Patriots at Bills preview: Can Mac Jones be the reason the Patriots advance?

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  • Buffalo Bills
    Buffalo Bills
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • New England Patriots
    New England Patriots
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Mac Jones
    Mac Jones
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  • Kurt Warner
    Kurt Warner
    American football quarterback
  • Bill Belichick
    Bill Belichick
    American football coach

Perry: The Pats will need Mac Jones to make big plays to advance originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BUFFALO -- Sick of hearing about the weather yet?

About how Josh Allen has a hard time feeling his fingers and toes at this point in the year at Highmark Stadium? That Stefon Diggs wants his quarterback to ease up on the velocity of his passes when everything is frozen? That Mac Jones has never played a game in the near-zero temperatures he’ll face Saturday night?

We know it’ll be cold. We know that the passing game will be impacted. But this isn’t going to be the 50-mile-per-hour gust game from back in Week 13. He who makes plays through the air -- even if those opportunities are limited -- will likely be moving on to the Divisional Round.

Curran: The Patriots will need help from Buffalo to extend their season

Which brings us to the Patriots rookie quarterback.

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels would probably love to grind their way to a victory on the power of their power running game -- perhaps they break out "Ride 38/39 Club" over and over again as they did in Week 13 -- but there will be moments when Jones is faced with a third-and-long scenario and has to chuck it.

Can he execute? On the road? In the cold? Against the No. 1 DVOA passing defense in football?

After three quarters of a season looking like the favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year, Jones looked more like a guy rather than the guy in three of his last four games. And his struggles can be traced back to moments when he’s embraced too tightly that which is his greatest gift behind center.

The wunderkind processor has played too quickly.

When he was picked off by Darius Leonard in Indianapolis, Jones worked from one read to the next without identifying that the star linebacker was about to jump into his passing lane. When he was picked by Bobby Okereke in the same game, Jones came off potential big plays down the field just to get the ball out of his hands ... and into the hands of the Colts.

Against Buffalo in Week 16, there were times he passed on chunk plays to try to stay ahead of the chains with shorter throws yet still completed less than 50 percent of his passes and had a season-low -19.5 completion percentage over expectation. Against Miami, he moved too quickly to hit Jakobi Meyers on an out-route before verifying Dolphins coverage. The result? Six points going the other way.

Next Pats Podcast: Kurt Warner: Why the rookie wall is not the issue for Mac Jones | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

Hall-of-Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner joined The Next Pats Podcast this week and said that when Jones has had hiccups, there is a consistent theme.

"I was actually just watching the Week 16 game against Buffalo, and I think sometimes he errs to a fault of getting it to his checkdown too quickly," Warner said. "And a lot of people might say, ‘Well what does that mean? He's getting the ball out of his hands. He's getting completions. He's not taking sacks.'

"But I'm a believer, in this business, the quarterback has to make big-time throws to beat good teams just about every time you play them ... Most of the time, when you get into the playoffs, your quarterback has to be willing to take chances and attack down the field. I don't think Mac does that enough. I think he's too quick to get it to his checkdown."

Expecting to be able to execute long drives against top-flight competition is asking for trouble, Warner explained. Yet that’s how the Patriots have operated for much of the year. Run the ball. Take care of the ball. Control the clock. Control the game. Limit mistakes. It worked to a large extent. They were sixth in points scored (27.2) this season.

But that’s easier said than done against top-end defenses. The more you’re forced to cross the street on the way to the end zone, the better the odds of a mistake -- penalties, turnovers. Incomplete passes, stuffed runs -- and the better the odds your drive gets splattered.

Big plays are, for Warner, almost a necessity against good competition. And the way in which Jones has played hasn’t led to many opportunities for those types of explosive pickups.

"Instead of letting the play play out, seeing what the defense is going to do, and getting to the checkdown when he should get to the checkdown, he's making some of those decisions real quickly," he said. "Go back to the Indy game when he threw the interception in the red zone. He peeked off to his left, to his first read, and then he came back to his second read without really verifying what was going on. He threw it with Darius Leonard right there to make the interception.

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"There was another play in that game when he threw an interception going to his back on the checkdown where he had an opportunity -- a couple opportunities -- for big plays, but he got off it so quick, and then he wasn't quite ready to make the checkdown throw and really see the defense. That's what I mean when he goes so quickly. It's almost like, 'Boom, boom. Gotta get the ball out.' And you don't verify the defense sometimes."

Jones acknowledged this week that what Warner has noticed is, in fact, an issue. During his weekly press conference, I asked him how he balances the difference between playing fast enough versus moving too quickly through his reads.

"I think there’s a fine line between the two," he said. "You’ve just got to get a feel for that day and kind of what you want to do. But naturally, I do process pretty fast. Sometimes, I do have to just slow down.

"It depends. It changes every day. Even some days at practice, you kind of get into your flow and you just play how you know. For anybody, they just want to get to where they’re comfortable, like they’re playing fast, free, and not overthinking, so that’s also important. You can’t really go back and forth too much."

Jones will have to toe that line in his return to Orchard Park. The Bills are arguably the best in the league when it comes to disguising coverage and forcing quarterbacks to question -- then verify, then question again -- what it is they’re seeing.

Play too fast, and you’ll run yourself into a mistake. Methodically read things out, and you may have a defender in your lap before you’ve deciphered exactly what it is you’re seeing.

How the Bills opt to play Jones bears watching early. It would stand to reason they’ll stack the box to stop Patriots runs, as they did in Week 16 after getting trampled a few weeks prior. (The Patriots eventually solved those looks, rushing for 5.5 yards per carry by running to the outside when the interior runs were eliminated.) If that’s the case, with more bodies crowding the line of scrimmage, it could mean single-high safety coverages for Jones, and boundary corners left on islands against Patriots wideouts.

The Bills had no problem with this approach three weeks ago. New England’s receiver talent didn’t spook them, and when they played man, they held Mac Jones to 2.3 yards per pass attempt, per The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz. They could try a similar approach Saturday, but the personnel on the Patriots side will be different.

Back in Week 16, the Patriots were without Nelson Agholor -- who hasn’t produced at a high level but is the fastest of Jones' receivers -- as he dealt with a concussion. They also played Kendrick Bourne on less than 50 percent of their snaps after he missed that week of practice on the COVID reserve list. N’Keal Harry played 60 of 63 plays in that matchup, and he was benched a week later in favor of practice-squad wideout Kristian Wilkerson. (Wilkerson was elevated again Friday and could bump Harry from the Wild Card Round lineup.)

If the Bills key in on the Patriots run game and dare Jones to throw outside, he’ll have a little more talent to work with than he did the last time around.

To beat the Bills, the Patriots will have to contain Allen as a runner. Of course, stopping him through the air will be critical. But with temperatures plummeting Saturday night, and with the passing games for both sides likely stalled to a degree, making sure one of the most dangerous runners in the league doesn't run wild will be critical for Belichick.

"That's something that I see playing out again this week," Warner said. "I think Buffalo is going to go, 'Hey, we're going to play man-to-man coverage. And we're going to force these guys to consistently beat us in this game and then force Mac to consistently make tight throws into man-to-man coverage. That to me, more than anything, I thought swayed this [Week 16] game."

This game shouldn’t be a referendum on Jones’ ability to beat good defenses with his arm or perform in big moments. He’s in a situation where the team’s preferred formula is to win with its running game and its defense. Saturday should be no different.

But when Jones has the chance to make throws in critical situations, if he does, it’d go a long way toward extending his rookie season at least one more week. At the very least, he has to avoid making back-breaking mistakes in those spots.

Before you can win the game, he’s heard since joining the Patriots, you must first not lose it.

"Maybe a big part of it is they've harped on this: 'Get the ball out. Get completions. Get the ball out. Get completions.' So maybe he's playing fast because that's what they've told him to do," Warner said. "Or maybe it's just him taking that on himself, going, ‘OK, I just don't want to screw this up.’

"All of that will play into how quickly (he transitions into the driver of the offense), and does he become a guy that can take that deep breath and attack down the field a little bit more. Completion percentage may be down, but I'm a big believer that when you threaten the defense continually down the field, when they're afraid that you're going to attack them continually down the field, what that does is help your offense in numerous ways, no matter what the stats look like. There's a certain mentality that keeps them on their heels ...

"Those are things that we'll watch. We’ll watch them in the playoffs. I'm assuming we're going to get mostly the same guy (for the remainder of) this year. But we'll watch it moving forward to see if he's able to grow and evolve and change his mindset from the way he's played this year."

Prediction: Bills 20, Patriots 17

X factor: Justin Herron

It's not yet clear how the Patriots will cope without starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who was ruled out Friday with hip and ankle injuries. But Herron, a second-year tackle out of Wake Forest, was the choice when Wynn was hurt in Week 18. With a short week to prepare, thereby limiting the time the Patriots had to work in a new left tackle, Herron could be the choice again.

It would be fair to wonder if the Patriots would insert Mike Onwenu, the team's sixth offensive lineman most games, into the starting lineup with Wynn out. He has played right tackle but not left tackle in his two pro seasons. Another option would be to play Onwenu at right tackle and shift Trent Brown to the left side, where he started when the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII. But, when asked earlier this week, Brown said he hadn't practiced at left tackle since OTAs.

Herron has two starts at left tackle under his belt this season, in Weeks 5 and 6 against the Texans and Cowboys. In those games, according to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots ran for just 3.8 yards per carry off left tackle. Herron did allow just one pressure in each of those games, per Pro Football Focus, in 55 total pass-blocking snaps.

Number to know: 50.9

According to Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic, that 50.9 figure is the percentage of designed Josh Allen runs that result in Bills first downs. That's a mind-bogglingly high rate, highlighted by the fact that Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts was the only other player this season above 40 percent.

To beat the Bills, the Patriots will have to contain Allen as a runner. Of course, stopping him through the air will be critical. But with temperatures plummeting Saturday night, and with the passing games for both sides likely stalled to a degree, making sure one of the most dangerous runners in the league doesn't run wild will be critical for Belichick.

Allen is second in the NFL in yards per carry (6.25) among players with at least 100 carries. (Seattle's Rashaad Penny tops that list at 6.29.) He rushed 12 times for 64 yards in Week 16, picking up one 25-yard gain with the Patriots in man-to-man coverage, leading to some delayed reactions when Allen broke the pocket.

The Patriots appeared to shift to man coverage that afternoon after Allen had carved them up in the short area when they began the game in zone. But when in man, the Bills beat the Patriots not only with scrambles, but with crossing routes and with receivers working from bunched and stacked alignments.

Buffalo seems like it will be a pain for the Patriots to mirror in man coverage. Especially with Jalen Mills (COVID reserve) unexpected to play and Kyle Dugger (hand) having been limited in practice all week after missing Week 18. Add in the fact that Allen's receiving corps is fully healthy and it looks like man-to-man would be a tough ask. If the Patriots can play an aggressive zone that doesn't allow short throws to go for nine yards a pop, as was the case early in Week 16, that may be the way to go for Belichick's secondary.

Zone looks could potentially help guard against deep shots for Buffalo. Furthermore, defensive backs with "zone eyes" -- peeking into the backfield while manning their areas -- would theoretically be able to help guard against Allen scrambles. And the Patriots may need help in that regard.

Their defensive front is hurting. Christian Barmore is dealing with a knee injury. Matt Judon (no sacks, no quarterback hits since Week 13 in Buffalo) doesn't look like the player he was for three quarters of the season. Lawrence Guy has a shoulder issue that seemed to bother him in Miami. Their job will be to keep Allen in the pocket, but he'll inevitably escape, and at that point the only question is how soon will help arrive.

Playing zone on the back end could help the Patriots get to Allen -- one of the most dangerous runners in football -- on the ground before he's made a game-changing play.