What else is there to say about Sunday?
The case of the Patriots’ failed 2022 season was solved well before their loss at Buffalo filed it away for good. The culprits? Offensive coaching and special teams.
The Bills returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a 35-23 win, putting the Patriots on the wrong end of half of the kick return touchdowns scored in the NFL this season. The Pats finished with the league’s worst special teams, per Football Outsiders’ opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric DVOA, and their worst of the Bill Belichick era. After the game, Belichick claimed the finale came down to four plays: those returns and Josh Allen’s rocket-launched touchdown passes in the second half.
Except only someone who hasn’t watched the Bills and Patriots play seven times since Tom Brady left, a stretch when Buffalo went 6-1, would believe that. The Bills boast the better quarterback, the deeper roster and more reliable coaching staff, all of which carried them to victory Sunday. At least over the weekend, the Pats’ offensive staff finally weaponized play-action and diversified its red-zone play-calling. The wrinkles were real, and they were spectacular.
But the pain of the Patriots’ 2022 season cuts deep. Not because the team’s final record was surprising, but because of the culprits. The Patriots’ edge under Belichick is supposed to be coaching and creating unseen advantages, like on special teams. Yet this season, those areas were their obvious undoing.
Curiously, Belichick’s comments Sunday mirrored those he made after the Pats’ season-opening loss at Miami. Hours after the 20-7 defeat, he said it boiled down to two plays: a second-quarter strip-sack of Mac Jones, and Tua Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass before halftime. That was it.
The Patriots were “competitive from a yardage standpoint,” said the coach who once famously declared “stats are for losers.” Four months later, finished at 8-9, Belichick stuck to his feel-good guns to close a season that should be remembered for him moving the goal posts as much as Mac Jones’ on-field fits or late-season fumbles costing the Patriots against the Raiders and Bengals.
So instead of breaking down why Sunday’s season finale hinged on more than four plays, and dragging the goal posts back to their proper place, what follows is a film review of the entire season, plus the Patriots’ season leaders in key stats.
Then, we’re on to 2023.
288-of-442 (65.2%), 2,997 yards, 14 TDs, 11 INTs
Accurate throw percentage: 74.3
Under pressure: 42-of-99 for 505 yards, 3 TDs, 8 INTs, 34 sacks
Against the blitz: 53-of-102 for 603 yards, 5 TDs, 4 INTs, 11 sacks
Behind the line: 80-of-87 for 438 yards, TD
0-9 yards downfield: 141-of-189 for 1,086 yards, 5 TDs, INT
10-19 yards downfield: 41-of-69 for 665 yards, 4 TDs, 5 INTs
20+ yards downfield: 26-of-67 for 808 yards, 4 TDs, 5 INTs
Notes: This was, to say the bare minimum, a trying season for Jones.
First, the Patriots’ newly aggressive downfield passing attack vaulted him into the league lead for interceptions through Week 3. Then, Jones missed four games with a high ankle sprain, and his head coach declined to name him the starter for the rest of the season. At last, Jones’ solved his pick problem — throwing one interception from Halloween through New Year’s Day — but was dogged by an inconsistent run game, occasional mechanical breakdowns and an overly conservative and simplistic system.
None of this is to excuse Jones from all blame, especially his body language in November and December. But the parts of the Patriots’ passing game most firmly within his control were the most consistent from last year to this season. His accuracy (at 74.7% adjusted completion percentage in 2021 and 74.3% in 2022), downfield aggression (8.3 yards average depth of target) in 2021 and 8.2 aDOT in 2022) and ball security (2.5% turnover-worthy play percentage in 2021 and 2.7% in 2022) all remained steady. He took more sacks, but scrambled more and fumbled less.
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The bottom line is we know the roughly same about Jones as we did this time last year, a damning lack of development that says much more his environment than about him. He is a pocket-bound passer with above average accuracy and unthreatening arm talent. He processes quickly and operates best over the middle of the field. He wilted under pressure in Year 2, though passing numbers under pressure are not predictive season to season.
What does that mean for Year 3? That, like much of the Patriots’ immediate future, will be up to coaching.
OLB Matt Judon
Another career year. Judon clinched his fourth straight Pro Bowl honor by nabbing 15.5 sacks, plus 13 other QB hits and 23 hurries. He was a monster.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
The breakout star of the Patriots’ season. Stevenson wore down over the final three weeks, but single-handedly carried the team’s rushing attack and caught more passes than anyone on the team.
RG Mike Onwenu
Far and away the Patriots’ best offensive lineman this year, Onwenu didn’t allow a sack until Week 17. He could even challenge Stevenson for the team’s best offensive player. He was that good.
S Kyle Dugger
Seventy-eight tackles, eight pass breakups, three interceptions, two touchdowns, a forced fumble and a sack. Good luck making a list of five more impactful safeties in the entire league this season.
OT Isaiah Wynn
Wynn was a debacle. He had a streak of four straight games with a penalty and a sack. He was benched multiple times and eventually shelved on IR. It would be a shock to see him back in New England.
WR Nelson Agholor
Another impending free agent, Agholor’s numbers fell even further this season. He finished without a catch in the team’s last three games and all but fell out of the Pats’ receiver rotation.
TE Jonnu Smith
How many of his 27 catches do you remember?
Poor awareness, subpar route-running and a lack of consistency forged the worst season of Smith’s career. Because of the guaranteed money in his contract, Smith will be back next season, but the team surely hopes he’ll improve on those 27 grabs for 245 yards and zero touchdowns.
Jake Bailey and Michael Palardy were the NFL’s two worst punters this season, per certain metrics. Bailey capped the worst statistical year of his career with a suspension. And without him, the Pats’ kickoff team suffered, too.
- Personnel: 77.5% of snaps in 11 personnel, 17.3% snaps in 12 personnel, 3% in 13J personnel, 0.3% in 10 personnel, 1.5% in 21H personnel, 0.4% in 22J personnel.*
Personnel production: 5.6 yards/play in 11 personnel, 4.6 yards/play in 12 personnel, 4.7 yards/play in 13J personnel, 0 yards/play in 10 personnel, 0.6 yards/play in 21H personnel.
- First down play-calls: 51.6% run (4.5 yards per play), 48.4% pass (6.1 yards per play)
- Play-action rate: 16.1%
- Third downs: 34.9% (27th in NFL)
- Red-zone efficiency: 42.2 (last in NFL)
- Pressure rate allowed: 27.2%
- Broken tackles: Rhamondre Stevenson 61, Damien Harris 14, Jonnu Smith 11, Kendrick Bourne 7, Kevin Harris 7
- Penalties: Team 12, Trent Brown 11, Isaiah Wynn 9, Cole Strange 7, Mac Jones 4, Hunter Henry 4, David Andrews 4
- Drops: Stevenson 5, Nelson Agholor 4, Tyquan Thornton 3, Bourne 3, Henry 3
- Sacks allowed: Brown 8.5, Wynn 6, Strange 4.5
- QB hits allowed: Brown 7, McDermott 3, Andrews 2, Strange 2, Wynn 2
- Hurries allowed: Brown 12, Strange 10, Conor McDermott 8, Andrews 6, Cajuste 6
- Run stuffs allowed: Strange 6, Mike Onwenu 4, Brown 3
- After 17 games and 18 weeks, several questions persist about the offense but one rises above most others: what was the identity?
- Offensive play-caller/offensive line coach Matt Patricia drilled outside zone runs for most of the spring and summer, then the Pats couldn’t block it. They averaged 3.2 yards behind zone-blocking, fourth-worst in the league, yet Patricia called zone runs on 58.1% of designed runs, per Sports Info. Solutions.
- As for the man-blocked runs, like power and counter, the Patriots averaged 5.7 yards, the seventh-highest mark in the NFL.
- Within their basic passing game, the Pats vacillated between aggressive 1-on-1 shots in September to a play-action-oriented attack with Bailey Zappe and quick game operation once Jones returned. Finally, in the last two weeks, Jones went back to attacking deep.
- Largely, the Pats dressed up the same handful of passing concepts, but failed to drill down the fundamentals well enough to simply out-execute their opponents, which is supposed to be the benefit of running a simpler system.
- The only constants for this offense was leaning week to week, with its full weight, on Rhamondre Stevenson and Jakobi Meyers.
- Lucky for the Pats, Stevenson averaged a broken tackle on one of every 4.6 touches, almost half the average of fellow running back Damien Harris, who is set to hit free agency. He is a legitimate star.
- Stevenson’s ability to generate yards after contact allowed the Patriots’ run game to stay afloat when injuries and benchings decimated the offensive line from mid-October through late November.
- The Patriots rode Stevenson too hard, however, and it was clear when his drops increased and yards after contact fell over the last three games.
- Meyers, on the other hand, is as steady as can be. Another impending free agent, he led the Patriots in receiving for the third straight year with 804 yards and dropped just one pass.
- Out wide, the Patriots never properly developed rookie Tyquan Thornton, who was afforded ample playing time (527 snaps) after returning from a broken collarbone in Week 5. Thornton played more than Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, while seeing just 18 fewer snaps than DeVante Parker.
- Parker came as advertised, a jump-ball specialist who would occasionally out-muscle cornerbacks on shorter routes. He also missed four games and compiled 539 receiving yards, right in line with his career single-season averages.
- If one pass catcher can claim to being misused, it’s Hunter Henry. While not a tackle-breaking machine, Henry navigates the middle of the field as well as any receiver, and was not featured against defenses that ranked among the league’s worst at covering tight ends (Miami, Arizona, Indianapolis, Detroit to name a few). His connection with Mac Jones was evident last year and surfaced again in the season finale.
- Bourne certainly has a case, though his stiffer positional competition and knack for untimely drops and penalties hurt his standing with the coaching staff, particularly after a bad summer.
- The Patriots’ lack of play-action passing — they called the second-fewest of any NFL offense this season — was as damning a sin as any for the staff, aside from never pivoting toward man-blocked runs.
- Up front, Trent Brown leads the offensive linemen in all the wrong categories (sacks, QB hits and hurries allowed), though it should be noted that he was also among their most durable. He played the second-most snaps of any offensive player after Mike Onwenu, the lone star of the O-line.
- Already a gifted run-blocker, Onwenu shone in pass protection despite a rotating cast of tackles next to him. There was no drop-off from the level of performance Shaq Mason established over seasons of Pro Bowl-caliber play to Ownenu.
- It bears repeating: Wynn was an unmitigated, uninterested disaster.
- As for his replacements, Conor McDermott played above replacement level from Weeks 15-17 but fell apart at Buffalo, where he allowed three QB hits and three hurries.
- Rookie Cole Strange patched his issues in pass protection after getting benched midseason, though concerns about run-blocking are legitimate. Strange has said he wants to get stronger.
- Center David Andrews is as steady and as tough as they come.
- Personnel breakdown: 36% three-safety nickel package, 28% dime, 25% three-corner nickel package, 9% base, 1.8% dollar, 0.2% goal-line.**
- Blitz rate: 21.9%
- Yards per carry allowed: 4.1
- Opponents’ third-down conversion: 40.2% (21st in NFL)
- Opponents’ red-zone efficiency: 58% (22nd in NFL)
- Pressure rate: 32.3%
- Interceptions: Devin McCourty 4, Jonathan Jones 4, Kyle Dugger 3
- Forced fumbles: Jo. Jones 3, Matt Judon 2, Deatrich Wise 2, Josh Uche 2
- Sacks: Judon 15.5, Uche 11.5, Wise 7.5, Ja’Whaun Bentley 3, Christian Barmore 2.5
- QB hits: Judon 28, Uche 14, Wise 11, Barmore 7
- Hurries: Judon 24, Wise 24, Uche 21, Barmore 12
- Pass deflections: Jo. Jones 7, Dugger 5, Myles Bryant 5, Marcus Jones 5, Jack Jones 4, McCourty 4
- Run stuffs: Judon 3, Daniel Ekuale 3, Jabrill Peppers 3
- Missed tackles: Bentley 10, Dugger 9, Mack Wilson 8, Ja. Jones 7
- Penalties: Jo. Jones 8, Judon 4, Uche 4, Bryant 3, Ekuale 3, Carl Davis 3
- Unlike recent years, the Patriots powered their defense with a dominant pass rush.
- Matt Judon, Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche all enjoyed career years and combined for 34.5 sacks, more than half of the team’s total of 58. Those 58 sacks marked a new season high for the Bill Belichick era.
- The defensive staff maximized Judon’s pass rush pre- and post-snap by putting him in defensive fronts that guaranteed a 1-on-1 matchup in pass-rushing situations. The Pats also ran him through stunts up the middle that tied up opponents’ protections.
- Once Judon began commanding regular double teams and chips from tight ends and/or running backs, the Patriots dropped him into coverage more frequently in the second half of the season. According to PFF, Judon dropped 24 times from Weeks 1-9, and 49 times over Weeks 10-18.
- Uche’s breakout, powered by a deeper bag of pass-rushing moves, also allowed the Pats to use Judon as a decoy more often. Uche’s second-half dominance included a four-game stretch in December when he recorded 6.5 sacks and 20 pressures.
- Wise created most of his pressure in the first half of the season, though his performance proved steadier week to week than Uche’s. He finished with six pressures over the last four games.
- It’s likely defensive tackle Christian Barmore will follow in Uche’s footsteps with a Year 3 breakout next season. After missing two months due to injury, he notched seven pressures over the team’s last two games. Barmore also ranked among the team leaders in most pressure categories despite his missed time.
- Save for his two games against Buffalo, a team he regularly dominates, veteran defensive tackle Davon Godchaux disappointed for a player who received a lucrative contract extension in the preseason. On the other hand, Lawrence Guy showed up as a pass rusher and keeps bringing it at 33, even though he’s limited to an early-down, run-stuffing role.
- Ja’Whaun Bentley overcame a slow start to the season and emerged as arguably the Pats’ second-best defender after Judon. Bentley posted a career-best and team-high 125 tackles, plus three sacks.
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- The Pats wisely utilized him as a blitzer more than ever before, allowing the powerful 255-pounder to cream running backs in blitz pickup en route to the quarterback. Bentley also sharpened his skills in coverage, where he was frequently targeted but never proved to be a liability.
- Elsewhere at linebacker, Jahlani Tavai proved to be a pleasant surprise. He set the most consistent edge against the run and provided occasional blitz pressure. His fourth-down pass breakup at Arizona was quietly one of the best linebacker plays of the year.
- Behind Bentley and Tavai, Mack Wilson all but disappeared after his early-season struggles and benching. He reportedly will not return to New England next year, and his team-high rate of missed tackles is one reason why. Inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan and Anfernee Jennings are both serviceable backups.
- As expected, the Patriots’ safety group anchored their defense. Fighting for their playoff lives, the Pats lived out of three-safety nickel and dime personnel groupings down the stretch. Armed with just two cornerbacks from their 53-man roster in Week 17 versus Miami, the Patriots played four safeties (four!) on 26 defensive snaps.
- Kyle Dugger starred in every role as a do-it-all safety and is tracking to become a perennial Pro Bowler. No other player on the roster had an interception, sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
- Dugger also thumped against the run, as did Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers. While Phillips’ playmaking dipped (zero takeaways down from five last season), it should be noted he played through injury virtually all season. He will be a central piece of the 2023 defense.
- As for Peppers, if he can play under control more frequently, he, too, could become a key cog. His zone awareness is another area for growth, but the plus physical tools and system fit are there.
- No defense played more zone over the final six weeks than the Patriots, according to Sports Info. Solutions. Their base call was Cover 2, which helped protect a thinning cornerback group.
- When the Pats played zone behind a four-man rush, they were the NFL’s No. 2 defense by opponents’ passer rating. Part of that success stemmed from a building embrace of simulated pressures, calls that task a safety or linebacker with blitzing while a defensive lineman or edge rusher drops back into coverage and confuse blocking schemes.
- The Pats’ most common coverage behind these simulated pressures was Cover 2.
- It’s unknown whether Jonathan Jones, who turns 30 in September, will re-sign. If not, he couldn’t hit the market at a better time, grabbing four interceptions, forcing three fumbles and deflecting seven passes.
- Jones also successfully transitioned from lifelong nickelback to outside corner, which allowed the Pats to play their preferred man-coverage calls for most of the season until December.
- The Pats missed Jalen Mills’ steady coverage as a viable No. 2 corner. Rookie Marcus Jones projects as a nickel moving forward, and fellow rookie Jack Jones flashed serious man-to-man talent but pre-draft maturity concerns persist in light of his recent suspension.
Statistics for passing depth, broken tackles and missed tackles courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
*11 personnel = one running back, one tight end; 12 personnel = one running back, two tight ends; 13J personnel = one running back, three tight ends including a sixth offensive lineman; 10 personnel = one running back, four wide receivers; 21H = two halfbacks, one tight end.
**Base defense = four defensive backs; nickel defense = five defensive backs; dime defense = six defensive backs; goal-line defense = three defensive backs; dollar defense = seven defensive backs.
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