Making sense of the New England offense

·6 min read

After ten quarters of football, the New England Patriots are slowly realizing they might have some problems on the offensive side of the ball.

Unfortunately for them, the solutions might take longer than today’s extended halftime to celebrate the career of former receiver Julian Edelman.

The issues are myriad, and they go beyond intended air yards, or a rookie quarterback, or receivers that are struggling to separate. But as the Patriots look to comeback facing a 14-3 deficit to the visiting New Orleans Saints, let’s highlight some of the problems the Patriots are staring at on offense.

Inconsistency up front

(AP Photo/Stew Milne)

Coming into the 2021 campaign, a reason for optimism regarding the New England offense was not the presence of a new face at quarterback, but rather the five men charged with protecting him. The Patriots offensive line looked to be a solid, if not spectacular unit that would keep rookie Mac Jones clean in the pocket and open up holes for running back such as Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson. To date, that unit has been inconsistent at best. Take this sack from Week 2 against the New York Jets: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/JonesWeek2Sack.mp4">[/video] Facing 3rd and 4, the Patriots put Jones in the shotgun and James White is in the game, offset to the left side of the quarterback. The Jets show pressure, walking safety Marcus Maye down over the right side of the offense, and putting cornerback Javelin Guidry into the box as well, between the left tackle and left guard. New England uses one of their six-man protection schemes due to the threat of the blitz. They first use a four-man slide to the right, with everyone from the left guard through the right tackle opening to that side. The "backside" tackle in this scheme, Isaiah Wynn, likely alerts to a "squeeze" call, because of the presence of Guidry down in the box. Wynn has both Guidry and defensive end Bryce Huff head-up or outside of him, and since Wynn cannot block both, he is turning towards the defensive end. Should Guidry blitz, that will be White's responsibility. Theoretically, the Patriots should have this blocked up. Guidry does not blitz, nor does linebacker C.J. Mosley. The problem? Maye does come off the right side, and Huff's uses a speed move off the left edge. Those two players get past right tackle Yasir Durant and Wynn, meeting at the rookie QB for the sack. Pressure played a role on Sunday against the Saints, showing up on this first-half interception thrown by Jones: https://twitter.com/Saints/status/1442190575235633154?s=20 Again there is dual pressure on the quarterback, both off the right tackle and over the left guard. Jones feels the penetration and tries to climb the pocket, but that takes him right into the teeth of yet more pressure. His throw comes under duress and fails to get to the intended target, resulting in an interception. Now, part of these woes might be the combination of a rookie quarterback learning life in the NFL behind an offensive line that has dealt with some injuries in the early season. Part of it might also be that same rookie QB learning the part of the position that involves setting and adjusting protection schemes, as the Patriots are one of the systems in the NFL that tasks the quarterback with that responsibility. Until that gets sorted out, you might see the Patriots look to more quick-game concepts with three-step drops, like they did for this connection between Jones and Jakobi Meyers back in Week 3: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/JonesMeyersWeek2.mp4">[/video] After the woeful start on Sunday, Jones began the second half against the Saints by getting the ball out quicker, to marginalize the New Orleans pass rush. That might be a theme going forward for New England: https://twitter.com/McKennAnalysis/status/1442203469591502850?s=20

The intended air yards question

(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

After the Week 2 victory over the Jets, much of the discussion on New England sports radio centered upon two questions. First, "does Tom Brady still like us?" (It is going to be a long week...) Second was this: Is Mac Jones too conservative? Jones, and his average depth of target, was a focus of discussion after the season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins. That discussion kicked into high gear both immediately after the win over the Jets, and once people got their hands on the All-22 through a variety of nefarious means. Initial impressions from Sunday night were confirmed during the rewatch: There were some opportunities for Jones to push the football downfield, but he did not take advantage of those moments. Take this double pass play, from Jones to White, back to Jones, and finally to tight end Jonnu Smith on the crossing route: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/Week2DoublePass.mp4">[/video] Now, part of you does not want to question a play that results in a big gain, but at the top of the screen you see Nelson Agholor, behind the defense, open for six points. Jones takes the easier throw, which is also open, but this could go down as a missed opportunity. After the game against the Jets, Jones took the blame for some of the missed opportunities in the passing game: https://twitter.com/ezlazar/status/1439692727034200067 What is interesting about this discussion is that dating back to his time in college, as well as his short NFL career, Jones has been willing to push the football downfield. As I wrote about Jones back after the Patriots drafted him, Jones attacked downfield at Alabama, whether on traditional dropbacks or off of play-action. We saw that during the preseason in New England: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/JonesWilkerson.mp4">[/video] We also saw a little of this aggression in Week 1, as Jones hits on the hole shot downfield to Agholor: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/MacJonesHoleShot.mp4">[/video] So, the ability and, at times, the aggression is there. But perhaps not always. That might lead us to the way the Patriots fix this.

Time

(Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

Time, and patience. That might be how these issues get sorted out in New England. Because as much as Patriots fans might not want to hear this, quarterback development is not linear, and rookie passers often have to learn how to balance the various aspects of playing the position. Things like setting the protection and getting that right while you're trying to decipher what is happening in the secondary. Things like balancing taking shots downfield with taking what the defense gives you. That process takes time, and as good as Mac Jones is as a quarterback, it will not happen overnight. But take heart, New England fans. Because I sat down to start this piece during halftime of today's game against the Saints. As I draw the article to a close, the Patriots, under Jones, have fought back to cut the New Orleans lead to a single score. How? Thanks to an aggressive, downfield throw from Jones to Kendrick Bourne: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1442211455332278274?s=20 So while it might take some time, it might not take as long as it could.

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