Phil Perry

The Mac Report: Bill O'Brien bringing play-action revival to Foxboro?

Bill O'Brien appears to have changes in store for Mac Jones and the Patriots offense.

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FOXBORO -- Of all the observations we've made through two days of camp, perhaps the most important moment came late in the 11-on-11 period in Thursday's practice.

Mac Jones worked from the shotgun, faked a handoff -- a fake that was sold effectively thanks in part to left guard Cole Strange pulling as though it was a "power" run play -- and threw accurately to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the back of the end zone for a touchdown.

The strike capped a second straight practice that was focused on red-zone work. But Day 2 featured a few schematic wrinkles that are worthy of note here in The Mac Report. They were wrinkles that will help modernize the Patriots offense -- especially compared against what they put on tape in 2022 -- and help Bill O'Brien and Mac Jones maximize an attack that remains underwhelming in terms of its top-end pass-catching talent.

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The Patriots made use of motion both before and at the snap Thursday. In a game that has become all about space, motion has become a more widespread tool with each passing year thanks to its ability to force defenses to shift and change responsibilities before (or, better yet, immediately before) the snap. The Patriots shifted running backs in and out of the backfield in their second camp practice; they also motioned receivers, and they sent tight ends across formations as snaps occurred.

For a team that ranked 26th in at-the-snap motion percentage a season ago -- they gained positive EPA on just 29.4 percent of jet-motion snaps, per Sports Info Solutions, 31st in the NFL -- getting defenses to react to moving parts offensively could be key to O'Brien's plans in 2023. We might've seen a quick glimpse of those plans on Day 2.

Maybe even more importantly, play-action passes look poised to experience a renaissance in Foxboro. 

The late touchdown to Smith-Schuster illustrated that potentiality. (If you recall, a long touchdown from Jones to Hunter Henry in Minnesota on Thanksgiving last year came on a pulling-guard play-action pass with a different but similar look.) Additionally, there were snaps Jones took under center -- when he briefly turned his back to the defense to sell the run fake -- that might be familiar to those who watched Patriots offenses of old.

Those play-action passes -- marrying run-game looks to pass-game concepts to keep linebackers and defensive backs on their heels -- disappeared to a large extent last season. In the eight regular-season games following their bye in 2022, the Patriots used play-action on early downs at a rate of 26.5 percent, according to Sharp Football. That ranked 30th in the NFL.

One could argue that because play-action calls require a certain type of in-game context, New England's low play-action rate was due to game flow -- score, time on the clock, down and distance -- more than play-calling. That didn't seem to be the case, though. 

The Patriots went 3-5 in their final eight games, with three of their losses ending in one-score deficits. These weren't blowouts. Game flow would've allowed for more run fakes. But the Patriots didn't seem to want to call them -- even though they gave their offense a massive boost, generally speaking, when they were called.

When Jones used play-action on early downs from Weeks 11-18, he had a 52 percent success rate and averaged 10.2 yards per attempt, per Sharp Football. When he didn't? He had a 38 percent success rate and a 5.9 yards per attempt average. His play-action success rate in that span ranked ninth in the NFL, and his EPA added per play-action attempt (0.45) ranked sixth. 

For half the season, Jones was among the most efficient play-action passers in football. Yet play-action throws were called at a rate that had the Patriots ranking near the bottom of the league. 

Based on what O'Brien showed during Thursday's practice, that'll change in 2023. And Jones should be better off for it.

Here's more for The Mac Report from Day 2...

Throw of the day

The best toss of the day for Jones might've come on the first snap of 11-on-11 work. Jabrill Peppers came screaming into the backfield on a blitz off Jones' blind side -- the defense hasn't been afraid of bringing pressure through the first two days of camp -- and Jones lofted one high and deep to DeVante Parker on a corner route.

The ball was out early because of the pressure, but it was high and laid out in front of Parker, who had a step on Christian Gonzalez. Parker made an impressive adjustment to find the football and reeled it in for an explosive gain.

Would like to have it back

Three plays later, Jones made the kind of play that might be frowned upon in the quarterbacks room. Rolling to his right, he threw back across his body to try to hit Smith-Schuster. But Gonzalez got his hands on it for a pass breakup.

On the final play of Jones' next 11-on-11 series, he made the same type of play. Rolled to his right on a designed sprint-out play. Found nothing open. Instead of throwing it away on third down -- it wasn't an end-of-game, gotta-have-it situation, cornerback Jonathan Jones told me later -- Jones threw back across his body a second time. This one was picked by Kyle Dugger.

Moment of note

How Jones reacted to his pick is worthy of a mention here. He quickly dropped to do some pushups, then found Dugger for a quick low-five. In previous years, that kind of play might've elicited a more boiled-over reaction from the at-times fiery quarterback. But Jones is in a different place now.

While he's playing for his future to some extent in Year 3 -- there's certainly a level of pressure there -- he's also in a normal NFL training camp for the first time. Unlike his rookie season, he's the unquestioned starter right now. Unlike last season, there is more clarity as to whom this offense belongs.

Training camp miscues are just that. Part of the process. Normal. Not a setback in a quarterback competition. Not an added layer of frustration while trying to grasp a new offense with an inexperienced offensive voice in your ear. Just normal.

Number crunching

In the second day of red-zone work, the throwing lanes continued to be tight. And because there are no pads yet at camp, the defense can assume every play is a pass play. The decks are stacked against the offense in these scenarios. So consider that when digesting these numbers.

Jones went 0-for-4 in the team's 7-on-7 period, a clunky session that saw a couple of misfires to targets in the back corner of the end zone that weren't close to being completed. In 11-on-11 work, Jones went 6-for-10, including his pick to Dugger. He also took two "sacks" -- one on a play where it looked like Josh Uche fought through a double-team to get in Jones' kitchen, one recorded by Jahlani Tavai and Anfernee Jennings.

How was Bailey Zappe's day, you might be wondering? He fared better in the 7-on-7 work, going 3-for-4. He also went 5-for-7 in the 11-on-11 period but he was sacked on three straight snaps, by my count (Carl Davis, Lawrence Guy and Keion White).

Favorite target

Easy one. Smith-Schuster saw five targets on Jones' 14 total competitive throws. Four came in the 11-on-11 period, with one stretch of three straight targets going to the free-agent acquisition.

Smith-Schuster caught only two of those throws, but those snaps should pay dividends down the line for a pair that wasn't able to work together in the spring due to Smith-Schuster recovering from a knee issue that plagued him late last season.

Jones hit Hunter Henry on both targets sent toward the tight end in 11-on-11 work.

Quote of note

"The guy is super intelligent," Smith-Schuster said of Jones. "His work ethic is the best. I've seen a lot of guys come in the office early, put in the work, leave late. He's one of those guys. The communication between me and him, and a lot of the receivers, he speaks up. He sees what he sees and he talks about it.

"That's what's great about us. There's no gray area in this offense. We speak about it, fix it, and we move on."

New Patriots wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster praises Mac Jones for his intelligence and work ethic and offers a health update after missing all of OTAs in the spring.
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