The New England Patriots’ first drive against the Cincinnati Bengals came to a quick end. Facing a 3rd-and-4 from their own 32-yard line, Mac Jones was flushed out of the pocket before eventually being taken down well short of the sticks.
The main breakdown on the play happened down the field, though.
Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ran into one another in their routes, taking both out of the play and leaving Henry with a game-ending knee injury. The two tight ends colliding was just the latest instance of the Patriots’ patterns seemingly getting too close to one another — and not the only one: on several plays against Cincinnati, two pass catchers found themselves in the same basic area.
The issue is not a new one for the New England offense either. Route spacing was already discussed as a point of emphasis during the team’s Week 10 bye, but at least judged on Saturday’s game it appears not much progress has been made.
For wide receivers coach Troy Brown, however, the problem is not as prominent as it might seem.
“Sometimes the details may be a little off, but I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s been a major problem for us,” he told reporters this week. “Sometimes the details may be a little bit off, but that happens. I watch film all the time. It happens to just about every team around the league from time to time. Obviously, you want to go out there and be perfect. Detail mistakes aren’t acceptable. We do everything we can to get them corrected.”
The spacing was again in the spotlight in the second quarter, with Kendrick Bourne and Smith coming too close to one another on an incomplete third down. In the fourth quarter, the two crossed paths again while trying to execute a a variation of New England’s Razor concept. The play ended with Smith suffering a head injury that forced him from the game.
Plays are obviously not designed to have players run into one another, but it appears the Patriots leave little leeway for the pass catchers if they don’t execute the concepts to perfection.
Execution in general has been a problem for New England’s offense, as quarterbacks coach Joe Judge pointed out.
“Obviously we have to execute better, put ourselves in a better position,” he said. “There were some plays early in the game that weren’t executed the way we needed to. We have to coach better, we have to execute as players better. We have to make sure to put ourselves in position not to be behind with that kind of a deficit going into the second half. Obviously, we cleaned that up as we went through the game and got the results we’re looking for but we can’t start off that slow.”
The Patriots fell behind 22-0 against the Bengals before a second-half rally that put them within four points of their opponent. Ultimately, however, they came up short and fell to 7-8 on the year.
Spacing itself was not the only issue contributing to the loss, but with 15 games now in the books it remains one of several areas that needs cleaning up — something offensive play-caller Matt Patricia himself acknowledged this week.
“It’s definitely something you don’t want to have happen during the game,” he said on Tuesday. “You have to get it fixed.”