The Patriots are reportedly heading towards a life without starting quarterback Mac Jones following a 37-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
According to multiple reports, Jones suffered a high-ankle sprain on his final pass attempt of the game. The sprain was described by NFL Network as "pretty severe" and could cause Jones to miss multiple weeks.
At some point, we'll discuss how New England survives without QB1 over the coming weeks. But, first, let's take a look back to assess the first three games of Jones's second season.
Most of the narratives coming out of this first month of the season are that Jones is regressing. Has he hit a sophomore slump? Is the Pats new offensive coaching staff led by Matt Patricia to blame? Has Bill Belichick done enough to surround Mac with a good supporting cast? You get the idea.
Statistically, it's hard to argue that Jones is on an upward trajectory. However, an interesting trend is forming in the first three games of 2022.
After being a risk-averse passer as a rookie, Jones is no longer playing the role of passenger. In his first season, the Pats quarterback averaged 8.3 air yards per pass attempt, and 11.1 percent of his throws traveled more than 20 yards in the air (22nd out of 35 QBs).
LAST TWO SEASONS, VIA PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS
|20-Plus Yard Rate
|TO Worthy Play Rate
This season, albeit in a smaller sample size, Mac's average target depth is 10.4 yards (tied for third-highest in the NFL), and 20.6 percent of his throws had an air distance of at least 20 yards (second). More chance-taking down the field has produced more explosive plays, including eight chunk gains in Sunday's loss, and Jones is producing the 11th-best expected points added per play, excluding turnovers (+0.23).
But the flip side is that the Patriots version of "no risk it, no biscuit" leads to more turnovers. Jones has five interceptions through three games, with pressure and deeper targets serving as a common thread. Four of his six turnover-worthy plays have come while Mac is under pressure, and five are on throws over ten yards in the air.
Furthermore, Jones's turnover-worthy play rate is up to 5.1 percent on his 111 drop-backs which is over double the rate of putting the ball in harm's way compared to his rookie season (2.5%). When you factor in turnovers, Jones's EPA per play falls from 11th to 20th (+0.02).
As we saw against the Ravens, the positive spin is that Jones is finding success by attacking downfield and between the numbers with a more aggressive mindset.
For example, Jones opened the second half with a 40-yard dime to DeVante Parker. The Ravens appear to be in a match-zone where the outside corners are covering vertical routes like it's man-to-man, which leaves Parker singled up on #21 Brandon Stevens. With Parker running a stutter-and-go, the Pats receiver stacks Stevens while drawing a hold. The perfectly placed pass has enough velocity to beat safety Marcus Williams from centerfield for a big play.
Later on in the drive, Mac connects with Parker again for his second big-time throw of the possession. This time, Baltimore is in quarters coverage, where the backside corner is locked in man coverage with inside leverage. Seeing the corner taking away the inside, Jones pulls the string on a back-shoulder throw along the sideline.
Jones also completed both of his attempts to the deep middle area of the field. Accessing deeper throws between the numbers allows the Patriots offense to generate explosive plays without throwing low-percentage fade routes outside the numbers.
Although the play ended in a fumble, Jones's completion through traffic to an in-stride Nelson Agholor was a dart. Agholor runs through the defender in man coverage on a crosser. Mac fires the ball over safety Chuck Clark (#36) as he falls off Hunter Henry and beats a diving Damarion Williams at the catch point for a play that should've seized back momentum.
But, again, the downside is with more deep targets comes an uptick in plays where defenders have a chance at intercepting the pass, and Mac is locking onto these downfield shots at times rather than taking easier completions.
Here, Jones tries to take an early-down shot off play-action. With Marcus Williams playing centerfield and the rest of the defense in man coverage, Parker runs a "dolphin" route that resembles a post-corner. Parker has a step on his man, but Williams makes a good read to break up the pass at the catch point. Meanwhile, Kendrick Bourne is open on an intermediate crosser at the sticks for an easy catch-and-run. Two plays later, the Pats would turn the ball over on downs.
Ultimately, the style of play that led to a 10-7 record in Jones's rookie season has a ceiling. And we saw that ceiling down the stretch a year ago, culminating in a blowout loss to the Bills on Wild Card weekend.
Along with Jones making more aggressive decisions, head coach Bill Belichick is taking a less conservative approach in certain situations. On Sunday, Belichick opened up the passing game before the half, and Jones led the offense into field goal range. The Pats are also going for it on fourth down at a higher rate this season.
But New England is currently 29th in turnover differential (-4) with eight giveaways after three weeks. Obviously, not all of those are on the QB. Still, that's not a winning formula.
When Jones returns from injury, the Patriots cannot afford to put the training wheels back on him. Instead, they must ride out the growing pains as Mac finds his limits as a more attack-minded passer. With that said, there needs to be a middle ground because turning the ball over at a high rate will get you beat in this league every week.
Here are three more takeaways and quick-hitters from the Patriots loss to the Ravens after further review:
1. How Did the Ravens and Lamar Jackson Expose the Patriots Run Defense?
As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said following the loss, the Ravens got their gap-read running game going by attacking the open C-Gaps in their defensive front. Another commonality was that Baltimore went after the Pats safeties in the box and linebacker Mack Wilson.
Here, the Ravens are blocking power-read, and there isn't a defender on the line of scrimmage between the left tackle and fullback Patrick Ricard (playing in-line). The Ravens first fold over the Pats defense (made easier by their alignment) and pull the backside guard up to safety Jabrill Peppers. Coupled with the running back drawing out the edge contain (Wise and Peppers step outside), Peppers on a pulling guard is a mismatch. From there, Ricard makes an excellent combination block to come off the double-team, washing Wilson out of the play, and Lamar is into the secondary.
The Pats eventually adjusted by putting Davon Godchaux in the C-Gap at the point of attack, but the damage was done. In a copycat league, the question is can other teams replicate the schemes? The good news is, there's only one Lamar Jackson, but New England's two-gapping system needs to find better ways to defend downhill gap schemes that attack off-tackle.
Although we don't want to make excuses, the Patriots missed Kyle Dugger and Raekwon McMillan as more sturdy run defenders in the box compared to Peppers and Wilson.
2. Two-Play Sequence Shows Value of Motion, Under Center Play-Action
For those who tune in regularly, first of all, thank you. Second, here comes a broken record. The Patriots offense was incredibly stagnant in the first two weeks, lacking play-action and motion. We aren't all the way there yet, but a two-play sequence on Sunday showed its value.
New England started a first-quarter drive by improving its offensive line's blocking angles in one-back power from under center with a jet motion by Nelson Agholor. Agholor's motion causes the linebackers at the second level to bump over a gap. Malik Harrison (#40) widens out of the gap they're trying to run through, and Josh Bynes (#56) bumps over enough to make it easier for right tackle Isaiah Wynn to come off the double-team and get a piece of Bynes. Rhamondre Stevenson runs untouched for a ten-yard gain.
On the next play, the Patriots go back under center and run play-action with a similar "fold" of the defense to simulate a run. The Pats run a post-crosser combination downfield, and when Agholor runs the deep safety off Parker's route, Mac hits the crosser for a 40-yard completion.
New England didn't dial up much motion at the snap and only called five play-action passes, but hopefully, seeing its success on tape will lead to more of this kind of sequencing in the future.
The offensive line has found its groove blocking gap schemes and inside zone runs. There are also fewer mental errors in pass protection besides one stunt-blitz that didn't get picked up (miscommunication between Damien Harris and Cole Strange).
3. Patriots CB Jonathan Jones is Balling Out at Outside Corner
Lastly, Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones has made the transition to a full-time role at outside cornerback look easy. After playing primarily in the slot throughout his career, Jones has been at boundary corner on 84 percent of his snaps and has only allowed seven catches for 64 yards with an interception through three games.
On his interception against the Ravens, Jones makes a savvy play you would expect from a corner with a lot more experience playing on the outside. The Pats are in a cover-one robber scheme with Jones in off-man at the bottom of the screen. Since he's off the line of scrimmage, Jones can stay over the top of his man and peek into the backfield at the quarterback. When he sees Lamar lock onto Rashod Bateman's crossing route, Jones falls off Devin Duvernay's route and steps in front of Batemen to pick off the pass.
With the departures from the cornerback room over the last year or so, Jones holding up as a full-time outside cornerback has been a massive development for the Patriots defense.
4. Quick-Hitters After Reviewing the Coaches Film of Pats-Ravens
- After allowing four QB pressures last week, a better overall effort from Isaiah Wynn, who only allowed two hurries, and both penalties were borderline, especially the hold. You don't usually see the illegal formation called.
- Rookie left guard Cole Strange allowed a team-high four QB pressures. He has some impressive run blocks working combinations with Trent Brown. The mental errors in pass protection are not surprising for a rookie in his third career game.
- Rhamondre Stevenson's ability to bounce runs and hit cutback lanes outside the tackles adds another dimension. Although it didn't hit, the Pats tried to target Stevenson on a vertical out of the backfield. It would be worth coming back to that one again.
- The Pats might need to find a different approach in the running game at tight end. Asking Jonnu Smith to block Calais Campbell one-on-one as an in-line TE, even on a kick-out block, isn't working. Neither is having Hunter Henry "wham" Michael Pierce.
- Speaking of Henry, the team needs to find ways to target him more in the red zone. They're seeing a lot of bracket coverage inside the ten. But those trust throws to a spot where Henry boxes out the defender should return when Jones comes back.
- Deatrich Wise dominated backup left tackle Daniel Faalele in the first half. Wise sometimes struggled in the second half on the edge against the gap runs. But the arrow is still pointing upward.
- Christian Barmore logged two hurries but has had two quieter performances in three games. All the two-gapping and rush-lane integrity against mobile QBs is a factor.
- Second-year safety Joshuah Bledsoe did his part against Mark Andrews to free up Adrian Phillips to play robber on third downs.
- Myles Bryant's versatility allows him to wear many hats in the Pats zone structures. But, at some point, they might need to see what they have in the rookie Jones's in man.