Film Room: Lack of Receiver Depth Could Be Breaking Point for Patriots Offense

The Commanders entered Gillette Stadium allowing the league’s highest passer rating (114.1) and the most receptions of 20+ yards (32). Just days before Sunday’s matchup, they traded away former 1st-round edge defenders Montez Sweat and Chase Young for draft capital.

This seemed like an opportunity for the Patriots’ offense to gain confidence, especially after the blow of losing Kendrick Bourne for the season. Coaches and players echoed how important last week was for the wide receivers, with unproven players like Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor, and Kayshon Boutte primed for bigger roles. No one expected perfection, but on an offense lacking in bright spots, fans hoped to catch a glimpse of potential from their young talent.

Instead, Bourne’s absence, further complicated by Trent Brown (ankle/knee) and DeVante Parker (head) being inactive, looked like the final straw that could break New England’s passing game. When Bourne was discussed as a trade candidate, I voiced concerns that losing Jones’ most trusted target would make a sluggish offense unwatchable. That fear came to fruition against Washington. This is more an indictment on the Patriots’ roster construction than anything, as the team’s other veterans have disappointed and forced players with less experience in the system to fill unreasonably large roles.

Kayshon Boutte was a healthy scratch for the eighth week after what Bill Belichick called the rookie’s best week of practice. This was alarming, given the offense’s desperation at receiver, but it was more worrisome after watching the active group in live action.

The Patriots had season-highs in drops (3) and pass breakups against (7). Mac Jones’ 66.5 passer was his 3rd-lowest of the season (30.5 in Week 5 vs. NO, 39.9 in Week 4 vs. DAL), and he recorded a season-low 33.3% adjusted completion rate and 2.5 yards per attempt when throwing 10+ yards downfield.

Jones mentioned postgame that attacking rookie Emmanuel Forbes, who’d allowed more explosive catches than anyone in football, was a focus of the game plan. The plan was sound on paper, but Forbes’ 91.3 PFF grade was over 20 points higher than his previous best and the 6th-best grade for any corner in a game this season. He allowed just 2 receptions on 7 targets, one of which was a screen while forcing 4 incompletions.

Multiple people and position groups are responsible for New England’s offensive inconsistencies, and the quarterback had his warts yesterday. Still, the lack of chemistry and execution at wide receiver was jarring. Demario Douglas had his weekly solid performance, featuring electric plays with an iffy route here and there. But his contributions continue to justify his role, while what felt like auditions for New England’s other receivers largely fell flat.

Here’s my breakdown of these issues and how each receiver fared against the Commanders.

Tyquan Thornton

After being a healthy scratch against the Dolphins, Tyquan Thornton got his first shot at a significant role since being activated from injured reserve in Week 6. He mainly replaced Kendrick Bourne as the offense’s Z receiver, occasionally mixing in at X in 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends). Thornton ran just 10 routes in the game but was targeted four times, with each of those throws coming on 3rd or 4th down. I thought this was odd considering how little time Thornton and Jones have had together, and the execution of these plays offered little reassurance.

Thornton’s one reception came on a short target between zone coverage, but the receiver’s lack of experience and time lost to injuries were apparent on his other targets. His routes lacked precision, and he wasn’t active enough with his hands to ward off physical coverage.

Jones took responsibility for missing Thornton on his 4th & 3 misfire, which seemed like an error that fell squarely on the quarterback live. But after watching the tape, I thought Thornton’s route also could’ve been better.

The receiver does a nice job using pace to win off the line and get a jump on the defender. But rather than reaching the hash on his initial stem and turning sharply upfield to set up an outside cut, he drifts inside and rounds out the final break. The head-fake creates separation at the top of his route, but you’d like to see better execution in his stem.

These issues only became more apparent on Thornton’s other targets.

Facing 3rd & 5 on the next possession, the speedster is given the tough task of running a deep out against an outside-leveraged Emmanuel Forbes. In this situation, you’d like Thornton to threaten with his speed, force Forbes to retreat, then come to a quick stop and break underneath. Thornton pumps his arms to sell a vertical route, but Forbes stays calm and disciplined in his drop, so the receiver’s only hope now is to make a sharp cut and use contact to separate. Instead, Thornton takes too many steps at the top of the route, giving Forbes time to get in position, then gets tangled up and is late looking for the ball to nullify any chance of a catch.

Thornton’s final snap came on another drive-ending miscue during New England’s next series.

Once again pitted against Forbes, Thornton doesn’t use his hands to fight off contact, allowing the corner to read his route more easily and stay sticky. Thornton uses a head fake to separate on the in-breaker, but Forbes’ positioning frees him to get eyes on the quarterback and play the ball. Despite Thornton possibly drifting upfield after his final break, Jones manages to squeeze the throw past Forbes, but the receiver fails to capitalize, and New England is forced to punt.

Seeing Thornton targeted on one inaccurate deep pass might be frustrating, but for better or worse, he can’t be a one-trick pony in this offense. Fast receivers must use the threat of their speed to open up other routes, and a lack of detail cost Thornton in the few opportunities he received against Washington. Progress isn’t linear, and it’s possible he will bounce back with a big performance against the Colts next week, but it’s more likely the issues we saw on Sunday will take a while to iron out.

Jalen Reagor

As expected, Jalen Reagor remained the main fill-in for DeVante Parker at X for the offense. He was a bigger part of the offense than in weeks past, being targeted on a season-high 5 attempts. Unfortunately, that increased volume didn’t translate into increased production.

Reagor’s one reception, like his only other catch this season, came on a slant against off-coverage.

On initial viewing, I thought the pass was thrown slightly behind him. But upon further review, Jones does a nice job moving and throwing away from the underneath defender. Good adjustment by Reagor to make the grab for a first down to kick off the 2nd half.

Reagor’s next target was a miscue that Jones took responsibility for after the game, admitting he got stuck on his read and should’ve gone deep on a backshoulder attempt.

Forbes lines up in press against Reagor and plays trail technique, knowing he has a deep safety shaded to his side. Rather than looking off the safety to create space down the sideline or firing a shot between the defenders, Jones throws directly to Forbes, and Reagor becomes the defender to prevent an interception.

Beyond this mistake from his quarterback, Reagor’s incomplete targets had more to do with a lack of individual execution. He had another slant target broken up in the 3rd quarter after failing to fight off Forbes’ jam, setting up a 3rd & 9.

Just before the start of the 4th quarter, Reagor dropped a 50+ yard bomb where Forbes was late replacing the post safety against play action.

Reagor’s last target was a questionable choice to go deep on a late 3rd & 7, but the play’s execution gave it a 0% chance of success.

Reagor lines up outside the numbers and appears to run yet another slant, but he’s actually running a slant-go (AKA Sluggo). With Forbes’ hips turned to the sideline, Reagor appears to attack his blindspot by weaving inside, which results in the pass landing way past the receiver near the sideline.

We actually know what the route should’ve looked like because Kendrick Bourne ran it in Week 2 against the Dolphins.

In this example, Bourne turns upfield and stays outside the numbers so his quarterback has room to throw him open.

These are the little details that can build or erode trust between quarterback and receiver. Reagor’s experience with the top offense is limited, but there was hope he might bring veteran stability to the wide receiver room. Based on his performance against the Commanders, there’s still a way to go before he can be relied on in that capacity.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster only played two snaps in the 1st half but was a bigger factor late in the game while seeming to fill Thornton’s role at Z. He set season-highs with six catches for 51 yards. However, in fairness, two of his catches came on screens, and his longest gain came on a miscommunication where the Commanders failed to pass him off on a crossing route.

While the difficulty on those targets wasn’t particularly high, Smith-Schuster had a nice adjustment on a slant thrown behind him where he was hit immediately after the catch. He also made two diving grabs on the offense’s final possession, offering more reliability than any receiver not named Demario Douglas had provided all day.

But, fair or not, Smith-Schuster’s untimely drop, which resulted in a game-sealing interception, might be the play most remember from his performance.

Credit to the receiver for facing the music post-game and owning his mistake, but the error underscored how little margin for error this offense has. And outside of miscues from other receivers, Smith-Schuster didn’t make a strong case for more targets.

It’s tough to stomach that a 2022 2nd-round pick and talented reclamation project haven’t panned out. But when your biggest free agent signing is behind both players and still comes up short in critical moments, it’s a sign that your position group is potentially beyond fixing. It’s also unlikely that DeVante Parker’s return will provide a sufficient boost, as he’s been little more than a slant merchant while on the field and was already losing reps to Reagor.

Offenses at the professional level rely on timing, trust, and, above all, execution to be successful. While there’s still time for the Patriots to find a solution to their passing game woes, Sunday offered more questions than answers while providing little hope for a timely turnaround.

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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