Patriots head coach Bill Belichick briefly summed his team up perfectly during his morning-after press conference following a 33-24 loss to the Dolphins in their regular-season finale on Sunday.
“We do enough good things to be competitive. We just need to be more consistent,” Belichick said.
After starting the game with a pick-six on his first pass, rookie quarterback Mac Jones averaged nine yards and +0.19 EPA per pass attempt, driving the Patriots’ offense into Miami territory on five occasions and finishing three-for-four in the red zone.
The Patriots’ offense averaged nearly 6.5 yards per play against the tenth-rated defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, meaning moving the ball wasn’t an issue.
As Belichick said, the inconsistencies cost the team at least ten points on turnovers, adding a botched snap on Miami’s 22-yard line to Xavien Howard’s interception return for a touchdown.
Although careless turnovers can no longer happen 17 games into his NFL career, we came away more optimistic than pessimistic about Mac on Sunday.
From this perspective, this was the most threatening New England’s passing game has looked since at least Indianapolis, if not Cleveland, in the second half of the season.
Last week, our main takeaway from Jones’s performance against the COVID Jaguars was that most of his success wasn’t sustainable against elite defenses in the postseason.
Sure, it was fun seeing the Pats offense hang 50 points on Jacksonville, but the types of throws Jones was making were not replicable when a good defense schemes to take them away.
Miami has a good defense, ninth against the pass in DVOA to be exact, and they planned to take away the short and intermediate throws to dare Jones to beat them deep, and he mostly did.
Former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores broke his typical man coverage tendencies on third down by playing zone coverage to flood the short part of the field with coverage defenders.
On Howard’s pick, Miami was in cover-two. Then, they dropped eight defenders into zone coverage in a three-deep, five under zone on New England’s second drive to force a punt.
Eventually, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew he had to open up their passing game to find success. In all, Mac completed five of his eight passes beyond 20 yards in the air, sending a signal to Buffalo that he could win down the field if necessary.
Threatening the deeper areas with some consistency should open Mac’s shorter bread-and-butter throws, or his full contingent of pass-catchers might be able to replicate their downfield success if this continues to be the blueprint for defenses.
Either way, seeing Mac willingly and successfully attack downfield is the aggressive mentality the Patriots need from their quarterback in Buffalo.
With the Bills likely taking away the middle of the field and suffocating Mac’s check downs, the path to success looks similar to how the Pats moved the ball on the Dolphins.
Let’s take a look at the film to show you why Jones’s passing performance left us so optimistic:
2ND QTR, 10:59: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE DEEP TO H. HENRY FOR 35 YARDS
Starting with a nice blitz pickup by Damien Harris and a smooth climb-and-throw by Jones, the Patriots ran their post-crosser concept to hit a big play on their first TD drive.
Along with Mac and Harris having plus-plays here, the importance of having a healthy Nelson Agholor is also on display.
Miami plays a five-man cover-three structure after sending six in the rush. Agholor’s deep post route occupies two defenders and clears out the sideline for Henry to run behind the linebacker level on the deep over route. The Pats block the overload by having Harris step up to take the edge blitzer. Jones steps through the pocket to keep himself clean and hits Henry for the explosive.
Without Agholor against the Bills in Week 16, the Pats weren’t stretching the field like that.
2ND QTR, 5:26: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE SHORT TO D. HARRIS FOR 13 YARDS
After hitting on that play once already, you can see the impact on the defense to give Jones the check-down to Harris on the same concept later in the game.
The Dolphins don’t blitz the extra rusher this time, so Harris releases after the play-action fake. But the key to the play is the Dolphins linebackers getting deeper off the fake to handle the crosser, and Jerome Baker (#55) uses a “robot” technique (turns his back to the defense and looks for the receiver) to cut off Jonnu Smith. With Baker sticking to Smith downfield, it leaves Harris with space underneath against Elandon Roberts, and he makes the former Pats linebacker miss on his tackle attempt to pick up the first down.
Even though it’s a slippery move by Harris to get away from Roberts, that positive gain was made possible by the first completion to Henry.
2ND QTR, 2:46: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE DEEP TO N. AGHOLOR FOR 23 YARDS
We are accustomed to seeing the Patriots stretch the field horizontally with deep crossing routes.
But with Miami refusing to move off their zone coverage strategy, McDaniels began dialing up vertical concepts.
Here, the Pats flood a three-deep zone with two vertical routes from Agholor and Meyers to Jones’s left. When Howard bails at the line and works over the top of Meyers, Agholor converts his route to a deep stop pattern along the sideline. Jones then makes a far-hash throw across the field over the underneath zone defender to get the ball to an open Agholor.
For those that have concerns about arm strength, you don’t get that ball there with a noodle arm.
3RD QTR, 3:48: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE DEEP TO J. MEYERS FOR 28 YARDS
Eventually, the Dolphins did play some man coverage on third down, and that’s when Mac went hunting for one-on-one matchups.
In this play, Jones sees the man-free structure (cover-one/post-safety) and knows he has Meyers against Howard on the outside in single coverage. Meyers uses an excellent stretch release to create separation at the line of scrimmage, and Mac drops it in the bucket downfield.
If the Bills keep playing man with inside leverage, expect more deep shots just like that one on Saturday night.
4TH QTR, 10:33: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE DEEP TO H. HENRY FOR 32 YARDS
Now let’s go back to more zone coverage on a play that perfectly exemplifies our overall point here.
With the Miami defense aggressively playing shorter routes, the Pats dial up a snag/corner concept to flood the deep third. Howard is the key defender once again for the Fins, as he jumps Kendrick Bourne’s curl route while Henry sneaks behind him. Jones sees Howard sitting on Bourne’s route and makes a great, aggressive decision.
If the defense keys on everything underneath, fine, then Jones will beat you over the top. That’s the mindset the Patriots need to have.
4TH QTR, 4:49: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE DEEP TO J. MEYERS FOR 39 YARDS
Lastly, the Pats stress two-deep zone one last time with three verticals on their longest play from scrimmage.
Once again, Nelson Agholor’s seam-splitter draws the defense as he clears out the coverage for Meyers. The deep safety to Jones’s left shades towards Agholor as he carries the Tampa-2 linebacker up the shoot, leaving Meyers open on the boundary. Although this is more of a contested heave than the others, it’s still a safe decision and a good idea to let your receiver make a play downfield.
Although costly turnovers are an easy way to lose, the Patriots laid a foundation for a successful postseason blueprint against Miami by opening up a more vertical passing attack.
Jones’s aggressive mindset gives them a puncher’s chance against Buffalo if it continues. Attack, attack, attack.