The New England Patriots came close to completing a comeback attempt against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17. After finding themselves in a 22-0 hole at the half, they were able to flip the switch in the third and fourth quarters.
With a 69-yard interception return touchdown as the catalyst, the Patriots began chipping away at their deficit. However, down 22-18 and five yards from the opposing end zone inside the two-minute warning a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble ended their hopes for a comeback and, in turn, eighth win of the season.
The ending was another disappointing one for the team, but the Patriots’ first-half performance left them room for mistakes at the end. So, with that said, let’s dive into the film from the contest to find out what went wrong, what went right, and what New England can learn heading into a pivotal two-game stretch to close out the regular season.
The Patriots offense continues to be an enigma. Before going on a solid rally that saw two touchdown drives before the heartbreaking finale, the unit looked incapable of executing even standard concepts and putting any pressure on an above-average NFL defense.
For a team still in the hunt for a playoff spot, the first two quarters were nothing short of bad — and most definitely not postseason-worthy. So, what was the problem? There were two basic issues: play design and execution.
The Patriots’ first third down of the game, a 3rd-and-4 from the New England 32, was a sign of things to come. The unit was in for a bumpy ride.
There are several issues on this play. The first is the depth of the routes: with New England needing just four yards to move the chains, only one pattern — that of running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) into the left-side flat — is targeting the sticks; the others all go deep and need more time to develop.
Another obvious problem is that two of those routes collided. Jonnu Smith (81) and Hunter Henry (85) ran into one another in their routes, leaving the latter on the ground with a game-ending knee injury. What was to blame for the collision is anybody’s guess. One of the two tight ends might not have run the correct route, or the timing might have been messed up.
However, it appears entirely possible that the collision could very well have been the result of a design flaw. After all, the Patriots had several plays were players were too close together. throughout the game.
Take the following 3rd-and-6 from the second period:
Different play, same problem. On this one, Jonnu Smith (81) and Kendrick Bourne (84) nearly run into each other. The tight end settles at a depth of six yards into his route, which is exactly where Bourne is crossing the formation.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Smith again was involved in a close-call play. This one ended with him suffering a head injury that knocked him out for the remainder of the game:
Here, Smith (81) and Bourne (84) are running what appears to be a variation of New England’s Razor concept. You have one player running an out route and the other an in a little deeper down the field. Against the Bengals, however, the two teammates nearly collided because Smith ran it at a depth of five yards and Bourne at four.
For comparison, the Razor concept looks like this with the in at either 14 or 12 yards depending on the pre-snap motion. The out, meanwhile, is set at 10 yards down the field:
Those spacing flaws were not the only thing plaguing New England, especially in the first half. As noted above, execution also was a problem; look no further than Tyquan Thornton’s drop on a beautifully executed deep ball down the right sideline.
While that play catches the eye, it was not the only example of unsatisfactory execution. Take the blocking up front.
The left side of the offensive line was pretty leaky against the Bengals’ front. The duo of tackle Trent Brown and guard Cole Strange struggled versus twists and stunts, with Strange losing twice on double swipe moves versus Cam Sample (an issue for him all season). Brown, meanwhile, gave up the edge on a pair of reps where defenders managed to knock down his hands.
There also appeared to be several communication breakdowns when Cincinnati showed blitz. There were multiple occasions on Saturday where New England wound up with multiple people accounting for one defender and in turn leaving others unblocked.
The most glaring example of a communication miscue happened on a 3rd-and-6 in the late first quarter, though:
On this play, Mac Jones (10) sees the Bengals show heavy pressure and tries to take advantage by signaling his teammates at the top to run a screen. However, while all three of them went into blocking mode nobody ran a route behind them. If it was the quarterback not clearly communicating his intentions, or the receivers not picking things up correctly does not matter: the play broke down because the two parties were not on the same page.
To make matters worse, there would have been an opportunity for Jones to fit the ball in for Jakobi Meyers (16) had the two been on the same page. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Of course, we don’t want to go all doom-and-gloom here. So, let’s also quickly touch on a few positives — mainly from the second half.
Mac Jones: The communication errors might have been on him, but when it comes to throwing the football and making decisions Jones looked good against Cincinnati. He also threw some of the best passes of his season on Saturday, including the one to Tyquan Thornton that was dropped and two completions to Kendrick Bourne: a 19-yard pickup on the final play of the third quarter, and a 28-yard gain in the fourth that saw the QB zip the throw into the tightest of window. From a film perspective there was no reason to chant for backup Bailey Zappe to enter the game.
Kendrick Bourne: The wideout had by far his best game of the season, finishing with a team-high 100 yards and a touchdown on six receptions. He also had a 29-yard run, showing what he can do with the ball in his hands. Bourne was on the receiving end of those two Mac Jones throws mentioned above.
Conor McDermott: The in-season pickup via the New York Jets’ practice squad had his best game as a Patriot on Saturday. he was solid versus Bengals edges Cam Sample and Joseph Ossai despite spending the game on an island.
A taste of no-huddle: The Patriots wanted to go quick early on, and it made sense given the Bengals’ struggles against up-tempo looks. The losses of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith changed the approach — the two tight end package appeared to be a prominent part of the game plan — but it was nice to see the unit try something relatively seldom used for once.
All in all, though, the game as a whole was another disappointing outing for the unit. While it did get New England on the brink of victory, it ultimately finished with just two touchdowns and did not cross midfield until late in the third quarter.
That is not a winning formula, and leaving a defense out to dry that is playing quality football.
The Bengals game was a tale of two halves for the New England defense. It gave up 22 points and 303 yards in the first two quarters, before holding Cincinnati scoreless and to 139 yards in the third and fourth periods.
What changed for the unit at halftime? Not a lot from a schematic perspective, but it was able to execute at a higher level and match its pressure looks and coverages more smoothly.
In general, New England showed a lot of respect for Cincinnati’s outstanding receiving duo, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The team played more Cover 2 than it has in years while also mixing in wrinkles like disguises (Cover 1, Cover 3, Cover 0), half-field inverts, and some man principles. The secondary also had good depth in its drops, with Bengals QB Joe Burrow wisely leaning on check-downs and throws to the flat.
Besides those plays, another go-to that worked well for the Bengals versus these Cover 2 looks were slants to the big-bodied receivers. They were able to get chunks of yards on three different slant targets — including the following:
Here, Joe Burrow (9) and Ja’Marr Chase (1) are playing simple pitch-and-catch. The wideout is able to gain inside leverage, and the quarterback has an open throwing lane because New England slot cornerback Myles Bryant (27) cannot get over fast enough from his jam to disrupt the throw.
Chase and Tee Higgins proved themselves challenging matchups throughout the day: Chase had eight catches for 79 yards, while Higgins had eight reception of his own for 128 and a touchdown.
One of the problems for New England was the size advantage the two had over the defensive backs — a clear sign that the Patriots should be in the market for a big-bodied corner come the offseason (even with 6-foot-0 Jalen Mills and 6-foot-1 Shaun Wade on the roster). That does not mean the outcome of Saturday’s game would have been any different, but matching up 5-foot-8 Marcus Jones against 6-foot-4 Tee Higgins is asking for trouble.
The Bengals smartly went after those favorable matchups, with Burrow giving his receivers chances to out-leap their opponents:
Marcus Jones was not the only defensive back struggling at times, though. Jonathan Jones also had a shaky performance in a tough matchup versus Chase and Higgins. While the Patriots’ nominal CB1 did force a pass breakup and a couple one-handed catch attempts downfield, it did feel like Cincinnati’s receivers could have executed better; Jones was also shaken badly at the top of a few routes.
The second half was better for both Joneses (or all three if you include New England’s quarterback), because the entire defensive structure looked more sound. It all started up front, with the Patriots challenging the Bengals offensive line with stunts and simulated pressure packages.
The team also used pass rusher Josh Uche in a myriad of ways to create different looks:
Josh Uche stood over/next to the center on a few pass rush snaps vs CIN— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 27, 2022
1. Helped spring Judon on a stunt, but Burrow escaped after Barmore was knocked inside
2. Drew a double inside with CIN's RB and TE chipping each edge
3. Seemed to attempt a stunt with Judon behind him pic.twitter.com/ItQBgLrpkH
Additionally, New England play-caller Steve Belichick also toyed with blitz packages. And while the team mostly backed out of those, the one time it did not it led to the biggest defensive play of the game:
Marcus Jones’ 69-yard pick-six in the late third quarter was a masterful call by Belichick. After using those aforementioned simulated pressure looks at times, he brought the house on this one: a six-man blitz that saw safety Kyle Dugger (23) get free up the gut and defensive tackle Christian Barmore (90) drop out into the underneath zone.
The Patriots successfully muddied the waters with this package, and it forced Burrow to throw up a floater that was picked off by Jones (25). The electric return man than proceeded to do what he does: run back the ball, elude some tackle attempts, and make a big play.
Jones deserves to be praised for the return, but he also made a smart play pre-snap. After giving up a deep out to Ja’Marr Chase (1) while playing soft with inside leverage, Jones played the same technique knowing the ball needed to come out quickly versus Cover 0.
Overall, the game against Cincinnati showed that the Patriots have a playoff-caliber defense. The Bengals are extremely talented and well-coached on the offensive side of the ball, but New England has enough playmakers in its own right to keep up with a team like that.
Furthermore, they adjusted very well to what the Bengals were doing well. That alone is a reason for optimism, especially considering all the young players contributing.