Patriots mailbag: Previewing Bills game, Matt Patricia's future and more




 

Perry's Patriots mailbag: Patricia's future, Bill O'Brien possibility and more originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots are back in action Thursday night when they host the rival Buffalo Bills in a pivotal Week 13 game at Gillette Stadium. It's a huge matchup for the Pats as they try to keep pace in the AFC playoff race.

Before the Week 13 fun begins, let's jump into your mailbag questions...

Great question, SB. The Bills, by most metrics, are an excellent defense. Which is remarkable given the number of injuries they've sustained this year. Their secondary has been banged up all season and they're still without their talented safety Micah Hyde. Their top corner Tre'Davious White just returned to action for the first time in 2022 last week, playing 16 snaps against the Lions.

Still, there are the Bills, ranking as one of the best defensive units in the NFL. They're fifth in points allowed. They're ninth in yards per rushing attempt allowed. They're 10th in yards per pass attempt allowed. They're sixth in quarterback rating allowed. Per Pro Football Reference, they're eighth in pressure rate this season despite ranking 23rd in blitz rate.

Their ability to pressure on Thursday night will be tested without top pass-rusher Von Miller (45 pressures, most on the team), but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier showed against Detroit that he's more than happy to blitz if he has to. According to Pro Football Focus, he called to blitz Detroit quarterback Jared Goff on 17 snaps last week (44 percent of Goff's dropbacks).

Bills will be without key defensive player in Week 13 game vs. Patriots

Bad news for the Patriots: If the Bills plan to blitz with Miller out, that could be a recipe for disaster. It's played out that way, at least, when they've been blitzed this year. No quarterback has a lower passer rating against the blitz this season, per PFF, than Mac Jones (56.3). Jones is 31st out of 32 quarterbacks with at least 60 dropbacks against the blitz in terms of his completion percentage (54.0) and 29th in turnover-worthy play percentage (4.8), ahead of only Zach Wilson and Justin Fields.

The Patriots showed signs of progress on Thanksgiving against the Vikings, but they'll need to take their performance to yet another level if they want to put up points against a better Bills defense outdoors.

Well, Jo, it's a fair question.

You could argue, based on some of the defensive rankings, that the best game the Patriots played offensively this year was when they scored 26 in a loss to the Ravens. Baltimore ranks 12th in points allowed this season. They averaged 7.1 yards per play that day. Not bad. Sadly for them, their next best game against a good defense might've been their second Jets game... when they scored three points on offense.

They averaged 5.0 yards per play that day and had 297 yards of total offense. But they went 4-for-16 on third and fourth down combined and 0-for-2 in the red zone. The Vikings don't count, in my opinion, as a good defense. They're 21st in points allowed this year and they allow more passing yards per game than any defense. That was New England's best offensive game, but the opponent wasn't the stoutest.

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Has the defense performed well against any good offenses? The answer to that one is a firm "yes," in my opinion. They held the Dolphins to 13 points in the season-opener. Miami is one of the most efficient offenses in football (sixth in scoring, first in yards per pass attempt). They also shut out a Lions offense that is eighth in the NFL in scoring. Even their performance against the Browns and Jacoby Brissett was impressive. Cleveland is 11th in scoring with their backup quarterback, surprisingly enough, and the Patriots held them to 15 points in Week 6.

Bottom line: You know what this team is by now. They are a very good defense, even if it's still unclear how they'll perform against elite quarterbacks remaining on the schedule like Josh Allen or Joe Burrow. Meanwhile, they are not a very good offense. They rank near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories, even after a positive performance on Thanksgiving.

...Which may help explain this next stretch of questions flooding the Bag this week.

Bill O'Brien didn't fill the Georgia Tech job opening so it appears as though he'll be available. He has ties to the area. He's worked under Bill Belichick before. Would seem to be a logical addition if the Patriots wanted to go in a different direction. Not necessarily right now -- though the Patriots have added to the offensive staff midseason before, re-hiring Josh McDaniels late in 2011 when O'Brien was offensive coordinator -- but perhaps for next season.

The question is, whose call would that be?

Here's how I view the situation at the moment: Ownership wants to let Bill Belichick run the operation the way he feels it should be run. He's earned that, in their opinion. I'd be stunned if they went to Belichick and demanded he make a change at coordinator. Of course that's Robert Kraft's right. It's his team. But the way he's operated -- giving Belichick the keys to the football operation and mostly staying out of the way -- would suggest that a forced change at coordinator seems unlikely.

That said, ownership should scrutinize how the offense has performed this season. They pay their tight ends more than any team in football. They're near the top of the league in receiver spending. They drafted a first-round quarterback who showed promise as a rookie and now is one year closer to the end of his deal, seemingly headed in the wrong direction. They drafted a first-round guard. Yet -- in trying to streamline their offense under Belichick. Matt Patricia and Joe Judge -- they have slid backward in just about every offensive category.

Through 12 weeks last season, the Patriots were 11th in expected points added per play. They were sixth in success rate offensively. They were 12th in dropback EPA and eighth in rush EPA. This year? They're 26th, 24th, 25th and 21st in those categories, respectively. That's an off-a-cliff statistical fall. If things don't turn around down the stretch, if the Krafts want a change, no one should be surprised. Belichick included.

I'm not sure Kliff Kingsbury is the one to "modernize" the offense. They go with some pretty traditional Air Raid looks that have been around for a long time in the college game. They are somewhat simple, league evaluators will tell you. And they're not working incredibly well at the pro level.

Simplicity, it seems, is something the Patriots offense already has covered. If anything, they'll probably want a little more variety sprinkled into their diet at some point. Patriots players I've spoken to recently have acknowledged that they lean on concepts that appear on the field time and again, something that Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner pointed out recently on one of his "Study Ball" YouTube videos.

Warner went through the Patriots performance against the Vikings and, despite the offensive production, found a host of issues with how the offense was being executed. It's a nearly hour-long video you can find here, where Warner harps on the "details" that seem to be lacking for New England on that side of the ball.

Spacing. Route-running. Releases off the line of scrimmage. Quarterback reads. Quarterback mechanics. Confusing play designs. They all entered into Warner's crosshairs. He wrapped up the film session by coming back to the lack of variety in the offense and the apparent lack of attention to detail exhibited.

"Not necessarily bad concepts across the board," Warner said. "Good, solid concepts. Would like to see more. You saw it in there. A lot of the same concepts, concept ideas, over and over and over again. But they're good concept ideas so I'm not going to argue as much with that.

"But it's about details. Details, details, details. You want to be simple with your offense? You better be really, really good at what you do in the details. Details as a quarterback. Technique throwing the football. Getting the football out on time. Knowing where your eyes should be and what you're seeing. Then the details of creating the right kind of spacing. Getting into positions quickly to allow your quarterback to make reads and get the ball out on time, giving him opportunities to do that...

"This is my problem with where the Patriots are overall. Yes, I'd like to see more concepts and more creativity overall. But if this is what you're going to do and you're going to be a simplistic offense that runs the same concepts over and over and over again, get good at them. Get the details down...

"That to me is where Mac Jones has struggled this year. Things haven't happened quick enough for him. It's forced him to overthink things, to get through things too quickly and make a lot of bad decisions with the football that he didn't do nearly as much last year. There's a whole bunch of stuff coming together.

"In that game, they completed a bunch of passes. They had a lot of yards. But you see all the stuff that could've been. All the opportunities out there that were missed because the details weren't very good on those concepts. That's what I've been seeing with the Patriots all year long. Two weeks ago, I think Mac went 23-for-27 and the Patriots scored three points. Right? Why? Lack of efficiency. Efficiency. Yes, we get completions... We need to score points. We need these plays to turn into big plays. We need them to turn into first downs in critical opportunities. Details. Reading it right as a quarterback. Get the ball to the right guy, making good decisions.

"That, to me, is where this team has been way up and down. I would say more down than up this year and why they've struggled to score points and do it week in and week out."

They'll use RPOs occasionally, Kenneth. And occasionally when those are called, they are actually handing the ball off because that's what the defense is giving them. But it's still not a staple of their offense the way it is for other teams.

Some of the best offenses in football rely on RPO production -- Philly, Baltimore, Miami, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Buffalo are all top-seven in RPO attempts, according to Pro Football Reference -- but the Patriots never fully invested in it before the season, which has led to a dip-their-toes-in-the-water approach with that particular concept.

Would they do it over if they could, go back to training camp and incorporate more? Maybe. What they wanted to be before the season -- a zone-heavy team -- never transpired. And situationally they're still looking for their identity, ranking near the bottom of the league in third-down and red-zone offense. Using more RPOs to stay in manageable down-and-distance scenarios could be beneficial. Doesn't look like their RPO usage is going to skyrocket any time soon, though.

Feels that way. They should win in Arizona and Vegas. But those aren't givens. Maybe they can steal one more in the division or against the Bengals. But they appear to be what we thought they would be.

Here are Thornton's snap counts since his two-touchdown performance against the Browns: 44 snaps versus Chicago, 60 versus the Jets, 42 versus Indy, 17 versus the Jets, 20 versus Minnesota. He hasn't had more than one catch in a game during that span, topping out yardage-wise at 19 against Chicago. He has 42 yards in his last five games.

The most recent five-game yardage totals for his draft classmates taken after him in the second round? Alec Pierce has 116 for Indy. Skyy Moore has 105 for Kansas City. George Pickens, one of the top rookie receivers in the league this year, has 233 and two touchdowns for Pittsburgh.

I think so, Hawkeye. They've become more of a downhill running team, leaning on more gap concepts as the season has gone on. It's what they're best at. But because they married themselves to a zone scheme before the season -- one that was going to rely on their two highly-paid tight ends -- they jettisoned the idea of a fullback. Hard to watch Johnson lead the way for Josh Jacobs in Seattle last week and not believe he could make an impact in Foxboro this year.

I think so. The Bills offense, while still excellent, isn't quite what it was last year. And the Patriots are improved...

...This may be the biggest swing in talent since last year's meetings. There's a lot of attention on the linebacker turnover for the Patriots this year, but look at some of the defensive backs used in that Wild Car game last year: Joejuan Williams started at corner; Justin Bethel, D'Angelo Ross and De'Vaunte Bausby got snaps in the secondary as well.

Jonathan Jones will be available for this one after missing all three meetings last year. Jalen Mills should be good to go after missing the Wild Card game. Jack Jones and Marcus Jones give the corner room more depth against Allen and Co. It's a tough matchup, but they're certainly better positioned than they were last year -- even without a "No. 1" like JC Jackson in the mix.

I think Kyle Dugger will have some responsibilities when it comes to following Allen, particularly in their "SEAL" package, which is their "big nickel" grouping with three safeties. Their "Navy" package, which is their nickel unit, could see different players locking onto Allen. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the speedier linebackers the Patriots have -- like Mack Wilson or Raekwon McMillan -- tracking Allen at times in obvious passing situations.

On Wilson, Belichick said Tuesday, "He's fast. He's very athletic. He gets to a lot of plays. One of the faster linebackers that we've had, and probably around the league to tell you the truth... Big advantage getting to the perimeter on catch-and-run, outside plays. Definitely a strength of his. He's a contact player. He's had some explosive hits on runners and blockers. He brings a level of physicality that's good."

Wilson, you can be sure, is hoping to have another hit on Allen like this one Thursday night.

My guess is it's JJ Taylor. That's who backed up Stevenson against Indy, when Damien Harris last wasn't available. Taylor played 17 snaps that day.

I wouldn't say it's likely that Harris is back, but I also wouldn't totally rule it out. The Patriots were open to signing Leonard Fournette as a veteran free agent this past offseason so it's not as though they're completely opposed to taking on veteran runners. But Belichick hasn't given an early-down runner a second contract in some time. You'll remember he dealt Sony Michel before his deal came up last year. And he just spent two draft picks on backs. This could be it for the bruising runner in Foxboro.

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