Patriots stockwatch: Outside zone concepts finally show signs of life

·7 min read

Perry: New-look running game showing some signs of life originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- The Patriots offense came away from Tuesday's practice able to take a deep breath. With a couple days before their first preseason game against the Giants, they were able to put together a representative practice.

There was some consistency in both the run and passing games. Mac Jones was protected for a reasonable period of time behind center. It wasn't explosive. It wasn't even machine-like. But it wasn't what they cobbled together on Monday, when even backup quarterback Brian Hoyer admitted the performance on that side of the ball was embarrassing.

"We're all competitors," he said after Tuesday's work. "When you have a day like you did yesterday, you go in and you look your teammates in the eye and say tomorrow has to be better. You don't want to go out there and be embarrassed at any level, at any point in time."

While there may not have been the full complement of reps for Jones and the starting offense that there was on Monday -- the team did appear to use some of their on-the-field time to prep backups to see the Giants -- there were signs of progress.

Let's get into those in our latest stockwatch...

Stock up: Outside zone

The concept that has been at the center of some of the more obvious offensive changes for the Patriots this summer finally provided some results. It requires cohesiveness and timing up front to get those plays blocked -- linemen bolt laterally in one direction, with the goal of working harmoniously to get to the second level and set up cut-backs openings for backs -- and those things had been lacking for the vast majority of camp.

But on Tuesday, in a scout-team period, Damien Harris found a wide running lane on an outside zone (also known as "wide zone") give. Later, Rhamondre Stevenson danced through a cut-back lane for a touchdown on a similar play in competitive 11-on-11 work. Stevenson took another similar type of carry later in the session and scooted behind a tremendous wall-off block from Mike Onwenu for a sizable gain. Ty Montgomery, a sub back who has looked more comfortable with these types of plays than most backs, also took one for a real gain in a competitive team period.

The Patriots have also turned to some more familiar, downhill running-game concepts in recent days. They've run power with pulling guards. They've utilized gap schemes between the tackles and inside zone runs as well. All looked relatively productive Tuesday, which was a serious departure than what they'd been able to do previously in camp. The outside-zone attack appears as though it'll remain a foundational piece of this new-look offense, but in their final real practice before their first preseason game, they showed an ability to put together an efficient and diverse rushing attack.

The only question now is if they can keep it up.

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Stock up: Yodny Cajuste

One reason why the offense might've looked better on Tuesday was because Justin Herron -- who made our "Stock Down" group for Monday -- was out and Cajuste was in. Was Cajuste, a third-rounder from 2019, a dominant force? Nope. But he got in the way. He was serviceable. And though he'd been primarily backing up at left tackle for the majority of camp practices, inserting him on the right side and having him go almost unnoticed (generally a good thing for offensive linemen) may have elevated him to being the clear No. 3 tackle on the roster.

Given the amount of time Isaiah Wynn (now missing time with an undisclosed issue) and Trent Brown have missed in their careers, that third tackle spot will likely be a critical one.

Stock up: Jakobi Meyers

If there's any question which of Jones' receivers is the go-to guy in times of trouble, Meyers provided an emphatic answer on Tuesday. Where did Jones turn after an abysmal offensive day less than 24 hours earlier? Meyers caught his first three attempts in competitive 7-on-7 periods.

He was targeted five times on Jones' first nine competitive throws. Meyers wasn't able to reel in a slot fade that was well-covered by Myles Bryant, but he understands how to get open and get open quickly. Given the way the pass protection schemes in front of Jones have functioned in camp, that's a vital skill set for this receiving corps.

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Stock down: Outside zone play action

The Patriots are still building right now. Jones told me yesterday that "we're doing the same stuff, just running these plays and trying to figure out what the best matchups are and see who can make plays." That's essentially where they were last week. There's not a whole lot of changing the play at the line -- though Jones has pretty clearly adjusted routes and protections at times before snapping the ball -- in order to "win" the rep against the defense.

All that is to say, there could be more coming. But to this point in camp, there simply has not been much success found in the play-action game that would logically be built off of the outside-zone running plays that have been so prominently featured. They've tried. We've seen Jones sprint in the same direction as an outside-zone fake to try to hit crashing linebackers over the top, but in the several different practices they've tried that play, it typically results in a throwaway from Jones.

Part of the benefit of the Shanahan-style offenses run throughout the league is that there are typically robust opportunities for play-action shots down the field where the defense is stressed at multiple levels, which provides quarterbacks easily-readable openings and explosive-gain chances. Those haven't materialized for the Patriots (who were in desperate need of some vertical playmaking last season). Yet.

Stock down: Nelson Agholor

Agholor has now put together a few seemingly-clunky practices in a row. He had a pass clang off his chest plate and fly into the air for a pick during the in-stadium practice on Friday. He appeared to have an alligator-arm moment over the middle on a crosser thrown by Jones on Monday, and later in the same practice it looked like he nearly dropped one of the few productive passes of the afternoon in a hurry-up period.

He caught two passes from Jones in competitive periods Tuesday, but he didn't appear ready for a third target late. After catching a quick out in a two-minute drill, Jones looked his way again on the exact same route. Agholor didn't seem to anticipate a repeat and didn't seem to finish his pattern. Jones' pass, the last of the practice for him, bounced harmlessly out of bounds.

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Stock down: Justin Herron

Herron entered camp as a favorite to be the team's swing tackle. He's performed in that role before. And the team has proven it likes him. He spent enough time during the early portion of camp at right tackle that it led one to wonder if the team was hoping to see enough from him there to give him a shot with the starters, thereby potentially making Wynn expendable. But he's had opportunities in recent days and squandered them. He got into a fight with Josh Uche on Friday and was kicked out of practice.

Monday's practice was brutal for him. And on Tuesday he was in the middle of another brief scrap (hard to see who was on the other end) and lost his helmet. Later he lost his most meaningful reps -- and a chance to prove he could hang with starters -- to Cajuste. I still believe he'll make the roster, but this hasn't been a good week for the 2020 sixth-rounder out of Wake Forest.