To nobody’s surprise, the Patriots’ new-look offense is a work in progress early in the season.
New England is breaking in its rookie quarterback, integrating four new pass-catchers into the offense, and trying to get healthy on an offensive line that had some turnover as well.
With that said, in both the short and long-term, awakening from an offensive slump that began mid-way through the 2019 season falls on Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Since Week 11 of the 2019 season, their last 25 games, with three different quarterbacks, including Tom Brady for the final eight games in 2019, the Patriots are averaging just 20.7 points per game, which is 27th in the NFL over that span.
So before you yell at me for being impatient, these trends we are about to discuss span across three seasons and really began at the tail end of 2018. This is not a two-game sample size.
During his press conference on Thursday, we asked tight end Jonnu Smith if McDaniels seeks his input on how he’s utilized in the game plan.
“That’s a funny question because I would say I’m not coming in here trying to change the offense. This isn’t my offense,” Smith told CLNS Media. “These guys had so much success doing what they do. I let [McDaniels] be the OC. I trust him to put this team in positions to make plays.”
Asked a similar question, Nelson Agholor added, “you are talking about a very, very, very special coach [in McDaniels]. I think he watches what I do well and tries to communicate with me about how he sees things unraveling on tape. But he doesn’t need to ask me. That’s a very intelligent man who has been doing this for a long time.”
Based on the answers from the Patriots’ new top weapons, it’s on McDaniels to get the offense moving in the right direction.
The Pats’ OC is a good offensive architect. His system makes schematic sense and is fundamentally sound, with a clear goal for every play based on what the offense is trying to accomplish and the opponent. One can see the method to the madness on film.
Still, the Pats’ offensive play-caller no longer has the excuses he did last season for an anemic offensive attack, including at quarterback where Jones is a better stylistic fit than Cam Newton.
McDaniels’s top receiving options are no longer Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers. He now has four free-agent pass-catchers who produced at their last stops in productive offenses.
Agholor is coming off a season where he had 896 receiving yards and eight touchdowns for the Raiders. In Tennessee, Smith had nine total touchdowns as a premier red-zone threat, Hunter Henry had 60 grabs for 613 yards in LA, and Kendrick Bourne had 667 receiving yards as a core piece of the 49ers’ wide receiver corps.
Those four are here because they produced last season and were identified as scheme fits in McDaniels’s offense. Are any of the prime Randy Moss? No. But they are legit NFL receivers.
The league’s best offenses utilize motion, misdirection, pace, and play-action as tools for the offensive play-caller to get his playmakers into advantageous situations; in today’s NFL, stagnant offenses that rely heavily on traditional drop-back passing and running games are bad offenses.
In the first two weeks of the season, the Pats are 24th in pre-snap motion frequency (44%), 21st in offensive pace, have only called two run-pass options despite Jones’s tremendous success with those in college, and are only using play-action on 27.4% of their drop-backs (17th). It’s vanilla.
Furthermore, McDaniels is bucking another hot trend as one of the league’s least aggressive early-down play-callers. As most of the NFL’s top offenses are attacking downfield on first and second down, the Pats are 27th in pass frequency on early downs since 2019.
And if you buy into the “first four games of the season are extended preseason,” then running your basic plays to get everyone familiar with those calls as you would in August makes sense.
But make no mistake about it, McDaniels’s coaching chops are in the spotlight, and eventually, the Patriots will need to turn up the creativity and aggressiveness on offense.
Let’s empty the mailbag ahead of the Patriots matchup with the Saints in Week 3:
Which component of the Pats' play has surprised you the most thus far? Whether positively or negatively.
— Shadi C. (@ShadiChams97) September 23, 2021
The biggest surprise by far is how well the secondary is playing without Stephon Gilmore. Granted, the competition wasn’t great. But the Pats’ secondary is well connected right now and isn’t busting many coverages. We’ll see if it continues once the competition ramps up, but positionally, the secondary was good in the first two weeks. And they didn’t look overwhelmed talent-wise.
JC Jackson seems to always make plays and yet they still won’t pay him. Is it more because of the inconsistencies he has or the relatively low cap space for next year?
— slick (@DaSlick23) September 23, 2021
The answer to this question is simple: the Patriots haven’t paid Jackson yet because there’s no rush to do so for player or team. Jackson is under contract, is happy to play out the year, and the Pats have the franchise tag in their back pocket. On the other hand, young CBs with gaudy interception totals get paid, which I’m sure Jackson and his agent are well aware of in a contract year. Jackson isn’t taking a below-market deal. This will work itself out in the offseason when Jackson is scheduled to become a UFA.
How about Nkeal Harry status?
— Coach Goosy (@lilGoosy) September 23, 2021
Harry is eligible to return to the lineup after Sunday’s game against the Saints, and he’ll be ready to go if the team wants to activate him. I know I’m always the N’Keal Harry hype train conductor, and you guys are probably getting sick of it. Still, the Harry we saw in camp can help this team, and here’s how.
In the double-post concept above, we already discussed how Jones could improve this throw (FWIW: PFF graded it as a turnover-worthy play on the QB). But let’s talk about the receivers in the route combination. Agholor is on the inside post and takes the safety with him, leaving Bourne 1-on-1 on the outside post. The Harry we saw in camp, who was more explosive off the line and can win at the catch point, gives Jones a better option than Bourne there. With Agholor occupying deep safeties, the Pats could use another vertical threat to win those one-on-ones, and Harry is an upgrade as a downfield threat over Bourne and Meyers.
Do you see Uche's role expanding as the year goes on or will he remain limited to obvious passing situations? He's so talented, I'd love to see more of him.
— Ryan Harriman (@rsharriman31) September 23, 2021
I wrote about Uche and why he’s only playing on passing downs here. The short answer is that he’s neither disciplined nor stout enough at the point of attack to play on the edge on early downs. Uche should be picking Dont’a Hightower’s brain every day about playing inside linebacker. Hightower is aging, while Ja’Whaun Bentley is a free agent after the season. There will be opportunities for Uche at off-ball linebacker. Uche said he wanted to play a role like Hightower’s over the summer; inside linebacker on first and second down, then move to a pass-rusher role in passing situations. Let’s see it.
How long do you think Rhamondre will be limited on snaps or even just being a healthy inactive?
— 𝖇 𝖑 𝖆 𝖉 𝖊 (@endzonetua) September 23, 2021
I don’t expect to see Stevenson for a while. The Patriots tried to hit the ground running with the rookie running back in the opener, but his ball security issues remain a consistent problem (that was a bigger deal than one bad rep in pass protection). Stevenson will need to develop the hard way now for the Patriots, following a similar path to Damien Harris and J.J. Taylor. I wouldn’t be shocked if Stevenson gets another opportunity after proving himself in practice later in the season, but it’ll be a while unless there’s an injury.
chances jamie gets traded back here
— 𝔅𝔬 💫 (@sadbostonfan) September 23, 2021
The Patriots don’t need Jamie Collins with good depth at linebacker, but he’d be a nice cherry on top. If the Lions release Collins, the door is open for a reunion, I’m told. The Pats were happy with Collins’s performance during the 2019 season, and Matt Patricia was the one who gave him that massive free-agent deal. Collins would be good insurance for Dont’a Hightower if Hightower doesn’t knock off the rust.
Is Christian Barmore making a case to start sometime soon?
— SoxNation (@Soxnation0613) September 23, 2021
Barmore has five QB hurries through two games and is as advertised as a pass rusher. He’s getting free on interior line stunts and has two one-on-one hurries as well. The Pats are giving him snaps in run situations, so they trust him there more than expected. Still, the rookie is boom-or-bust in run defense. He made a great stop to the play-side against the Jets but was also pushed off the ball on other occasions. Leverage and block anticipation is the name of the game for Barmore in run defense. Honestly, Barmore playing over 50% of the snaps is more than anticipated in his rookie season. That’s a sizable role.
Why haven’t we utilized our expensive TE to help with our redzone efficiency which has obviously struggled to put it lightly? Smith was a great target for the titans in the red area years before.
— Joseph Kaisamba (@joseph_kaisamba) September 23, 2021
Through two games, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith have five targets in the red zone but none in the end zone. Henry was open on a corner route for a touchdown last week, but the pressure caused Mac to get the ball out. Right now, the creativity isn’t there in the early going. Smith is a very versatile player, both as a receiver and ball carrier. Motioning him around the formation and getting him to stretch the defense horizontally is key. The scheming can improve. But ultimately, the timing and trust between quarterback and receiver is the most critical part about throwing in the red zone. Henry and Smith are big targets, and with a condensed field inside the 20, there won’t always be a lot of separation. Mac will, in time, throw his tight ends open. Back shoulders, high-point balls, positional throws where they box the defender out. That’ll come with more reps.
How does Dugger look on tape? Seems like he’s getting lots of snaps
— WAT (@watwatwat46) September 23, 2021
Dugger isn’t that noticeable in pass defense on tape, which is a good thing. Although you want to see him make plays on the ball, Dugger is one player I don’t want to call his name right now. If he’s in phase in coverage, teams aren’t targeting him, which is a good thing. He’s still a physical run defender as well. Dugger isn’t making the splash plays right now, but his coverage is improving.
Is something up with Wynn?
— Steve P (@StevePolanco325) September 23, 2021
Wynn has allowed a team-high seven quarterback pressures through two weeks, and isn’t dealing with an injury to our knowledge. From this vantage point, Wynn isn’t getting the same depth out of his stance that we usually see and is giving up his edge more than usual. But the biggest problem is the chemistry with Mike Onwenu on schemed pressures (blitzes, stunts, etc.). Wynn is an aggressive pass protector. He doesn’t have the size to sit back and let guys come to him, like Trent Brown. Wynn wants to punch and slow down rushers before they get started. He needs to get back to that.
What's the deal with the run defense (still) being so bad?
— Nate Alger (@natealger) September 23, 2021
I discussed the issues with the run defense in my Patriots game plan this week. It’s never one thing in a team sport, but the problems against the Jets were mainly on the interior defensive line. The Pats are 27th since the start of the 2020 season in defending outside zone schemes. Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise, and Christian Barmore getting pushed upfield instead of getting downhill was the biggest problem in New York. They’re getting better play on the edges but need to improve the way they defend outside zone—attack, attack, attack.