The New England Patriots went to Frankfurt, Germany with a 2-7 record, but 3-0 all-time in NFL international games. They came back on the short end of a 10-6 outcome, their first loss ever outside of the United States. The game involved some strange coaching decisions and ugly turnovers. However, there were also bright spots from the Patriots running game and New England’s defense.
In the end, the negatives outweighed the positives. Indianapolis beat New England, dropping the 2023 Patriots to 2-8. And with that it is time for this week’s Patriots Report Card…
Assuming the Patriots are still attempting to win football games, there was a lot to questions in this one. The game plan seemed solid, but when execution is repeatedly poor, coaching has to be questioned. What are these coaches doing to improve the players’ performance? How is a wide receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster) getting called for multiple pre-snap penalties?
Three coaching decisions stood out as being particularly odd.
On the Colts second possession of the game, they were forced to punt from their own 13-yard line. But instead of setting up for a return, the Patriots went a block. This was not a poor choice, but the Patriots went for the block with everybody. No returner was back deep and it cost them. Instead of having the ball at their own 40-yard line (conservatively speaking) the Patriots got pinned inside their 20. Indianapolis flipped the field in one play, as the ball went from the Colts 13-yard line to New England’s 18.
Why did the Patriots throw a wide receiver screen at the end of the first half? With second left and needing 53 yards for a touchdown, New England called a screen to DeMario Douglas. A 30-yard gain padded stats, but did nothing to help the Patritos win the game. When asked why that was the call afterwards, Mac Jones responded, “no clue.”
Finally came the decision to replace Mac Jones with Bailey Zappe. Jones was certainly not playing well (as noted below) but why change there? Did having Bailey Zappe in the game give the New England Patriots the best chance to win? The confidence of Jones is shaken, after another loss and being replaced. And now Zappe’s confidence waning would come as no surprise either.
Bailey Zappe is in at QB for the @Patriots.
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
Mac Jones said after the game that he still has confidence in himself, but the game in Germany did not confirm it. Jones looked indecisive, failing to pull the trigger quickly. Other times it appeared Jones lost confidence in his protection, releasing the ball too quickly. Or, he just prepared himself to take a sack, which there were five of in the first half.
Jones made two awful decisions on the play when he tossed underhand to Rhamondre Stevenson. It easily could have ended in an interception. DeMario Douglas was open across the middle, but Jones did not throw to him. He rolled left, and flipped the football to Stevenson while being brought down. These decisions by Jones led to a sideline chewing out from offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Bill O’Brien PISSED at Mac Jones pic.twitter.com/AclbRTblL7
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) November 12, 2023
That play was Jones’ worst decisions, but not his worst throws. He missed Hunter Henry in the end zone, throwing both high and behind him. But the worst throw of the game, likely of Jones’ career, came on his final play in at QB. Jones had Mike Gesicki running a post, several feet open in the end zone. Jones short-armed the throw and under-threw Gesicki by 10 feet. To have a pass that short of a target on a deep route is bad, but this throw was only 20 yards. After it was intercepted, Jones’ day was done.
Mac Jones final numbers: 15-of-20, 170 yards, no touchdowns, one interception. Not bad, but obviously stats don’t tell the full story.
Bailey Zappe came in for that final drive. He completed 3-of-7 for 25 yards and an interception. The final offensive play resulted in the pick, thrown into triple coverage. A poor decision by a quarterback put in a poor situation.
Running Backs: B
Another strong game for the duo of Rhamondre Stevnson and Ezekiel Elliott. New England relied on the running game for large chunks of time, and it paid dividends. They easily outplayed their more heralded opponents from Indianapolis. The only knock against the group would be some of the pass blocking for Stevenson, where he did not excel. He whiffed on a block that led to a sack.
Stevenson finished with 20 carries for 88 yards and three receptions for 14 yards. Elliott had 13 carries for 54 yards and caught two passes for 34 yards. Combined, they had 190 yards from scrimmage and produced some of the biggest gains for a struggling offense. Thus, it is not a surprise that Elliott’s postgame comments centered around getting the Patriots running backs more involved.
“I think we could run it more, but to do that we have to take care of the football. We have to eliminate the penalties so we don’t have long distances.”
Unfortunately, the Patriots did not take care of the football and were not able to avoid foolish penalties. But their running backs showed what they could do, and it was very solid.
Wide Receivers: C-minus
Demario Douglas led the receiving corps with six receptions for 84 yards. As noted above, his numbers may have been even more impressive had Mac Jones been more decisive in the red zone. Douglas has definitely shown he’s somebody that will be part of the 2024 New England Patriots roster, and likely beyond. JuJu Smith-Schuster played 68 of 69 snaps. However, he finished with only one target, a nine-yard reception. He did make a great block, but unfortunately it was on Elliott’s 15-yard run that was negated by an illegal motion penalty on the wide receiver. Smith-Schuster committed a false start earlier in the game as well. Although he blocked well, the most obvious times JuJu Smith-Schuster showed up despite playing 68 snaps were his two penalties
Kayshon Boutte played 26 snaps (one reception, 11 yards). That was the extend of the performance from the Patriots wide receivers. Jalen Reagor only played one snap and Tyquan Thornton was active, but did not see the field. The lack of production outside of Douglas is obvious. The lack of faith in the wide receivers, using a lot of Mike Gesicki as a virtual wide receiver, is notable as well.
DO MORE OF THIS WITH DEMARIO DOUGLAS
IT'S SO EASY pic.twitter.com/0zwDAEunCQ
— Ben Brown 🌻 (@BenBrownPL) November 12, 2023
Tight Ends: C-minus
Again, there simply wasn’t enough production from this group, though it is difficult to tell how much of the blame they deserve. Mac Jones two worst throws of the day were intended to tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki. Both Henry and Pharaoh Brown were frequently used as blockers. Gesicki was mainly a receiver. Brown played 33 snaps but had no targets. Henry and Gesicki combined for 43 yards receiving on five receptions. Although part of Pharaoh Brown’s production in the passing game is a result of ‘surprise plays’ it would be nice to see him get a chance for more reps as a pass catching option. He has no targets in four of the last five games.
Offensive Line: B-minus
Contrary to what the five sacks in the first half may lead one to believe, the New England Patriots offensive line had a very solid game. This is especially true in the run game, where there was a noticeable push from the offensive line that was missing in the opening weeks of the season. LG Cole Strange graded out as the Patriots best offensive player by Pro Football Focus this week. His run blocking was exceptional, though he struggled with pass protection. The offensive line featured 5-of-6 top grades for the New England offense, with RB Ezekiel Elliott being the lone exception.
LT Conor McDermott went down injured late in the game, and Mac Jones interception was thrown on a play where Vederian Lowe was beat on the rush while filling in at left tackle. Lowe only had two pass block plays, but that was one of them and it was costly. Center David Andrews was solid in the middle. RT Mike Onwenu and RG Sidy Sow were great in run block. Sow in particular had some trouble with pass blocking, but overall a solid performance.
Despite a few pass protection issues, the run blocking was so good the Patriots still should have won the game, despite all of their issues.
Defensive Line: B
One player that continues to stand out for the Patriots along the defensive front is Christian Barmore. He had another two pressures and the long quarterback hit, to go alone with four tackles. Davon Godchaux led all Patriots defenders with seven tackles. He and Lawrence Guy were effective in helping to shut down the Colts ground game.
Defensive ends Deatrich Wise and Keion White were both average. They had glimpses of effectiveness with three tackles and three QB pressures combined, but were just off on being able to be real difference-makers. The long completion from Gardner Minshew to Josh Downs was a prime example of the defensive front just not being able to get there quite in time.
GARDNER MINSHEW. JOSH DOWNS.
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
Ja’Whaun Bentley was out, which was a big blow to the New England Patriots defense. Especially true considering Indianapolis is a run-heavy team. But the linebackers did an excellent job on Sunday. Jahlani Tavai in particular had a very good game. He did a little bit of everything, getting a QB pressure, no missed tackles, and was effective in coverage.Tavai also deflected the pass that led to the Patriots lone takeaway.
Anfernee Jennings struggled in coverage, but had a team-high four stops for the defense. Josh Uche looked healthier and had two QB pressures to show for it. Due to health, or regression, or the loss of Matthew Judon, Uche has not looked like the same player he did in 2022 (maybe all three factors?). But Sunday he looked like he was ready to start hunting opposing quarterbacks once again. Mack Wilson and Calvin Munson both got an opportunity to take some of Bentley’s snaps, and both performed adequately.
Defensive Backs: C
No Christian Gonzalez, Marcus Jones or J.C. Jackson. And the since-departed Jack Jones was clearly in the doghouse, only playing 10 snaps against the Colts. So there was a lot to make up for with those still battling: Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, and Shaun Wade. They held up okay, limiting Colts QB Gardner Minshew to 18-of-28 passing, for 194 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception.
Wade actually looked like the Patriots best cover man on Sunday. Bryant had an interception, but the Colts were 4-for-4 passing with him in coverage. Jonathan Jones had a similar game, but without the pick. Jack Jones continued to struggle, and is now gone.
Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers both played 100% of the defensive snaps once again. Neither made a major impact on the game. Peppers had two missed tackles, which hurt an otherwise solid performance, especially in coverage. Dugger was okay, which is not okay for one of the players expected to be a difference maker. Jalen Mills continues to struggle in his role as a safety. Adrian Phillips and Marte Mapu combined to play 11 snaps and were okay.
Special Teams: D-plus
The missed field goal by Chad Ryland was inexcusable, whether it may have bounced in off a higher goalpost or not. Ryland did hit his two other attempts, but that was an important three points that their kicker gave away.
Bryce Baringer has a powerful leg and boomed his four punts. Two ended up as touchbacks, but like Matthew Slater said, if the net yardage is still 50 yards that’s a good punt. If Baringer is able to excel in that role moving forward (pinning the opponent deep in their own territory) he will be a future All-Pro in this league.
The return game did nothing for the Patriots, but their coverage team was poor once again. Following Ryland’s fourth quarter field goal to make it 7-6 Colts, Isaiah McKenzie returned the following kickoff 42 yards for Indianapolis out to their 47-yard line. It helped set up a field goal on their drive, which left the Patriots needing a touchdown to take the lead. For a team with so many roster spots occupied by players primarily playing special teams, the lack of a good coverage unit is perplexing.
But nothing was more perplexing than the New England Patriots decision to go for a punt block on special teams while leaving zero men back to return the punt. It resulted in a 69-yard punt and flipped the field.
The @Patriots went for the all out punt block with no returner on the field.
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023