maybe of what those matchups would be and we got some of that corrected.”
But, as the Patriots were quickly on and off the field to start the game, Cincinnati was able to quickly build a 22-0 lead by half time. That lead proved to be unsurmountable as New England’s comeback efforts fell short late in the fourth quarter, resulting in a 22-18 defeat.
“Not the way you want to start, certainly, from that aspect of it,” Patricia said Tuesday. “When you have those plays designed and dialed up ready to go. I was glad we got them fixed and we were able to execute them better in the second half. We got to start better than that though in order to give ourselves a better chance.”
The third-downs struggles are nothing new for New England, as they have hampered the offense all season long. On the year, the offense ranks 26th in the league in third-down efficiency, while also ranking 29th in first downs per game.
New England will hope they can carry the second-half success against Cincinnati over to the last two weeks of the season as they fight to keep their playoff hopes alive.
“I think third-down this week was better than what it’s been,” Patricia said. “It’s definitely something that you don’t want to have happen during the game and you got to get it fixed. What happens on third down, I’d say a lot of times, is third-down is the one down that’s very specific based not he defenses packages that come in. A lot of times on early downs you get a lot of zone coverages, maybe one particular man coverage.
“[Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo] does a good job with his defense and has a lot similarities to our defense in some of the coverages they run and the pressures. We just got to do a better job of recognizing those and going out and executing it when it comes up.”