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With a Next-Man-Up Mentality, the Patriots Young Wide Receivers Look to Step Up on Offense

With the news breaking that WR Kendrick Bourne is reportedly out for the season, Tyquan Thornton and Kayshon Boutte could get an opportunity to play. 

Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.

With the Patriots coming off a disappointing loss in Miami last week, the buzzword for the offense as they try to dig themselves out of a hole is consistency.

At 2-6, those on the outside looking in are writing their obituaries about the Patriots, and some external voices may question what the point is in trying to turn things around. But that's not the mentality New England's coaching staff or players will be taking for their upcoming game against the Commanders. Instead, the focus is consistently executing like they did against Buffalo.

With that said, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien didn't sugarcoat the offense's performance through eight games during his video conference with reporters on Tuesday.

"It hasn't been what we want it to be," O'Brien said of the offense's production. "It's been very inconsistent. There's been glimpses of, hey, this is good. This is what it can be. This is the rhythm that we need to get into. These are the plays that are well executed, well coached, well designed, and then there are other things that aren't as good, and so it's very, very inconsistent. We have to try to make it more consistent. There's a lot of football season left."

Along with his thoughts on the ups and downs, O'Brien also answered questions about the passing game's struggles creating explosive plays and how the group will move on without wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who unfortunately suffered a season-ending torn ACL last week.

Starting with the missed opportunities on deep passes, quarterback Mac Jones hasn't completed a pass over 20 air yards in over three weeks. The last time Jones connected on a deep throw was in the first quarter in a Week 5 loss to the Saints. Since then, Mac is 0-of-3 on 20-plus air-yard throws, including going a full game vs. the Bills without a deep attempt. This season, Jones is 4-of-23 on deep throws, the lowest completion rate among 31 qualified quarterbacks (17.4%).

Although throwing deep isn't everything, generating explosive plays is critical to scoring points. If the Patriots don't start getting defenses to respect the deep ball, opponents will start sitting on short throws to limit yards after catch, which happened against the Dolphins at times.

According to O'Brien, Jones only attempting one deep pass wasn't due to a lack of trying, as the Pats offensive play-caller dialed up several plays intended to target downfield receivers on Sunday. However, only one was attempted, as the execution wasn't sharp.

"We have to continue to try to get the ball down the field. We did do that on Miami. Even though the ball wasn't thrown down the field, there were plays that were called that had elements of downfield throws in it, and, you know, something else happened on the play. It's the coaching, it's the design, it's the execution. Everything goes into it, and we have to do a better job."

"At the end of the day, we didn't make many of those plays. To be really clear with you, like Bill [Belichick] said after the game, we have to coach it better, detail it up better, and maybe we have to have better plays. Then, the players have to execute it better. We all have to do better, really," O'Brien said.

In football, it's usually never one player or thing that prevents the offense from executing a play correctly. However, and this is strictly our opinion, it seemed like the quarterback passed up some open opportunities to push the ball downfield in last Sunday's loss.

For example, the Patriots wanted to take a shot into the end zone on the first possession of the second half. Following a fumble recovery at the Miami 19-yard line, O'Brien called a play with intersecting crossing routes from the high red zone. With enough time to get his eyes downfield, Jones appears sped up on the play and misses an open DeVante Parker running across the field from left to right. Instead, Mac decides to throw the check down. After a sack on third down, the Pats would only get a field goal out of a drive that started in the opponent's red zone.

The other issue with the downfield passing game, per O'Brien, was route spacing. The Pats offensive coordinator pointed directly to the first third down of the game, where the downfield options for the quarterback were too close together for Mac to attempt a throw past the sticks.

"We have to coach that better, design that better. The first third down of the game, we aren't spaced properly. I take ownership of that. I have to coach that better. It was a third-and-12 against Miami with a good pass rush, and we weren't spaced properly there."

"I say this every week, but there's such a small margin for error in the National Football League, and it comes down to five or six plays in each phase of the game. If you don't make them, you're not going to win, and we're not making them right now," the Pats OC concluded.

The offense will look for consistency in the final nine games without their leading receiver, Kendrick Bourne, who suffered a season-ending injury in Sunday's loss. Bourne was on-pace for a career season heading into unrestricted free agency next spring, averaging a career-best 50.8 receiving yards, while he was one touchdown shy of a new career-high (4) just eight games into the season—obviously, a tough blow for the player and team.

"Injuries are tough. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Everybody always says next man up. I mean, that's the way it is. Of course, that's the way it is. There's no other choice. Kendrick brought a lot of energy, a lot of juice to this offense, and really attacked every day," said O'Brien. "The next guy has to step up and fill that role, and it'll probably be several guys. I don't know who those guys will be right now. It comes down to the practice field. It really does. It's a big week for the receivers."

Among the candidates to replace Bourne, and in the shorter term, potentially veteran DeVante Parker, who also left Sunday's game with a head injury, is second-year WR Tyquan Thornton and rookie wideout Kayshon Boutte. Thornton, the 50th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, was a healthy inactive along with Boutte against the Dolphins.

Although they haven't played much, Thornton due to injury, and Boutte because he was the sixth receiver on the depth chart, O'Brien remains confident in their NFL futures.

Starting with Thornton, the slender burner with 4.28 speed could bring a downfield threat to an offense that, as we laid out earlier, is missing a deep passing game.

"Tyquan has really worked hard. He was injured. I think injuries have been something in his brief career that has held him back a little bit. When you get injured, and you're out for as long as he has been, through no fault of his own, but because you've missed time, it's hard to get back into the lineup right away," O'Brien explained. "There's other guys that have been playing. There's a depth chart. But I do believe that he has worked at it, and he's a guy that has a lot of skills that we look for in a receiver. Let's see what happens as we head into the second half of the season."

As for Boutte, the Pats offensive coordinator said that the rookie has been very coachable in his first season with the team and is working hard behind the scenes to get on the field.

"He's out there every day. I've always said that, for a rookie receiver, it's a very difficult transition, especially on the perimeter. In college football, you aren't always seeing the same type of coverages that you do in professional football. It's just the way it is. Sometimes, the transition is a little bit tougher and takes a little bit longer, but Kayshon [Boutte] has worked really hard and shown glimpses of what he can be. I believe he has a good future," O'Brien added on Boutte.

Due to both injury and ineffectiveness from their more experienced options, the time is now for the Patriots to allow their young receivers to at least attempt to add explosiveness to the offense. Thornton has excellent straight-line speed that does show up on film, while Boutte flashed in the preseason as a catch-and-run threat.

The Patriots are where they are record-wise. Their offense ranks tied for 29th in producing 20-plus yard pass plays, and it's time to evaluate players on their roster for future seasons. Could either Boutte or Thornton be a piece to build with moving forward? We won't know unless the coaching staff gives them an opportunity to play in games.

New England needs a next-man-up mentality offensively, so it's time to let all the kids play.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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