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Patriots Offense Building Red-Zone Chemistry During Valuable Side Sessions

The Patriots red zone passing offense has shown signs of improvement this summer, partially thanks to valuable side sessions during practice.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10).
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10).

If you've made it out to Patriots training camp this summer, you'll probably start to see patterns form in how head coach Bill Belichick's staff runs practice.

Among many other things, one of those recurring routines on the two practice fields behind Gillette Stadium transpires during special teams periods.

While the specialists, coverage aces, and players who play in multiple phases are practicing the kicking game, quarterback Mac Jones and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien head over for a side session with Mac's top pass-catchers. Along with Jones and the other quarterbacks, the group usually consists of wide receivers DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, and Tyquan Thornton, tight ends Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, and Anthony Firkser, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson.

Although the repetitions aren't against a defense, they are insanely valuable for the quarterbacks and receivers, who primarily work red-zone route combinations. Last season, the Pats offense ranked dead-last in the NFL with a red-zone touchdown percentage of just 42.2 percent, an area the team must improve in the 2023 campaign. To score more touchdowns inside the red zone this year, O'Brien overseas the group working on two and three-man route combinations.

"Those are big periods. We don't get a ton of time to do that sometimes. We try to fit in as much as we can," Henry told following Tuesday's practice. "Those are just little periods where we can get timing, connection, feel for other receivers and how they move, how we can work together. Those are big periods for us that can definitely pay off, especially when we go against our defense but are going to pay off when it comes to game time."

After struggling in the red zone at times to open camp, the Patriots offense saw the fruits of their labor in Tuesday's shorts and shells session that heavily emphasized the passing game.

In arguably their best red-zone sequence to date, the Patriots starting offense scored twice from inside the ten-yard line in a three-play sequence. First, the Pats defense brought an extra rusher off the right side, and Jones calmly hit an open Stevenson in the flat for a walk-in touchdown. The route combination saw two receivers break inside on slants, clearing the sideline out for the Pats running back in the flat. Then, Henry added another touchdown to his growing pile of scores during red zone work this summer on a 'snag' concept, where the savvy tight end boxed out safety Jabrill Peppers after sitting down just over the goal line.

Both scores for the Patriots were on route concepts that we saw them working in the aforementioned side session while a kickoff drill was happening on the other field. They also came a day after the team had their first fully padded practice, where the top offense went 2-for-4 in a live goal-line rushing drill that's customary on the first day of pads.

The red-zone passing game has featured rub routes, switch releases, where inside receivers break outside and outside receivers break inside to confuse the coverage, and motion at the snap to utilize the horizontal space available to the offense since the vertical element is removed in the red zone. As for the running game, the Pats experimented with six offensive linemen and linebacker Jahlani Tavai as a lead blocker in Monday's padded session.

With sound schemes that should hopefully put players in positions to succeed, New England's execution in the red zone is taking positive steps forward each day. But the final frontier for the frontline players is creating more explosive plays when the offense is between the 20s.

Tuesday's session was a mixed bag for the Mac-led group. The Pats quarterback completed downfield passes to Parker on a jump ball along the left sideline and looked left before coming back right to find Henry once again on an out pattern for a ten-plus yard gain.

However, Jones was nearly intercepted twice in the session on downfield throws. First, in 7-on-7s, Smith-Schuster broke open on a downfield corner route, but Jones was a beat late to the throw and didn't account for cornerback Marcus Jones falling underneath the route from the flat, forcing JuJu to play defense to prevent the interception. Later, in 11-on-11s, Gesicki appeared to have a step on linebacker Mack Wilson on a crosser but drifted upfield on the route, allowing Wilson to undercut the throw to make an impressive pass breakup. The ball to Gesicki might've also been slightly under-thrown by Jones, allowing Wilson back into the play.

Mac then attempted his longest pass of the summer when the deep safety came downhill to jump the intermediate route, leaving Bourne one-on-one on a deep post. It was a competitive throw by Jones with plenty of distance, but it fell incomplete when Bourne couldn't run it down.

There are also some instances where the Pats QB1 seems hesitant to attempt throws into tighter passing windows downfield, especially against zone coverage. During full-team drills, rookie wideout Demario Douglas correctly sat his route down between two zone defenders, but Jones passed up the throw to take a check-down to Stevenson.

Overall, the Patriots quarterback had a solid day in Tuesday's session by going 10-for-14 with a sack in competitive drills. However, only two of those ten completions were of the deeper variety, as the quick game, check downs, and screens accounted for most of the success.

Short passes will be a huge part of the offense as the Patriots try to play a more efficient style this season. But, outside a contested catch here or there, the intermediate and deep passing game is still a work in progress. As we saw last season, defenses will begin to sit on those shorter options until the Pats offense proves it can consistently beat opponents downfield, making it harder to generate productive plays with the underneath completions.

Ultimately, it's often two steps forward and one step back when installing a new offensive system in training camp. The red zone offense is making progress for the Patriots, and the quick-game and horizontal passing is coming together nicely (motion at the snap and play-action/RPO, yay!).

Now, the last piece of the puzzle is finding more and taking more opportunities to push the ball downfield in the passing game.

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