Compared to the 2020 season led by quarterback Cam Newton, the New England Patriots’ passing offense took a massive step in the right direction the following year. With first-round rookie Mac Jones under center and an improved cast of skill position players around him, the Patriots developed nicely across the board.
That being said, the unit as a whole still had its issues. Some of it had to do with Jones learning on the job, some with offseason acquisitions such as Jonnu Smith or Nelson Agholor adapting slower to the system.
All of this combined also led to some conceptual problems, with one concrete example being the play-action game. Long story short, New England was below-average when passing the ball while faking a run.
The following chart shared by The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz illustrates the Patriots’ inefficiencies in this part of the game:
The graph lists the bottom-six teams in the NFL in terms of success on under-the-center play-action concepts: the quarterback aligns under center, takes the snap and drops back as if handing the ball off before keeping it himself for a pass. This is the most basic of play-action sequences, and one the Patriots ran on 10.5 percent of qualifying offensive plays.
While that number ranked 11th most in the NFL, the Patriots’ success rate was just 29th: the team averaged an expected points addition of -0.19, meaning that they generally helped the defense rather than themselves when running play-action from under the center.
Obviously, there are different play-action schemes as well. However, the Patriots in general were quite average regardless.
Per Pro Football Focus, New England ran some form of play-action on 163 of Mac Jones’ dropbacks in 2021. The young QB attempted 147 throws from those plays, hitting his target on 104 for a completion rate of 70.7 percent. Jones gained 1,298 of his passing yards that way while scoring six touchdowns and throwing four interceptions.
Those numbers are not necessarily bad, but they are also not as good as the Patriots needed them to be. After all, they used play-action extensively to make life easier for their first-year passer.
However, that was not always the case. Yes, Jones had a higher completion percentage and passer rating on play-action compared to no play-action but his pressure rate also went up: he was pressured on 16 percent of his “normal” dropbacks compared to 23.5 percent on play-action concepts; despite only one fourth of his dropbacks being of the play-action variety, 38.7 percent of his sacks came after he had faked a hand-off.
Did the Patriots rely too much on play-action last year despite the comparatively mediocre results? Possibly, but that does not have to mean they need to drastically change their ways in 2022.
Some better chemistry with players such as the aforementioned Smith and Agholor certainly will help, as will the new additions like DeVante Parker. As with most things Patriots offense, however, the growth displayed by its most important player will make up for a lot.
Jones’ development within a streamlined offensive scheme will massively help New England find success where it was not always able to find one last year. The play-action game is one particular area worth mentioning.