Mazz: Bill Belichick and the Patriots can mitigate their problems
August 29th, 2022
Worried about the Patriots? You should be. In and of themselves, preseason games don’t mean a whole heck of a lot. But the Patriots have had a frustrating training camp, specifically on offense, which has raised all kinds of questions about the state of the franchise in the present and future.
In the years AB – After Brady – we still don’t know who the Pats are or where they are going.
Here’s the good news: Bill Belichick is at his very best when game planning on a week-to-week basis and there’s plenty at stake. Now 70, Belichick needs just a combined 27 wins in the regular and playoffs to overtake Don Shula for No. 1 all-time, which is obviously a notable feat. While the development of Mac Jones might decide how great the Patriots can be over the coming years, Belichick’s attention to detail should be enough to keep the Pats competitive, in the playoff hunt and pointed forward. (Right?)
Here are a handful of things the Pats can and should do in the short-term to ease your anxiety:
Scrap the zone running scheme and empower Mac Jones
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots hands the ball off to running back Rhamondre Stevenson #38 during their preseason game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on August 26, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Raiders defeated the Patriots 23-6. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By now, we all know the story. The Pats have won a truckload of games over the last 20-plus years – including their share without Brady. As such, this feels like a curious time to change the offense, particularly with inexperienced coaches on that side of the ball.
Let Mac Jones run the offense and, generally speaking, keep it conservative. What we’ve seen during camp and the preseason has been a clown show. Dump it. There’s no point in continuing to beat your head against the wall to do something you’re not ready to do. If the Pats want to keep practicing the zone blocking scheme when no one is watching, fine. But don’t let anyone see it.
Play zone defense
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 28: Jalen Mills #2 of the New England Patriots breaks up a pass intended to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine #15 of the Tennessee Titans in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Jalen Mills has gotten a lot of love this summer, but don’t delude yourself. He’s not a true No. 1 corner and the Pats don’t really have one. The strength of the defense is the talent at safety, so zone up and hope your best players can force some turnovers. The Pats might actually have some pash rushers – starting with Matthew Judon – which means they could get to the quarterback. Belichick’s strength is scheming defense, so do it.
One other thing: if all of this means allowing opponents to run, then fine. The Pats generally need to slow down the pace of games and stay close, especially against good competition. If the games turn into track meets, they’ll lose.
Keep emphasizing the return game
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 19: Myles Bryant #27 of the New England Patriots is tackled by Stantley Thomas-Oliver III #23 of the Carolina Panthers during the preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium on August 19, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
The 2021 Pats lacked big-play capability – explosive plays, as they say – and part of the change on offense was designed to free up the running backs. Got it. But Myles Bryant has looked good on punt returns and Marcus Jones earned a reputation in college as a good returner. Both got their chances in the preseason. Speedy rookie Pierre Strong Jr. could be back on kickoffs and the Pats should turn him loose when it makes sense. A big special teams return here or there could make a big difference for this offense and team, especially if Belichick can keep the games close.
Stick with the three-down back
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 26: Running back Pierre Strong Jr. #35 of the New England Patriots is tackled after a catch by linebacker Darien Butler #58 of the Las Vegas Raiders during their preseason game at Allegiant Stadium on August 26, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Raiders defeated the Patriots 23-6. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
There’s been a lot of talk about this lately, perhaps due to the retirement of third-down specialist James White. The Pats might not have a reasonable replacement on the roster, so the idea of playing Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and whoever else (Strong?) for three downs at a time makes sense because it makes the Patriots a little harder to defend.
When Tom Brady was the quarterback, it didn’t matter if defenses knew that runs were coming with someone like Sony Michel on the field because the team’s level of execution was high. But now? The Pats need every advantage they can get. If the backs can block and catch at even a reasonable level, it’s worth it. The Patriots don’t have the talent, quarterback and experience to just out-execute anyone anymore, so any deception, unpredictability and versatility helps.