Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is often known for using the first few weeks of the regular season as an extension of the preseason, with the goal of finding the identity of his football team.
As his team enters its bye week in the second week of November, that identity is still up in the air.
While the defense has dominated of late, and currently ranks first in EPA/play and fifth in Football Outsiders DVOA rank, the level of competition they've feasted on of late isn't top quality. Beating down on inferior competition is good, but it feels like we’ll get a better sense of who they truly are in the back half of the season when they take on offenses such as Miami, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, and Minnesota.
The main issue is on the offensive side of the ball. The Patriots offense has been stuck in neutral since training camp due to a number of issues, starting with the offensive line. David Andrews’ return should help, but the decision-making by Mac Jones and play-calling need to be better.
Focusing on Jones, his strengths coming out of college were his accuracy and decision making. He was never going to win with athlete physical tools such as Patrick Mahomes. His strengths as a passer were evident throughout his rookie season, but have taken a noticeable step back the past few weeks.
Now again, it’s not all his fault, as the offensive line has Jones running for his life and the play-calling has been unimaginative. But, last week against Indianapolis appeared to be one of Jones’ worst games in the decision making department.
The play below is one example of such. On third-and-four, Jones sees a one-on-one with rookie Tyquan Thornton on his left, while Rhamondre Stevenson should also have one-on-one coverage as his check down. It’s a smart read with the safeties cheating into a single-high look, but Jones sticks on the read too long.
It’s clear quickly that Thornton is not getting open with Stephon Gilmore in coverage, and the linebacker widens to take away the Stevenson read. Instead of then moving off the read and readjusting to the three receiver side, where he has an open Kendrick Bourne at the sticks, he forces a tight incompletion to his back.
Five plays earlier, Jones again missed the opportunity for an explosive play downfield. This time, perhaps the poor offensive line play creeps into his head.
Jones has Tyquan Thornton opening deep downfield with the safety out leveraged. He has a NFL-pocket as well. All he needs to do is hit the top of his drop, hitch up, and lay the ball out near the numbers to let Thornton run under it.
However, Jones hitches several times and holds the ball. He then finds himself under pressure and escapes to dump it off to Jonnu Smith, missing even the opportunity for a big play to his rookie receiver down field.
A third throw came on New England’s next drive in another third-down situation, which marked Jones’ lone turnover worthy play of the game. As Indianapolis brings a blitz, Jones locks in on Jakobi Meyers in man-to-man coverage. While it’s again not a horrible read as the receiver should have leverage breaking towards the sideline, there are better options - especially considering Jones’ limited physical tools.
A better throw for Jones is hitting Kendrick Bourne - who appears to have around a step of space - running across the middle of the field on a crosser. And despite the Colts bringing pressure, they bust the coverage as Rhamondre Stevenson leaks out of the backfield and is wide open for a check down and likely huge gain. Jones instead stays locked onto his initial read and forces a tough throw to Meyers, which likely should have been intercepted if it wasn't for a spectacular effort by the receiver.
As Jones talked about postgame, some of these clips and stills could be described as “false reality.” Perhaps that was his way of saying he is just reading the field based on how he’s being told too. Either way, the entire timing of the passing operation needs to take a step forward post-bye.
In total, the Patriots need to improve their offensive line first. Everything will start to look better if they can block up front. From there, the play-calling needs to be more creative (downfield RPOs please) and Jones needs to get back to playing to his strengths. That’s the path, so we’ll see what unfolds after the bye.
Now let’s empty out the rest of this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.
@TuckerRossCon Do you think wynn remains at guard after the bye
The Patriots offense will stay in neutral unless throughout the second half of the season unless they figure out the offensive line. The main two problems along the line are at left guard and right tackle.
The hope is that David Andrews’ return should be a provide a major boost along the interior, helping rookie Cole Strange get back to his early season ways. I’d role with Strange at left guard and hope he can play through and fix his fundamental issues.
From there, the question is at right tackle. While Michael Onwenu is probably the team’s best right tackle on the roster, they seem hesitant to move him out there again. Both the team and player have talked about how him sticking at right guard throughout the season has helped his development, so it seems like they'll avoid bumping him outside.
It then comes down to Isaiah Wynn or Yodny Cajuste at right tackle. Playing the entire game on Sunday, Cajuste struggled early in pass protection against a good edge rusher in Kwity Paye. He did, however, have good run blocking tape and seemed to settle down in the second half. While Wynn is the more talented player, perhaps Cajuste gives them more consistent play at the moment.
If either can hold their own at this point and Andrews can settle things down along the interior, things could look upwards.
@salvaje50 Do you think it was a mistake to let Ted Karras go in FA? It kind of forced their hand to take a OG in the first round to replace him
I wouldn't say so. The real mistake was trading Shaq Mason.
Speaking of Karras though, the Patriots could learn from his usage last season. Despite Michael Onwenu being one of their better lineman, Karras started over him for the majority of the season for continuity reasons. The Patriots need to do their best to find a five-man front they can just go with and stick with it for the rest of the season.
@TheIronSon Why does Patricia keep getting jobs?
So we’ve talked about Jones and the offensive line. The third piece of the puzzle is the play-calling.
Matt Patricia has a job because he knows a lot football and has a strong relationship with Bill Belichick. Now, if that should that result in an offensive coordinator job is a different question.
Through nine weeks, Patricia’s debut as a de facto play calling hasn't been great. The offense is unimaginative at times and it often seems like they are just calling plays, not sequencing things. From here on out, it’s up to Patricia to prove if he can be a legit offensive coordinator or not.
So, how could he do that?
To start, it’s time to embrace being a spread passing attack. The under center stuff looked good with Bailey Zappe, but Mac Jones is not an under center passer. The statistics throughout his 23-game career back it up.
Like he was at Alabama, Jones is much more comfortable reading the defense out of the shotgun. Perhaps his best pass on Sunday — a 30-yard strike up the seam to Hunter Henry (the same play Jakobi Meyers scored on against Detroit) — came out of the gun where he easily read Indianapolis’ Cover 2 scheme.
From there, they need to keep incorporating more and more RPOs to the offense. They work and Mac Jones likes the, (and are good at them). They took a positive step forward against the Jets using 13, but dropped that number to eight against the Colts. RPOs help create numbers in the run game and make things easier for Jones and the offensive line through the air. If they start adding some downfield concepts as well, things could really start evolving here in the back half of the season.
That’s our plan, so we’ll see what their’s is starting in Week 11.
@BostonEvan11 What’s the deal with Jake Bailey (again)
It was another rough game from Jake Bailey in the punting department Sunday, highlighted by a seven-yard punt near the end of the game.
After a down season last year in which the consensus was a result of playing through an injury, there is no reason to believe he is hurt now. But after getting back to booming the ball all over the field throughout the spring and summer, Bailey has again hit the struggle bus.
One possible thought is that he tweaked something in his form to overcompensate for his injury last season and is now struggling to get back to his old ways. While punting seems like a simple maneuver, it’s a science, much like a jump shot or golf swing. If Bailey tweaked something to punt through his injury, perhaps he is now struggling to readjust to his old form when healthy.
When speaking with Cam Achord two weeks ago, he expressed confidence in Bailey but noted his ball striking as an area they were working on. That would seem to play into the thought of it’s something with his form.
After signing a four-year extension in the offseason, we’ll see how long the team’s leash is with Bailey as he perhaps continue to work through some things. The team did recently sign Michael Palardy to the practice squad, who could be a game-day elevation if they look elsewhere.
@Bret_Judkins What are the odds on getting Zappe back to try to rally, change things up, & just maybe make a real push for the playoffs?
Slim. Very slim. We saw what happens when Zappe gets thrown in an unfavorable in the second half of the Chicago game.
The one good thing I’ll say here about Zappe is that he appeared to make quicker decisions than Jones has been. And I’ll give continue to give him credit for excelling under center after being a shotgun-only quarterback in college. Still, New England is best with Jones moving forward.
@AllBostonSport Let damien hit the FA should we or should we not?
My first thought is that it seems unlikely the team would resign Harris. They rarely give second contracts to running backs and selected Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris in the draft last year. And obviously, they have Rhamondre Stevenson who is playing at an elite level.
The only thing that’s keeping me from being a hard no is Harris’ leadership role in the locker room. He seems like a voice they usually would try to keep around, so it will be interesting to see how that unfolds in the offseason.
@Skywal1Thaddeus Will the Pats extend Jakobi Meyers or Jonathan Jones first?
If an extension happens in season, perhaps during the bye week, I’ll go with Jakobi Meyers. If neither are signed entering the offseason, I’ll say Jonathan Jones gets the extension first.
@NEvilEmpire Would y’all rather miss the playoffs this year and fix our offense or make the playoffs with our offense still being our weakest link?
Being at 5-4 and in the midst of the wild card hunt, I'd argue that fixing the offense would result in making the playoffs. In this scenario though, I’ll just take the playoffs. Get there and see what happens.
@atayur03 I think the colts made a great decision in hiring Jeff Saturday. Do you think it would benefit the pats to fire belichick and hire someone with no experience?
Someone get new Patriots’ head coach Matt Light on the phone.
@WheresMikeGoing What am I suppose to do on Sunday during the pats bye week?
Mike, it will be a beautiful day of watching 13 hours of stress-free football. You get to start nice and early with Tom Brady in Germany and then get tucked in with what should be a good 49ers-Chargers Sunday night game. Sit on your couch all day and enjoy it.
@Betancourt10Bos Think the Pats will wear grey pants again this season?
Most likely not after wearing them in a 33-14 defeat to the Chicago Bears. I like the blue on grey much better, but I think we’ll have to wait until next season for a different uniform combo. Maybe design the grey pants to match the tops a tad better too over the offseason.
That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!