Patriots Regress in Win Versus Texans

Watching the Patriots on Sunday afternoon in Houston, it’d be easy to forget that this is the same squadron that took on Tom Brady and the Buccaneers and almost won. In a narrow 25-22 victory against the Texans, the Pats looked uninspired. Early on in the game, rookie quarterback Davis Mills was able to walk all over the Patriots D. He had a surprisingly impressive performance, tossing for 312 yards and 3 TDs. Give him credit, he played well. The best a rookie ever has versus Bill Belichick. But I blame the Patriots defense for being so weak more than I think Mills did anything amazing. The Steve Belichick/Jerod Mayo unit just looked lost through the entirety of the first three quarters. After getting an 18-play, 10-minute long touchdown drive dropped on them in the first quarter, they simply rolled over.

Offensively, their ailments weren’t exactly what you’d expect out of a team down 4 of their starting 5 offensive linemen. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones was only sacked once. The things that costed them were ghosts that have haunted them all season; ball security. This game all went sideways for the Patriots when running back Damien Harris, whose health and job security are now in jeopardy, fumbled a touchdown in the endzone to allow the Texans to start to pull away ahead of halftime. And following a brutal Jakobi Meyers drop that cost the Patriots a score, instead of going into halftime tied at 15, they were down 15-9 following a Nick Folk field goal. Then opened the third quarter down 22-9.

Why It’s So Troubling

Patriots: Damien Harris' fumbling issues put his status as bell cow back in  question

This is a Houston Texans team headed by players who probably wouldn’t make it as an everyday starter on other teams in the league. Some of whom are familiar to the fans of New England. A Texans team that is without their superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson, and their serviceable backup Tyrod Taylor. Yet they still almost let a third-round pick steal the game away. While on the opposite side, their first-round pick struggled to get anything noteworthy going.

It’s been a bit slow out of the gate for Mac Jones. The coaching staff hasn’t quite given him the opportunity to shine as fans had hoped. His biggest highlight so far is completing 19 consecutive throws against Tampa. Most of which, were easy check-downs and just making simple reads. Which have their worth, but the lack of explosiveness is a deep concern. A concern that lies at the feet of Josh McDaniels and his play calling.

Looking Ahead

Texans vs. Patriots: Everything we know about the 25-22 heartbreaker

Defensively it’s almost double the concern. If Davis Mills is able to walk all over New England with a sub-average level of talent around him, just imagine what the Dallas Cowboys will be capable of. With Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and a solid offensive line? Let’s just say they should hope for a gigantic return to their week four form next weekend.

It doesn’t get much easier for the Patriots moving forward. Following the Cowboys, the Patriots get the Jets at home, the Panthers in Carolina for a Stephon Gilmore revenge game, the Chargers in Los Angeles, and then the Browns in Gillette. You have to wonder at 2-3 if the Patriots can run the gauntlet necessary to get into the playoffs. If this were a Tom Brady team? I wouldn’t be hitting the panic button just yet. But it’s not. And that red button looks really tempting right about now. Let’s see how this team handles themselves fully healthy before we panic though. There’s still plenty of football left to go.

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A Touch of Optimism in Patriots’ Offense Thus Far

I should preface this all by saying that the New England Patriots’ offense, led by rookie signal-caller Mac Jones, have not scored enough points to be up there with the top offenses in the league. In fact, they are currently 23rd in the league in points scored. This also comes with the help of things like the league’s second best turnover differential (thank you Zach Wilson). Point is, it’s not news to say that the Patriots’ offense has had opportunities to put points on the board, and they just haven’t converted.

Yet, as all the talk has been about conservative play-calling, passive play by Jones, a sloppy body of work from the offensive line, and timely mistakes like fumbles in the red zone, the purpose here is to shift the conversation. The discussion on the offense needs to acknowledge a different point of view, and to focus on how New England moves forward.

Remember what week it is

Now, to start by saying, it is Week 2 and the Patriots are 1-1. Any New England fan doesn’t have to go to far back into the history books here, just to understand the art of Bill Belichick and the slow starts out of the gate. Anyone seemingly perplexed only has to look as far as two out of the last three Super Bowl titles the Patriots have sitting in the trophy case (2014, 2018 seasons).

Yet, to state the obvious, those slow starts were with Tom Brady and teams with many long-tenured veterans. When after all this 2021 team is brand-spanking new. After a rather long 2020 season, and a historically aggressive offseason, New England these days can have five, six players on offense who either play a different position from the year prior, weren’t a full-time starter, or simply weren’t on the roster. When more than half your offense is only still learning the ropes in Week 2, that can be a significant disadvantage.

While certainly, most realize that this is a very new-looking offense for the Patriots, it’s the magnitude of it that is frequently understated. All of that starts with the rookie QB in Jones. Jones is not just new to the NFL, but relatively new to the offense, as he is just really started getting reps with the starters in preparation for week one. With Cam Newton holding on to his job till the very end, Newton managed all the starting reps through summer camps and the preseason, leaving Jones to play catch-up with the starters just before opening their doors to the Miami Dolphins.

In a normal year with Brady, it wouldn’t even be uncharacteristic for things to not click out of the gate. Yet, with all these new faces and unfamiliarity with each other and the coaching staff, it had to be nothing less than expected. With this mere fact alone, anyone overly worried about this offense might just be overreacting. As we all must look at the good from what we have seen so far.

Positive overall message

Belichick addresses media following the 25-6 win over the New York Jets

Belichick’s remarks aren’t a whole lot different than what he normally might say following a good win. Yet, this perfectly encapsulates the message going forward. The team and its fans must take to account that they made improvements from their loss to the Dolphins — even if they are not overly obvious to the naked eye. The team improved and should continue to improve week to week. Individual players showed more and turned in better overall performances. That is not something to simply brush off with a team still trying to find identity and compliment each other.

There are obviously still things that need to be tinkered with (the offense is far from perfect). However, it won’t improve with impatience. We all must acknowledge small wins. Contrasting from last season where the offense struggled to even string together completions, this offense looks not too bad. As it’s abundantly clear that the New England offense and their scheme runs far smoother with Jones and co. under center in comparison to last season’s 7-9 bunch led by Newton (or even what we saw in the preseason). That mere fact alone can be chalked up as a win as the team clearly made improvements at the most important position in the game.

Jones not losing games

Now, while we are not quite ready to anoint Jones the next savior of the franchise and the next best thing since Brady (as those expectations are rather unfair in the first place), it’s clear that he’s delivering the ball with proper timing (a huge problem last season), completing passes, and is doing everything he needs to in order to be successful. This is almost more than you can ask of a quarterback set to start his third career game.

Jones thus far, in a draft with many talented QBs picked ahead of him, has played the part for the best of the bunch so far. After staying put and getting him at the 15th overall selection, that’s phenomenal news as a Patriot fan.

While you can point to him playing passively and playing it a little safe in the early goings, he’s yet to turn the ball over. Games most frequently are won and lost by penalties, field position, and turnovers. Games were lost last year by turnovers at the quarterback position. So far, we have not been able to say that. Chalk this up as another small win and sign of progress. Although, this is something that must keep up.

Turnovers, fundamentals, and penalties

This leads nicely into the turnover department and some undisciplined football from the entire team. However, with a focus on the offense, they came out of the gate with two fumbles in week one. A costly fumble in the red zone by Damien Harris changed the entire scope of the game. Along with that, an uncharacteristically high amount of “silly”, rather basic penalties through the first two weeks for a Belichick-coached team. This team, this offense cannot continue to shoot themselves in the foot and make their gameplan harder to execute. With a slew of mistakes that Belichick and the coaching staff can’t stand taking place, it speaks to the newness of this team and the overall discipline.

Those silly mistakes will likely be cleaned up in due time. By the time that marquee opponents like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roll into town in week four, those silly mistakes will widen point margins very quickly. If one wants to look for evidence of improvement in the offense and overall team, this is one area to look at. As the coaching staff likes to mitigate self-harm as much as possible and do the little things right. Continued struggles in this area would be the reason for concern. As when one cannot do the little things right, how can one do the big things like consistently put points on the board and win games?

New England did not turn the ball over once last week (one area of improvement from the week prior). However, they did have some inexcusable penalties and some minuscule fundamental errors. Again, those should get cleaned up with more time together. With more practice time, in-game reps, and more continuity, they should get there naturally.

Speaking of continuity

One cannot stress newness and a lack of chemistry between the whole offense enough. With that, it couldn’t be more critical than up front on the line. Where all offensive success stems from. Losing Trent Brown early on in Week 1 was less than ideal. Leaving Jones staring at a revolving door at right tackle between Yasir Durant and Justin Herron. Wouldn’t we all love to stare at pressure coming from the right side in our first NFL games?

It’s almost as if the offensive line hasn’t been ready to go. With Brown back in action versus the New Orleans Saints, this should be a missing puzzle piece in the whole offense running smoother. Yet, don’t underestimate the importance of the offensive line needing more in-game reps together as well. The offensive line is a spot that plays off each other. Even with two guys like Brown playing right tackle and Onwenu playing left guard now can sometimes cause confusion for the whole o-line. Again, that all takes time and reps.

So, while guys like Isaiah Wynn haven’t gotten off to the best of starts, don’t slam the panic button yet. This group should be the strength of the entire team. As Brown gets back and we dive further into the season, that should be on display more and more. The plans were just, unfortunately, derailed a few weeks with this injury. Which, on another note, speaks to the importance of keeping Brown healthy.

Playcalling and sideline decision-making

One area that needs improvement is the decision-making from the headset. Josh McDaniels has been reluctant to get aggressive, despite his own claims somewhat indicating the opposite.

McDaniels speaking on conservative play-calling through first two weeks and Jones “playing it safe”.

Big chunk plays here and there are key to moving the ball downfield and putting more points on the board. Those shots just really haven’t been taken. Though this should be rebutted by saying that if you are looking for a high-flying, quick scoring offense, this is not your team. In fact, if that’s your kind of football, you might be better suited updating your old Brady jersey.

-The quarterback they drafted is known for this more conservative style of play. Everyone knew that was his bread and butter coming out of the draft.

-The teams they have played have not given Jones much time to sit back and make decisions. That’s also partially due to the offensive line play.

-The team’s list of deep threats on the team include all of the following: Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith. That’s the list.

-The team likes the idea of running the ball with Harris, getting it to guys like James White out of the backfield, and that’s worked thus far.

Through the first two weeks, their defensive opposition has actually been pretty good. Yet, Jones has still managed to complete 74 percent of his passes, Harris has found success running the ball, and White has been great thus far. Draw from those positives and rest easy in the Patriots’ offense seeing improvements from last year in efficiency. While that may cause some to roll their eyes, improvement is improvement, especially when dealing with teams that missed the playoffs.

Playing to strengths

What should be keyed in on with McDaniels is questionable usage with guys like the tight end duo, maybe even Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. He’s struggled to play guys to their strengths, put them in spots to succeed, and dial up some playcalls that draw from Jones’ success in college. For example, when signing Smith and Hunter Henry, the immediate thought was these two are the ultimate remedy for redzone woes. Yet, their usage in the redzone has been, well, pedestrian to say the least.

Another area has been a lack of RPOs, which were arguably what Jones did best in college. Arguably the best slant thrower in the draft, teamed with fellow Alabama man in Harris as his runningback. One would think McDaniels would take advantage. Yet, that wrinkle hasn’t really materialized.

While this is not so much to point holes in the offensive play design, as much as it is to say that players haven’t even come close to reaching their full potential yet. So, reserving judgement on the offense and these big contracts would be wise. Here’s to hope that the team takes advantage of these strengths once all the players gel more.

What to think as we move forward

We must appreciate Jones completing passes and trying to master the simple things before going long downfield. Jones is making quick decisions that protect the football, and putting the ball on target. Not only that, but also doing everything to be successful throughout the week in practice and film. He’s shown a great attitude and a dedication to improve. Jones is the first guy to acknowledge that he can get better and takes responsibility.

Jones watching the film, wanting to stretch the field more, and taking responsibility.

We must all acknowledge that this is a process. Week to week, by each practice, the team looks to get better than yesterday. Now, they head into Week 3 with a contest against the Saints. With a quarterback like Jameis Winston, we will see how the game script unfolds. As it is plausible that Jones could be asked to pass a lot.

Everything will be on display once again, and everyone should be watching to see how this offense gets better. How this offense plays more complementary football. My advice: make sure nothing stands in the way of you kicking your feet up on Sunday and watching the future of New England unfold before your very eyes. It should be exciting to watch this team progress throughout the season, with hopes that this offense can become a perennial juggernaut like we all have grown accustomed to over the years. This offense has many questions to answer, but everyone must take things one game at a time. We’re onto New Orleans.