As the New England Patriots head into their bye week, they will have to answer some potentially franchise-altering questions about their quarterback position.
Mac Jones, who is in his third year as the team’s starter, was pulled from the 10-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts late in the fourth quarter after throwing a disastrous interception in the red zone. Backup Bailey Zappe entered the game for the final drive, but the sophomore himself turned the ball over to end the game.
As the old saying goes: when you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. In the Patriots’ case — at least if judged by their Week 10 game against the Colts — it rather looks like if you have no quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks.
Where they will go from here remains to be seen. For now, let’s try to find out where things went awry in Frankfurt, what this might mean moving forward, and what positives the team can try to build on.
It was another forgettable day for offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s unit. The unit did gain 340 yards, including a season-best 167 on the ground, but the bottom line was again disappointing: two more turnovers, a major question mark over the quarterback position, and a mere six points.
The biggest story coming out of the game, of course, is the status of quarterback Mac Jones. Statistically, the former first-round draft pick would have had a solid if unspectacular game — 15-of-20 as a passer (75%) for 170 yards — were it not for his final attempt of the day: with the Patriots in the Indianapolis red zone late in the fourth quarter, he threw arguably the worst pass of his career.
Facing a 2nd-and-12, O’Brien dialed a play fake that initially worked as intended: the safeties were drawn up to the line of scrimmage, creating a huge opening for tight end Mike Gesicki on a crossing pattern behind.
All Jones needed to do was deliver an accurate throw. He couldn’t.
The #Patriots have been one of the league's most efficient Red Zone offenses this season, but they went 0-4 in scoring territory vs the Colts— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 13, 2023
Each dropback Mac took in these situations ended the drive, including a sack and each of the QB's worst throws/decisions of the game pic.twitter.com/rng6oo4Ya3
“It was a terrible throw,” Jones said during his postgame presser. “Practiced it, hit it in practice, snugged the throw, and I knew where to go. I just didn’t do it. Didn’t do it right.”
He was not in the lineup the next time the Patriots offense took the field.
Jones’ interception and subsequent benching was the low point of what was another challenging game for the third-year QB. At times he was accurate when throwing the football, but once again his decision making and mechanic were on and off — contributing greatly to the Patriots’ struggles on a day when they managed to move the ball well on the ground.
Besides the interception, Jones also had two other near-disastrous misses in the red area.
The first came in the early third quarter, after a Myles Bryant interception set the Patriots up at midfield. Calling six straight runs, they moved the ball to the Indianapolis 17-yard line. Facing a 3rd-and-3, however, they called a pass — and it almost went terribly wrong, too: Jones, who could have had Demario Douglas on a crossing pattern at the sticks, attempted to flick the ball to Rhamondre Stevenson with pressure closing in; the ball was high and came close to being intercepted for what might have been a pick-six.
Later, on a 3rd-and-5 in the early fourth period, Jones misfired for tight end Hunter Henry on a pass that again came close to ending up with the defense. Despite operating from as clean a pocket as he had on Sunday, his footwork again looked sloppy.
In large part due to the QB failing to move the chains when called upon, the Patriots were able to get a grand total of three points out of those two red zone trips. In total, New England went 0-for-4 when moving inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
What was particularly disappointing was that Jones actually looked fine in the first half, when he completed 10 of 11 pass attempts for 105 yards.
I think all the pressure Mac dealt with in the 1st half wore him down mentally— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 13, 2023
Outside of a wild quick out to Pop, he was fine before halftime. Even had a few nice throws and reads pic.twitter.com/Glgmr4Kti6
However, getting sacked five times seemingly wore him down mentally (look no further than the interception he threw off his back foot despite pressure not close to impacting the play). His first dropback of the second half — the floater to Stevenson — was a sign of things to come.
As far as those sacks are concerned, Jones appeared to play some role in them while watching the game live. However, breakdowns in protection and play design appear to have been the main culprits for the takedowns.
I'd put Mac Jones' 5 sacks vs the Colts on protection and play design more than anything else pic.twitter.com/WBa43Zdycn— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 13, 2023
Colts standout interior lineman DeForest Buckner was predictably a handful versus the Patriots, making life hard for left guard Cole Strange. Rookie right guard Sidy Sow, however, also struggled in 1-on-1 situations for the first time since becoming a starter.
Indianapolis also got pressure on a couple of twists to the left side and another that put center David Andrews on skates. Tackles Conor McDermott and Michael Onwenu were not perfect either, but Jones having nowhere to step up in the pocket was the most significant issue and seemed to mess with his confidence down the stretch.
In came Bailey Zappe, trying to lead the Patriots to victory inside the two-minute warning. He did have a bad miss on his first pass attempt, but the drive actually looked promising from that point on.
Bill Belichick said this morning that there were "some positive things" in Bailey Zappe's performance yesterday. The QB did have some solid reps sandwiched between two rough throws to Demario Douglas— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 13, 2023
Hit Hunter Henry between two zone defenders, threw the ball away when Strange… pic.twitter.com/oBGNZ1fUCc
Zappe’s game-ending interception still did not make any more sense when looking at the All-22, though.
The guess is that he wanted a flag for Zaire Franklin hooking Demario Douglas’ arm, but the throw in itself was not catchable and it should not have been attempted on a first down with 37 seconds left in the game and no timeouts left.
And so, the questions at QB loom large for the Patriots. If you cannot successfully throw the football in today’s NFL, you have a hard time winning many games.
For as bad as the passing game looked on Sunday, the Patriots offense did show some promise in the running game. As noted above, they gained a season-high 167 yards on the ground for an average of 4.6 yards per attempt. Even without the 25 yards gained on Mac Jones scrambles, New England averaged 4.3 yards via Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott.
The team looked especially good running outside zone:
The #Patriots averaged 4+ yards/carry on outside zone concepts for the first time since Week 3 vs the Jets— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 14, 2023
Angry Rhamondre Stevenson took two of these carries outside right and cutback inside on two runs left, but most/all included key blocks from Onwenu, Sow, Andrews, and… pic.twitter.com/gdg4blINHK
In addition, the Patriots perfectly executed a trap-wham design to spring Elliott on a 9-yard gain. The veteran also had some promising moments catching slip screens out of the backfield.
Yes, the offense continues to be uninspiring, but not all was as bad as the final score might indicate.
The Patriots defense did enough to win Sunday’s game against the Colts. It gave up just 10 points, registered a takeaway, and allowed the team to win the time of possession battle for just the second time all season.
And yet, it was not enough. New England’s offensive ineptitude obviously played the leading role in that tragedy, but the defense itself also had some breakdowns starting with the pass rush.
While the team was able to generate pressure from its dime looks, you have to give credit to Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew: his erratic pocket movement introduced an element of chaos to the Patriots’ pass rush plan and messed with the team’s lane integrity. Minshew’s pocket presence can best be described as unconventional, and yet he somehow found success.
The #Patriots defense got consistent pressure on traditional rushes from dime. Barmore had a couple of quick wins, and Uche-Wise twists forced the QB to reset twice— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 14, 2023
But Minshew's erratic pocket movements led to rush lane breakdowns for key conversions, one of which featured a… pic.twitter.com/Qrrv9JszaH
The Patriots did try their best to make life hard for the Colts’ quarterback, though, by throwing slot and zone blitzes and diverse coverage looks his way.
New England dialed up Cover 0 twice against Minshew, for example, and he beat it both times. On the first such rep, he was able to extend the play thanks to a nice blitz pickup from his back against a rushing Jabrill Peppers; on the second, a play fake held linebacker Jahlani Tavai just long enough for Minshew to hit a deep curl.
The Patriots also sent a three-deep zone blitz with Peppers and Kyle Dugger at one point attacking from each slot. Again, the Colts did enough to keep the pressure from getting home: the back picked up Peppers, while Deatrich Wise Jr. looping around obscured Dugger’s lane, allowing Minshew to hit a curl route with Shaun Wade splitting two receivers.
In addition, the Patriots used five traditional slot blitzes against the Colts. Minshew’s ability to extend plays again became relevant on those plays.
The #Patriots used 5 slot blitzes vs the Colts, with Peppers helping force a throwaway on the 1st— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 14, 2023
But Indy was ready for the others and kept a back in to block. Minshew either broke contain vs Wise/Jennings or got the ball out quickly to beat the heat pic.twitter.com/Am1BYIFihg
On the day, the Patriots blitzed Minshew on nine of his 28 dropbacks. He went 6-of-9 for 52 yards and a pair of first downs. It wasn’t perfect, but he did find some success against some tough looks. Credit where credit is due.
In total, Minshew completed 18 of 28 pass attempts for 194 yards and an interception; he was disrupted on nine of his dropbacks for a pressure rate of 32.1 percent. Even with J.C. Jackson staying in New England and Jack Jones playing only 10 snaps in his final game as a Patriot, the defense was able to put the team in a position to succeed.
A large part of that was the run defense. Despite going up against former All-Pro Jonathan Taylor and a talented offensive line, the Patriots remained stout on the ground: Taylor and Zack Moss combined to gain only 71 yards on 24 carries for an average of under 3.0 yards per attempt.
Big bodied nose tackle Davon Godchaux was one of the reasons why Indianapolis failed to establish a consistent presence on the run and had only one carry all game qualifying as a big play (i.e. gaining 10 or more yards).
Only Harrison Phillips and Derrick Brown have more run tackles among IDL than Davon Godchaux, who also led the #Patriots defense with 6 tackles vs the Colts— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 14, 2023
The underrated NT's been holding it down at the heart of NE's elite run defense this season pic.twitter.com/M8yozwGPs9
As pointed out by the man himself, Godchaux registered eight tackles versus Indianapolis (not six as erroneously mentioned in that tweet).
Godchaux continues to be a big part of the Patriots’ defensive front and run defense in particular. The same is true for fourth-year outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings, whose ability to set a stout edge has made him an under-the-radar priority with him headed for unrestricted free agency next March.
Speaking of guys playing hard for the #Patriots..— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 14, 2023
Anfernee Jennings gave up the edge on Taylor's TD, but he more than made up for it with a team-high 4 stops and continues to excel vs the run
Jennings should be a priority re-signing as a staple of NE's early-down defense pic.twitter.com/wZGh8ZBKo7
While New England’s inability to score more than two field goals on offense and uncertainty at quarterback are the main stories coming out of the loss to the Colts, the defensive performance — especially versus the run — should not go unnoticed and unappreciated either.
The Patriots missed a 35-yard field goal and surrendered a 41-yard kickoff return, but their most questionable special teams moment might have happened in the early second quarter. With the Colts sending out their punt team on a 4th-and-10 at their own 13-yard line, New England decided to go for the block rather than trying to set up a return.
The end result was, as so often this year, not what was planned. New England did not get home, and the ball took a favorable Indianapolis bounce before stopping at the 18-yard line — a 69-yard field position flip.
“We’re trying to read that play out based off what they did,” special teams captain Matthew Slater explained afterwards. “We had a scheme in place that we liked, and you give them a lot of credit. They didn’t recall the gunner. They zoned the protection, so we weren’t able to get home. Then as a result, they flipped the field with, I don’t know, what was it, 70-yard punt, something like that.
“You know, we liked the plan going in, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you’d like them to. Kudos to them for the way they picked that up and the way they adjusted to it.”
Slater went on to explain that plenty of special teams coordinators like to play it safe in situations like this one, emphasizing the protection. The Colts did not, but they were still able to pick up the extra rusher even with a man short.
“It was similar to what we did last year,” explained Belichick on Monday. “The blocked punt that we had last year was off a similar look. So, that was the thinking on it.”
The thinking, unfortunately, did not pay off for the Patriots — one of several instances of unsatisfying special teams play on Sunday.