Through the first three weeks of the season, the New England Patriots offense has struggled creating explosive plays. A large part of that has been due to their inability to connect on deep passes.
In his first three games, quarterback Mac Jones has attempted the most deep passes (20+ air yards) in the NFL with 18. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones, however, has only completed three of them. The 16.7 completion rate ranks 32nd among 33 qualified quarterbacks.
“Those are statistically the hardest passes to hit,” Bill Belichick explained on Monday. “Completion percentage and all that, is true of every team. But, we’ve got to hit them, we’ve got to throw them and we need more production out of the deep balls.
“I mean, not every play is going to be a 40-yard pass, but the ones that we throw during the game 30-yards, 40-yards, 25-yards, whatever it is, we want to be productive on those plays. So, we just need to keep working on them.”
Due to the lack of downfield success, New England’s offense has been forced to string together long drives. While that’s difficult enough to do consistently in the NFL, it’s even harder for a team that has been prone to getting in their own way due to things such as penalties.
The result has been New England ranking 26th in the NFL in points per game (17.3) this season.
The misses downfield again hurt the Patriots’ offense against the New York Jets on Sunday, as they scored just 13 offensive points and could not ice the game despite multiple opportunities late in the fourth quarter. In total, Jones was 0-for-5 on deep balls against New York, with the misses stemming from numerous variables.
A third quarter miss to rookie wide receiver Demario Douglas highlighted several of those variables. On the play below, Douglas easily beats the slot defender and has open space ahead of him. The chemistry between the quarterback and rookie wideout may have been off, as Douglas appears to fade to the open corner perhaps expecting Jones to loft one to the pylon for an easy score. Jones, on the other hand, fires a back shoulder ball away from the safety coming from the middle of the field.
Beyond the chemistry and timing issue, the pass is also under thrown as Jones is forced to throw off his back foot with pressure barreling down on him. Pressure has been another part of the issues with the inconsistencies on these deep passes.
Chemistry appeared to again be the issue on back-to-back drives late in the fourth quarter. As New England’s offense attempted to put the dagger in New York, Jones missed newcomer JuJu Smith-Schuster twice downfield to kill drives.
The first incompletion came on a third-and-six with just under three minutes remaining. With the Jets defense taking away the middle of the field, Jones attacks the single coverage matchup in the slot with Smith-Schuster running a fade.
It’s a similar play as the Douglas incompletion, as the quarterback and receiver don't appear to be on the same page as Jones fires a back shoulder ball despite JuJu appearing to have a step on the corner.
On the very next drive on another third-down, Jones agains looks for Smith-Schuster down the field. This is covered well by New York, as the defensive backs banjo the pick route and appears to make Jones pause at the top of his drop.
But, the back shoulder pass appears to be the right throw from Jones in this instance with the defensive back on top of JuJu. However, the timing just appears to be off again and another ball hits the turf.
“I mean in those instances we work hard on those throws during practice, it’s sometimes early in the season, it’s really hard to simulate that and in practice and it comes from a lot of repetition,” Bill O’Brien said of the two incompletions to JuJu.
“It’s not any excuse at all. We need to do a better job of practicing those, making sure that we hit those in practice, and then getting it done in the game. We were close but close isn’t good enough and we gotta start connecting on those type of plays.”
The poor results in these situations also goes back to a now multi-year problem of struggling against man coverage. Like the Jets showed above, Jones is facing man coverage on roughly 50 percent of third downs as teams are not threatened by their pass catching personnel.
So far, New England’s receivers haven't had much success and perhaps could benefit from more Pop Douglas serving as the shifty chain mover out of the slot on third-down.
Moving forward, the hope is more repetition and time together will lead to better execution throwing the ball downfield. But, if the chemistry/timing issues and inability to win certain matchups continue, the cap may stay on this O’Brien offense.
“I think we have to do a lot of things better offensively,” O’Brien said. “I think there’s some things that we’re doing pretty well. There’s other things including our ability to get the ball down the field, chunk plays. We did it once on Sunday where we hit Pharaoh on the touchdown, but we have to do it more, so we’ll work hard on it.
“We’ll continue to do what’s best for us in order to try to win the football game. But we definitely need to improve on trying to get the ball down the field chunk plays.”