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Patriots-Browns film review: What Mac Jones can learn from Bailey Zappe’s breakout at Cleveland

Attack adjusted from game plan

New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) throws a touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry (not shown) over Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (93) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) throws a touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry (not shown) over Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (93) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
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In a fever state, it’s easy to forget the details.

Namely, playing through Bailey Zappe was actually Plan C on Sunday.

The Patriots game-planned to bully and fool the Browns, whose defense is both undersized and overaggressive. Initially, they failed.

Running the ball behind six offensive linemen inspired only a 1.6 yards per carry average through three quarters and a surge of goal-line courage from Cleveland. The Browns halted the Patriots’ opening drive with two run stuffs at the 1-yard line before surviving a play-action pass on third down. During and after that possession, the Pats emptied most of their misdirection clip.

Matt Patricia called a season-high six screens, including two on his first series. He dialed up multiple end-arounds and reverse pivot hand-offs on under-center runs to catch Cleveland out of position. (On those plays, Zappe stepped back in the opposite direction of the run before turning 180 degrees to hand the ball to Rhamondre Stevenson.)

Yet all that deception and planning produced midway through the second quarter was just a 3-3 tie. So, Patricia pivoted from Plans A and B to Zappe.

He called four straight passes to open the Patriots’ next possession, all completions that totaled 48 yards. The Pats eventually scored on another tendency breaker, with Stevenson rushing 31 yards to the end zone on their first shotgun run of the game.

To open the third quarter, Zappe hit two more passes for 66 total yards that dropped the Patriots at Cleveland’s 2-yard line. After a stuffed run on first down, Patricia adjusted with back-to-back passes that asked Zappe to find a crack in the Browns’ suddenly impenetrable goal-line defense. He delivered, finding fellow rookie Tyquan Thornton on his second read for a 2-yard touchdown.

A couple drives later, after the Pats’ run rate soared to 90% when under center, Plans A, B and C finally came together for a knockout blow. On third-and-1, Zappe stood close to the line, surrounded by an extra offensive lineman and two tight ends. Dropping back, he whipped out a play-action fake.

Then Zappe settled into a wide pocket and zipped an easy throw left to Hunter Henry, who had no company until he was celebrating in the end zone. It didn’t matter the Patriots would score two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one on a jet sweep and the other riding Stevenson through traffic. Their offense found its best self through the rookie, right then and there.

This was no ground-and-pound attack, nor Shanahan system knockoff. The Pats were shapeshifters again, week to week and drive to drive; an offense designed to maximize its talent with no loyalty to a specific scheme or style of play.

Sunday in Cleveland was littered with examples: from Jonnu Smith’s 53-yard, tackle-breaking catch-and-run to DeVante Parker’s physical slant catches and sideline jump ball and Stevenson charging hard between the tackles all day long. The best thing Zappe did was distribute. He played point guard, under minimal pressure with favorable matchups.

According to Pro Football Focus, almost 60% of Zappe’s passing yards were gained after the catch, a number that might seem to discredit his performance, but instead highlights how he brought a sensible game plan and terrific adjustments to life.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick still non-committal on Mac Jones

Of course, more will be required of the Patriots than solid game plans and clever play-calls to overcome elite defenses. That is what Mac Jones is for. Compared to Zappe, Jones is still the superior and more talented quarterback; one who obviously failed to play point guard when he led the AFC in interceptions through Week 3.

Until Zappe proves otherwise, Jones is only passer on the roster who’s flashed the potential to elevate his surrounding talent with elite accuracy or processing; a prerequisite for beating great teams. That cements Jones as the Patriots’ best option under center for the future, provided he can first follow Zappe’s lead and get back to basics.

Here’s what else film revealed about Sunday’s win:

Bailey Zappe

Accurate throw percentage: 80.6

Under pressure: 0-for-2, 2 sacks

Against the blitz: 11-of-15 for 186 yards, 2 TDs

Behind the line: 8-of-8 for 27 yards

0-10 yards: 8-of-14 for 77 yards, TD

10-19 yards: 6-of-7 for 155 yards, TD

20+ yards: 2-of-2 for 50 yards

Notes: The most eye-popping numbers here are against the blitz.

Zappe identified extra rushers expertly and never fell victim to Cleveland’s pressure. In fact, he scared the Browns out of blitzing early in the second half. Otherwise, virtually all of his downfield targets were open, though Zappe also showed good patience within the pocket and let plays develop instead of darting out at the first hint of pressure, real or anticipated.

Studs

QB Bailey Zappe

He became the only rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to post a passer rating higher than 100 in each of his first two starts.

S Kyle Dugger

Dugger pocketed a team-high eight tackles and two pass deflections, including an interception he grabbed on a play the Patriots hadn’t prepared for in practice.

OL Mike Onwenu

Onwenu has a strong case for the Patriots’ best offensive player this season. In the meantime, he’s played four straight games without surrendering a single pressure, including Sunday when he also run-blocked his butt off.

DL Deatrich Wise

A weekly staple in the studs column, Wise overcame iffy run defense in the first quarter to record one sack, three hurries and two other QB hits. Not a bad day at the office.

Duds

OT Isaiah Wynn

Another week, another benching for Wynn, who returned in the second half. He allowed a sack and committed yet another penalty, his eighth on the year, a team worst.

OT Trent Brown

Even accounting for his impossible task of blocking All-Pro Myles Garrett for four quarters, Brown was flagged for holding and a false start and at fault on a sack.

Offense

Game plan

  • Personnel: 52% of snaps in 11 personnel, 25% in 12 personnel, 15% in 13J personnel, 5% in 23J personnel, 3% in 12J personnel.*
  • Personnel production: 5.9 yards/play in 11 personnel, 9.6 yards/play in 12 personnel, 7.5 yards/play in 13J personnel, .
  • First down play-calls: 64% run (2.8 yards per play), 36% pass (11.2 yards per play)
  • Play-action rate: 25%

Key areas

  • Third downs: 7-14
  • Red-zone efficiency: 3-5
  • Pressure rate allowed: 17%

Player stats

  • Broken tackles: Jonnu Smith 3, Rhamondre Stevenson 2, Tyquan Thornton
  • Sacks allowed: Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown
  • QB hits allowed: None
  • Hurries allowed: Team 2, Brown, Wynn
  • Run stuffs allowed: Team 3
  • Penalties: Bailey Zappe (intentional grounding), Hunter Henry (false start, illegal touching), Jakobi Meyers (false start, block in the back), Brown (holding, false start), Wynn (false start), Team (delay of game)
  • Drops: Stevenson

Notes

  • The kids are alright. Zappe (70 snaps), rookie left guard Cole Strange (70) and wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (40) all played significant roles in the win, while fellow rookies Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris spelled second-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
  • Stevenson dominated carries yet again in Damien Harris’ absence. He didn’t take his first breather until 4:32 remained in the fourth quarter. Sunday was not his best showing, but clear rushing lanes were few and far between against a Browns defense geared to stop him.
  • The Patriots likely didn’t care much about their run tell when under center, which hit 90% after the 10th and 20th time Zappe took a direct snap. Because the flip side was how their run-heavy approach under center set up play-action passes of 53, 31, 27 and 21 yards all in the second half.
  • The Pats also burned Cleveland with early-down passing. After Patricia called runs on the offense’s first four first-down snaps, Zappe went 9-of-10 for 112 yards on first down. First-down passing and play-action passes are an easy formula to insulate a young quarterback, one the Patriots have executed for two straight weeks.
  • Expect Thornton to see an increased role, whether or not Nelson Agholor and/or Kendrick Bourne are healthy next week. Bourne was limited to four offensive snaps due to a new turf toe injury.
  • The Patriots see more than straight-line speed in Thornton, who took three carries; though only one, his 19-yard touchdown went anywhere. The rookie’s release package is also fairly advanced, and that in concert with his speed already has defenders backing off at the snap.

Patriots QB Bailey Zappe didn’t know he was starting Browns game until Saturday

  • Half of DeVante Parker’s catches were slants. More of that, please, especially when he’s isolated backside. The downfield jump-balls are best saved for clear mismatches downfield, not critical situations, which is when Zappe has tended to look for him.
  • Jakobi Meyers: as steady and productive as ever.
  • Is the Boston TE Party back? Not yet, though Henry and Smith finally produced like the receiving duo they were expected to be upon arrival last year. Smith broke three tackles Sunday and has seven total on the year, more than his last two seasons combined.
  • Henry also delivered a key block on Thornton’s jet-sweep touchdown. His run-blocking continues to improve after a rough first few weeks.
  • Marcus Cannon replaced Isaiah Wynn in the first half, though Wynn later returned to his new home at right tackle. There’s increasing evidence Cannon should stay put. Wynn has allowed a sack and taken a penalty in four straight games.
  • All three interior linemen — Strange, center David Andrews and right guard Mike Onwenu — posted clean sheets. That’s two straight weeks for Andrews and Onwenu.
  • Andrews blocked three different defenders on Stevenson’s second and final touchdown, a 6-yarder up the gut against an exhausted Browns defense.
  • Patricia has backed off his pet run, the weak outside zone left behind Trent Brown, a play that was covered extensively in this space after the Green Bay game. He called it just twice at Cleveland for one total yard, a week after the Lions also pounced on it twice and allowed two yards.

Defense

Game plan

  • Personnel breakdown: 45% three-cornerback nickel package, 27% dime, 15% three-safety nickel package, 13% base**
  • Blitz rate: 26.5%
  • Blitz efficacy: 3-of-11 for 26 passing yards allowed, 2 INTs, 2 sacks

Key areas

  • Yards per carry allowed: 3.9
  • Third downs: 4-15
  • Red-zone efficiency: 1-2
  • Pressure rate: 36.7%

Player stats

  • Interceptions: Kyle Dugger, Jalen Mills
  • Pass deflections: Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Deatrich Wise, Jack Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant
  • Sacks: Wise, Davon Godchaux, Mack Wilson 0.5, Anfernee Jennings 0.5
  • QB hits: Wise 2, Jennings 2, Daniel Ekuale 2, Matt Judon, Christian Barmore, Ja’Whaun Bentley
  • Hurries: Wise 3, Sam Roberts 2, Team
  • Run stuffs: Judon, Carl Davis
  • Missed tackles: Davon Godchaux 2, Mack Wilson
  • Penalties: Mills (pass interference), Davis (encroachment)

Notes

  • The Patriots opened in a 1-cornerback base defense with four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs. This heavy grouping was primarily responsible for how limited Cleveland’s run game was in the first half, the Pats’ No. 1 key to victory.
  • Individually, defensive tackles Christian Barmore and Carl Davis consistently delivered up front, while Kyle Dugger flew in to make stops at all angles.
  • Dugger was everywhere, playing as a run force player, fitting inside runs, blitzing, covering man-to-man and dropping in zone. His game-high eight tackles were no accident. He is a true all-around safety on the precipice of earning legitimate Pro Bowl consideration.

  • Two unlikely heroes, Deatrich Wise and linebacker Mack Wilson, were at the center of the fourth-and-inches stop of Jacoby Brissett’s quarterback sneak. Wise rushed to plug one of the interior gaps pre-snap, and Wilson flew in to undercut Brissett once the play started. Both are pass-first players.
  • Sunday marked the first game Wise (or anyone for that matter) out-shone Matt Judon as a pass rusher. But considering his incredible production to date, it won’t be the last.
  • Wise was, however, targeted and victimized on back-to-back runs to start Cleveland’s second possession, which ended in a field goal. The Pats responded by bulking up their 3-safety nickel personnel into the aforementioned base package.
  • His one missed tackle aside, Wilson impressed in coverage and as a blitzer (see: half-sack). His only allowed catch went for two yards and ended with a hard tackle along the sideline.
  • The Patriots seemed completely unafraid of Browns No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, who caught four of his 12 targets. No play offered better evidence than Cooper’s fourth-quarter touchdown, when starting nickelback Myles Bryant covered him 1-on-1 on fourth-and-5.
  • Cooper also faced Jalen Mills and rookies Jack Jones and Marcus Jones without any safety help.
  • Mills’ interception was a function of a rare all-out blitz reaching Brissett as he unloaded one of several errant downfield throws. Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick has been on a multi-week roll with his blitz calls.
  • Marcus Jones played a surprising number of snaps at outside cornerback with veteran Jonathan Jones out due to an ankle injury. The 5-foot-8 rookie held his own, grabbing a would-be interception in the second half had he managed to stay inbounds.
  • The Browns tried to replicate Green Bay’s plan of attacking the edges with their run game, including counter plays and jet sweeps. But even in their bulkier packages, the Pats kept up, as Dugger and fellow box safety Adrian Phillips strung out multiple runs for little gain.
  • Dugger and Phillips also deserve credit for holding up well enough versus Cleveland’s tight ends, whom the Browns coaching staff manufactured 1-on-1 opportunities for through empty sets. David Njoku had just three catches for 58 yards.

Patriots rookies rise to the challenge

  • Once the Patriots pulled away in the third quarter, thereby hoisting the game on Brissett’s shoulders, the game was theirs; the same script they followed versus Detroit and Jared Goff the week before.
  • Credit to third-year outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who started, set a strong edge versus the run and flashed as a power rusher with two quarterback hits. His run defense on early downs allowed Judon to sit the first seven snaps Sunday and continue to play on a pitch count.

Statistics for passing depth, broken tackles and missed tackles courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

*11 personnel = one running back, one tight end; 12 personnel = one running back, two tight ends; 12 jumbo personnel = one backs and two tight ends, including an extra offensive lineman; 13 jumbo personnel = one backs and two tight ends, including an extra offensive lineman; 23 jumbo personnel = two backs and three tight ends, including an extra offensive lineman 

**Base defense = four defensive backs; nickel defense = five defensive backs; dime defense = six defensive backs; dollar = seven defensive backs.

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