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Perry's Report Card: Only two units get high marks in Week 2 win originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -- Mac Jones wasn't just doing the quarterback-at-the-podium-after-the-game thing. He knew he left some meat on the bone Sunday against the Jets. He readily acknowledged it.
"I think it was just me," he said. "I can push the ball down the field more. They did kind of what we expected them to do. They obviously have a good defensive line like we said. I can definitely just hold the ball in a good way, and maybe just move and try to make a better throw down the field on a lot of plays."
Through two games, Jones has thrown the ball just 5.6 yards down the field per pass attempt, according to NextGen Stats. That ranks him as the third-shortest passer in the league among quarterbacks who've played two full games. Only Matt Ryan (4.9) and Jimmy Garoppolo (5.1) throw shorter, on average.
Does it matter? It really didn't in Jones' second professional game. He took care of the ball. His counterpart, Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson (four interceptions), didn't. That was the difference.
But it's worth diving into this quick-hitting, short-throwing, meat-on-the-bone-leaving passing game the Patriots have shown through two weeks.
And the Report Card is the perfect place to do it....
Against the Jets, according to NextGen Stats, Mac Jones threw the ball just 4.6 yards down the field per attempt. Other than the Week 1 showings from Jalen Hurts (3.7) and Andy Dalton (4.2), other than Jimmy Garoppolo's Week 2 (3.6), it was the dink-and-dunkiest passing performance of the season.
While it didn't matter on the scoreboard Sunday, it might matter against an opponent with a competent passing game. Shorter throws, of course, tend to lead to fewer explosive offensive plays. And fewer explosive offensive plays often mean fewer opportunities for efficient drives. And fewer efficient drives often mean fewer points.
The starting quarterback with the lowest air yards per attempt last season was Drew Brees (6.0), who had a level of anticipation and institutional NFL knowledge that allowed him to run a playoff-bound Saints offense despite his below-average arm. But, in general, air yards averages in that Brees range -- like Jones' through two weeks -- can be hard to sustain winning teams.
Not only might the explosive play opportunities be fewer and farther between for clubs with short-throwing quarterbacks, but -- it would stand to reason -- those clubs are also likely easier to defend. If an opponent knows it can crowd the box and dare a passer to chuck it over their heads without fear of being beaten deep, the opponent's life is inherently easier. They might not feel as though they need to defend "every blade of grass." Therefore short passes are more effectively stymied, and there are more potential run defenders closer to the action should the ball be handed off.
Mac Jones, per @NextGenStats, had an intended air yards average of 4.6 today. Only Jimmy Garoppolo (3.6) has thrown shorter this week.
Through two weeks, Jones has an IAY average of 5.6. Of the QBs who’ve played two full games, he leads only Garoppolo (5.1) and Matt Ryan (4.9). pic.twitter.com/xSbwRHakjL
— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 20, 2021
So why all the short throws at MetLife?
Part of the answer to that is play-calling. One fifth (six) of Jones' passes were screens, where there is typically one option at or behind the line of scrimmage around whom the play revolves. But the reason for the number of screen passes Jones attempted may also have something to do with the protection he received when he wasn't throwing screens.
Jones may have felt as though he had to throw quickly (and therefore short) at times because for the second straight week, the Patriots had issues in pass protection. With starting right tackle Trent Brown out, Yasir Durant made his second-career start (his first at right tackle). It didn't go well. Jones was hit on four of his first 12 non-screen dropbacks against the Jets, and Durant was replaced by Justin Herron before halftime. Jones was sacked three times in the game and pressured on five additional dropbacks.
Perceived pressure may have led to short passes, too. After absorbing 11 hits against the Dolphins in the opener, and given the way Week 2 began, it's not all that surprising that Jones might've been hesitant to survey comfortably from the pocket. Maybe he wasn't all that inclined to hold onto the ball behind center and allow longer routes to develop down the field. Screens, then, became one way for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to try to spark the Patriots passing game and slow down Jets rushers.
Unlike the opener against Miami, the blitz was not a huge issue for Jones on Sunday. Though Jets coach Robert Saleh timed his blitz calls well. Jones was sacked once when blitzed, and he otherwise went 3-for-6 for 25 yards against the blitz, with one pass dropped.
Still, there's something missing here with Jones and his affinity for the short throw.
If there was shoddy pass protection, and if the play-calling was designed to protect him, then what's with Jones putting some of the responsibility for missed downfield opportunities on himself?
Well, because he missed his share. That helped lead to his depressed average air-yards-per-attempt number, too.
On the last play of the first half, Jones missed a wide open Hunter Henry streaking down the field uncovered for what looked like it might've been a walk-in touchdown. Jones was looking in Henry's direction when he caught the snap. He just never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Jones was pressured when left guard Mike Onwenu couldn't sustain a block, and Jones committed an intentional grounding penalty, making a bad play worse.
At the end of the third quarter, on third down, Jones was pressured again by a Jets zone blitz. Instead of hitting Kendrick Bourne on an intermediate route for a first down, instead of taking a shot to Henry running to the back corner of the end zone on the same side of the field, Jones checked down to James White. The play lost a yard and the Patriots were forced to kick a field goal.
There were two more occasions -- once to White for a loss of one, once to Jonnu Smith for three yards -- when Jones seemed to pass up an open intermediate throw to take the shorter option.
Facing third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, the Jets sent a second-level blitz, vacating the short middle of the field. Soon after the snap, Jones felt pressure coming from the right tackle spot, but he might've been able to hit a short throw to Jakobi Meyers for a catch-and-run first down. Even if Meyers didn't get there, it would've been better than the alternative. Jones was flushed to his left and threw incomplete to Henry.
Later in the fourth quarter, Jones had Meyers open for a big-gainer up the seam on a fake bubble screen. But the throw was directed a touch inside, bringing linebacker CJ Mosley into the play to knock it down incomplete.
Even before Jones was pressured on Sunday, before his team jumped out to a sizable lead, he seemed more willing to check down than to test a window deep. On two of his first four throws of the day, both of which were well-protected, Jones checked down. He did it once to Smith. He did it again on a high throw to Damien Harris that prevented Harris from being in a position to create after the catch.
There was plenty Jones did well in his second regular-season game. He beat one Jets blitz by attacking a linebacker in coverage on Meyers over the middle. He beat another by finding Henry for a 19-yard gain. Jones dropped a bucket throw into Meyers along the sideline. He threw a block that freed Bourne for a 16-yard reverse. He largely took care of the football -- especially with a big lead -- knowing he didn't have to take on the risk associated with down-the-field lobs.
But Jones wasn't kidding after the game. He left yardage on the table. Add in the sack-fumble forced by Jets defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers, an intentional grounding penalty, a team third-down conversion rate of 3-for-12 (including an individual third-down line of 2-for-7 for 18 yards), and a Harris shove into the end zone that his teammates appreciated but kind of hated at the same time, there was plenty for Jones to clean up Sunday.
Hence, the "C+."
Running back: A-
What do we call Damien Harris' touchdown romp?
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 19, 2021
The 'Bama Quake? Someone will come up with something, I'm sure. There's no doubt it's deserving. He made eight tacklers miss on that play before getting the ol' heave-ho into the end zone from David Andrews and Mac Jones.
James White looks like the James White of old after two weeks. He was dynamite on well-blocked screens. He made tacklers miss. And he was effective as a ball-carrier -- not typically his calling card -- with back-to-back seven-yard runs for a touchdown. This group only had 3.7 yards per carry, but one chunk JJ Taylor run was called back due to an Isaiah Wynn holding call. This group also gets some credit for telling Mac Jones not to push anymore piles moving forward. Both Harris and White, with smiles, said after the game that Jones shouldn't be doing that any more.
That's looking out for your quarterback.
Wide receiver: C
Quiet day from this group. It came partly because Mac Jones didn't always have much time to throw, making it hard to find players in this group down the field. He seemed to allude to that point in his postgame press conference. "The receivers they played well. I need to get them the ball more and I will. So, we’ll get the ball out and let them make plays because we have good skills players, we have a really good offensive line, but I thought the Jets obviously had a good defensive line as well so that plays into it as well.”
But this group also has to get open and make some plays with the football in their grasp. The receiver group of Meyers, Bourne and Nelson Agholor combined for 69 yards on nine catches against a highly inexperienced corner group. Bourne nearly fumbled on the first drive of the game, he dropped a third-down pass in the fourth quarter, and Meyers -- usually a sound blocker -- got cast aside easily on a negative Harris run.
Tight ends: C+
Had Mac Jones seen Hunter Henry (two catches, 42 yards) running free into the Jets secondary at the end of the first half, this grade would probably be different. But Henry got blasted on a few run-blocking reps when he was asked to take on some large human beings like John Franklin-Myers (6-4, 288 pounds) and Folorunso Fatukasi (6-4, 318) by himself. He also had a pass broken up in the third quarter when he didn't come back to the football hard enough.
Jonnu Smith (four catches, 28 yards) wasn't perfect, either. He dropped one pass when it looked like he wanted to sit in an open zone on third down. Jones led him instead and the pass glanced off Smith's hands.
Offensive line: C-
The Patriots were able to protect their quarterback better over the course of the second half on Sunday, but for Mac Jones to be peeling himself off the turf four times on his first 12 true dropbacks ... that's less than ideal.
On the third-and-four play that ended the first Patriots drive, both tackles were blown by and Jones had defenders on him in almost 2.0 seconds flat. A four-man rush -- oftentimes spiced up with a stunt of some kind -- was enough to beat the Patriots offensive line in the early going. What has to be alarming for the Patriots is that it's not just the right side of the line with the replacement tackles where the issues exist. Isaiah Wynn and Mike Onwenu were beaten by games, too. Onwenu had issues sustaining blocks, and Wynn picked up a pair of penalties.
One would suspect the Patriots will be able to fix what ails them here over the course of the season. That's how it usually goes. But it'll be up to the group that's in house, as well as anyone who may be brought aboard mid-season, to make the corrections.
Special teams: C+
Nick Folk missed an extra point, but by the sounds of it, the wind was so bad that it still might've been a highlight day for him. He made all four of his field-goal attempts, including one from 49 yards out, and he set a franchise record for consecutive field goals made. Jake Bailey had one kickoff sail out of bounds for a penalty, and the kickoff team let Braxton Berrios return one 28 yards after White's touchdown run.
Defensive line: C+
This group did well on one front: They didn't allow Zach Wilson to go crazy on them by making plays with his legs. That includes scrambles to throw as well as scrambles to run. His interceptions -- save for the designed roll-out throw over Corey Davis' head -- were mostly from the pocket. Oftentimes that's exactly where Bill Belichick wants athletic quarterbacks to remain.
But to allow 4.9 yards per carry on Sunday is an indication that there's some ironing out to do here still. Lawrence Guy's goal-line stop was a highlight, but those seemed to be outweighed by the number of 10-yard (or longer) runs the Jets were able to compile Sunday. Carl Davis' sack helped this grade. Nice to see a defensive tackle register one for the stat sheet every so often.
This group certainly is a piece to that run defense that could've been better. Dont'a Hightower, for instance, missed a tackle in the second quarter by which he seemed to be frustrated to a degree. But this unit was also consistently around the football. Ja'Whaun Bentley pressured Wilson into a bad throw into traffic that was picked. Matt Judon drew a second-quarter hold, which was soon followed by a Hightower hit on Wilson and a Bentley pass breakup. Hightower and Bentley later came up with a pair of run-stuffs.
Meanwhile, Judon (sack, multiple pressures despite looking like he was playing hurt) and Josh Uche (two sacks) were very active in the passing game.
It's hard not to give this unit high marks. Two interceptions for JC Jackson. Two interceptions for the veteran safety pairing of Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty. The throws were wildly inaccurate. But ... this group gets credit for its hands and being in the right place at the right time. Jackson's first pick was an impressive display as he batted the ball out of the air and then had the wherewithal to track it after another deflection before snaring it.
Another safety, Kyle Dugger, had a tackle for a loss. And Jonathan Jones helped force a turnover on downs with very tight coverage along the Patriots sideline to start the fourth quarter.