Following the Patriots’ selection of quarterback Mac Jones, the conventional wisdom was that the Alabama product is a perfect fit in Foxboro.
Jones was a highly successful college quarterback with a national championship on his resume. He’s also a pocket passer with good three-level accuracy, pocket movement, and a solid grasp of processing information to make quick decisions with the football.
From intangibles to playing style, Jones feels like a New England Patriots quarterback.
However, the Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak recently wrote an article with valid critiques of the automatic responses you hear about Jones’s excellent stylistic fit with the Pats.
At Alabama, Jones was in former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s pro-spread system. Nick Saban ran a pro-style scheme for years that was a ball-control offense that featured a power running game from under center and complimented that with play-action.
Saban recognized that the game was changing, especially at the college level, and to compete for championships, Alabama needed to modernize its offense to light up the scoreboard.
The pro-style roots remain, but Saban’s coordinators began to add elements of the modern spread and air raid systems, with Sarkisian putting the finishing touches on the pro-spread.
Run-pass options (RPOs), vertical passing from spread formations, and practically zero snaps from under center came to fruition when Mac Jones took over as the starting quarterback.
Last season, Jones had the third-highest rate of his passes come off RPO schemes (19%) in the 2021 quarterback class and only attempted 11 passes in his career from under center.
“Make no mistake: Jones is not a scheme fit in New England,” Solak wrote. “Not the scheme they ran with Brady, at least. And either the player must take massive strides to fit in that offense, or the offense must undergo massive changes to fit the player in order for Jones to find success under Belichick, McDaniels, and the Patriots.”
Although there are differences between Alabama and the Patriots’ offenses, who aren’t a vertical-based passing system and hardly ever ran RPOs with Brady, New England began adjusting its scheme to new-age philosophies last season with Cam Newton.
The Pats rookie will need to adapt to certain things if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wants to continue under-center play-action concepts, for example.
But they can also continue adjusting to Jones and the modern game with their 2020 evolutions. These aren’t seismic shifts, more just scheming things up a little differently for Jones or vice versa.
The biggest passing game adaptation was adding RPOs, which again were a massive part of Alabama’s offense and should be a huge part of New England’s offense, whether it’s Newton or Jones at quarterback.
In 2020, Jones went 73-of-78 for 890 yards, ten touchdowns, and zero interceptions off RPOs. For those keeping score at home, that’s a near-perfect passer rating of 153.8.
Last season, with Newton, the Patriots ran 70 run-pass options that converted into 54 runs and 16 passes, a substantial increase from their 2019 total with Brady (four), per Pro Football Focus.
The Pats already began adding RPOs into their offense, and Jones is terrific at running them, so continuing down that road shouldn’t be hard for McDaniels.
Instead of running traditional under-center play-action, the Pats can still manipulate defenses in similar ways and get the same results with RPOs that Jones is more comfortable running.
Before we get into the scheme carryovers from Alabama to New England, there are two myths about RPOs that I want to debunk:
First, RPOs aren’t a college gimmick that doesn’t work in the NFL. Some of the top NFL offenses use them, such as Kansas City, who routinely rank near the top of the league in RPO usage.
Furthermore, no, you don’t need a mobile QB to run an RPO. All of the RPOs we’ll break down here have zero threat of a quarterback run, and there’s no option for the quarterback to take off. Most RPOs give the quarterback a second or third-level read where, based on the defense, he can either “give” the ball to the back or “pull” the ball and throw a pass.
For those that still think RPOs only work with mobile QBs, remember Super Bowl 52? Most Pats fans try to forget, but the very immobile Nick Foles tore up the Pats defense on RPOs in that one.
Let’s break down some of the RPO concepts that we saw in both offenses last season, which, along with doing something that Jones is good at, also fit the Pats’ new offensive weapons.
The Patriots built an offense in the offseason that will feature plenty of 12 personnel or two tight end sets, and Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, and Nelson Agholor will succeed on RPO routes.
RPO BUBBLE SCREEN
In both New England and Alabama’s offenses, the most common RPO was the RPO bubble screen. The play design usually pairs either inside zone or counter run blocking with a wide receiver screen (bubble) on the perimeter.
Newton reads the overhang defender on the backside of the formation (circled above). In this case, the weakside linebacker shades over to the bubble screen action to even up the numbers there, but that gives the Patriots even numbers in the box. The Pats get a hat on a hat to gain ten yards on the ground.
This time, the Patriots catch Seattle in a blitz from the slot defender over the bubble screen. Newton sees the blitz and gets the ball to N’Keal Harry in space. Unfortunately, Damiere Byrd struggles to hold his block, and Harry gets too close to the only defender that can tackle him for a while, and he gets brought down.
Now here’s the Alabama version. In this example, Alabama dresses it up a little more. Instead of having the outside receiver block for the inside receiver, the outside receiver runs a glance route while the inside receiver goes in motion. Jones reads two defenders here. First, he reads the weakside linebacker, who steps up in this case to fit the run. Then, he reads the safety in conflict. The safety can either stay back in the glance window to take that away or come up to defend the receiver in motion. The safety stays back, so Jones takes the easy first down on the bubble.
Harry is no Devonta Smith as an open-field ball carrier, but the Patriots now have better options, such as Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor, to run with the football on screens.
Smith leads all tight ends in YAC over expected since 2019, and although the Titans weren’t a big RPO team, they schemed up screens and other ways to turn Smith into a ball carrier.
Shot 2 – Wentz’s second TD came on a RPO. Wentz sees a clue pre-snap that it’s going to be a blitz from the field, throws the bubble to Agholor and allows his man to make a play after the catch. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/GSokiKTFmL
— Fran Duffy (@EaglesXOs) November 27, 2017
Agholor has experience in RPO schemes from his time in Philadelphia under former head coach Doug Pederson, who, as we mentioned earlier, was an early-adopter of RPOs in the NFL.
RPO GLANCE (BACKSIDE OR SLOT)
One of the common misconceptions about the Alabama offense is that they love to throw slant routes. In reality, what they’re running are glance routes, which break on the fourth or fifth step.
A glance route gives the receiver a chance to clear underneath defenders, get into the third level of the defense, and then break to daylight.
Alabama has two versions of their RPO glance concept. One where they have two receivers to one side of the formation and the slot receiver breaks on the glance pattern, while the other is a backside glance route (above).
The Patriots ran a similar concept here with N’Keal Harry running the glance route. The only difference is that Harry is in a condensed split rather than flex out wide.
The backside glance is where the Patriots can get new tight end Hunter Henry involved. Henry routinely aligned as the backside or X receiver in the formation and used his size and ability to create separation in his route breaks to beat defenders on glance routes of his own.
Agholor is also a tough cover on glance routes or in-breakers from the backside due to his vertical speed. When corners are playing off him, they need to respect his ability to run by them, so Agholor can push vertically off the line to set up the inside break.
The Pats now have receivers, especially in Henry, who can beat man coverage, which is exactly what they’ll need to call more glance routes into their offense to make Jones comfortable.
RPO/PA SEAM (FAKE SCREEN-AND-GO)
Lastly, Alabama had a few different RPO route designs that allowed their tight ends and bigger receivers to attack the seams of the defense.
For an offense that will lean on a power running game, it’s easy to see how the second-level defenders could trigger downhill to play the run while Henry or Smith run by them.
The play Brady talks about here is a play-action concept where the #Patriots typically pull the backside guard. They’ll either the TE on the seam or now without Gronk it’s become more the slot WR on an over/crosser. Unreal that play came from Peyton. pic.twitter.com/67xD1qjmGL
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 28, 2019
The Pats made a killing off their trap play-action concepts where Rob Gronkowski ran the seam or crossed behind the linebacker level as those linebackers stepped up to play the run. Now, of course, they have Henry and Smith to run the seams.
Although we are operating out of the pistol here, the idea behind these play designs is no different from the under-center play-action concepts the Pats ran with Gronk.
Here’s Alabama running a play design that looks almost identical to what the Patriots used to do with Gronk to get him up the seam. The only difference is that the quarterback has a pre-snap read to determine whether or not he’s handing the ball off or throwing it. In reality, this could be called play-action or an RPO.
The Crimson Tide also used a fake screen-and-go concept similar to the Pats’ fake screen-and-go play design. On the stalk-and-go, the perimeter receivers convince the defense that they’re running a bubble screen. If the defenders jump the bubble, the “blocker” immediately gets vertical for easy completions.
Now here’s the Patriots’ fake screen-and-go, where the blockers sell the screen and then break upfield on vertical routes. It’s practically the same thing.
As we rolled through the plays above, most of them probably look similar to something the Patriots run, even if the run-pass option itself wasn’t present in New England at the time.
All the Patriots are doing by expanding on their RPO package is manipulating the defense in the same way as their play-action schemes but allowing Mac Jones to operate in his comfort zone.
Conceptually, Jones has done plenty of things at Alabama that carries over to the Patriots’ offense. Instead of dropping back from under center, he’s in the pistol or gun, for example.
Alabama might run something off an RPO, whereas New England runs it with a straight drop-back, but the quarterback still throws the same routes.
Still, Jones is familiar with the reads, footwork, and timing of these run-pass options, operating them at an extremely high level, putting up video game numbers off RPOs at Alabama.
Plus, now the defense will need to worry about defending the run as well, and the Patriots averaged 4.7 yards per rush on their 56 runs off RPOs last season.
For several reasons, Mac Jones is a great fit for Josh McDaniels’s offense, but Alabama simply dressed things up differently than the Pats typically did during the Tom Brady era.
Finding a middle ground of still doing the successful things from the last 20 seasons while adapting the scheme to a quarterback coming up in a different era shouldn’t be difficult.