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Patriots Report Card: New England vs Washington Commanders

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New England Patriots wide received JuJu Smith-Schuster attempts to bring in a pass from Mac Jones

Is it time to start grading the New England Patriots on a curve? The good news is that New England did not let the game get out of hand, especially after falling behind 10-0. On their final possession the Patriots had a chance to win, or at least force overtime. The bad news is that the final drive ended in a turnover and sealed another loss. It was also a loss against a Washington Commanders team that seemed to throw in the towel at last week’s trade deadline on the 2023 season.

In the end, Washington won 20-17, dropping New England’s record to 2-7. But there were a few bright spots despite another gloomy outcome. And with that, this week’s New England Patriots Report Cardโ€ฆ

Coaching: F

It’s possible to let the coaching staff squeak by with a passing grade, but there are just too many things to objectively question. It begins with deciding who to make active for the game. Why wasn’t Kayshon Boutte given a chance? He got open and caught the ball in the season opener (even if he failed to stay inbounds). Have the active receivers shown such ability?

Why are there so many dedicated special teams players active on a roster that continues to have horrible special teams play? Tyquan Thornton goes from featured target to bench? Shaun Wade goes from starting cornerback to sideline? It seems there is no real plan in place at times. Why don’t they know where to play Marte Mapu? And why keep attacking a Commanders cornerback when it is not working?

Discipline also continues to be a problem. Penalties are a problem. Getting lost in coverage and/or getting the wrong player in coverage is a problem. Taking bad angles is a problem. Running poor routes is a problem. Making bad decisions is a problem. In other words, the New England Patriots have a lot of problems.

The players deserve much of the blame (and will receive it below) but what are these coaches doing to improve the situation? Whatever it is, it is not working.

Also, not going for a fourth down conversion at midfield in the fourth quarter was a questionable decision. This is especially true given how little this team had to lose.

Quarterback: C

Last things first: the final Patriots play of the game was not on Mac Jones. He threw a catchable ball that bounced off his receiver’s hands and resulted in an interception.

It has become commonplace for anyone who doesn’t think the Patriots QB is the worst player in the NFL to be deemed a “Mac Jones apologist.” It seems fair to view Jones as neither the problem nor the answer, which seems to be the case. There is no question that New England’s receiving corps isn’t giving Jones a lot to work with. But there is also no question that Jones isn’t doing enough to overcome their shortcomings.

It was not Mac Jones fault that Jalen Reagor dropped a potential huge play in the fourth quarter. Nor as it his fault that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s mishap caused an interception on the Patriots last play to seal the loss. But it was on Jones that he threw too softly trying to hit Rhamondre Stevenson on a crucial third-down play with under ten minutes to play. And he missed both Tyquan Thornton and Mike Gesicki badly on longer throws.

It felt fortunate that he avoided throwing an interception earlier in the game. Too many throws lack the crispness that stronger-armed quarterbacks display. Having a cannon arm is not necessary to succeed in the NFL. But, if a quarterback doesn’t have a strong arm they need to make up for it with quick, decisive and smart decisions. Too many of Mac Jones attempts still look like they are just floating out there and hoping for the best.

Why Bill O’Brien has not been calling more plays to highlight what does work (quick slants, simplified playbook, targeting effective receivers) is part of the reason the coaching staff received a failing grade.

Running Backs: B-plus

Rhamondre Stevenson scored on a 64-yard touchdown run for the New England Patriots highlight of the game. He finished with 87 yards rushing and a touchdown on only nine carries. But aside from big gain, Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 40 yards on 14 carries. But with a lack of other difference-making plays from the Patriots, that one touchdown run is enough to put this group on the honor roll.

Stevenson also caught 4-of-6 targets for 42 yards. He and Mac Jones get the blame for one of the incompletions each. On the first Stevenson took his eyes off the ball. On the second, Jones threw too softly allowing for an easy pass breakup. Elliott also got involved in the passing attack with three receptions for 15 yards.

Wide Receivers: D

No Kendrick Bourne or DeVante Parker meant an opportunity for the Patriots other receivers to show what they can do (unless their name is Kayshon Boutte). Unfortunately, they did not make the most of the opportunity.

Tyquan Thornton got action early but had just one reception on four targets. It looked like he ran the wrong route on one incompletion and failed to get any separation on another (also may have been an incorrect route). He failed to fight to get open. In the second half of the game, Thornton did not see the field.

Jalen Reagor was targeted six times and only had one reception for 11 yards. It was not all on Reagor (see Mac Jones pass above) but he did drop a potential huge gain that hit him in the hands. He did set a nice block to help spur Stevenson’s touchdown run (also, see above) but wide receivers need to be able to catch the ball.

JuJu Smith-Schuster played an excellent game…until he didn’t. He hauled in his first six targets for 51 yards. This included a great fourth-down catch on New England’s final drive to temporarily keep hope alive. But just two plays later the final pass of the game bounced off his hands and into the arms of Washington’s Jartavious Martin to seal another loss.

Demario Douglas finished with five receptions for 55 yards.

Tight Ends: C

Hunter Henry was more of a target than in recent weeks and he made the most of his chances. He had four receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown on the day. Mike Gesicki was barely noticeable despite playing in 86% of the offensive snaps. He was only targeted once and blocking is not his forte. Bill Belichick even referred to Gesicki as “our fifth receiver” but he didn’t perform like one yesterday. If not for the one incomplete pass Mac Jones threw his way, the average fan may not have even realized he was playing yesterday. That is not a good sign for somebody counted on to be a difference-maker in the passing game. Pharaoh Brown was limited in practice last week. That could be the reason he played only seven offensive snaps on Sunday. Brown had been one of the New England Patriots most pleasant surprises this season.

Offensive Line: B

Playing against a Washington team that just traded away Montez Sweat and Chase Young was obviously going to make things a bit easier for New England’s offensive line on Sunday. But the Patriots were also without LT Trent Brown, who has been playing excellent football this season. Conor McDermott, just elevated from the practice squad, got the start over Vederian Lowe in Brown’s absence. He held up adequately for the most part, although he was bailed out by the referees once. McDermott was beaten cleanly on a sack by K.J. Henry that was nullified by a very questionable roughing the passer call.

RT Mike Onwenu had another solid game since shifting over from guard. And right beside him, rookie RG Sidy Sow continues to look very comfortable in that spot. Center David Andrews, who has struggled at times this season, played a very sold game as well. LG Cole Strange helped set Stevenson free on his long pickup and played a good game.

Again, it is a small sample against a not-so-great defense that just traded two studs. But that said, the Patriots offensive line did their job on the Sunday for the most part. And their most costly poor play ended up not counting.

Defensive Line: B-plus

This unit had their best overall game of the season on Sunday. Christian Barmore deflected two passes and was also in on a sack (though did not get credit). He has proven to be stout against the run and is also creating QB pressures. He had seven yesterday in a dominant performance. Barmore is looking like a player the Patriots need to make a cornerstone of this defense moving forward.

Davon Godchaux had eight tackles from his defensive tackle spot and recovered a fumble. Lawrence Guy showed up more than he has all season, recording three tackles with a TFL. And Deatrich Wise, Jr. also had his most effective game of 2023, Wise finished with eight tackles and a beautiful diving sack. Rookie DE Keion White played 40% of the defensive snaps but didn’t make an impact.

The longest gains for the Commanders rushing attack were outside plays where the Patriots lost containment. However, on the bulk of these big gains (Brian Robinson‘s touchdown, Sam Howell‘s 24-yard scramble) it appeared the Patriots just vacated areas of the field (outside on Robinson, middle on Howell) that allowed for the room. Defensive line didn’t appear to be the culprit on either. However, Wise did take accountability for the Howell run. He said he rushed too far outside and upfield, enabling Howell to run up the middle. This would not have been an issue if the Patriots had simply been able to tackle (more on that further down).

Linebackers: B-plus

The New England Patriots linebackers continue to impress despite playing shorthanded without All-Pro Matthew Judon. Ja’Whaun Bentley had himself a game. The captain led New England with 12 tackles (nine solo), 2.0 sacks, and two TFL. He brought energy to a team desperately in need of a spark.

Jahlani Tavai continues to be one of the most consistent Patriots players. For the second week in a row he forced a fumble with by punching out the ball, but this time it counted and was recovered by Godchaux.

Anfernee Jennings had three tackles and a TFL. Josh Uche played only 17 snaps and did not show up in the boxscore. He was a non-factor as he works his way back from injury. Marte Mapu is listed as a linebacker, but continues to line up at defensive back, so he will be included below.

Defensive Backs: D

Shaun Wade started at cornerback, but immediately struggled and was replaced. He played only played 13 snaps. Both J.C. Jackson and Jack Jones began the game on the bench. This was likely for their poor performances against the Dolphins a week before. Both struggled again against Washington, and neither would discuss it afterward.

Jonathan Jones had a tough assignment with Terry McLaurin and held up fairly well, aside from a pair of big third quarter completions. Myles Bryant had a solid game, aside from the touchdown completion to Jahan Dotson on which he was simply beaten. Their performances (like Smith-Schuster) sum up a lot of what has gone wrong for New England this year. Things go well, until they don’t.

Kyle Dugger had a gift interception at the end of the first half. Neither he nor Jabrill Peppers were as good as recent weeks, though Peppers had a couple of pass breakups. Both safetys played 100% of the defensive snaps. Losing containment on Robinson’s touchdown run was the most glaring error.

Jalen Mills continues to struggle tackling. This was especially noticeable on the Howell big run. Adrian Phillips also missed a tackle on that play. Mills has not transitioned from cornerback as smoothly as the Patriots hoped. Rookie Marte Mapu continues to look lost, though it is unclear why he is being put in these situations. The further away from the line of scrimmage he is, the less effective he is. That was clear on his college tape and is amplified in the NFL, where opponents are faster and better.

Special Teams: F

At some point the question needs to be asked, what is happening here? Once a source of pride in Foxboro, the New England Patriots continue to make mistakes. Specialists were fine, but the overall units failed to play disciplined football. This is concerning given how much roster space is occupied by players only used on special teams.

On the first play of the game, the Commanders took a kickoff return out of the end zone for 37 yards. Not a good way to get the day started. The first half was otherwise uneventful. Bryce Baringer had a couple of nice punts and Demario Douglas cleanly fielded a pair of fair catches. The second half did not go as smoothly.

Things started off well when Chad Ryland kicked a field goal on the Patriots first possession. Baringer had another nice punt on the second possession. But this time the coverage unit allowed a 14-yard return, preventing Washington from being pinned back inside their own 20-yard line. Crowder also added another 14-yard return later in the half. There were also a pair of touchbacks.

Demario Douglas made the poor decision to field a punt at his own seven-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter and took it backwards. He lost two yards on the play and the Patriots began at their own five-yard line.

Brendan Schooler had a particularly tough half. On the team strictly for his special teams prowess, Schooler committed two very costly penalties. With 7:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, Schooler was flagged for a facemark on a punt return. It was half the distance to the goal, starting New England’s offensive drive at their own nine-yard line. His second penalty came with 2:16 left in regulation when he was called for an extremely unnecessary hold. Instead of starting a potential game-winning drive at their 20, the ball was moved back to the Patriots nine-yard line. Definitely some embellishment from Washington, but unnecessary to be in that position regardless.

Undisciplined football leads to losses, as the New England Patriots proved once again on Sunday.