The Play that Kept the Patriots’ Season Afloat

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Patriots’ come-from-behind win against the Texans on Sunday may have saved their season. 2-3 looks a heck of a lot better than 1-4, especially with the dynamic Cowboys coming to town this week.

The offense, while not explosive, didn’t have too much trouble moving the ball. Play-action was a big part of Josh McDaniels’ gameplan. In particular, the Patriots were able to have a ton of success by relying on a New England staple, the Trap Pass (play-action with a guard pulling):

The play works so well because linebackers often respond aggressively to the pulling guard. They get influenced enough to create windows (sometimes huge windows) inside for the passing game.

The play also works because edge rushers see the pulling guard and initially expect a run as well. This makes them freeze and/or take their path more inside toward the guard than toward the quarterback, which provides more space and time to throw:

Patriots O Texans D Week 5_Main
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Time to throw + big windows = a successful passing game.

The Patriots always utilize this type of play-action, but I’m guessing they chose to call it so frequently this past week because of their decimated offensive line.

New England’s passing game is not as bad as it looks on paper right now. They have speed in Nelson Agholar and Kendrick Bourne. They have two athletic receiving tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Jakobi Meyers has been a reliable option in the slot. And quarterback Mac Jones has shown steady improvement.

The Patriots just have a lot of things working against them early in the season. They have a system that relies on being diverse with protection, formations, personnel distribution, and route combinations. They’re attempting to execute this system with a rookie quarterback, a banged-up offensive line, and a set of skill players who are mostly new to the team in 2021. The offense is going to be a work in progress. But as I said, the issue is not talent. It’s familiarity. And there has been improvement over the first 5 weeks.

It’s fun to draw historical comparisons, so I’ll provide you with one right now. The come-from-behind win to move the Patriots to 2-3 in Mac Jones’ rookie season mirrors what we saw with the 2001 Patriots. In their 5th game of the season that year, New England was staring 1-4 in the face and trailing by two scores in the 4th quarter. Tom Brady, making his 3rd NFL start, brought them from behind to escape with a victory and move the Patriots to 2-3. The rest is history.

Perhaps the comparison is absurd. Regardless, the key similarity is that this team will have to win in the same way as that 2001 team did, relying on a good defense, timely (but sometimes ugly) offense, and the wit of Bill Belichick.