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Film Room: What Went Wrong for the Patriots Offense vs the Cowboys

Mac Jones had a career-worst performance in the Patriots’ 38-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Jones himself was responsible for 12 of the points New England allowed, including a strip-sack and interception that were both taken back for touchdowns. His five turnover-worthy plays were a career-high for a single game, and his 22.2 passer rating under pressure (of which he saw entirely too much) was his 4th-lowest in a game with at least 10 such dropbacks.

As with any loss, Jones’ poor numbers weren’t entirely a reflection on his performance, but an unusually large amount of responsibility lays at his feet. And even amidst the chaos of last night’s performance, there were positive moments that can be built from.

Here’s my review on Mac Jones’ performance, Demario Douglas’ use, and the play of the offensive line.

Mac Jones: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Save for an interception that we’ll dive into later. Mac Jones was solid when throwing from clean pockets, completing 8 of 10 passes for 77 yards with one drop. He also earned a 118.8 passer rating on passes that traveled 10+ air yards, with his incompletion coming on an end zone throw to Mike Gesicki during their first possession.

Despite this missed connection and one drop from Hunter Henry, Jones was at his best when throwing to tight ends, with all four of his completions to the big targets going for conversions.

Henry continued to be New England’s most reliable receiving option. He made the offense’s first catch on a seam route off play-action and converted two big 3rd downs in the game. The most impressive of these late-down receptions came early in the 2nd half.

Cowboys safety Jayvon Kearse gets handsy in coverage and ultimately draws a flag for illegal contact. But Henry does a great job leaning into the defender’s frame, using that momentum to try and create separation, then tracking the pass and making a diving one-handed catch with his inside arm pinned. The offensive line also does a great job pushing the rush past Jones, and he drops the throw in perfectly.

Jones also had some quality throws under pressure early in Sunday’s game, the first of which resulted in his first deep completion since the season opener.

Facing 3rd & 5 on their first drive, the Patriots anticipate man coverage and run mesh from a bunch formation. Demario Douglas gets jammed into DeVante Parker, leading to a broken play, but Jones finds an escape hatch, and the rookie manages to find space in the defense, showing his electric ability after the catch by shaking Donovan Wilson.

Jones had another impressive throw under pressure on New England’s next drive, hitting a tightly-covered Gesicki over the middle with Micah Parsons bearing down inside.

Unfortunately, the composure he showed on these attempts would soon disappear.

The Bad

Heading into this game, I praised Mac Jones for his improved play under pressure and highlighted that poise as a key to victory. Jones started strong with the aforementioned throws to Douglas and Gesicki, but things quickly fell off the rails.

Jones’ internal clock seemed off multiple times against Micah Parsons and the Cowboys’ vaunted pass rush. Part of that is justified, as he was pressured on 50% of his dropbacks, but this lack of rhythm led to crucial mistakes (which we’ll get to in the next section) and missed opportunities.

On a pair of identical 3rd down plays, Jones seemed spooked by the pass rush and threw late, inaccurate passes underneath to Parker on what should’ve been easy conversions, one of which was nearly intercepted.

There also seemed to be multiple plays with New England in an 18-plus-point hole where Jones seemed to tuck the ball too quickly and/or miss chances downfield.

It’s easy to sit at a desk and critique a quarterback’s decision-making under duress, and it’s entirely possible I’m being too nit-picky with some of these plays. The Patriots’ route spacing also didn’t help Jones’ case at times. But in a game where the quarterback needed to be at his best, neither his field vision nor his decision-making consistently set him up for success.

The Ugly

The “burn the tape” moments in Jones’ performance saw the return of a habit that plagued him throughout last season. Held back by under-qualified coaching and poor protection, he often overcompensated by forcing throws and trying to be a player he isn’t. Through the first three weeks of the season, this issue only popped up on Jones’ interception to Xavien Howard in Week 2, but it reared its ugly head multiple times against the Cowboys.

Things began to unravel early in the 2nd quarter when Jones was strip-sacked by Dante Fowler, who quickly beat Vederian Lowe around the edge on a play-action dropback.

Backed inside his own 10-yard-line, Jones feels the heat off the right edge and scrambles toward the sideline. Rather than protecting the ball and living to fight another down, he tries to make a play that isn’t there, and it results in a disaster.

Later in the quarter, Jones would commit a Cardinal sin of quarterbacking not once but twice, with the second instance ending in another worst-case scenario for the offense.

Facing 2nd & 20, the Patriots go empty and dial up their old reliable HOSS Juke. The Cowboys anticipate a quick-hitter over the middle and drop eight into coverage with a defensive tackle taking away Ty Montgomery’s juke route. After avoiding a sack and scrambling to his right, Jones does one of the things quarterbacks are taught never to do and throws all the way back across the field.

Kendrick Bourne makes a great play scooping the pass off the carpet and turning it into a 1st down, but New England wouldn’t be so lucky the next time around.

On 2nd & 10, with just over a minute left in the 1st half, the Cowboys play a soft split-field zone and take away Jones’ primary receiving options. Lowe does a solid job here mitigating the rush, thanks to chip help from Rhamondre Stevenson, but the quarterback gets antsy and throws another late pass across the field to Bourne. This time, cornerback DaRon Bland is able to capitalize and pick it off before jogging into the end zone for a Dallas touchdown.

Jones got away with another turnover-worthy mistake on a 3rd & 8 during the next possession, hitting Jayron Kearse in the hands while attempting a cross-body throw on the run.

He also gifted Bland another interception early in the 2nd half, though play design and execution may have also been factors.

The Patriots line up in a bunch on 4th & 2, presumably to create a rub situation and to beat Dallas’ man coverage. Based on the route distribution, Parker might’ve been responsible for running interference with Bland to create space for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the flat. But Bland gets a free path to Smith-Schuster, Jones makes an ill-advised throw (which also might’ve been late) with the corner all over the route, and the quarterback throws his second interception of the contest.

This was a rock-bottom performance for Mac Jones, featuring the type of decision-making that fans were hoping he would leave in 2022. The Cowboys’ pass rush was an undeniable factor in his skittish play, but his response to pressure actively hurt the team, and it cannot continue moving forward. Jones must show better awareness of his physical limitations and walk the line between creating outside of structure and attempting throws he isn’t equipped to deliver on consistently.

Where’s Pop?

More Demario Douglas is understandably at the top of most people’s offensive wish lists. Bill O’Brien actually seems to be accommodating these requests, as Douglas was on the field for 16 of the Patriots’ 21 snaps in three-receiver sets, where he was the primary third wideout over JuJu Smith-Schuster. He mostly ran deeper routes that helped create space over the middle for tight ends, aligning in the slot or as the point receiver in bunch looks. He even lined up in the backfield on a 3rd & 5 early in the 2nd half.

There were three or four snaps where Douglas seemed like a primary read, including his big catch and run, but the others were disrupted by pressure. While it may frustrate some to see how many more plays seemed designed for tight ends than the undersized speedster, I think it made sense for this game, given their ability to box out Dallas’ deep safety group. I also understand Douglas’ limited use to a degree, as even his explosive scramble play featured a mistake where he went underneath the defender who jammed him rather than going over the top.

Douglas was also on the field for four runs, where he was used in motion but didn’t pose much of a threat beyond a late pitch fake.

This is an area where I think more touches could be manufactured for Douglas, whose only career run came late last week on a reverse against the Jets.

He doesn’t have to become Deebo Samuel, but I think more carries to compliment his motion use could be beneficial to the run game even when he doesn’t get the ball.

Douglas’ two snaps from base personnel were both from multiple tight-end sets.

He was targeted on a bubble screen from 12 personnel for a solid gain, then lined up as the #1 receiver weak in empty from 13 personnel. Ezekiel Elliott lined up as the star #3 receiver on the latter snap, which I did find odd given Douhlas’ dynamic ability in space.

I think an argument can be made that Douglas should be used in more base groupings, where he’s more likely to create mismatches against bigger defenders. Even if the coaches don’t quite trust him as a blocker, there are ways to hide him from those responsibilities, like alignment, RPOs, and motion.

All that said, Douglas seems to be trending in the right direction in terms of use. Acknowledging that he’s a better option over Smith-Schuster in pass-oriented sets was a big step in the right direction, and there seems to be an increased effort to get him involved in the passing game. I’d like to see more underneath targets in space to get him going more easily, but it’s encouraging to see that O’Brien also values the receiver’s vertical ability.

Trench Check-In

Like last week’s matchup against a loaded Jets front, sack and QB hit numbers don’t tell the story of New England’s effort against the Cowboys. Mac Jones took just one sack and zero hits, but Dallas’ pass rushers harassed him on half of his dropbacks. Each Patriots offensive lineman allowed at least two hurries, with Vederian Lowe being responsible for a whopping nine pressures and the aforementioned sack. Atonio Mafi also gave up a sack to Sam Williams after losing to an inside move late in the game.

In fairness to Lowe, most of his losses came against Micah Parsons, who was a handful for just about everyone on New England’s front.

Even without Parsons’ impact, six other Cowboys defenders registered pressure, and Dallas’s line games consistently muddied up the pocket to keep Mac Jones from stepping up. Quarterback play must improve, and certain players could be better utilized (though I think the offense is on the right track), but the pass protection wasn’t good enough, particularly against stunts, and must improve against a schedule loaded with ferocious fronts.

I’ve seen it speculated that an inability to run the ball factored into the offense’s descent to madness, but the Patriots gained positive EPA on half of their carries before Dallas gained a two-plus-score lead.

That said, there were glaring issues with the ground game, specifically concerning the tight ends and Lowe.

Lowe was solid as a run blocker for the most part, but he also stood out on some quick losses. The tight ends were more serious aggressors, as they were consistently pushed into ball-carriers laps. New England may have also fallen victim to a predictable run scheme, as their multiple tight-end sets often gave away what was coming, especially with Pharaoh Brown on the field (14-8 run-pass split).

At the end of the day, an effective run game is about execution, and that was lacking at spots against the Cowboys. That said, an added layer of mystery couldn’t hurt, and it might be time for Bill O’Brien to consider more heavy packages now that Sidy Sow is back to full health.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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