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Breaking down Patriots offensive strengths and struggles vs. Cowboys

2021-Frame-PDC

The Patriots offense was a tale of two performances against the Cowboys. On one hand, the offense scored two touchdowns to start the game, getting a fast start that they desperately needed, while also delivering an explosive scoring play to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter when it looked like they might be dead and buried. They ranked close to the bottom of the league in the red zone, and yet went a perfect two-for-two inside the 20-yard-line. They needed more explosive plays, they got two touchdowns from 20 yards or more.

However, in between the start and finish was a collection of fits and starts that included two turnovers and what should've been four straight punts with one of them being blocked. There's a good offense in there somewhere, and how to extract the best pieces and build upon them will be the challenge in the final 11 games of the season.

Here's a closer look at how the offense came together against the Cowboys and how they might evolve going forward.

1. Turnovers

The Cowboys got 10 points off of turnovers, as the strip-sack led to a field goal and the pick-six led directly into the end zone. Turnovers continue to hang over the 2021 Patriots like a lead weight, as they're -3 in turnover differential, including 11 giveaways, tied for 30th in the NFL. The only bright side of the turnover equation against Dallas was the fourth-down stops and two takeaways that the defense produced. Those had a major impact in the game, though Dallas did pick up two fourth-down conversions. The meaningful takeaways were the first for the Patriots defense since Week 2.

But for the offense, this was the fifth game out of six where they've had multiple turnovers. The lone exception was a clean game played against the Jets. Simply put, until the offense stops hurting themselves they'll never fulfill any potential.

2. Explosive Scores

Mac Jones threw four passes of 20 yards or more, including two for touchdowns as suddenly the long strikes emerged in this game. They also produced two 20-plus runs as New England topped their previous season-high of five 20-plus plays that was set last week against Houston. The big plays are a welcome addition and growing over the last two weeks, let's take a closer look at each against Dallas:

  • 4Q 1-10-NE25 (Jones to Bourne 75-yard touchdown): Probably the most jaw-dropping and exciting play of the season, Jones showed remarkable resolve coming back to throw his best ball of the season right after his most heart-breaking throw of the season. Jones showed full confidence in Kendrick Bourne, dropping the pass over the cornerback, who bit just enough on a double move, while also avoiding the safety.
  • 2Q 2-5-NE45 (Jones to Agholor 27 yards): With Agholor isolated on the right side of the formation, Jones allows the out-breaking route to develop before lofting a pass that Agoholor pulled up on and caught. The Patriots certainly need more out of Agholor, who had just this one catch, and also had a drop in overtime that he might've taken to the house for a game-winning touchdown.
  • 1Q 1-10-NE39 (Jones to Stevenson 22 yards): One of the most promising throws of the game, Jones showed his signature anticipation as Stevenson turned his route inside. Stevenson's catching ability has been a pleasant surprise after he drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount. This could be a skill set to build around, especially on third down.
  • 1Q 1-10-DAL34 (Harris 21-yard rush): Coming off a big fourth-down stop, Harris' first run of the game was once again his best, exploding untouched through the middle of the line. Finding a way to get more of these explosive runs, more consistently throughout the game, should be a priority with Harris.
  • 4Q 1-10-DAL37 (Harris 21 yard rush): Harris matched his opening carry with this huge rush on the drive after the Cowboys had taken the lead, carrying multiple Dallas defenders with him. With the Patriots needing a drive after going stagnant for a quarter-plus, Harris provided a spark to set up a touchdown. He was a warrior in this game, battling through a rib injury.
  • 1Q 1-10-DAL20 (Jones to Henry 20 yard touchdown): Another anticipation throw, Jones lofted the ball down the seam and Henry was able to turn around and grab it as he fell into the end zone. As the second touchdown in the first quarter, this was just the kind of play the offense needed to show they can make.

3. Early Down vs. Third Down at RB

Damien Harris broke 100 yards for the second time this season, topping out with his best yards-per-attempt (5.61). Harris was complemented by Rhamondre Stevenson, who had five carries for 23 yards and three catches for 39 yards. Stevenson also added the first rushing touchdown of his career.

This was one of the better rushing outputs of the season as the Patriots were able to find some balance and a bit of a changeup using two backs more extensively on early downs. Stevenson's work in limited snaps was extremely promising and of all the new twists to potentially grow out of this game, his incorporation into the offense could be an intriguing one. He looked far more comfortable this week than he did in his return to action in Houston. His hard-running and soft hands are really intriguing.

The biggest question is how the offense can become more effective on third down without a true third-down running back. James White's absence never loomed quite as large as it did against the Cowboys, with the Pats finishing 3-of-9 on third down, will all three conversions coming on a single fourth-quarter drive. Most distressing was failing to pick up two third-and-shorts in the third quarter.

Harris and Stevenson have the making of a well-balanced early-down backfield and as the offensive line gets healthy there should be even more to build off of. However, answering the third-down back question continues to loom, with Brandon Bolden playing just 11 snaps, producing two total yards on one carry and one catch.

4. Solidifying Protection

Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu returned from the COVID-19/RESERVE list, and both started the game on the sidelines before Onwenu got his chance at right tackle and ended up playing 80 percent of the snaps. Justin Herron, who popped up on the Injury Report this week, briefly got a break at left tackle to give Wynn nine snaps before returning and finishing things out. Fill-in left guard James Ferentz had an untimely holding penalty that took a Patriots touchdown off the board.

Despite all the juggling and some continued miscues, like Yodny Cajuste's missed block that helped allow the strip-sack, Jones' protection has looked improved over the last two weeks. After giving up 12 QB hits and four sacks to the Bucs, the fill-in OL has allowed 9 QB hits and three sacks combined in the last two games. This could warrant a longer look at personnel once everyone is healthy.

Could Herron get a chance to be the full-time left tackle? Will Onwenu move back to the right tackle spot where he played so well as a rookie? Can Ted Karras be as effective at left guard as he has been at right? How will Trent Brown's potential return in the coming weeks change things again? Will Shaq Mason be back and ready against the Jets?

The Patriots would appear to have some options that we didn't quite know they had, but either way, the improvement in protection has been notable and should continue to pay dividends if they can keep building on the last two performances.

5. The Mac Attack

After Mac Jones was named the starter before the start of the season, he quickly became the most important piece of the Patriots' long-term plans. 2021 suddenly hinged mostly on the young quarterback's development, and taken in a bubble, aside from the lofty expectations that exist for anyone putting on a Patriots uniform, Jones has been a solid success. Unfortunately for him, his introduction into the NFL has been a baptism of fire. He's taken big hits, gotten some unfortunate breaks as well as sporadic support from the defense and special teams, with those units often making life more difficult rather than easier.

Jones continues to show comfort playing in Josh McDaniels offense. He knows where to go with the ball and has a natural talent when throwing the ball with anticipation to spots. He's shown signs of clutch play as well, moving the ball at the end of games when his team needed a score. Physically he doesn't jump off the screen or wow with his athleticism or arm talent, but mentally he's as on top of his game as anyone could expect a rookie quarterback to be, now it's just a question of whether his body can catch up to his processor as he gains even more comfort.

Yes, the Patriots are 2-4, but having a quarterback in place is nothing to blink at. Jones has shown a lot to be excited about, even if it hasn't fully translated into the win column just yet.

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