The Patriots’ passing offense is exactly what we thought it would be 11 games in the 2021 season.
After the Pats’ loss to the Bucs in Week 4, we wrote that the New England offense needs to thrive on short and middle passes in the absence of big plays.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (precision + quick processing), the system in place under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and the weaponry around Mac do not lend themselves to a deep attack. And it’s good.
As we said after Week 4, we’ve seen this style of attack work in the past in New England. Last Sunday’s resounding victory over the Browns was a glimpse of the ceiling of that attack with Mac attacking tight windows down and solid running play rounding out the passing play.
However, the Patriots’ 19-point performance against a defense averaging 29.2 points for the Atlanta Falcons shows their limits; if the situational execution (third down, red zone) is not excellent, the offense is liable to stall.
While the Patriots are second in points-ending workouts (TD or FG) percentage, they are 16th in the NFL in touchdown-ending workouts (25%). New England also leads the league in percentage of practices ending in field goals (22.4%), and is 19th in touchdown efficiency in the red zone.
Thursday night’s win over the Falcons was a microcosm of their offensive season when things didn’t go so well. It’s been a short week against a veteran defensive coordinator at Dean Pees, which is a background that gives them some leeway. But the Pats scored four field goals, wedging four times inside Atlanta’s 30-yard line (1-to-3 in the red zone, 4-to-12 on third down).
Much of the reason the Patriots are on the league average for completing practices in the end zone is because they are playing the seventh most games per practice (6.2) due to lack of big games, which makes them more vulnerable to the negative. games (sacks, penalties, turnovers, unsuccessful games, etc.).
Out of 33 qualified quarterbacks, quarterback Mac Jones ranks 30th for adjusted completion percentage on passes over 20 yards (13 of 38). Additionally, Jones has completed just three passes over 30 yards this season (3 of 16, two worthy plays), and his longest throw is just 36 over the air ( v Nelson Agholor v Chargers).
While Jones isn’t a high-volume deep passer, the Pats have the third-highest pass over 20 yards this season at 41, which is confusing. If Mac doesn’t hit deep, how do they produce so many explosive passes?
Here’s how: On intermediate throws (10-19 yards), Mac is fifth in completed passes (44) and tied for one-tenth of adjusted completion rate, and those 20-plus-yard marginal throws turn into more gains. 20 yards with yards after the catch. The Pats are fifth in the YAC (188 yards) on intermediate passes.
But here’s the catch: Of the Patriots’ 41 explosive passing plays, they average just 28.0 yards per play, 26th in the NFL. In other words, the Patriots bite chunks, but they’re not a “big game” attack.
The Patriots offense has to be on top of the details because they can’t make up for it with one or two gigantic wins. As the competition and the stakes intensify over the next few months, New England needs maximum execution to cross Tennessee, Buffalo, Indy, and then Buffalo again. Are they real? We will find out.
Let’s get into a few examples of the Patriots’ somewhat slim margin of error offensive in Thursday night’s win over the Falcons:
MAXIMIZE THE CHANCES OF THE BIG GAME
One of the keys to any passing offense that is not a high volume through pass attack is to maximize the opportunities.
“I just think I grab the opportunity when it’s there, and there have been times I’ve missed it, and I can definitely do a better job consistently,” Jones told CLNS Media last week on the subject.
Here’s a game that illustrates maximizing downstream opportunities. The Patriots execute a Yankee concept with Nelson Agholor on the deep post and Jakobi Meyers on a cross against a reverse cover twice.
The Pats get exactly what they want. Agholor’s deep post takes the deep hole defender and safety half court up, and Meyers is wide open on the crosshair. However, perhaps because of a little push from the inside pass rush, Jones pulls his reading out of the downfield and checks it. On the one hand, tight winger Jonnu Smith breaks a tackle and gains 17 yards. But on the other hand, a much larger room was there.
On Jones intercept in the third quarter, the Pats executed 22-person playing action to flood the look at a height with four vertical routes.
As we roll it, Jones watches the left sideline to come back to the right, pulling the safety post off Jonnu Smith’s Sewing Road. But Falcons AJ Terrell’s corner is on top of him and skips Smith’s road. Mac had two choices here: 1. Just check to an open Damien Harris or 2. Hit N’Keal Harry on the outside double shot. While it sounds like an obvious read to hit a wide-open Harry, Mac expects Harry’s road to keep Terrell on the deep third. Ideally, Mac would take an extra half a second to recognize that Terrell hopped onto Jonnu’s road and moved on to Harry for a big game. But that’s a tough request and a good choice from Terrell. In the end, it was a rushed decision that Mac will learn from while examining the tape.
The Patriots produce a small handful of down shots per game, so Jones needs to take advantage of that when they’re around.
BE ON THE SAME PAGE / ITINERARY CONVERSIONS
For as many new pieces as they have, Jones often sees things the same way his receivers do. Still, there’s always room for improvement, and Mac’s only first-half incompletion was a case in point.
Mac throws tight end Hunter Henry open on the rear pylon against a two-height safety structure. However, Henry interrupts his route to the front pylon and the pass is incomplete on the third down (field goal). While it’s impossible to know for sure, Mac appears to read the cover correctly and shoots in cover hole two where Henry has leverage on deep security, but Henry has made his way to cover.
The Patriots were one to three in the red zone on Thursday night, and mental failings were the main issue.
PRE-SNAP / PASS PROTECTION
Speaking of a nervous breakdown, here’s another missed opportunity in the red zone.
This time it’s a failure of protection against a Falcons blitz. Atlanta puts seven rushers close to the line of scrimmage, and Mac properly keeps both the tight end and the kickback in protection, giving the Pats seven blockers to account for the potential seven rushers.
However, the Pats slid the protection to Jones’ right instead of blocking the Falcons directly. As a result, there is an unblocked blitzer coming out from the left side. Due to the slip, safety Erik Harris (# 23) is Jones’ guy if he blitz. In other words, Jones is sexy, and Mac seems to realize that after glancing at Harris rushing over the snap. Mac’s response is a Kendrick Bourne out in the correct spot, but the Falcons executed a trap cover on a reverse cover pattern. With the lunge defender falling into the deep half, the outside corner crouches on the exit route. If Jones throws at Bourne, there’s a good chance he’ll be intercepted, so Mac wisely picks up a sack.
The Falcons sacked Mac three times in the blitz, so you’re hoping that doesn’t turn into a plan like it did at the start of the season.
If the Titans and Bills try to blitz like Pees, the Patriots need better awareness and better answers to the test; one of the most impressive aspects of Jones’ development is his ability to correct mistakes.
While many will read this as a rampage of Mac Jones and offense, the Pats are clearly a good offense. They are 14th in expected points added this season, fourth since Week 4 and first in the EPA in their five-game winning streak.
Plus, as we wrote after their Week 10 win over the Browns, Jones is playing exceptionally well in his rookie season, and they got a “A gritty” on the road Thursday night against a good defensive coordinator.
However, the stakes for the Patriots are no longer good; the Pats have Super Bowl aspirations in a wide open AFC. To realize their potential, they will need to win in the passing game by staying one step ahead of the defense and performing at a high level.
The main players can make the necessary corrections and score points on the scoreboard. We’ve seen them do this before, and it’s good to sort things out in week 11 rather than, say, Buffalo in two weeks.
Still, the key to avoiding disappointments in a four-game streak that will define their season is in the details.