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The New England Patriots had so many chances to win in Week 6. They had so many chances to end the game and put away the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium. But Bill Belichick and Mac Jones couldn’t get it done. The Patriots coaching staff, the defense and Jones each had a part in the team’s failed comeback efforts.
So let’s break down what went wrong for the Patriots in their 35-29 overtime loss to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. We take a look at seven key components from the Patriots’ flawed game plan and execution, which fell short of a win. Yes, we’ll talk about offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, too.
The coaching staff went grossly conservative on fourth downs
There will probably be two discussions raging this week in New England about conservative decision-making. On one hand, people will be wondering about how the Patriots have handled Jones, perhaps reigning in the young quarterback. But the other element has been in-game management.
Belichick looks wholly disinterested in going for fourth downs.
#Patriots punted on:
4th and 4
4th and 3
4th and 2
4th and 1
On three of them, #Cowboys immediately scored a TD, a FG, and the game-winning TD.
— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) October 17, 2021
The Patriots are, perhaps surprisingly, ranked 12th in the NFL in third-down conversions (42.11%). So if New England is putting up solid numbers in those gotta-have-it situations, it is surprising to see the team avoid fourth-down attempts. They shouldn’t be so risk-averse. Clearly, the end has not justified the means, with Dallas scoring on the punts despite the Patriots’ efforts to trust their defense.
New England needs to recognize they’re an average football team. Average football teams have to take risks to beat better teams, like the Cowboys (and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Mac Jones' interception was the beginning of the end for the Patriots
This was the most egregious mistake of Jones’ career. There’s really no way to defend the youngster, who delivered an inaccurate throw to Kendrick Bourne in a situation where he had to be safe with the football.
“I definitely could’ve made a better throw,” he said on WEEI on Monday.
Without a doubt. Here was the play, where Kendrick Bourne had to dive to attempt a pass-breakup. Cornerback Trevon Diggs looked like the intended target, and returned the interception for a touchdown.
📺: #DALvsNE on CBS
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) October 17, 2021
The Patriots simply needed a first down to end the game. They couldn’t get it. And even worse, they gave up a touchdown and a turnover. Every rookie makes mistakes. Every rookie has learning experiences. But New England had the win in hand, and it was so close to finishing this game with a 3-3 record. Instead, the Patriots have a big problem: a 2-4 record and 21% chance of making the playoffs.
If Jones doesn’t throw the interception — and he completes the pass — the Patriots have a chance of picking up a first down. If they pick up the first down, they win. And though Jones recovered with an incredible touchdown and two-point conversion, he couldn’t put together another magical drive in overtime. When Dak Prescott got the ball back, that was it.
The Stephon Gilmore trade killed the Patriots
The Patriots dealt away their best cornerback to the Panthers for a sixth-round pick earlier this offseason. Surely, you’ve heard. It’s unclear whether Gilmore would have played on the current terms of his contract for New England like he intends to do for Carolina. If he was willing, the Patriots would be seeing Gilmore return to practice — which would likely deepen a secondary which seemed to be one cornerback short for the last few weeks.
Whether it was against the Buccaneers, the Texans or the Cowboys, the team had depth issues at cornerback for one reason or another. Gilmore would be a godsend to the defense. And he’s not coming through the door.
There are some indications, too, that had the Patriots simply extended Gilmore before the start of the season, then maybe he would have started the season on the field, rather than on the physically unable to perform list.
Jones' strip-sack changed the Patriots offense
There were two things that seemed to happen after Randy Gregory rattled Jones’ soul with a sack. It was, by far, the most violent hit of the day.
The first was a change in the play-calling from McDaniels. The Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan charted the sizable difference in play-calling after the strip-sack. The Patriots’ first-down pass rate was 55% when Jones took the sack, with a 12.8 yards per play average. After the sack, the Patriot ran the ball on 73% of their first downs with a 4.2 yards per play average. McDaniels decided to go away from the run on first down after seeing Jones get lit up.
The second was that Jones’ footwork suffered on short passes. There were times — like on the interception and on Jones’ final pass of the day, an incompletion on a back-shoulder throw to Nelson Ahholor on third-and-3 — where Jones’ feet weren’t properly set and he was inaccurate. That was among the biggest points of emphasis that he’ll work on this week.
“Improving my feet and my communication with the offensive line,” Jones said on WEEI. “I think my feet were definitely out of whack.”
New England let up 24 yards on a third-and-25 in the fourth quarter
New England simply looked gassed at the end of the fourth quarter. It was bad execution from the pass-rush, which gave the Cowboys an obscene amount of time to hit on a very slow-developing play. Because Prescott had plenty of time to see the middle of the field clear, he was able to find Lamb as he (of course) separated from Jalen Mills, whose legs looked cooked on this play and on the walk-off touchdown.
Dak to CeeDee. Here come the #DallasCowboys
— NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2021
This was simply a rough showing from the Patriots defense, which made it look easy to allow 24 yards in a third-and-25 situation.
The Patriots offense stalled because of Agholor's drop and Jones' misfire in OT
The Patriots had two opportunities to pick up yardage in the overtime period. Agholor squandered the first opportunity. He got open on a slant route over the middle, and Jones fired the ball on target. Agholor had beaten his cornerback, which left only the safety. It was a sure thing for a big gain — and maybe, just maybe, a touchdown. But Agholor dropped the ball.
Best advice I can give about evaluation: Base the process on whether the player’s athletic ability, technique, conceptual knowledge, and intuitive integration of everything above puts his team in a position to succeed play-to-play, series-to-series, gm-to-gm.
Mac Jones pic.twitter.com/H0wLCYmgzU
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 18, 2021
On the next series, Jones faced a third-and-3 and (as we mentioned earlier) failed to set his feet on a target to Agholor. It’s unclear what happened on the miscommunication, but Jones’ throw was well behind Agholor. And though the defense committed a facemask penalty, the Patriots needed either a better throw from Jones or a sharper route from Agholor.
This was the Patriots offense's last play. They went back-shoulder to Nelson Agholor on the sideline.
The ball was off-target and uncatchable. Unclear if Mac Jones threw a bad ball (his feet don't look QUITE set) or if Agholor should've stopped earlier. pic.twitter.com/9Pv1LwE0Sw
— Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis) October 18, 2021
The overtime sequence was multiple examples of bad execution.
New England was one step behind Dallas' offense in OT
The Patriots took away Prescott’s check-down options and had loaded the box with a handful of safeties. Both Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips were tight up on the line of scrimmage. Because of that, safety Devin McCourty was in man coverage — along with the cornerbacks. Because all the safeties were preoccupied, the cornerbacks had no help over the top.
And at this point in the game, Mills was no match for Lamb. The defensive back was clearly gassed. He looked sluggish against Lamb, who had tremendous separation downfield.