Week Three did not exactly go as hoped for the New England Patriots. The Pats fell to 1-2 on the 2021 NFL Season with a 28-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The story of the day for the Patriots was their inability to execute when it was needed most. The Patriots were largely ineffective on offense, showed a lack of consistent aggression on defense, and made mistakes on special teams, as well.
Though the spirits in New England’s locker room are considerably lower than that of last week, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned, and insight to be gained, from the Pats performance on Sunday in Foxboro.
Lesson One: The Offensive Line Woes Go Beyond the Lack of Depth at Right Tackle
While the Patriots offensive line was considered to be (arguably) the team’s strongest positional grouping heading in 2021, the unit has yet to live up to expectations. Much of the blame for that will be placed on the absence of starting right tackle Trent Brown who has been sidelined with a calf injury. However, the problems along the line run deeper. They have collectively struggled to keep their young quarterback upright. Mac Jones found himself pressured on 17 drop backs, and was hit 11 times; taking two sacks. This was clearly evident on Sunday, when New Orleans ran several blitz packages with six rushers, followed by situational five-man rushes. Both sides of New England’s o-line had difficulty blocking them, which forced Jones into repeated miscues. Though Brown’s return should improve the line’s stability, the Pats’ coaching staff clearly has some work to do to correct the inconsistent run and pass protection from the left and center of the line, as well as the right side.
Lesson Two: Settling for Three, When Six is Possible Will Not Lead to Long-Term Success
Though the Patriots offense has been much maligned for their performance in Week Three, there were some seedlings of hope for the team’s passing game. Unfortunately, that momentum was stalled on two key possessions by some questionable play-calling and ill-timed miscues. In each instance, New England settled for the field goal, when a touchdown was within their grasp.
With the second quarter coming to a close, Jones ran an effective two-minute drill. On his first three pass attempts, the Pats quarterback found receiver Kendrick Bourne on a quick slant for 31 yards, followed by Nelson Agholor for 13 yards and Jakobi Meyers for 7 yards. However, on the ensuing third-and-1 (just shy of the Saints’ red area) offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a run to Brandon Bolden that was stuffed. Following an offsides penalty called against tight end Hunter Henry, the Pats would opt for a 45-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
In the second half, Jones once again led an impressive, plodding drive. He went 8-for-9 for 73 yards, including a 27-yard strike to Meyers. Still, with a fresh set of downs from the Saints’ 11-yard line, McDaniels once again opted for back-to-back handoffs to Bolden, each gaining zero and -1 yards respectively. The ensuing four-yard completion to tight end Jonnu Smith out of the backfield only picked up four yards. The Pats once again settled for a Folk field goal.
It should be noted that play-calling was not completely to blame. The aforementioned penalty on Henry, plus a fumble by Smith to begin the second half (resulting in a Malcolm Jenkins pick-six) did a fair job of halting the Pats offensive progress. Yet, no matter the reason, the Pats simply need to find a way to consistently find the endzone. Otherwise, they are in for a long season.
Lesson Three: New Faces are Making an Impact on Defense
Despite the various offensive woes the Patriots suffered on Sunday, they did exhibit some bright spots on defense. Unlike their offensive counterparts, the new additions to the Patriots defense continue to make an impact. Matt Judon has been everything as advertised, and more. The versatile linebacker consistently makes plays in the backfield and has been the Pats top defender on nearly every snap. On Sunday, Judon recorded 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. He continuously put pressure on Saints’ quarterback Jameis Winston, while helping to funnel New Orleans’ running game to the middle. Thus far, he has been the Pats most productive free agent acquisition.
Fellow free-agent acquisition Davon Godchaux has also been a solid addition to the Pats’ front seven. The stout defensive tackle has played a major role in improving the Pats run defense. Against the Saints, Godchaux constantly plugged the middle, recording five tackles in the process. Rookie Christian Barmore also earns an honorable mention, as he has shown an ability (beyond his years) to push the pocket and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Once this unit fully gels, the Pats front seven will be among the very best preventive units in the league.
Lesson Four: The Loss James White Could Be A Major Setback for the Patriots Running Game
Potentially losing a team captain due to injury is a nightmare-scenario for any sports team. However, for one which continues to develop a rookie quarterback, it can have devastating effects. The Pats are hopeful that this will not be the case for veteran running back James White. Following a reception in the second quarter, White appeared to land hard on his upper leg along the sideline. White was carted off the field. Shortly thereafter, the Patriots announced that White would not return to the game, the result of a hip injury.
The Pats team captain has been one of their most reliable offensive players in 2021. White was actually the Patriots leading pass catcher in week two, receiving six passes on six targets for 45 yards. He also ran five times for 20 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, White has become a favorite target of quarterback Mac Jones. His dual-threat capabilities (both as a receiver, as well as a runner) will be hard to replicate. However, it would also weaken a running back corps that is already looking a bit thin. With Sony Michel now in Los Angeles, the Pats employ Damien Harris, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden as veteran options. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson has had his issues with ball control, leading to his ‘healthy scratch’ status for the past two games. If White is to miss extended time, it would not only hasten Stevenson’s timetable for development, but also put additional pressure on the Pats runners to produce in an offense that needs as many effective options as possible.