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Do The Patriots Have A Roster Problem Or An Execution Problem?

Patriots fans are certainly reeling right now. A 33-14 loss in a game against the Bears, one that almost everyone expected them to win, doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season, and everyone’s first instinct is to doubt everything. It’s the classic nature vs nurture question: do the Patriots need better players or more out of those players?

Schematic Mistakes Drove The Patriots’ Loss

Taking a closer look at the game highlights factors in the loss that had nothing to do with the players themselves. Mac struggled to get his footing in the game early and had two three-and-outs followed by an extended drive that ended in an interception. However, just as he was starting to move the ball a little bit (albeit with an incerception), he was benched. Zappe came in, but because of the scoreline, the plan for Jones to play in the second half collapsed. This indecision and lack of backing for a potential franchise QB could cause some long term locker room damage.

Diving into the schemes themselves, Zappe was more set up for success, had a game plan centered on play action, and completed a series of almost wide-open throws to lead two touchdown drives. His momentum was stopped by a series of adjustments from the Bears and a Chicago offense that created a large gap between Zappe appearances. Jones was, on the other hand, largely in a shotgun situation, implementing the McVay-style offense that he hasn’t been comfortable with while then having to watch from the sidelines as someone else runs the scheme he likes more. Because of this platoon system, though, neither of them could get a full game’s worth of rhythm.

The bigger issue in the game was the defense, specifically how poorly they handled Justin Fields. Fields not only threw for 179 yards and a touchdown, he ran for 82 yards and another touchdown. He was able to break off game-changing runs almost at will, and the Patriots made the struggling quarterback look quite good. What was missing, though, wasn’t pressure. It was a strategy, some sort of spy, something unique to limit his legs, that just wasn’t there. As any NFL fan has seen, Fields can’t keep up his level is he’s forced to beat opponents through the air, and the Bears have had that exploited plenty during the season.

This wasn’t a question of players or even of the overall level of the defense. The Patriots were almost toe-to-toe with the Bears, having 5.4 yards per play to the Bears’ 5.6. They had four sacks and forced 18 third downs, some in very long situations. Plenty of plays went for negative, zero, or just a couple yards – except when they desperately needed to make the play.

When everyone saw it coming, fans, analysts, etc… that this was the perfect moment for Fields to break out and run, the Patriots somehow didn’t and allowed 11 first downs, almost all of which were either on Fields’ legs or on the passing lanes that the threat of his legs established. The defense was not able to execute/draw up the right plays at the right times in a way that did nothing about Fields. Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo have been adept play callers this season for the most part and have improved throughout the season, but dynamic quarterbacks like Fields have been the exception, but he won’t be the last, so this needs to be fixed ASAP.

A Dive Into The Patriots’ Roster

Looking at the players the Patriots have, it’s hard to call this a roster issue. Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe are both poised quarterbacks with potential for improvement. Stevenson and Harris make a great running-back duo and have been successful both this season and last. On wide receivers, while they lack a single star, they have incredible depth.

Rookie speedster Tyquan Thornton adds to a group of deep pass catchers in Nelson Agholor and Devante Parker, both of whom have had a lot of experience and success in the NFL. Furthermore, Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne (his main issue is that he’s being underused!) have shown intelligence, poise, and reliability.

On the offensive line, the one area for which the roster is potentially a problem, still, there’s a lot of talent. Strange has proven to be a valuable draft pick. Brown is a reliable left tackle, while Cannon is a trustworthy veteran at right (Wynn is a talented backup who isn’t executing well enough). Andrews is the backbone of the line, and Onwenu has shown himself to be one of the best guards in football. Yet, breakdowns are still happening along with penalties. The onus for this is partially on the players, yes, but also on the coaching and play calling, and the loss of Scarnecchia still seems to hamper the line in terms of executing.

On the defensive side, the Patriots have a fearsome front seven. Their defensive line doesn’t have any holes. Wise and Judon have the edge squared away and have been able to generate plenty of pressure. Barmore, Guy, and Godchaux have been solid in the middle and haven’t given up ground. At linebacker, they’ve gotten faster, with the versatile Raekwon McMillian, JaWhaun Bentley, Mack Wilson, and Josh Uche leading the charge and plenty of depth behind them.

The Patriots’ secondary has been awesome and deep this year, with Jalen Mills leading the charge, followed by the Jones duo of Jack and Jonathan. Jack’s rookie season so far has been excellent, and his opportunistic nature is resulting in turnovers, and Jonathan is showing his veteran presence well. Myles Bryant is a weak spot, but in Marcus Jones and Shaun Wade lies the talent that can replace him, but the Patriots are continuing to keep Bryant in.

At safety, they have a proven veteran in Devin McCourty, followed by two athletic players in Phillips and Dugger, who have not only shown promise at safety but have also been able to get into the backfield and make tackles, and are extremely versatile. Behind them is a really talented player in Jabrill Peppers, who also has that versatility and gets after the ball.

Even the Patriots’ special teams has an abundance of talent, all the way down to trusty long-snapper Joe Cardona. Nick Folk essentially can’t miss inside of 50 yards – but didn’t even get an opportunity to kick against Chicago and had to watch Cairo Santos get four tries. Jake Bailey is an excellent punter in terms of leg and accuracy. Brenden Schooler and Matthew Slater lead a fast, intelligent, explosive punt coverage unit that has both downed punts deep and recovered fumbles.

The Bottom Line

For many years, the story in New England has been about playing at a level that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Against the Bears, their level was a lot less than their roster, and there will need to be way more coaching consistency to achieve the level that this roster is capable of. It’s a deep, talented, determined group that can get the Patriots to the playoffs IF led right.

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