FOXBORO -- The Patriots have the next week off, but it'd be safe to assume that the offensive coaching staff will be spending an inordinate amount of time in the lab trying to fix what ails them.
More than halfway through the 2022 campaign, the Patriots still don't seem to have an identity. And the play-calling is head-scratching at times. While the Patriots were able to come away with a dominant 26-3 victory over the hapless Colts on Sunday, the offensive issues plaguing New England at the moment were apparent throughout the afternoon.
Bill Belichick and his staff knew that the Colts were tremendously effective against the run coming into this week; Indy ranked third in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (4.0). Yet on first down, the Patriots leaned heavily on a rushing attack that was led by an offensive line featuring three backups.
A run for a loss of two started the game for play-caller Matt Patricia, eventually leading to a three-and-out. That was followed up on the second drive by a run for a loss of five, leading to another three-and-out. The third drive of the game began with another run -- this one for one yard from J.J. Taylor. The Patriots managed a first down on that series, and when given the opportunity to start fresh, what'd they do? You guessed it. They ran on first down. Again. For one yard. Again.
With one minute left in the first quarter, the Patriots threw on first down for the first time, hitting Jonnu Smith on a screen for 24 yards.
New England Patriots
When the Patriots took to the air on early downs, they tended to throw short, which made sense. They understood Mac Jones likely wouldn't have much time to hold the ball in the pocket. But the run-pass option -- which was used heavily, yet only semi-effectively against the Jets last week -- was seldom seen. One RPO play was called back due to a hold on Isaiah Wynn. Another went for five yards on what looked like a triple option (hand-off, quarterback keeper or pass) play. A third went out to Kendrick Bourne and was promptly fumbled.
Three RPOs. After running a dozen a week ago. Even though those calls can protect a leaky offensive line -- because they're run-blocking, not pass-protecting -- and generate some cheap yards on early downs, they were essentially scrapped.
If Patriots coaches aren't really keen on calling those types of plays against tenacious pass-rushing teams because they haven't proven to be all that effective in short bursts, that makes sense. But it's hard to get any concept going when it's not called consistently. And if RPOs -- plays Jones likes and asked to be a bigger part of the offense this offseason -- can't be counted on, do the Patriots have anything in their arsenal that can be?
Through nine games there doesn't seem to be much schematic consistency in New England. They haven't been the wide-zone running team they seemingly wanted to be in training camp. They aren't a heavy play-action team. They aren't a heavy two-tight end team. They've had success in spurts with their power running game, but that was stifled on Sunday, and coming into the Colts game the Patriots were just 22nd in the NFL in yards per carry. They've had some success in spurts as a spread-it-out-and-throw team -- they entered Week 9 third in the NFL in plays of 20 yards or more -- but that kind of approach has also helped yield turnovers; the Patriots still lead the league in giveaways.
Can they find some consistency with their attack following the bye? It may be hard for Belichick, Patricia and Joe Judge to settle on an identity given the disjointed mess they have on their hands on the offensive line. (More on that when we get into the meat of the Report Card.) But they have to find something else. They need some kind of foundation to their offense they can count on weekly. Because the way it went on Sunday -- the way it's been going for weeks now -- won't be enough if they want to contend for a spot in the postseason.
Nope. The bye week most certainly will not be a week off for the Patriots offensive brain trust.
Let's get into the grades...
First, let's acknowledge the positives. It was a turnover-free game for Mac Jones, and his first interception-free outing in seven games. After spending the first three weeks of the season chucking the ball down the field, for the second straight week he had a much different approach. His average intended air yards were 4.4, which was the shallowest among Week 9 quarterbacks playing during the 1 p.m. slate of games. He had the ball out in 2.58 seconds, which was fifth-quickest among that same group of passers.
The team knew it would have to adapt based on its opponent -- which featured an imposing group of pass rushers -- and it tried. The results were just... lacking. The Patriots were still sacked four times, and when including the yardage lost on those plays, they averaged only 3.9 yards per pass play. The Patriots were just 6-for-17 on third down (35 percent) thanks in part to some atrocious early-down work where negative plays were a common occurrence.
"We've got to eliminate some of the negative plays," Jones said. "We're just in long-yard situations way too often. It's the NFL. These guys are pretty good. If you put yourself behind the sticks, your percentages plummet. It is what it is. You've got to fight through it and figure out a way to be better on first and second down. That helps on third down."
Jones missed a third-down wheel route down the sideline to Rhamondre Stevenson that led to Nick Folk's first field goal. He also threw a bit sideways on a third-and-short pass into the flat for Stevenson that led to another Folk kick. Additionally, Jones made what looked like a dangerous throw down the sideline to Jakobi Meyers in a third-and-seven situation that bounced away incomplete.
Jones finished with a completion percentage over expected figure -- CPOE is an accuracy statistic generated by Next Gen Stats -- of -6.8, which was his lowest of the season. He could've had more help. And he did well not to turn it over. But the bar should be higher for him. And this grade resides where it does because there were misses when he had an opportunity for positive plays.
Running back: B
Rhamondre Stevenson's stat line won't wow you. He finished with 60 yards rushing on 15 carries for a ho-hum 4.0 yards per carry. But given the way the offensive line performed (more on that in a minute), that was yeoman's work.
His 16-yard run on an inside handoff with Hunter Henry leading the way as a blocker was one of the better offensive plays of the day for the team and helped lead to Nick Folk's second field goal of the game. Stevenson also had three catches for 10 yards, with his most impressive moment coming when he snared a Mac Jones throw with one hand by the pylon for the lone touchdown of the game. That was his second one-handed grab in as many weeks.
J.J. Taylor got the call-up from the practice squad on Saturday, but he wasn't able to make much of an impact at all (one catch for eight yards, 10 carries for nine yards).
Wide receiver: D
Jakobi Meyers was able to haul in five passes for 42 yards on six targets, but he lost a fumble in this one that helps tank this grade. Kendrick Bourne fumbled as well, but it was recovered by teammate J.J. Taylor. Still, as far as the Report Card is concerned, that has to count against this unit.
Tyquan Thornton and Bourne both had drops in this game, and as a unit the receivers accumulated only 58 yards on 14 targets. The overall production in the passing game for Bill Belichick's club falls largely on the shoulders of the quarterback and the offensive line, but those groups need more help than they got Sunday from this one.
Tight end: B+
This unit was partly responsible for the lack of running room for Patriots backs -- Hunter Henry missed a block on Kwity Paye on a second-and-goal play in the fourth quarter that led to a stuff of Rhamondre Stevenson -- but they made real contributions as receivers. Henry snagged a seam pass for 30 yards and finished the game with four catches for a team-leading 50 yards. Jonnu Smith had three grabs for 21 yards, including a 24-yard screen catch-and-run that helped lead to a Nick Folk field goal.
It was interesting to see Henry and Smith deployed in different ways on Sunday. At times, they aligned as fullbacks (Henry was used as a lead-blocker for a 16-yard Stevenson run) and alongside Mac Jones, opposite a running back, in the shotgun in "Pony" types of sets. Perhaps the team is tweaking its tight end packages in the hopes of getting more production from the duo.
Offensive line: F
You knew it could be a difficult day for this unit. One week after having its hands full with a talented Jets front, the challenge was similar against DeForest Buckner, Kwity Paye and Yannick Ngakoue. The results? Ugly.
Mac Jones was sacked four times for 14 yards and he was hit a total of seven times. This group helped generate only 2.7 yards per carry, and Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn and Cole Strange all accounted for penalties. Strange was benched for nine consecutive series at one point, handing over left guard duties for the vast majority of the game to Wynn... who struggled. Buckner worked through backup center James Ferentz on the first snap of the game that seemed to set a tone for this matchup. Yodny Cajuste made a heads-up play to draw a neutral-zone infraction, but he appeared to drop his share of reps to Colts edge players.
Special teams: A-
On Sunday the Patriots spelled redemption J-O-N. After getting torn apart by Indy's special teams in last year's meeting, the Patriots won the upper hand early this time around, making a game-changing play in the kicking game in the second quarter.
Creeping down from his gunner position, Jon Jones burst into the Colts backfield and easily blocked a punt that was scooped up by Brenden Schooler at the three-yard line. The Patriots were in the end zone two plays later. Add four Nick Folk field goals, a 23-yard punt return and a 32-yard kick return by Marcus Jones, and this grade comes in where it does.
After accounting for a fist full of ugly Jake Bailey punts -- he had an early 36-yarder to the Patriots 42-yard line that was gross and a seven-yard (!) punt late in the fourth quarter -- this mark had to come down a half-grade.
Defensive line: A
The Patriots dominated the Colts in the trenches, which has in some ways been the story of Indy's season. Coming into Gillette Stadium, they couldn't generate anything with their offensive line -- despite a couple of talented pieces up front -- and that remained the case Sunday.
Through one half, the Colts had just 2.9 yards on the ground, not being able to take advantage of New England's difficulties against running quarterbacks this season. This unit produced against the pass as well, with Lawrence Guy freeing up Matt Judon for a pair of sacks on stunts. Davon Godchaux and Deatrich Wise had early run-stuffs that also contributed to this grade. Wise also picked up a half-sack late in the game.
An encroachment penalty by Daniel Ekuale couldn't keep this grade from reaching straight "A" status.
Just a dominant performance. Businesslike but dominant. They didn't create any turnovers at the second level, but they didn't have to. Matt Judon was a force of nature through the first 30 minutes, picking up two sacks and a quarterback hit. He also drew an illegal hands-to-the-face penalty after winning his one-on-one matchup with Braden Smith. He added a sack and a fourth-and-one stuff after the halftime break. Couldn't be stopped.
Ja'Whaun Bentley was a monster as well, coming up with three run stuffs and a sack in the first half. Josh Uche looked healthy and jolted the Colts protection schemes with a pair of first-half sacks of his own -- one a hustle sack on third down in the red zone that eventually led to a Colts missed field goal. He, like Judon, finished with three sacks on the day.
Jalen Mills was thought to be the No. 1 corner on this team coming out of training camp, and he looked the part Sunday. He batted away a pair of Sam Ehlinger passes in the first half and was in on an early run stuff. Adrian Phillips continued to sacrifice his body to be part of the solution for the Patriots run defense. Devin McCourty had a pair of third-down pass breakups, and Myles Bryant had a fourth-down pass breakup for a turnover on downs. (The Colts went a whopping 0-for-16 on third and fourth down combined.)
Jabrill Peppers also popped with big sticks for run stuffs of his own -- including one on third and one that eventually helped lead to a turnover on downs. On the next play, Kyle Dugger set a nice edge that forced a fourth-and-one run inside and into the arms of Matt Judon. Then, at the end, came the flash. Jon Jones was the beneficiary of a tipped-ball pick-six that glanced off the hands of a Colts wideout. By that point, with about four minutes left, the Colts had only 95 yards passing and Ehlinger's rating sat at 46.3. Smothering performance by this group.