Some have categorized the Patriots offense over the last several games as an ultra-conservative operation.
After starting his second season as one of the most aggressive downfield passers in the league, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, driven by less aggressive game plans, has gone in the other direction in the last six games since returning from a severe high-ankle sprain.
In his first four starts this season, Jones's average air yards per pass attempt ranked second among 34 qualified quarterbacks at 10.4. However, in his last six starts, Jones is now last with an average target depth of 5.9 yards. Furthermore, the Patriots have called 49 screen passes since Week 8, including a Mac-era high 12 screens in last week's win against the Cardinals in Arizona.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, unofficial offensive play-caller Matt Patricia shed some light on the heavy dosage of screens for the offense lately.
"We have some guys that can do good things when they get the ball out in space, so if we have that opportunity, we are going to try to take advantage of it. I think we saw that last week with Marcus [Jones]. A lot of that is in-game, whether it's adjustment or looks or different calls we have in at that point. Just trying to take advantage of what we can get," Patricia said.
As for the Patriots quarterback, Jones seemed excited about the growing role for rookie playmaker Marcus Jones on offense. The first-year Jones, officially listed as a cornerback, has played 11 offensive snaps in the last two games and has New England's longest offensive touchdown this season with a 48-yard score on a screen pass against the Bills.
"He's a smart football player. He does a great job on defense. We obviously see that, and clearly on special teams. He's an all-around swiss-army knife type player. Working with him, he's done a good job and lines up in the right spot. He knows what to do, and he cares, and that's the biggest thing."
"I think he's super dynamic. We have a lot of guys like that—fast, quick-twitch. We have guys like that in our skill positions, and it's all about making sure we finish those plays and get those explosives," quarterback Mac Jones told Patriots.com at the University of Arizona on Thursday.
Along with Patricia's explanation and Marcus Jones's emergence in the offense, we'll also point to New England's inconsistent offensive line play and a host of injuries on the line that has made it difficult to run more downfield passing concepts.
"I think it is important, but really playing well is the most important," Patriots captain David Andrews said of having continuity along the offensive line. "It is good to know who is next to you, how they play, how they react to things, and the communication part of it. It's something that I believe in as an offensive lineman and something Scar has always taught me."
The Patriots health along the offensive line is improving. Starting left tackle Trent Brown is off the injury report after dealing with a multi-week illness that caused him to lose over ten pounds. Andrews, who missed games due to a concussion and a thigh contusion, is also healthy.
Plus, Mac has always succeeded within the structure of the offense rather than on playground-style plays. The Pats don't want their quarterback running around because the pocket collapses while trying to push the ball downfield.
From a game-plan perspective, this week, the Patriots play another dangerous pass-rushing defense with Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby and old friend Chandler Jones coming off both edges in the Raiders defense. Las Vegas defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who started his coaching career in New England, also ranks 12th in blitz rate at a 27.7% clip.
Most likely, New England's offense will continue to lean on quick-game concepts, RPOs, and screens while picking its spots to open up the downfield passing game in favorable situations.
Although the outside noise about the Patriots conservative approach is getting louder, the trends and successful flashes suggest it's not going anywhere.