The Patriots are coming off their best offensive performance of the season in a potentially momentum-building upset over the Bills last week.
Although the win could be a turning point for the Patriots this season, the question looming over the team as they turn the page to another divisional matchup with the Dolphins (5-2) is will a season-high 29 points against Buffalo be sustainable for quarterback Mac Jones and company.
In the first five weeks, New England's offense ranked dead-last in expected points added (-0.27) and was 32nd in the NFL in scoring (11.0). After scoring 55 points in their first five games, the Patriots scored 46 in their last two contests and are fourth in EPA (+0.09). But it's more than fair to wonder if this was a breakthrough or a one-and-a-half-game spike in production that will crash back down to earth in Miami on Sunday.
Along those lines, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and the rest of the Patriots offensive assistants spoke to the media about the offense's progress on Tuesday. First, O'Brien spoke about the confidence the quarterback and his teammates built in their last-second victory, the first game-winning touchdown drive Jones has orchestrated in his NFL career.
"I think he did a really good job. He's only a third-year player. You aren't talking about a guy that's been around for 12 years. Every game is a learning situation for him. Certainly, he has a lot of experience relative to his rookie year and last year, but he's still a young player."
"He got us into the right plays on that last drive and did a really nice job, and the guys around him did a really nice job," O'Brien continued. "I think that was good for our team to do that. This week's a different game, and we have to be ready for this game."
Following a second consecutive blowout loss to the Saints three weeks ago, head coach Bill Belichick said the team would "start all over" heading into a Week 6 trip to Las Vegas. Although the Raiders game didn't result in a win, the Pats OC saw breadcrumbs hinting at better days to come for the Patriots offense in the loss to the Raiders.
"When Coach talked about starting over, it's really about going back to the fundamentals of how we do things. The fundamentals of how we game plan, the fundamentals of how we practice, how we meet, how we practice, how we walkthrough, getting back to that.
"The Raiders game, we started that. Obviously, we didn't win the Raiders game. But I thought there was some slight improvement in the Raider game and then some slight improvement last week. I mean, it's just one game. We got a long way to go here," O'Brien explained.
After taking some positive baby steps in the second half in Vegas, the Pats took a few more steps forward, thanks largely to a much better showing by the offensive line versus Buffalo. Jones was pressured on a season-low 21.7% of his drop-backs, while the offensive line generated 4.3 expected rushing yards on 24 attempts against Buffalo's defense.
The moves that sparked the O-Line turnaround were moving OL Michael Onwenu to right tackle, second-year left guard Cole Strange returning to the lineup, and rookie Sidy Sow remaining in the starting five in Onwenu's usual spot at right guard. The combination, both in the stats and based on the eye test, produced the cleanest game the offensive line has had all season.
Speaking to O'Brien and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, the question on everyone's mind is, will the Patriots stick with last week's O-Line combination, which seems like a no-brainer. Both coaches gave a non-definitive answer on Tuesday: "We'll see."
"We'll have to see how it goes. We'll see where we are. It's Tuesday. We practice tomorrow, so we'll see where everybody is relative to health and all those different things as we move forward," O'Brien responded. "You can't do anything without the line up front."
The Patriots first-year offensive line coach echoed a similar sentiment, adding, "We'll see how that goes. It's all dependent on what availability is for everyone across the board, so with Cole (Strange) coming back and some other things happening in our group, it afforded us an opportunity to put him out there. If it gives us an advantage, which it definitely did in the last game, we'll continue to do that," Klemm said.
Based on answers from the four most influential people in the decision, which includes head coach Bill Belichick and the player himself, it seems like this will boil down to Onwenu's preferences about where he plays on the line moving forward. Although it might be best for the team for him to play tackle, Onwenu may feel more comfortable playing guard, so what's best for the 2023 Patriots might not be what's best for his NFL future.
With the 2020 draft pick entering a contract year, conventional wisdom would suggest that he could improve his value on the open market by putting out good film at tackle to, at the very least, show the Patriots and other teams his versatility. But, to put the best tape together heading into free agency, it might favor Onwenu to play his natural position at guard.
Onwenu has always been a team-first player, dating back to his rookie season when he first moved outside to tackle despite the team and player fully expecting him to develop at guard due to his body type. Ultimately, we'd bet that Onwenu will do whatever is asked of him to help the team win, but it sounds like it'll be an ongoing conversation every week.
The other stark difference in the play-calling offensively has been the increase in pre-snap motion. Motion has many advantages, from making the defense communicate quickly to adjust to the movement of the offense to allowing skill players to build up speed before the ball is snapped. New England has been buying into "cheat" motion more, which the Dolphins popularized to get Tyreek Hill rolling starts into his routes.
The Patriots opened last week's game with a "cheat" motion route to rookie Demario Douglas. Two plays later, they ran a "pop" pass off jet motion to speedy wideout Tyquan Thornton. Then, they began marrying those motions to their conventional running game, and the misdirection caused problems for the Bills defense. In the last two weeks, the Pats are motioning at the third-highest rate in the NFL (76.4%), compared to just 53.6% in their first five games (14th).
Although he wouldn't divulge much information not to tip his hand to the Dolphins, O'Brien explained his general thought process regarding using or not using pre-snap motion.
"Anything that we do is definitely week to week. How does that affect the defenses that we're going against, and how does that affect us? How does it affect us relative to what we're trying to get done," O'Brien told Patriots.com. "Every week is a different game, a different opponent. So we have to assess, okay, what's the best way to go against these guys, make that determination early in the week, and then practice it. There's a lot that goes into all that. It's definitely week to week."
"We're going to do what's best for our offense to try to move the ball weekly, whatever that might be. Might be no motion. Might be motion. We'll see…Some defenses it doesn't affect at all. Other defenses, it does affect them."
From this perspective, and the numbers back this up, the Patriots have significantly benefited from using motion on offense. According to NextGen Stats, the Pats generated a season-high 7.5 yards per play on plays where they used motion against the Bills, so we'd expect to see New England continue to use motion at a decent clip.
However, as O'Brien said, their success with motion might've partially been due to the defenses they've faced recently. The Pats only had a 38.2% play success rate in the first five weeks when they used motion. In the last two weeks, that has improved to 58.3%. So, are they getting better at motion, or did they face two defenses in the Bills and Raiders that struggle to defend motion? That's the chicken or the egg debate.
The other element to the motion conversation is that the Patriots offensive coordinator is beginning to understand his personnel better to put the Pats more dynamic ball carriers in motion, saying, "We kind of look at it and say, okay, what's best? How can we put the right guys in motion, and if we really need that, do we need that to have a successful play?"
One player emerging as a difference-maker is wide receiver Demario Douglas, who broke out for a season-high 74 scrimmage yards while his dynamic route-running ability drew three penalties last Sunday (two defensive pass interference, one defensive holding). O'Brien seems to be a big believer in Douglas, especially as it relates to his scheme fit.
"He's got a really good skill set for that position," O'Brien said of Douglas. "He fits into what we're trying to do. And hopefully, that continues. He's a young player who's learning every day. He's got a great attitude about it. He's a great guy to coach, just a really positive guy like he's always in a good mood. He kind of lifts our spirits around here."
Coming off their best win in recent memory, the Patriots spirits are lifted across the board. However, there are still questions about the sustainability of the offense's success against the Bills. It's one thing to out-score an opponent once, capped off by a clutch game-winning drive, but now it's about doing it repeatedly to change the season's outlook at 2-5.
The Patriots offense looks to build on their terrific victory against Buffalo as the team turns the page to another heavyweight matchup against the Dolphins this week.