Statistical trends are forming for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones four games into his rookie season, and all of them are obvious based on the eye test.
The tape and film are in lockstep; the Pats should run a quick-hitting short and intermediate attack with Mac Jones in an up-tempo shotgun system.
The Patriots are learning their passing games’ strengths and weaknesses; that’s good, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is catching on.
But the question now is can the Pats become so efficient at this style of offense that it makes up for the lack of big plays? Let’s dive deeper:
The first trend that sticks out from the first month of the season is that Jones is executing at a high level on short and intermediate throws, but the numbers drastically tail off on deep passes.
The chart above shows Jones’s splits on throws of 0-19 yards versus 20-plus air yards.
Several factors are at play here, including the fact that the Patriots only have one deep threat (Nelson Agholor) and that the offensive line is struggling to protect Jones long enough to push the ball downfield.
On a positive note, the tape shows a passer in Jones who is excelling in McDaniels’s quick-game concepts and intermediate throws when the Patriots spread the field.
Here, the Patriots operate a quick-game “snag” concept with a two-man route combination. Jones reads the off-ball linebacker over tight end Hunter Henry. Mac sees no. 54 Lavonte David matches the running backs’ route into the flat in his drop, then pulls the trigger to Henry on the snag route as soon as he hits the top of his drop.
In this play, the Pats are in a condensed formation with two receiver stacks to each side. This time, the linebackers widen at the snap to help the in-breaking routes out of the stacks, and McDaniels has Kendrick Bourne on a well-timed over-the-ball route in the vacated area. Easy money for Jones, who sees it right away and makes the throw.
Now, Jones is going to work the intermediate passes on backside dig routes to Bourne. Above, the Pats’ rookie moves the underneath linebacker out of the passing window by staring down the left side, side-steps a free rusher in the pocket, and delivers a strike to Bourne on an excellent QB play.
Later on, the Pats worked the same route with a similar process. Look left in his drop, get those linebackers to widen out of the middle of the field, and come back to Bourne on the dig.
Mac is also diagnosing single coverage on the outside and taking 20-30 yard range shots.
Here, the Bucs are in a two-man coverage, and Jones recognizes that the deep safety is staying over the top of Henry’s seam run, so he works a back-shoulder ball on a great release by Jakobi Meyers.
The Patriots can feature a quick passing attack with intermediate throws sprinkled in to get larger gains through the air, and everything for this offense takes shape from there.
As the examples above suggest, Mac is a much better passer in the shotgun than from under center, where he can see the defense clearer and rely on his college developments.
Furthermore, longer seven-step drops don’t favor Jones’s physical skill set as a passer with average arm strength and exacerbate the issues in pass protection by making the offensive line hold the fort longer.
The Pats’ rookie also has a drastic split by time to throw. When he’s getting the ball out quickly, Jones’s PFF passing grade climbs to 78.6 compared to 59.6 when he holds the ball for over 2.5 seconds.
(via Ben Baldwin)
And a chunk of these shotgun, time to throw, and passing distances trends are forming because Mac is under too much pressure. Jones is an above-average passer when he’s kept clean and is below NFL average quarterback when he’s under pressure.
Mac is staying afloat while under pressure, especially for a rookie. Still, shocker, keeping Jones clean makes the offense more productive.
We know how Jones wins and doesn’t, so the question now is whether he can perfect his craft?
McDaniels is starting to buy into the shotgun, tempo, under 20 yards, horizontal system, and the Pats have done it before (hello, 2011).
But now it’s on Jones to hold up his end of the bargain as McDaniels calls the game to his strength. And there are learning experiences from the Bucs’ loss that Mac needs to clean up.
Here’s an example of how the Patriots need to operate, but they need a better read from Jones.
The Patriots break the huddle with three wide receivers, and the Bucs match it with nickel. Mac does something beautiful to these eyes: he starts under center and then checks into empty. On the broadcast copy, you can hear Jones yelling “Jordan” as in Michael Jordan because HOSS is the GOAT.
Once the Pats get into empty, the Bucs match with a single-high, cover-three structure, and the Patriots run HOSS Z Juke. Instead of working the hitch-seam combination against single-high to his left, Jones sees the linebacker flash outside at the snap, comes inside to Meyers’s option route, and throws into coverage. If he stays on the HOSS read, the slot corner takes the hitch in the flat, and Nelson Agholor is splitting the deep zone defenders for a big play.
In the preseason, Jones hit former Pats wideout Isaiah Zuber against the same coverage and on the same play for a touchdown up the seam.
Another area where Jones will need to improve is recognizing openings before the snap.
The moans and groans in this play are about the failed stunt pass off on the left side of the O-Line. But Mac needs to see that the Bucs are covering this bunch set to his left with lock-and-level rules., meaning the corners are locked into their matchups and aren’t passing routes off. Meyers runs a speed out into the flat from the number three spot on a switch release, is out-leveraging Richard Sherman before the ball is even snapped, and is open for a first down.
To be clear, the protection breakdown is not on Jones, and this is an advanced read for a rookie. However, those are the pre-snap reads that Jones needs to make if this style of play will work for the Patriots this season.
Although it’s not fair to the rookie in many ways, Mac needs to read the field at an extremely high level with a passing offense that isn’t hitting on big plays.
In other words, Jones needs to maximize the openings in the short and intermediate areas of the field until the deep shots present themselves.
There are ways McDaniels can manufacture easy yards by stretching the defense horizontally on motion throws and passes behind the line of scrimmage, which he did on Sunday night. On top of the “follow” concept with Smith above, McDaniels even called an RPO against the Bucs (it gained four yards but baby steps).
Can this style of offense work for the Patriots? Yes. But it’s going to stress the rookie mentally.