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Sunday Patriots Notes: Reasons for optimism with Mac Jones, New England’s offense

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL on Sept. 24.

Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Standing at 0-2, the New England Patriots’ backs are against the wall. While a loss to the New York Jets on Sunday would not definitively eliminate them from playoff contention — it is still only Week 3, after all — it would be another blow to a team that came close to winning in both of its games thus far.

Naturally, all our focus this week was on this particular game. For anything else we might not have covered just yet, let’s clean out the notebook. Welcome to the latest edition of our Sunday Patriots Notes

1. Reasons for optimism with Mac Jones and the offense: The Patriots’ offense has yet to find its rhythm, struggling to play consistent football in Weeks 1 and 2. That being said, not all is as bad as the bottom line — an 0-2 record and the 22nd scoring offense in football — makes it seem.

So, here are some reasons for optimism about the unit and its starting quarterback.

Mac Jones has shown improvement under pressure: One of Mac Jones’ biggest issues in 2022 was his inability to perform well when pressured. According to Pro Football Focus, he completed just 42 of 99 pass attempts (42.4%) in such situations for 505 yards with three touchdowns and eight interceptions. This year, meanwhile, he has gone 15-for-28 (53.6%) for 141 yards and a touchdown. The sample size is small, but the improvement is noticeable both statistically and on tape.

Situational football has been a positive for the young QB: Falling into a similar category is Mac Jones’ improved situational football. While there have been a handful of questionable decisions, he has mostly made the most of each situation.

The only way is up for the offensive line: The Patriots’ offensive line play has been rough the first two weeks of the season, with both pass protection and run blocking an issue. The main catalyst behind this struggle was a lack of personnel continuity, but with Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Michael Onwenu and Calvin Anderson all either back or close to returning, the unit should get better as well.

The red zone offense is looking better: The Patriots’ red zone offense had a slow start into training camp, causing some worries for fans and spectators alike. However, it did have some encouraging moments against Philadelphia and Miami — an intriguing foundation to build off of.

The Patriots are still in the ‘month of learning’: Patriots defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington recently used the term “month of learning” to describe September, and the team very much is still in that stage. The hope is that the lessons learned will translate into on-field success of the sustainable kind.

2. The Patriots’ one-dimensionality is an issue: One of the biggest worries for the Patriots offense so far is a lack of balance. The numbers speak for themselves: the team has called 110 pass plays over the first two weeks of the season compared to just 44 runs.

They do know that that kind of one-dimensionality is not the goal.

“We have to improve the running game, there’s no doubt about that,” said offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. “I think that starts with us as a coaching staff. We have to do a better job with what we believe we’re going to see and what we actually see on game day.”

Center David Andrews also made a call for more balance this week.

“People say the game’s changing and all that, and there is some truth to that, but at the end of the day a good team’s a balanced football team,” the team captain said. “They can run the ball, they can throw the ball, they can do it all in all phases. That’s a big thing I believe in, and it all starts up front — it starts with running the football. You run the football, it opens up a lot of things whether it’s screens, play actions, not having to throw it 50 times.

“That’s a huge part. Especially against a good front, you don’t want to do that. This is a good front, and there are a lot of other good fronts in his league. When you’re able to be balanced and when you’re able to make them defend the whole field, if you can say, it’s a big key to success.”

The hope is that improved offensive line play and more favorable game scripts will lead to improved success on the ground.

3. New England’s O-line issues in one graph: Speaking of the offensive line, if there is one graph to illustrate its shortcomings so far this season it is the following: the average sack time has been under two seconds, the worst in the NFL after only the Baltimore Ravens.

What this shows is that when Mac Jones has been brought down, it has usually happened quickly — a sign of breakdowns up front.

4. Joe Cardona’s underrated leadership comes into focus: With the Patriots bringing in two newcomers to serve as place kicker and punter/holder — rookies Chad Ryland and Bryce Baringer, respectively — the entire operation in the kicking game is looking different. As a result, the only holdover from years past is taking on an important role: long snapper Joe Cardona is a leader, and one of the mentors Ryland and Baringer are looking up to.

“Joe is as natural a leader as we have on this football team. And, obviously, there’s a reason for that,” said team captain Matthew Slater. “But I think for someone in his position to have the reach that he does, and the impact that he has on the entire football team, is very, very impressive and it’s well deserved. He’s someone that everyone in this locker room trusts, on and off the field, values his opinion on all things non-football.

“He does so much to serve the guys in his locker room at a very high level. And he does it uniquely. I think great leaders have the ability to sense the guys around them, and give the guys around them exactly what they need.”

Cardona has been the Patriots’ long snapper since 2015, and is one of only eight players still around from the team’s dynasty days.

5. Marte Mapu gets fined for his Week 2 hit: Patriots rookie linebacker/safety Marte Mapu was flagged during last week’s loss to Miami for hitting wide receiver Jaylen Waddle in the helmet. As a consequence, Waddle suffered a concussion — and Mapu has now been fined: he had to pay $5,620 for unnecessary roughness

6. Jalen Mills’ versatility might come in handy: With the Patriots’ cornerback depth taking some hits recently, the team is running out of depth options to promote. One player who might therefore get the call against the New York Jets on Sunday is the hyper-versatile Jalen Mills, who has experience playing both safety and cornerback.

Mills, however, did not give any insight into his role this week.

“My focus this offseason, and this season, has been in the safety room. So, I’ll just leave it to the coaching staff,” he said it before explaining his thoughts on moving to safety this year: “I like it. You get to be a little more aggressive. You get to watch the quarterback a little more, and make more plays on the ball.”

The Patriots will play the Jets without three of their core-five cornerbacks: Jonathan Jones will miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, while Jack Jones and Marcus Jones are both on injured reserve.

7. Devin McCourty thinks rookie Demario Douglas ‘has to play’: After losing a fumble in the first quarter of the Patriots’ loss to Miami last Sunday, rookie wide receiver Demario “Pop” Douglas was benched by the team. Former team captain Devin McCourty was not a fan of that decision, and instead made the plea this week that Douglas should be heavily involved in the offense rather than ride the bench.

“For that offense, Pop Douglas, there’s nobody else on the offense like him,” McCourty told WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show. “The only other guy on the team like him is Marcus Jones. So, unless you’re going to move Marcus Jones to offense, which doesn’t look likely now that he went down last week, that kid has to play. He has to play. And not just show up a little bit — he needs to be out there a lot. Because you need guys that put some fear in the defense of, ‘Man, when this guy has the ball in his hands, we got to gang tackle, we got to surround him.’

“You need that out there on offense because it changes the way some of those guys are going to play defensively. And when Pop Douglas isn’t out there, they really don’t have that guy. They have good football players, but they don’t have guys that have a different level of explosion and speed.”

8. Setting up the week ahead: The Patriots will take on the Jets for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff on Sunday. Afterwards, they will return to Foxborough to start the preparation for their Week 4 game against the Dallas Cowboys.

The first practice and injury report of the week will come on Wednesday, with the game itself scheduled for 4:25 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.

Bonus: Patriots fan Dale Mooney passed away after attending last week’s Patriots-Dolphins game; he was involved in an altercation and suffered what was described as a “medical condition” in the fourth quarter. In order to support his family, a GoFundMe page was created. We here at Pats Pulpit would appreciate if you could donate as well, if at all possible. Thank you.