Explosive flashes: Patriots offense gets aggressive down the field vs. Panthers

·5 min read

Perry: Patriots offense gets aggressive down the field vs. Panthers originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- Throughout training camp, as the Patriots have worked to emphasize different areas of their playbook and adjusted the way they communicate, Mac Jones has peppered the short-to-intermediate area of the field with passes.

That has been, in all likelihood, by design. For the most part.

But there have certainly been instances when even if Jones did want to drive the ball through the air down the field, he didn't have enough time to do so. The offensive line has been an issue for weeks now. It has struggled to open up holes in the running game, and it has failed to consistently protect Jones in the pocket as a drop-back passer.

But during Tuesday's joint session with the Panthers, Jones and his line and his receivers were all able to work in conjunction with one another to open it up. Finally, they flashed some explosive playmaking ability.

It started with perhaps the best two-play sequence of camp for the new-look Patriots offense. In the first competitive 11-on-11 period for the first-team offense against a new set of defenders, they called a wide-zone running play for Damien Harris that picked up four yards. Positive gains using that concept have been tough to come by.

On the subsequent play, they gave the Panthers a very similar look, faking to Harris on a second wide-zone run. It was the type of play they've been working on since the spring, and this was their first chance to break it out. When Jones rolled back toward the middle of the field and scanned, he hit Jakobi Meyers on a perfectly-placed crossing route for about 15 yards down the field.

Wide zone. Play action. One play building off the next. That quick sequence was a window into why a significant chunk of the NFL is now running these concepts popularized by the Shanahan family.

Later came two deep 50-50 shots to DeVante Parker -- he calls them "80-20" attempts because he's so confident he'll come down with them -- for chunk gains. There was a 15-yard gain to Kristian Wilkerson on a dig over the middle during 11-on-11s. Nelson Agholor drew a defensive pass-interference penalty on a deep target along the boundary that would've led to an explosive gain in a live game situation. Ty Montgomery reeled in a long sideline toss from Jones to start a two-minute drill.

Even deep incompletions to Tre Nixon in seven-on-seven and to Jakobi Meyers in 11-on-11 were the types of attempts the Patriots seemed reluctant to try prior to Tuesday. But against the Panthers, the reins came off and Jones was free to chuck.

The deep ball is an element of their attack the Patriots desperately needed to improve this offseason, making their trade for Parker and their drafting of a deep threat (they took speedster Tyquan Thornton in the second round) logical moves to provide their offensive huddle with things it didn't previously have.

Teams simply weren't concerned with New England beating them deep or to the outside in 2021.

"He needs guys who can get open," one AFC defensive coach who game-planned for the Patriots last season told me earlier in the offseason. "They don't have guys that can get down the field and have him throw it up for an explosive pass... You need somebody better. Do you need [Ja'Marr] Chase? No. But the best receivers they had this year were Hunter Henry and [Meyers] inside. Agholor is just not a consistent guy. He's not going to beat you."

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Jones was 21st in the NFL on yards per deep attempt (12.1 yards per pass that traveled 20 yards or more down the field) as a rookie. Including playoffs, he was 28th in the NFL in rating on deep passes (72.4), which was well below league average on those throws (92.7) and well below his own rating to any other level of the field (96.7 from 10-19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, 95.2 from 0-9 yards, 104.6 behind the line).

With defenses expecting either a run or a short pass from the Patriots on a consistent basis last year, they could crowd the box with defenders and bring pressure at will -- Jones was blitzed at the second-highest rate in the league -- because they weren't worried about being beaten over the top. Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson ended up among the league leaders in seeing eight-man boxes on their runs, making it all the more impressive the Patriots had one of the most efficient rushing attacks in the league.

But if the Patriots can truly threaten deep, that could soften defenses and provided a domino effect that benefits their overall offensive attack.

With Parker looking like a more-than-capable boundary threat in one-on-one situations... with Thornton and his 4.2-second 40 showing promise... with the Patriots line finally having a day when they provided Jones enough time to push it down the field... there are signs that Bill Belichick's club has what it needs to be an improved down-the-field passing team in 2022.

But their latest practice was just a start.

How the first-team Patriots offense fares against the Panthers on Wednesday and in two joint sessions with the Raiders next week will provide an indicator as to whether or not Tuesday's explosive moments have real staying power or if they were merely flashes.