The Patriots are in a similar position as most teams with their second-year quarterback still exhibiting the highs and lows of a young passer in the NFL.
The current narratives and half-truth evaluations about Patriots quarterback Mac Jones are misleading. If you hear that Jones is not threatening defenses downfield, is panicky or skittish in the pocket, or doesn't display enough arm talent to be an NFL starter, then we are not watching the same film. That's not to say he's free of blame for the offensive struggles, and we'll get to it all, but that's not why.
If you don't want to believe our evaluation, here are some numbers to consider. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones has 21 big-time throws this season for a big-time throw rate of five percent, which is tied for the fourth-highest among 33 QBs. Despite missing three games and appearing briefly in another, Jones's raw total of 21 is tied for tenth.
For those who aren't familiar with the stat, via PFF, it's a pass that is generally thrown down the field with excellent ball location and timing. On Sunday, Jones had two, while his average target depth (8.3 yards) is also above-average at 14th among the same sample.
The Patriots quarterback is throwing the ball downfield and making plays even from muddy pockets when the pass rush is closing in; it's right there on the tape. Mac has zero issues making deeper throws into tighter coverage when his teammates and coaches give him solid working conditions. Most would view the high-level plays over the last six weeks from Jones, who also has just one interception since Thanksgiving night, as signs of optimism that their young quarterback can play, and, like many young QBs, needs to be more consistent.
From a consistency standpoint, there's also evidence in Jones's film from Sunday's win over the Dolphins that he needs to be sharper with his reads. After starting the game mainly in man coverage, Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer began sprinkling in more zone due to New England's success defeating man-to-man with big plays on vertical shots.
With the Dolphins adjusting to zone in the middle quarters, the Patriots offense followed up their second opening drive touchdown of the season with four punts, four three-and-outs, and an uninspiring final drive before half where they ran out the final 1:45 of the second quarter. The biggest area where Jones struggled was reading the underneath zones in the coverage structure. New Enlgand's route concepts created passing windows with quick-game style concepts on early downs, but Mac wasn't seeing the openings in the coverage.
Ultimately, there are areas where Jones can improve to help move the football and score more points throughout a game. However, the Pats quarterback is a capable passer that could take off with better offensive structure and continued improvements to his supporting cast.
Until he fails in more stable and dynamic conditions, giving up on Jones at this juncture is a rush to judgment that a typically smart organization like the Patriots doesn't normally do.
Here are three more takeaways and quick-hit film notes from the Patriots win over the Dolphins After Further Review:
1. How Did the Patriots Defense Slow Down Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle?
We need to address a few things before breaking down the coverage calls and schemes for the Patriots defense, as they led the way to another big W this week.
First, this was a lousy offensive game plan for Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, and it doesn't matter who was at quarterback in this regard. Miami decided to come right at the Patriots defense with downhill runs from tighter and heavier formations, while they called a vertically-based passing game. They tried to bully the Patriots on the ground. Think about that.
Furthermore, they looked at a depleted New England secondary and decided to attack downfield in the passing game. On the one hand, you can understand why they thought Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle would beat Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, and Tae Hayes.
However, that's not how you beat a Bill Belichick defense, which is fourth in DVOA against deep passes. With a short-handed secondary, Belichick played 78% zone coverage to make the Dolphins march down the field instead of hitting big plays.
Before you say a young coach got Belichick'd with two backup quarterbacks, McDaniel should know better. He was on the 49ers staff that ran the Pats defense out of the stadium by horizontally stretching the field back in 2020, with Jimmy G averaging 11.4 yards per attempt on nine throws behind the line of scrimmage. Sure, they're facing significantly different personnel, but that's how you beat the Patriots. Make them go East-West.
Along with the North-South approach playing into their hands, Belichick banked on the fact that Teddy Bridgewater and eventually Skylar Thompson wouldn't beat him with throws into the cover-two holes along the sidelines or test single-coverage in cover-three on the outside. This was a coverage-first game plan for the Patriots, who trusted their pass rush to get home against a depleted Miami offensive line without blitzing (five blitzes vs. Bridgewater).
Here, New England uses a "drop-8" scheme where they drop Pro Bowler Matthew Judon into coverage to give them all the numbers in the backend. With these being the matchups for most of the day, Jonathan Jones follows Tyreek Hill in motion and covers Hill in the flat, while Myles Bryant catches Jaylen Waddle's vertical route in off-coverage (top of screen). Jones matching Hill's motion causes Bridgewater to hold the ball, and nose tackle Carl Davis wins inside to register a big sack.
On third down, the Pats went to work in a cover-two structure where Jones played Hill essentially out of two-man at the top of the screen. With a half-field safety helping over the top, Jones plays an inside trail technique to take out Hill. At the bottom of the screen, you see another aspect of New England's game plan of jamming and disrupting routes in their zone drops as often as possible. They bullied these Miami receivers at the line, with the safeties protecting them in the deep part of the field.
Spinning things forward to the Bills, the challenge of using a similar game plan is obviously quarterback Josh Allen is far more dynamic than Miami's QBs. Plus, Stefon Diggs is a complete route-runner rather than a speedster like Hill.
Still, protecting their outside corners by re-routing receivers and helping over the top in zone coverage is certainly a good place to start for Sunday's win-and-in contest in Orchard Park.
2. Patriots S Kyle Dugger Has Developed Into an Impact Player With Elite Potential
Like the team's starting quarterback, safety Kyle Dugger still has some boom-or-bust to his game as he continues to develop, but there is far more "boom" these days in year three.
As we know, Dugger has three defensive touchdowns this season, with two pick-sixes and a scoop-and-score against the Lions in Week 5. The 2020 second-round pick has always been an impact enforcer working downhill. He brings it like a linebacker in the running game and can blitz quarterbacks at a high level when given the opportunity.
After playing most of his career at DII Lenior-Rhyne as a free safety, Dugger's body type led most NFL teams to believe that he'd transition to box safety and serve as a tight end stopper. He has fared well in run defense and has moments in man coverage against tight ends. But his coverage instincts and technique continue to be a work in progress.
With that said, one thing is clear about Dugger in coverage, and that is he's improving significantly when he's allowed to roam free in the middle of the defense to hunt for the football.
On Sunday, the Pats safety's game-changing pick-six was all of it coming together. New England showed a cover zero blitz before the snap, with Dugger near the line of scrimmage at a blitz depth. Instead, they drop into a cover-two zone where outside corners Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant fall into the deep halves. The post-snap rotation frees up Dugger to play the deep middle. When the route combination gives him one receiver to gravitate toward, he jumps the Bridgewater throw to wideout Trent Sherfield, and the rest is all athleticism in the open field.
The idea for selecting Dugger back in the 2020 draft was to replace longtime hybrid safety-linebacker Patrick Chung, who retired after opting out of the COVID season. Chung was also a good player with an all-out, physical mindset and held his own against tight ends.
However, Dugger has playmaking traits as a downhill thumper and ball-hawking zone defender that give him more upside than his predecessor.
3. Patriots IDL Christian Barmore Joining an Already Potent Pass Rush is Unfair
The strength of this Patriots team all year is their defensive front, which is second in the league with 52 sacks and has a 23.3% pressure rate through 16 games (fifth-highest in NFL).
We've already written about edge rusher Josh Uche's breakout season, Matthew Judon's Pro Bowl campaign, and interior rushers such as Deatrich Wise. Now, second-year defensive tackle Christian Barmore is coming on, and that's very scary for opposing QBs.
Barmore didn't register in the stat sheet as he had hoped before a knee injury sidelined him for six weeks. Back from a stint on injured reserve, the 2021 second-rounder logged a career-high seven quarterback pressures and added an explosive run stuff against the Dolphins.
On this fourth-quarter sack, the Patriots played the down in cover-one robber with Barmore, Judon, Uche, and Wise on the four-man rush. Uche uses his speed and bend to turn the corner on the left tackle, causing Thompson to step up in the pocket, where Barmore collapses the interior with a bull rush on the right guard. Good luck blocking that four-man pass rush.
The Patriots adding Barmore to a group that is already a problem is unfair. Hopefully, it's enough to get them into the postseason next week.
4. Quick-Hit Film Notes From Patriots-Dolphins After Further Review
- The offensive line had its hand in the middle quarter struggles, with C David Andrews (sack, two hurries) having an uncharacteristically poor performance. Mac's first sack was a downfield concept where the protection didn't hold long enough for him to get the ball out. The Pats are having issues with IOL getting bumped or picked off their blocks in pass pro. The same thing happened last week to Cole Strange on the infamous play-action decision by Mac that circulated on Twitter. Guys have to be more aware.
- Another solid game for RT Connor McDermott. He lost twice to Jaelen Phillips, but it didn't affect the play, so he had a clean sheet. Trent Brown is fine but has mental lapses. A QB hit on an assignment issue and another false start. Clean otherwise.
- Although he still delivers excellent between-the-tackle runs, the physical and mental toll is getting to Rhamondre Stevenson. He whiffed on two blitz pickups, one on the play-action third-and-one, which was more about the call, but you'd like to see Stevenson abort the fake to save the play by getting a piece of Elandon Roberts. He also had a drop on third down where he would've picked up the first. This is why they needed to integrate the rookie RBs sooner. The games are too important to rest Rhamondre now.
- Jakobi Meyers was terrific. He is the team's best separator against man coverage and, statistically, one of the best man coverage beaters in the NFL. Mac needs to find him more often on "whip" routes on third down. Meyers has been open two or three times on those in the last few weeks. Meyers has earned a pay raise this offseason.
- You can see the explosiveness with Tyquan Thornton. There are still route-running things he needs to clean up. For example, he slowed down on the seam shot, making it a tougher catch and potentially taking six off the board. But that speed is legit when they play him off the line, where he can motion and release from the slot or condensed splits.
- Gutsy performance by TE Hunter Henry with a banged-up knee. He played every snap and had two first-down receptions. Good things happen when he's involved.
- It's not an excuse for the coaching staff icing him out, but Kendrick Bourne would play more if he cleaned up the mental errors. The false start that made third-and-6 a third-and-11 can't happen. They're not good enough to overcome it.
- The Patriots were okay in their zone coverages, but their underneath/short distribution needs to be better. Too many reps didn't have the short part of the field covered properly, with zone droppers on top of each other. Like route spacing on offense, you need to have good spacing to be good in zone.
- Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, and Ja'Whaun Bentley, with a team-high five run stops, did their thing. Again, I wonder why they ran downhill at them. But they stood their ground.
- Watching Jabrill Peppers film is awesome. Just a downhill missile that hits harder than most linebackers in today's NFL, whether it's setting the edge, taking on pullers, or meeting RBs in the hole. Plus, he's getting his awareness down in zone. He should've ended it with a dropped INT, though. Put him on the field against Josh Allen.
- Flashes for NT Carl Davis (sack, stop) and LB Raekwon McMillan (two stops) in limited snaps. Davis's arm over/swim on the sack was one of his best reps as a Patriot.
- Another six QB pressures for EDGE Josh Uche (QB hit, five hurries). Uche does it every game now, especially when they set him up on early downs for pass rushes.
- And another quiet but solid performance by Jahlani Tavai setting the edge. Yes, he has limitations in coverage from off the ball. But he was great in the running game on the line of scrimmage.
- Kudos to Myles Bryant. He was lights out on the perimeter and ran well on verticals with Waddle mostly. Bryant is a very good zone player. Man is where he struggles. Great, great tackle on Tyreek Hill out of the all-out pressure to force a punt on third down.
- Although he had help over the top, Jonathan Jones was money on Tyreek Hill once again. There were a few chances where the QB might've let Hill down. But Jones was competitive throughout the afternoon. Pay that man, please.
- Newcomer CB Tae Hayes did enough not to be a liability. He got beat on third down when Bridgewater threw behind Waddle because of the pressure, but for a guy that signed this week, he had a pretty good idea of what they were doing defensively.