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FOXBORO — The practices before this week were designed to favor the offense. Without pads on the players, these days are often called "passing camp." There’s no contact allowed. Cornerbacks can’t jam receivers. Defensive backs sometimes wear big pads on their hands. That makes it so they can’t hold, but also makes it easier for receivers to get open.
For those reasons, the Patriots first week of training camp was concerning because the defense outperformed Mac Jones’ offensive group for three-straight practices.
During the spring OTAs and minicamp, Jones completed 87% (59 of 68) of his passes against the defense in competitive drills. In the final two days of camp last week, the second-year quarterback completed just 52% of his passes (12 of 23) in 11-in-11s to go with two interceptions. That involved large chunks of offensive inefficiency and a peeved Jones, who quickly left Saturday’s session instead of sticking around on the practice field like he usually does.
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On Monday, the first day the players were in pads, Jones’ offense started full-team drills with a false start from Isaiah Wynn. Jones followed that by throwing his third interception in the last three practices. The easiest path for the Patriots to become a Super Bowl contender is for Jones to develop into one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. After a strong rookie season and a great spring from Jones, offensive woes have plagued the Patriots.
With three different coaches in Jones’ ear — Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge — any offensive failure will certainly fall on the coaching staff. On Monday, Patricia and Judge asked people to reserve judgment while also praising Jones’ efforts this offseason.
“The biggest thing is consistency,” said Patricia. “Trying to improve every day and make sure, if we have new things go in, we master the details of that. … I thought it was a good week last week trying to come out and work hard. The effort was really good. Some of the plays we have to execute better, but I thought we had a couple of good days and maybe a couple of not-so-good days — or days we have to do better.”
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The fate of the Patriots season will almost certainly hinge on the offense’s ability to improve. So far in camp, that hasn’t been the case.
A look at Jones' struggles
Jones started training camp by completing 68% of his passes in team drills over the first two days. He seemed more efficient close to the goal line — within 10 yards. When drills moved out to the 20-yard line, it was notable that the defense got the better of the offense. For example, after starting Day 2 of camp 10 of 11 in full-team drills, Jones ended practice just 1-for-7.
There was one point when he and rookie Bailey Zappe were 0-for-10 against the defense. In that span, Jones had three inaccurate passes, a throwaway and a drop by Kendrick Bourne, who was unable to hold onto a difficult pass in the end zone.
“Everyone is super competitive and wants to play well,” Patricia said. “We have a pretty good squad on the other side, too. Those guys worked really well that day.”
On Day 3 of camp, Jones had another rough performance in 11-on-11s, starting 2-for-5 with an interception. The turnover happened when Jakobi Meyers ran the wrong route. Instead of breaking right, he broke left and Jones threw the ball right to cornerback Jalen Mills. The quarterback finished that day 6 of 11 in 11-on-11s.
Saturday’s Day 4 practice was eye-opening. After starting the day 4 of 5, Jones went 2-for-6 to end the practice. After his fourth completion, Jones never completed more than one pass in a row. That included another interception. On this play, it looked like Jones had DeVante Parker open, but Kyle Dugger did a great job to read the play and jumped in front of Parker’s route to get the ball.
This practice ended with Jones completing 50% (6 of 12) of his throws in 11-on-11s. It was noteworthy that Jones immediately left the practice field and looked unhappy with how the day went. During the first three practices, Jones hung around to throw more passes to teammates and talk with visitors on the field.
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On Monday, Jones finished 5 of 8 with another interception — on his first throw of the day — to Terrance Mitchell. In the final red-zone period, the quarterback completed 1 of 3 passes with Malcolm Butler breaking up two attempts.
“This is when we really start learning about our team. The evaluations start," said Judge. “When you put the pads on, you just start to play football. Before this, we were installing concepts and plays, trying to get guys into formations. You try to make as much progress as you can, but really, football starts today. The first day of pads is never clean on either side of the ball.”
Is Jones getting the right coaching?
The Patriots have their quarterback. We saw that last season when Jones outplayed every rookie quarterback from the 2021 NFL draft class. The key to the Patriots' success is surrounding Jones with the right players and coaches to help him succeed.
This offseason, Jones gained some arm strength and that’s been seen with an improved deep ball. On Monday, he tossed two 50-yard touchdown passes — one in 1-on-1 drills and another in 11-on-11s.
The biggest question isn’t whether or not Jones is the right quarterback but rather if the Patriots are coaching him in the right way.
In the wake of losing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the Vegas Raiders in the offseason, Belichick didn’t hire an experienced OC or promote a younger assistant to replace him.. Instead, Judge and Patricia have been asked to fill the role. Both coaches have called offensive plays in training camp, but Patricia has done it more. On top of that, Belichick has called offensive plays as well.
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It’s fair to wonder if the Patriots have too many voices in that offensive meeting room.
“We have an established culture here that we understand there’s input that comes across the board,” said Patricia. “When a hard decision needs to be made, we’re lucky enough that our head coach is involved in all aspects of the game and has an expertise above anybody else. … We can really rely on him to help us get through any of those sticky points.”
Theoretically, things should get better for the Patriots offense. It would be nice to see that in training camp.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Patriots Analysis: New England's offensive line, Mac Jones struggle