Mac Jones identifies key area Patriots must improve to beat NFL's best teams

Jones identifies key area Patriots must improve to beat NFL's best teams originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts 26-3 in Sunday's Week 9 game at Gillette Stadium, and while that looks like an impressive victory, the home team's offense actually gave a pretty poor performance.

The Patriots offense tallied just 203 total yards. Starting quarterback Mac Jones completed 20 of 30 pass attempts for 149 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. New England's rushing attack wasn't very effective, either, totaling 70 yards on 28 attempts (2.5 per carry). The Patriots produced only 3.3 yards per play, too.

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One of the primary reasons for the Patriots' struggles offensively was not picking up enough yards on first and second down, therefore putting the team in tough third-and-long scenarios. It was an area that Jones highlighted in his postgame press conference.

"There are definitely some things I'll see on film that you want to have back, but at the same time you have to move the ball. We have to eliminate some of those negative plays, and we're just in long-yard situations way too often," Jones said.

"It's the NFL, these guys are pretty good. If you put yourself behind the sticks, your percentages plummet. It is what it is, but you've got to fight through it and figure out a way to be better on first and second down. That helps you on third downs."

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The Patriots faced a third-and-seven or worse nine times against the Colts. Here's a look at how each play ended.

  • First quarter: Third-and-12 (punt)

  • First quarter: Third-and-10 (punt)

  • First quarter: Third-and-15 (punt)

  • Second quarter: Third-and-eight (A Colts penalty made it third-and-three, and Jones was sacked on the next play, resulting in a punt)

  • Third quarter: Third-and-seven (punt)

  • Fourth quarter: Third-and-nine (converted on 30-yard pass)

  • Fourth quarter: Third-and-seven (converted on 11-yard pass)

  • Fourth quarter: Third-and-15 (punt)

  • Fourth quarter: Third-and-seven (punt)

Nine of the Patriots' 17 third downs required seven or more yards for a first down. The Patriots converted just six of those 17 third downs overall for a 35.3 percent success rate. They entered Week 9 converting 39.8 percent of their third downs, which ranked 17th in the league.

"First and second downs is a big part of the NFL," Jones said. "I think really good teams are good on first and second down. Third down, they're in a better spot and convert more. You want to be above whatever percentage mark we set, and we've got to be better and extend drives that way.

"Every drive can't seem like it's so hard to get yards. We've got to be able to skip some third downs and move the ball and get explosive plays. Once again, defenses are kind of trying to take that away, playing a lot of two-high coverage and trying to stop that. So it's a respect towards our skill players and the guys we have."

The best teams typically convert third downs at the highest rate. The AFC West-leading Kansas Chiefs lead the league at 51.9 percent. The AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills are No. 2 at 50.6 percent. The undefeated Philadelphia Eagles are fourth at 45.9 percent.

Staying out of third-and-long situations was one area that Jones identified as something that must be fixed to "beat some really good teams coming up."

The Patriots have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league with their final eight opponents having a .605 combined win percentage. Only the Washington Commanders (.621 combined opponent win percentage) have a more challenging schedule.

For the Patriots to hit the 10- or 11-win mark and reach the AFC playoffs while playing a brutal schedule, they must put themselves in more manageable third-down situations.