The Patriots offense had question marks entering this season, specifically whether they had enough talent at wide receiver and right tackle to compete with the league’s best teams.
Pass protection was an issue throughout the summer, but New England was down both of its starting guards by the second week of training camp, which Calvin Anderson missed the entirety of while on NFI. Sidy Sow was also being asked to make a tough transition from college guard to NFL tackle, an experiment that proved unfruitful by Week 1. The receiving corp got off to a slow start, but sideline bombs to DeVante Parker, several Red Zone touchdowns from Hunter Henry, and the occasional big play from Kendrick Bourne, Demario Douglas, and Mike Gesicki inspired some confidence. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a fairly quiet summer, but he seemed like a reliable possession receiver who would move the chains and make tough grabs. The acquisition of Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator was also expected to give the team a schematic edge and provide a much-needed mentor for Mac Jones after a disastrous 2022 season.
But through five weeks of play, the offense is worse than anyone could’ve anticipated. The right tackle position has been a turnstile, Parker’s effectiveness as a perimeter deep threat has vanished, Bourne hasn’t taken the leap many hoped for, and Smith-Schuster has been a non-factor. Demario Douglas has popped when given opportunities, but those chances haven’t come often enough, considering the veterans’ disappointing starts. Jones had an inexcusably terrible game last week in Dallas, but he’s spent most of the season walking a razor’s edge with almost no margin for error.
This cacophony of mediocrity now has the offense ranked last in the NFL in point/game, EPA/play and only the Vikings (12) have more turnovers than New England (10). So what went wrong this week? And what needs to improve? I took to the film to try and answer the questions that are on every Patriots fan’s mind after another blowout loss.
Mac Jones Has Season-Worst Performance Statistically
Mac Jones’ Week 5 performance produced his worst statistical outing of 2023, including a season-low 30.5 passer rating. The most glaring set of metrics were Jones’ numbers when not under pressure, with the quarterback setting multiple season lows.
Part of this inefficiency had to do with late throws, with the most egregious example coming on Jones’ last play of the game.
Ty Montgomery wins on a crossing route against an outside-leveraged corner. But rather than hitting him the receiver in rhythm, Jones waits an extra beat and allows safety Jordan Howden to make a play on the ball.
This was one of several examples where the Patriots’ downfield passing felt out of sync.
Jones’ first two attempts of the game were uncatchable attempts to well-covered players despite receivers being open underneath.
There were also two 3rd downs in the 2nd quarter where Jones failed to connect with DeVante Parker down the sideline. The receiver couldn’t make a one-handed grab on the first, and the second was either a miscommunication or simply an underthrown ball.
Kendrick Bourne had a pair of grabs over the intermediate middle, with the second being a more well-executed rep of a concept from earlier in the game, but those were two of the only bright spots on these reps.
While Jones was far from perfect when kept clean, those plays only accounted for about half of his dropbacks. For the second week in a row, the Patriots allowed a 50% pressure rate with their starting quarterback in the game. This rate was the same on dropbacks lasting fewer than 2.5 seconds, including a sack where Atonio Mafi and Vederian Lowe instantly lost their matchups to kill a promising drive before halftime.
Jones did his best to beat the heat, with his 43.8 passer rating under pressure being higher than his passer rating when not under pressure. He showed solid anticipation on sideline completions to Parker, delivered a tight-window throw to Gesicki that was broken up, and had his best pass of the day on a deep drop in the bucket to Demario Douglas (who later left with a head injury suffered on the play).
Jones was far from perfect on the day, with errant throws and questionable reads leaving opportunities on the field. There were also some opportunities left on the field that didn’t come to fruition.
Took a look at the #Patriots 3rd down & reasonable's (excludes three 3rd & 10+ situations)
Bourne got open on high lows, where there were also underneath options that could've converted, and Pop found space 2x early on
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 9, 2023
That said, the quarterback is working with a slim margin for error due to inconsistent play from those around him.
There've been a few plays this season where Mac and JuJu's connection seemed off, and this might be an example of why
The WR seems to drift a bit at the top of his route, and Jones hesitates before going to his checkdown backside pic.twitter.com/p0jnlptE0H
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 9, 2023
Jones is far and away the team’s best option at the position, but he needs to eliminate his tendency for turnovers and capitalize on chances that present themselves to prove that.
Offensive Line In Need of a Shakeup and Improved Play from Veterans
The Patriots’ pass protection did its quarterbacks very few favors against the Saints’ stunt-heavy front.
Atonio Mafi had a tough outing after a season-best performance last week, seemingly being benched at one point before coming back in when Mike Onwenu left the game. The rookie had his hands full against explosive interior rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon and wasn’t as sharp against line games as he was in Dallas. Mafi’s 22.2% pressure rate allowed was his highest of the season, and his team-high six pressures allowed were his most since Week 1.
Vederian Lowe’s 15.2% pressure rate and five pressures allowed were his 2nd-best this season, but they were also 2nd-worst among Patriots blockers in Week 5 behind Mafi. The tackle spent a surprising amount of time on an island against Cam Jordan, which was also the case against the Cowboys’ stable of pass rushers. Lowe has performed admirably given these circumstances, but putting him in these positions is asking a lot of a player who hadn’t started a game before coming to New England.
Trent Brown was the only other Patriot to allow up multiple pressures, with his three losses coming against Carl Granderson on 3rd downs. Brown gave up the hit that resulted in Jones’ pick-six after losing on a twist, and he barely got a hand on Granderson before the sack that ended New England’s two-minute drive.
David Andrews and Riley Reiff were only credited with one pressure each, but they were both quick losses that forced throws well short of the sticks on 3rd & long.
The rushing attack wasn’t much better, headlined by a disastrous 3rd & 1 play early in the 2nd half.
New England comes out in their tush push look but with the intention of pitching the ball against a defense anticipating a sneak. Rhamondre Stevenson has a ton of grass in front of him, but Mac Jones’ pitch is well behind the back. Lowe loses to Cam Jordan so quickly the defender is in a perfect position to fall on the rock and steal possession.
The ground game wasn’t much better throughout the game, as 13 of the Patriots’ 19 runs were stopped, with five carries going for a loss or no gain. The Patriots totaled -1 yards on seven outside zone attempts, which seemed like an odd fit for a bigger unit missing its most athletic player. Second-level defenders flew to the ball untouched, and blockers struggled to sustain. This included run stuffs on all three pin-pull runs, where uncovered linemen sprint out as lead blockers.
There was also a rep of outside zone where Trent Brown lunged against a slanting defender, resulting in a big loss that kicked off a 3rd quarter three-and-out.
Unsurprisingly, New England had much more success executing gap concepts, averaging 6.0 yards/carry on four duo runs.
More: Gap runs
Less: Pin-pull (at least until Strange gets back)
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 9, 2023
Vederian Lowe combined with Mike Onwenu and Riley Reiff for some strong combos, Reiff opened a huge cutback lane while filling in at left guard, and David Andrews had a couple of nice blocks at the second level. Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott also ran hard through initial contact for extra yards. The backs and their lead blockers also did a great job against penetration on power and counter runs.
As effective as these downhill runs were, missed blocks allowed linebackers and safeties to limit big plays, and Demario Davis met Stevenson in the hole for a stop on a late 4th & 1.
The next time we see this unit against the Raiders, assuming New England isn’t down both of its starting guards next week, I think Reiff has to be the starting right tackle. The veteran’s lack of athleticism for the position will be a disadvantage, but his experience and superior fundamentals should make him a more competitive option than Lowe. Either way, Bill O’Brien has to provide regular help against Maxx Crosby, as no one on the roster is capable of blocking him consistently.
Brown (and Mafi, if he has to step up) also must play better, as this week’s efforts simply won’t cut it against a slate of talented defensive fronts.