With the 2022 NFL preseason in the New England Patriots’ rearview window, there’s only one question their fans are asking this Saturday morning in late summer.
Is now the time to panic?
With three preseason games on the books, reviews are in for New England’s new offense, and they’re not pretty. The Patriots’ starting offense managed just one field goal in Friday night’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders, and the production wasn’t good. Mac Jones finished the night having completed 9 of 13 passes for 71 yards and one of the most impressive interceptions you’ll ever see.
Where is this offense struggling, particularly the passing game, and can the ship be righted in time for the regular season?
fights in protection
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Studying New England’s offense after their second preseason game, one thing immediately stood out.
They were fighting to protect the quarterback.
He didn’t appear in the scorecard, as Mac Jones was sacked just once in his limited action, and rookie Bailey Zappe was sacked once as well, but watching the Patriots’ offense while Jones was in the game, he saw a quarterback who had rarely had a chance to put his feet in the pocket.
That led to missed opportunities in the passing game.
Take this sack against the Panthers, coming in a 3-and-4 situation. The Patriots line up in a 3-on-1 formation, with tight end Jonnu Smith in a Y-Iso lineup on the left side of the field. New England puts three wide receivers to the right. They will mark a stick concept on the right side of the field, with Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor running stick routes while DeVante Parker runs the go route. At the back, Smith runs a one-way route along the left sideline:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesStickSackCarolina.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Carolina shows pressure pre-snap, with both linebackers mugging the A-Gaps. But at the snap, they execute a rain blitz, with the two mugged-up defenders reading the center. When David Andrews slides to the left, that linebacker drops off, and the other blitzes through the right A-Gap. That defender, linebacker Julian Stanford, runs right through right guard James Ferentz.
When Jones hits his drop depth in the pocket, he has Stanford breaking through the line right in front of him. The edges are starting to soften as well, and while the Panthers dropping into Cover 2 means both vertical routes are open, Jones has to pull the ball down, and ends up taking the sack.
On this play from the Panthers game, the Patriots dial up a Burner concept, with the speedy rookie Tyquan Thornton running the corner route while Agholor runs the deep crosser. Again, there is an opportunity to push the football downfield, as Thornton is pulling away from the coverage. However, as we saw on the previous example, Jones is flushed from the pocket when the protection breaks down — starting with reserve tight end Devin Asiasi on the left edge — and Jones forces the crossing route to Agholor which is broken up:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesBurnerNearSackCarolina.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
The theme of protection breakdowns leading to missed opportunities continued on Friday night. With New England facing a 1st and 10 in the red zone, Jones dropped back to read out a dual Smash concept, with a corner route and a route to the flat on both sides of the field. With the Raiders dropping into a two-high look, there is an opportunity to throw perhaps either corner route.
However, right tackle Isaiah Wynn gives up some pressure, forcing Jones off his spot just before he can make a throw:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesPressureRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
As we will see in a moment, not all the sacks given up this season, or even the pressures, are on the offensive line. But right now, there is inconsistency with how the group is protecting the quarterback. If that were the only issue with the Patriots’ offense at the moment, it would be an easier fix.
However…it’s not the only issue.
Struggles with separation
(Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)
How have things looked when Jones has had time to throw?
Again, describing it as a bit of a mixed bag might be overly optimistic.
As outlined in the previous section, there have been opportunities downfield for Jones, that he could not take advantage of due to protection breakdowns up front. However, those came either directly because of play design, or as a result of the coverage from the defense.
When it comes to finding receivers who are winning against man coverage — on a consistent basis — the results are not as positive.
Take this play against the Panthers from a week ago:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesLevelsPanthers.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
On this snap against man coverage, Jones opens to his right where the Patriots have a trio of in-breaking routes. But with those covered well, he is forced to come to his checkdown, and he cannot connect with running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
One of the more effective plays from the Patriots offense on Friday night? This 13-yard scramble from Jones to pick up a first down on 3rd and 10. Again, he has to evade pressure late in the down, but when he hits his drop depth, there is nowhere to go with the football:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesScrambleRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Later in the first quarter, New England calls for a Drive concept in the middle of the field, with tight end Hunter Henry on a dig and Nelson Agholor on the shallow crosser. Outside, Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker run vertical routes. Jones attempts the shot throw to Parker, who has a cornerback running with him step-for-step and a safety rotating over to help, but all of the options are covered well:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesVerticalParkerRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Now, promising rookie Tyquan Thornton was one of the receivers who was separating from coverage well, both in preseason games and in practices. But with Thornton now on the shelf due to a collarbone injury, the Patriots need to find consistent separation from their receivers.
This might be, in part, a reason for the shift in offensive emphasis we have heard about all training camp. With New England moving to a McVay/Shanahan system — an emphasis on wide zone, boot-action designs, and plays out of bunches and condensed formations — those concepts can create separation through scheme. Rather than trusting receivers to win one-on-one matchups, you create confusion and rubs in the secondary due to alignment and scheme, and spring receivers open that way.
This play form Friday night might be the roadmap. While Jones forces a vertical throw to Parker along the left side, look what happens on the right:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesBourneBunchRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Even with the Raiders covering this concept well, Bourne breaks open on the deep route, thanks to his starting alignment and all the space he has to work with as he cuts outside.
Perhaps as we get into the regular season, and we see more looks like this one, Patriots fans will see the benefits of these formations, and how they can work to create separation for the receivers downfield. But right now, with the protection being inconsistent along with the separation from the receivers, that is leading to inconsistency in the passing game.
Which brings us to the quarterback.
Whither the quarterback
(Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)
Now we turn to the most important question facing the Patriots this season.
The development of second-year passer Mac Jones.
The Patriots are in the midst of the rookie quarterback window. Jones is cost-controlled for the next few seasons, and we have seen other NFL organization maximize this window and make deep playoff runs, as well as build around the inexpensive rookie quarterback. Just look at the Cincinnati Bengals last season, and the Los Angeles Chargers this season. Before the Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert bills come due, they made their move.
Kansas City won their Super Bowl before handing Patrick Mahomes his big extension.
However, New England looks, for the moment, to be heading in a different direction. With questions over play-callers, offensive systems, and protections surfacing as major themes this off-season, it calls into question how the development of Jones is being handled.
It has not all been bad for Jones during New England’s preseason slate. On this completion to Nelson Agholor, Jones navigates two points of pressure in the pocket, climbing away from danger before delivering a well-placed throw on the go route in this verticals concept:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesGoRouteAgholorCarolina.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Perhaps his best throw of the preseason came on a play which was called back for offensive interference on DeVante Parker, taking a touchdown against the Raiders off the board Friday night:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesParkerOPIRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
The reason this is a good throw? The chemistry and trust that is already in place between Jones and Parker. Last season, New England lacked the kind of receiver that could win on these types of plays, but with Parker in the fold, that gives Jones the ball-winner the offense did not have a season ago.
However, these kinds of plays have been more the exception than the rule. After all, this negated touchdown came after Jones did this earlier in the night:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesINTRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
New England calls for a switch verticals concept to the left, with Agholor running the wheel route out of the slot while Parker runs the deep post. Kendrick Bourne runs the dig route from the right. Jones has to move off his spot again due to interior pressure, and tries to throw late over the middle, breaking one of the cardinal rules of quarterback play.
Now, I tend to refrain from “screenshot scouting,” but sometimes a picture truly is worth a thousand words:
I’ve thrown interceptions into double coverage. I’ve thrown interceptions into triple coverage. Maybe even a quadruple coverage moment or two.
But sextuple coverage?
Interestingly enough, after the game Jones talked about the area where he needs to improve the most, and it was not spurred on by this play. But rather this sack from earlier in the contest:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesQBFaultSackRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
As the quarterback said after the game: “With this year, tonight specifically, I’ve gotta do a better job of stepping up and delivering the throws. At the end of the day, we need to be able to execute base plays, scheme plays, all that stuff. It definitely needs to look better, and I’ve gotta do a better job of just getting the ball out and stepping up in the pocket, instead of running around and putting my line in a bad position.”
This was not the only such example. On this play from later in the first half, Jones vacated the pocket at the first sign of pressure, and was forced to simply throw the ball away:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesBailRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
As a quarterback, when you are unsure of the protection up front, you start to do things like this. While Jones showed more athleticism as a rookie than many expected to see from him, that is not his game.
What is his game? Gripping it and ripping it from the pocket. With the change in offensive emphasis, it has led to questions about whether such a system, asking Jones to run boot-action concepts on the move at a higher level, is the right fit for him.
Those questions are only increasing in volume given what we saw Friday night. Some of Jones’ best throws, and the moments where he seemed the most comfortable, came with him in empty, spread formations. Take this throw to Hunter Henry on the deep crossing route:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesHenryCrosserRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Jones buys time with his feet, climbing the pocket and then sliding to his right, before finding Henry late in the down for a big gain. This is the kind of pocket movement you can expect Jones to execute well, the more nuanced task of creating space as a passer, not running to it.
Or take this completion to Agholor on a shallow crosser, again out of an empty formation:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/JonesShallowAgholorRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
Dating back to his days at Alabama, Jones is at his best when he is working out of spread formations, ruling things in or out pre-snap, and then making quick decisions post-snap and getting the ball out quickly.
This is backed up by numbers from last season. On plays where Jones got the ball out in less than 2.5 seconds, according to charting data from Pro Football Focus, he had an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 82.2%, 12th-best in the league. He had a Yards Per Attempt of 7.1 on those throws, seventh-best in the league.
On throws over 2.5 seconds? His ACP dropped to 66.7%, placing him 25th in the league, ahead of Carson Wentz and Davis Mills, but behind Jalen Hurts, Sam Darnold and Trevor Siemian.
It makes one wonder, what exactly is the best system for him?
(For a deeper discussion on this, you can listen to the latest episode of the Read Optional podcast, where I chat about this with the brilliant Ollie Connolly):
(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Congratulations to those Patriots fans who have made it this far. I promise I will make it worth the journey.
Despite the inconsistency in the passing game, there are silver linings to be found. We have seen some already: Jones’ effectiveness in spread formations, his relationship with DeVante Parker, how the bunch formations can manufacture separation, and even more evidence of how he can create with his legs from time-to-time.
Another silver lining? The running game. Reports have been mixed about the New England rushing attack during training camp and joint practices, and it did get off to a shaky start Friday night:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/StevensonStuffRaidres.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
But then you saw more consistent execution from the Patriots’ rushing attack as the game wore on, with Rhamondre Stevenson ripping off some solid runs in the first quarter. Perhaps their best running play came not on a wide zone design, as has been the emphasis this off-season, but rather on the crack toss concept that was a staple of their offense a season ago:
[video width=”960″ height=”540″ mp4=”https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2022/08/StevensonCrackTossRaiders.mp4″%5D%5B/video%5D
That leads us into a great reminder about the New England offense. While the emphasis on wide zone and boot-action might be new, these are not new plays in Foxborough. They have had these concepts in the playbook for decades. Over the years that Tom Brady was at the helm, there was not an emphasis on boot-action, but they were running wide zone. They just did not call on boot-action concepts off those designs, because that’s not something you did with Brady.
They tried it once, according to former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, and scrapped it when it did not work.
Which leads in to perhaps the biggest silver lining.
Bill Belichick, who came out this week and reiterated that he is the ultimate decision maker in New England, is not going to bang his head against wall with an offensive system — or emphasis — that is not working.
Now that the preseason is over, if he looks at this offense and believes, perhaps rightly so, that the best this passing game has looked is when they relied on spread formation and let Jones work from the pocket, that is what you can expect to see the most when the season kicks off in a few weeks.
That might still be unconvincing for Patriots fans. After all, spending training camp with perhaps one point of emphasis, and shifting that emphasis on the cusp of the season, does not inspire confidence. In years past, Belichick has used the first month of so of the regular season as an extended training camp, finding what schemes and what combination of players works the best.
However, as Patriots fans are right to point out, look around the AFC. In a loaded conference, and in a division with the consensus Super Bowl favorites, you might not have a few extra weeks to sort things out. Especially when three of your first four games come against the Miami Dolphins, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Green Bay Packers.
Starting out 2-2 — or worse — might be a massive hole this year in the AFC East, and the AFC at large.
Maybe this is much ado about nothing. Maybe Belichick and the staff are, at this very moment, solidifying what this offense will look like come Week 1, and we’ll see exactly what the vision has been all along. We do not get the whole picture during training camp.
We will get it in a few weeks.
So ultimately, perhaps it is still not time to panic in New England.
But the clock is ticking.