Phil Perry

Patriots-Chargers Report Card: Was Bailey Zappe an improvement at QB?

Success is a relative term in New England these days.

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You know the drill by now. The Patriots defense holds down the fort with a strong performance, but the offense fails to hold up its end of the bargain. Patriots lose by one possession. Rinse, wash, repeat.

But Sunday's 6-0 defeat to the Chargers -- the Patriots' third consecutive loss, and the first time since 1938 that a team has lost three straight while allowing 10 points or fewer in each contest -- is still worth dissecting.

Did the offensive operation look better under Bailey Zappe, who made his first start of 2023 after taking over for Mac Jones? And who were the bright spots on a defense that's allowed just one touchdown since Week 9?

Let's get to our Week 13 grades...

Quarterback: C-

Were there signs of improvement compared to what the Patriots had shown at this position in recent weeks? Some. Especially in the second half. It still wasn't what you would call "good." 

The game began ominously for Bailey Zappe, who threw late to a slant on his first pass of the game. He missed an open Hunter Henry during a scramble-drill situation. His offense picked up a delay of game penalty, and he threw wide to Ezekiel Elliott on a swing pass that should've gone for big yardage. That all came in the first half.

There were some signs of life in the first 30 minutes. Zappe scrambled twice for good gains, and he changed one play at the line to hit the Chargers on a nine-yard run. Then in the second half he seemingly got into a rhythm.

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He hit a deep over route to DeVante Parker for 21 yards and threw twice accurately down the field to Parker on fades that were not completed. A back-shoulder throw to Parker also went for an explosive gain on a strong throw from Zappe in the conditions. Zappe made a nice throw on the move to Hunter Henry on third down as well.

But a couple of the five sacks he absorbed might've been able to be avoided. And his inaccuracy was an issue, especially early; per Next Gen Stats, his completion percentage over expected was -10.1, the third-lowest figure in football in Week 13.

As is the case at every other position, they need more from this spot if they're going to have a shot.

At least the Patriots asked a little more of Zappe, whose average depth of target was just 2.3 yards against the Giants. Against the Chargers, that number shot up to 11.0.

Running back: C

Rhamondre Stevenson started fast before suffering an ankle injury, running nine times for 4.3 yards per attempt. Once he went down, Elliott took over with decidedly mixed results. 

Elliott caught four passes for 40 yards, including a juggling grab on a screen that went for 23 yards. But he ran for just 52 yards on 17 attempts (3.1 yards per carry). He fumbled, which was recovered by JuJu Smith-Schuster, and he allowed a sack when he lost Derwin James in pass protection on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver: C-

Too many plays left on the field by this unit. There were enough, in fact, that even Bill Belichick was willing to criticize the unit Monday morning.

"I wouldn't say it's ability," he told WEEI when asked about his receivers missing big opportunities. "I would say it's consistency."

But another word for consistency would be dependability. And Belichick has long believed dependability is the most important ability for any player. There are plenty of athletes out there who can occasionally make a great play. Consistency is what separates the average from the good and the good from the great.

The Patriots may not have a receiver who could be described by any of those adjectives at the moment.

Parker couldn't haul in what looked like a pair of accurate jump-ball fades down the sideline, which is supposed to be his specialty. He also picked up a false-start penalty. Tyquan Thornton, the fastest player on the team in a straight line, couldn't snare another accurate-enough deep ball down the middle of the field for what could've been a game-changing play. And Smith-Schuster caught just one pass, giving him 30 total receiving yards over his last three games. 

Thornton's 39-yard end-around was nice. Parker's back-shoulder grab along the boundary and a couple of in-breaking routes for first downs were nice. But the overall effort was not close to enough against one of the worst passing defenses in football coming into the game. 

Tight end: C-

Mike Gesicki wasn't targeted in this game, playing just five total snaps. The return on investment from that free-agent signing has been trending in the wrong direction since he caught the game-winner against the Bills last month.

Hunter Henry caught two of his targets for 15 yards, and though he may be one of the team's most reliable pass-catchers, he also doesn't have the juice to change the game as a receiver right now either. 

Offensive line: D

There were a pair of sacks back-to-back off the edge in this game where Patriots tackles barely got their hands on Chargers edge rushers in the third quarter. This unit contributed in some way to four sacks in all.

Perhaps Zappe could've gotten rid of the ball more quickly at different points in time; late in the third quarter he took a laughable sack when he was far too patient and didn't sense a rusher chasing him down.

But he was also pressured at times and bailed out the line by eluding it -- as he did in the first quarter when Khalil Mack broke through the line quickly and Zappe scrambled for five yards. 

What was just as significant an issue was this unit's work in the running game. Outside of Thornton's end-around sprint, the Patriots picked up just 3.5 yards per carry. They lost six yards on a third-down zone run. They lost one yard on a dressed-up inside run with Thornton running an "orbit" motion late in the first half. They lost one on another third-and-two run with Sidy Sow cut a defender loose.

This unit also gets knocked for the 12-men-on-the-field penalty called on the Patriots early when Conor McDermott subbed in for Trent Brown. Not what you're looking for. 

Special teams: F

Brutal day for this unit that began with a loss of five on a punt return by Myles Bryant. Bryce Baringer had a punt that netted just 36 yards in the second quarter and another 33-yarder that landed at the Los Angeles 17-yard line but could've pinned the Chargers deeper.

The Patriots punt unit also gave up a 34-yard return to Derius Davis, and Jalen Reagor muffed a kick return. And that was all in the first half alone...

Baringer hit a 70-yard punt and another 36-yarder that stuck the Chargers at their own seven-yard line, but his day was tough overall. His worst boot of the day came on the first snap of the fourth quarter when he shanked one just 26 yards. 

Defensive line: A

It wasn't that this unit dominated in the passing game, but to allow just 1.2 yards per carry means they earned honors marks for the week.

Christian Barmore had a tackle for a loss, and he wasn't the only young defensive lineman to stand out. Keion White -- seeing a big up-tick in work with Deatrich Wise (illness, shoulder) out -- finished with three run-stuffs and a quarterback hit. 

Linebacker: A

Jahlani Tavai and Ja'Whaun Bentley had eight tackles each. Bentley finished with a pair of run-stuffs while Tavai had three stuffs, including one tackle for a loss.

"Jahlani has had a really good year," Belichick said Monday on WEEI. "Can't say enough about that guy... He's one of our smartest, most dependable players and most consistent players."

Josh Uche contributed to this grade with two run-stuffs and a pressure. Anfernee Jennings showed up as well with a pair of run-stuffs, and Mack Wilson broke up a pass and had one tackle for loss.

Secondary: B

It was not a perfect afternoon for this position group. J.C. Jackson was beaten for a long gainer on third-and-8. He should've been beaten for another but Quentin Johnston dropped it. (Had the Chargers not dropped as many passes as they did, they could've made this a much uglier outcome for the Patriots defensive backfield.)

Jackson was beaten again on a crossing route, but Justin Herbert's throw was behind his intended target and Jackson ended up breaking up the pass. Jalen Mills missed a tackle early. Myles Bryant was in coverage when Herbert was able to ice the game on a 23-yard completion on third down.

But this unit did enough to end up with a mostly-positive grade. Jonathan Jones felt like the most consistent performer, breaking up one pass and forcing another incompletion on a third down thanks to his tight coverage on the fringe of the red zone. Jones also had a tackle for a loss.

Jalen Mills broke up a pass that might've gone for a touchdown, and he contributed to the run game with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage as well. 

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