Amidst the myriad of emotions circulating the air in Foxboro, Massachusetts on Sunday night, Week Four did not exactly go as hoped for the New England Patriots. The Pats fell to 1-3 on the 2021 NFL Season with a 19-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
In his New England, Tom Brady would finish the night completing 22 of 43 passes for 269 yards, while running back Leonard Fournette carried the ball 20 times for 91 yards. For the Patriots, Mac Jones proved that the Patriots future at the position is bright. The rookie completed 31 of 40 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Still, the story of the night would be missed opportunities, as well as a couple of bad breaks.
Though a team should never be satisfied with a loss, 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 Patriots Run Game Needs Work
To say that the Patriots running game was non-existent in Week Four is actually an understatement. The Pats rushers combined for eight carries, and -1 yards. To put that in context, their leading rusher was wide receiver Nelson Agholor, carrying the ball one time for four yards. Those four yards would be negated by the -4 yard rushing total of feature back Damien Harris. For the entirety of the evening, the Pats runners seemed out of sorts, unable to find seams or gain traction. Given the rainy conditions in Foxboro on Sunday, the Pats would have undoubtedly preferred to run the ball with more frequency and certainly more production. With team campaign James White reportedly done for the season with a hip subluxation, the team will need to more heavily rely on Harris, as well as fellow runners J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. Taylor was relegated to limited duty after a costly fumble in the second half. Stevenson, after having ball security issues of his own, has been a healthy scratch since Week One. Bolden misplayed a blitz pick up in pass protection, which led to Jones’ interception.
Despite the dismal performance, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is still exhibiting confidence in the talent of his corps of running backs. Following Sunday night’s game, Belichick was quoted as saying, “We have good backs, but we haven’t been able to really get them started very often. So it’s definitely something we need to work on and do better.” While some of that is rightfully attributed to the Pats continued problems with blocking, the Patriots runners need to be better…and it needs to happen soon.
Lesson Two: Mac Jones is Ready for Primetime
While the majority of the attention was placed on Tom Brady’s return to New England on Sunday, it was the current Patriots quarterback who might have made the biggest statement. Jones showed a great deal of poise and command while running the Patriots offense on the most prominent professional stage on which he has performed. While many have criticized the Patriots coaching staff for being a bit too conservative with the rookie, the playbook opened up a bit more for Jones on Sunday night. The 23-year-old attempted 40 pass attempts, with eight rushes. During the Patriots two touchdown drives, Jones controlled the tempo, and made the most of the opportunities provided to him by New England’s pass protection. In the instances where the protection broke down, he demonstrated the ability to buy himself more time by picking up the blitz and making defenders miss. Still, Jones did find himself under pressure more often than he should. He was sacked four times and hit 12 times against a formidable Tampa Bay defensive front. Through it all, Jones never let the moment become too big for him, handling the glare of the national spotlight with composure and maturity.
Lesson Three: Matt Judon …That’s the Lesson …Matt Judon!
Heading into the Pats’ Week Four matchup with the Bucs, linebacker Matt Judon was one of the few that seemed completely unfazed by hoopla surrounding the Brady-Belichick reunion that would soon be taking place at Gillette Stadium. The 29-year-old described the upcoming contest as ‘just another day.’ As expected, it was business as usual for the Pats’ prized free-agent acquisition. He was typically brilliant. Judon finished the night with one sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for a loss. However, Judon continues to show his prowess, by impacting nearly every play in which he takes a snap. Judon helped to keep the Bucs runners from reaching the corner on early downs, as well as providing speed and strength when rushing the quarterback. He also put himself in position to achieve favorable matchups on off-the-ball snaps. Judon has already paid dividends for the Patriots defense by adding a level of versatility the team did not have in 2020.
Lesson Four: Patriots Pass/Run Protection Problems Continue
New England continues to feel the effects from the loss of starting right tackle Trent Brown. For the third straight week, Brown was inactive as he continues to convalesce from a calf injury. The tandem of Justin Herron and Yasir Durant has shown some improvement, yet still struggle to provide the necessary blocking needed by the Patriots rushers to be effective. On the left side, the Pats had difficulties, as well. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn was routinely beaten by Bucs defenders, while starting left guard was benched in favor of reserve lineman Ted Karras, after the second-year product of Michigan was called for two holding penalties early.
Though injuries and personnel have been a key part of the Patriots struggles in the department, underlying issues regarding inefficient communication and chemistry are apparent, as well. In addition to the line, New England’s backs and tight ends need to play their assignments more effectively. Until then, the Pats will continue to have their struggles in moving the football.