Analysis

Analysis: Why Mac Jones and the Patriots offense aren’t going deep

Despite Mac Jones's solid completion percentage, the Patriots aren't threatening defenses down the field. How big of a problem is that through two weeks?

Mac Jones Patriots
Mac Jones. AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
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The “Checkdown Charlie” chants are already coming for Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones two games into his NFL career.

Never mind the fact he helped shepherd New England to victory Sunday against the Jets with a largely clean game while his counterpart, Zach Wilson, threw three of his first five passes to Patriots defenders. Never mind also that Jones had a strong NFL debut against a hellacious amount of pressure from Miami in Week 1.

No, the Patriots’ lack of explosive-play production under Jones’s watch two games into his career tells everyone everything they need to know. We don’t need to see any more.

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OK, sarcasm aside, it would be much easier to feel good about the Patriots offense and Jones being the only rookie quarterback to ever complete 70 percent or more of his passes in his first two NFL games if it felt like the unit was a threat to score from anywhere on the field.

Right now, that simply isn’t the case.

Maintaining some perspective is important, of course. Jones is a rookie who’s only played two real NFL games, and the offense, including offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, is still gelling with its new quarterback. Also, a deeper look at the numbers shows it’s not all as bad as it seems.

Here are a few key statistics to pay attention to when considering what’s going on with the Patriots offense — and whether it’s worth worrying about right now.

5.7 – Jones’s average depth of target

Through two games, only three passers with 21 dropbacks or more have a lower average depth of target (ADOT) – in other words, how deep the receiver is when the ball reaches him — than Jones’s 5.6 yards, according to Pro Football Focus: Jimmy Garoppolo (5.2 yards), Matt Ryan (4.0), and Andy Dalton (4.6). Against the Jets, Jones’s receivers were only an average of four yards down the field on each target.

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Looking closer, 49 out of his 69 attempts (71 percent) have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, with almost 16 percent being attempted to receivers behind the line. Only five throws this season have traveled beyond 20 yards.

Additionally, Jones’s intended air yards per attempt are just 3.1. Only Carson Wentz (3.0) and Jacoby Brissett (2.7) have fewer air yards per pass intended among quarterbacks with more than 20 attempts.

Bottom line: Jones is about as far as you can get from “airing it out.”

“I think it was just me,” he said of his latest game against the Jets. “I can push the ball down the field more. They did kind of what we expected them to do. They obviously have a good defensive line like we said. I can definitely just hold the ball in a good way, and maybe just move and try to make a better throw down the field on a lot of plays.”

That’s partly true; Jones has left a few chunk plays on the field, including a rushed checkdown to Jonnu Smith on the Patriots’ trick play Sunday that could’ve gone to Nelson Agholor for a touchdown instead.

Of course, he also took an ill-advised shot to Kendrick Bourne against double coverage that should’ve been intercepted (though a neutral zone infraction on New York would’ve wiped it out). Dialing up the launch codes isn’t always a great idea.

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The good part: the Patriots’ first-round quarterback is completing passes at an exceptional clip for a rookie. In fact, his 73.9 completion percentage currently ranks sixth in the NFL.

On the other hand, Jones only has one passing touchdown, has yet to throw a ball past the goal line, and presides over the worst red-zone offense in the NFL to this point.

If you’re looking for some optimism on that front, here’s a piece: Jones started off in OTAs and minicamp apprehensive to push the ball down the field but then steadily became more aggressive in training camp as he got more reps. Look for a similar progression as he acclimates to what NFL defenses are doing against him.

7 – “Explosive” passing plays (20+ yards) by the Patriots

It might not seem like it, but this number actually puts the Patriots pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as the rest of the NFL goes (tied for 11th with Carolina, Dallas and Jacksonville). Throw in the team’s two explosive running plays, and they’re tied for ninth with three other squads (Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers).

So it’s not as if the Patriots aren’t generating any explosive plays.

It’s largely about when they’re doing it.

Five of those seven 20-plus-yard passes (and both big runs) came on either first or second down — Jakobi Meyers and James White each had catches of 20 or more yards on third down in Week 1. Though that’s not against league trends (about 72 percent of all explosive plays come on first or second down), the Patriots’ play-calling especially seems built not to press the issue on third down.

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The Patriots overwhelmingly favor the pass on third downs (22 passes to 6 runs), but according to NextGen Stats, Jones throws the ball an average of 4.1 yards short of the sticks on third downs.

This feels like a product of McDaniels calling short throws and Jones being set on throwing the ball as soon as possible. The offensive coordinator copped to that a bit when asked about the offense’s less-than-vertical passing game on Tuesday morning.

“I think this was a very aggressive front that we saw in New York,” McDaniels said, adding he trusts Jones “completely” to execute deeper throws. “And we talked last week about how much pressure Miami brought…you can call as many [deep throws] as you want. It doesn’t mean the ball is going to go there because the defense certainly has a vote in where the ball’s going to end up going.”

That’s a valid point. You’re not always going to have time to push the ball down the field, especially when teams send pressure.

The flip side of that, though, is that blitzes generally go hand-in-hand with receivers and tight ends getting one-on-one matchups that can open the door for big plays. The Patriots just haven’t taken advantage of that.

If New England wants to continue to stay conservative on third downs to avoid turnovers, then perhaps they need to dial up more shot plays on first and second down. Jones’s adjusted yards per attempt is significantly higher on first down, for example, than it is on either second or third down.

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Whatever it takes to make this passing game more threatening.

12 – pressures allowed by offensive tackles

As much as it seems like Jones is getting hit — opponents have registered 11 hits on Jones so far according to ESPN’s stats — he hasn’t faced nearly as much pressure as it seems.

PFF stats show Jones has faced pressure on 21 out of 73 dropbacks, yielding an under-pressure rate of 28.8 that ranks just 26th among NFL quarterbacks.

Looking a little deeper, though, one can see how big a problem the tackle spot has been from a protection standpoint for the Patriots.

That’s not just talking about the right tackle spot, either. As much as Yasir Durant and Justin Herron have underwhelmed while filling at right tackle for Trent Brown, starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn’s play has arguably been no less concerning.

Wynn has allowed more pressures on his own (7) than Durant and Herron have surrendered on their own (5) against two teams without elite edge rushers. That means the left tackle accounts for a third of the offensive line’s allowed pressures by himself.

If safety Marcus Maye hadn’t gotten to Jones for the Jets’s first sack Sunday, Wynn might have given it up himself after getting walked back into the pocket.

It’s worth noting, though, that the other two sacks on Jones in Week 4 came against four-man rushes. In particular, the Patriots have had a few issues defending loops and stunts along the defensive line, perhaps a sign their communication along the line still needs to improve.

The Patriots might not face a ton of teams that blitz as much as the Dolphins (40.8 percent blitz rate) and the Buccaneers (44.6 percent blitz rate — highest in NFL), but that doesn’t mean they can afford to let their guards down against teams that primarily rush four guys.

If Jones and McDaniels hope to play a bit less conservatively as the rookie quarterback gets more comfortable with the offense, the Patriots’ big men up front, especially those tackles, have to hold up their end.

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