Early in the second quarter Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills, Mac Jones and the New England Patriots offense faced a 2nd and 11 on their own 8-yard line. Trailing just 10-7, this was the kind of moment where the young quarterback and his offensive cohorts needed to show that they too could put together important drives. That the New England offense could score points when it needed to, and not just keep the Patriots in games, but win them outright.
What happened on that second down is perhaps emblematic of their night, and perhaps their entire season. Now Patriots fans are left hoping it is not what the future looks like as well.
A night marred by boring route concepts, protection breakdowns, penalties, lackluster quarterback play, and overall ineffectiveness was on full display on this second-down play. Offensive play-caller Matt Patricia dialed up another route concept that the Patriots likely installed on the first day of training camp, with a stick concept to the left side and a slant/swing combination on the right:
Other than some presnap motion from Nelson Agholor, moving from the right slot to the boundary on the left, there is nothing imaginative about this design, which again the Patriots likely opened training camp by installing. And as the play itself unfolds, New England is lucky to avoid not one, but two penalties resulting in a safety:
The Patriots give up pressure on the left side, starting with rookie guard Cole Strange. Ed Oliver bursts upfield and is quickly into the backfield, forcing Strange to react by dragging him to the turf, drawing a flag for holding. As that happens left tackle Trent Brown, playing through an illness, tries to cut block Shaq Lawson, an indication this is indeed a quick game concept. But Lawson avoids the cut, charging towards Jones.
Jones, who has yet to throw the ball — more on that in a second — simply dumps the ball at his feet, inches from the goal line.
Both the holding penalty, and the intentional grounding, were judged to have occurred in the field of play. Had either happened in the end zone? It would have been a pair of points for Buffalo.
Now, as for why the ball had yet to come out, here roughly the concept the Patriots use on the play, courtesy of an old Sean McVay playbook:
The only difference is that the back runs a swing route as opposed to a flat route in McVay’s design, but the general concept is the same.
As you can see, at least in McVay’s coaching of the concept, this is a half-field read for the quarterback. If both safeties are deep, you open to the left and read out the stick. If only one safety is deep — as Buffalo is here — you open to the right.
So, Jones opens to the right, reading out the swing route from Rhamondre Stevenson out of the backfield and the slant route from DaVante Parker. The swing is covered, and while there is a quick window for Jones to throw the slant to Parker, he hesitates. That hesitation brings linebacker Matt Milano, who is just reading his eyes, into play. Jones, afraid of leading Parker right into Milano’s path, tries to get his eyes to the stick routes, but by then it is too late.
In the words of Captain John Patrick Mason: “You must never hesitate.”
This use of quick-game concepts continued throughout the night, much to the frustration of the Foxborough faithful. Right before halftime the Patriots were gifted a golden opportunity to get right back in the game, as Josh Uche got to Josh Allen to force a fumble, which was recovered by Matthew Judon.
With 1:11 left in the half, New England took over on their own 42-yard line, trailing by ten.
But a combination of miscues, poor clock management, and more led to a field goal try, which clanked off the crossbar, denying New England points.
On that possession, you saw more quick-game concepts and designs, like this play to tight end Hunter Henry which paired dual slant routes on the right — “tosser” in New England’s terminology — with a slant/flat combination on the left:
Again, no urgency, no sense of aggression, and a conservative play call with a conservative result.
Did Patricia and the Patriots make any halftime adjustments? Well, here is how they opened the third quarter:
Slant/flat to the left, stick to the right. A conservative play call, and another conservative result.
As the Bills began to pull away in the third quarter, frustration boiled over for Jones, who was caught on camera losing his cool over the play-calling, and the quick game concepts:
After the game, Jones admitted to his frustration with the quick-game concepts, and talked about how the offense needed more explosive plays downfield:
But, in fairness to Patricia, you need time in the pocket to attack vertically. That time has not always been there for New England this year, as the Patriots have struggled to not just protect Jones, but find their best combination up front. Brown, as already noted, was playing through an illness. The Patriots started backup right tackle Conor McDermott, as Isaiah Wynn has been in and out of the lineup and is dealing with a foot injury, and his usual replacement, Yodny Cajuste, was out with a calf injury.
The struggles up front were noted by wide receiver Kendrick Bourne after the loss:
Kendrick Bourne just talked about the need to get the ball down the field but notes — “No disrespect to the line” — Mac Jones didn’t seem to have time to do that. Said the offense has “every tool” it needs to be great, but it’s not coming together.— Khari Thompson (@kdthompson5) December 2, 2022
And even when Patricia dialed up vertical concepts — and Jones had time — there were not many options. A play that drew a rousing chorus of boos from the Foxborough fans came in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots trailing 24-7. Facing 3rd and 15 at their own 38-yard line, this was the design Patricia radioed in to Jones:
Before diving into the routes, we should highlight the split — and assignment — for Parker, the single receiver on the right. He uses a condensed split, and after the snap is tasked with trying to chip the edge defender to help McDermott, before releasing into his route.
That speaks for itself.
Even with time in the pocket, there is nowhere for Jones to go with the football. The deep route from Bourne is covered, Henry’s deep out route is covered, and Jakobi Meyers, in the flat, is the best option:
That is where Jones goes with the ball, but when Meyers is predictably stopped well short of the first down, the boos rain down from the stands. Understandably so, but where else was Jones supposed to go with the ball?
The bigger issue with this play is that the 2022 Patriots offense is not built for 3rd and 15.
It is built for 3rd and 5.
But the running game was not incredibly efficient on Thursday night. The Patriots gained 60 yards on 14 attempts, for an average of 4.3 yards per attempt, but in terms of Expected Points Added per Attempt, it looked much worse:
Data provided by RBSDM.com.
And while the Patriots did have success on early downs running the football, eventually the game got away from them, and they became one-dimensional. With their protection woes up front, their unimaginative route concepts, and lack of a game-changing receiving option, the passing game could not make up the difference.
Now, if there is a silver lining, New England might have found a pair of game-changing threats to build around in the future. First is wide receiver Tyquan Thornton, their second-round draft pick. The Patriots have struggled to identify outside receiving options in the draft, but Thornton could perhaps break that trend. Here in the fourth quarter, he runs a bang-8 post route, and after working way from the defender Thornton makes a good adjustment, and a tough catch:
On this snap a few plays later, Thornton gets open downfield, erasing a huge presnap cushion from the cornerback:
Jones just misses him.
Then there was New England’s lone offensive touchdown, which came courtesy of a screen to rookie cornerback Marcus Jones, who delivered a win for the Patriots a few weeks ago with a late punt return touchdown:
This is a very good read from Mac Jones, a great effort from Parker, and a fantastic play from Marcus Jones. This is an RPO design, with the run element an outside zone design to Stevenson. But the QB identifies just before the snap that slot cornerback Taron Johnson has slid into the box, so he pulls and throws the screen to Marcus Jones. For his part Parker identifies the deep safety coming downhill, and he gets just enough of Damar Hamlin to spring the ball-carrier.
From there, the rookie does the rest.
It was Marcus Jones’ first offensive snap in the NFL, and it worked.
But while these rookies offer potential for the future of the Patriots offense, the present looks bleak. Patricia, perhaps concerned over protecting his quarterback in the pocket, is seems reluctant to push the ball downfield in the passing game. But when the game gets away from them on the scoreboard, or the running game cannot deliver like it did last year, problems arise.
Consider this. Last season, on their run to the playoffs, the Patriots had one of the best running game in the NFL. They ranked seventh in the league in EPA/Rush, and were seventh in Rush DVOA at Football Outsiders.
This year? New England is just 21st in EPA/Rush, and 24th in Rush DVOA.
They cannot run the football as effectively as they did a year ago, and this could be spilling over into their lack of an identity in the passing game. The Patriots lead the NFL with an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 10.2 on play-action passes this year, according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions. Their quarterbacks have thrown for four touchdowns, against just one interception, on such designs.
Jones himself is sixth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’s Adjusted Completion Percentage on play-action designs, ahead of MVP candidates Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa. His Yards Per Attempt of 8.8 on play-action designs is tenth-best in the NFL, according to PFF.
The Patriots as a team have attempted just 54 play-action plays according to SIS, 31st in the league. Jones has attempted just 51 such plays, also ranking him 31st among PFF’s qualified passers.
Bill Belichick wants his teams to be playing their best football down the stretch. But right now, the Patriots passing game is still trying to figure out what they want to be. Are they a quick game offense? A play-action offense? A vertical offense?
What can they hang their hat on on 3rd and 7?
Because they have to figure out the answer to that question, and the clock is ticking.
And sure, “run more play-action” is such an easy, overwrought answer from people like me.
But the numbers are what they are.
Whatever the answer is, the Patriots need to find it. And fast. […]