Phil Perry

Numbers be damned: Patriots steadfast in desire to launch it deep

New England's downfield passing game has been virtually non-existent through the first three weeks.

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FOXBORO -- The Patriots are on the same page in this regard: Everyone involved agrees, their downfield throws have to start connecting.

Head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged it earlier this week, as did offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. Understandably. Their deep passing game has been enough of a dud through three weeks that it can't possibly go unnoticed.

Among 33 qualifying quarterbacks, Mac Jones is first in pass attempts that have traveled at least 20 yards down the field (18), according to Pro Football Focus. But he's last in yards per attempt on those throws (2.9). He's 26th in yards per attempt on all throws (6.0).

"Those are statistically the hardest passes to hit," Belichick said of his team's deep shots. "Completion percentage and all that, it's true of every team. But, we’ve got to hit them, we’ve got to throw them, and we need more production out of the deep balls. I mean, not every play is going to be a 40-yard pass, but the ones that we throw during the game -- 30 yards, 40 yards, 25 yards, whatever it is -- we want to be productive on those plays. So, we just need to keep working on them."

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After showing real urgency in his desire to get the Patriots running game going in Week 3 -- they responded with 157 yards rushing in a win over the Jets -- O'Brien shifted some of his focus this week to the deep passing game when speaking to reporters.

“I think we have to do a lot of things better offensively,” O’Brien said. “I think there’s some things that we’re doing pretty well. There’s other things, including our ability to get the ball down the field, chunk plays... We did it once on Sunday where we hit Pharaoh (Brown) on the touchdown, but we have to do it more, so we’ll work hard on it.

“We’ll continue to do what’s best for us in order to try to win the football game. But we definitely need to improve on trying to get the ball down the field, chunk plays.”

The Patriots are currently last in the league in plays of 20 yards or more (three). But it's not for a lack of trying. Jones' average intended air yards is 10th in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.

"I love chunk plays," Jones said. "My whole career, I’ve kind of thrived off those -- play action and normal chunk plays. Just trying to keep doing them. You’ve got to keep the hook in the water, I guess they say, so you’ve got to have the bait out there and continue to fish, you know?

"I think we’ll hit them. We’re working on it. I’ve looked at other teams in the league and how they do it, and kind of gotten a really good idea of how I can improve on it, how we can improve on it as a team. The offensive line’s doing good protecting, so we definitely need to hit them, and looking forward to just growing in that area."

What's ailing the deep passing game in Foxboro, then?

Underwhelming outside

Their down-the-field options are lacking relative to some of the other best offenses in football. The team with the most plays of 20 yards or more, Minnesota, also happens to feature the receiver who is arguably the best in football: Justin Jefferson. The Chargers are next with their complement of wideouts that includes Mike Williams (injured in Week 3), Keenan Allen, Joshua Palmer, and first-round pick Quentin Johnston. The Dolphins are third in explosive plays with their combination of speedy receivers led by Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

There's not much the Patriots can do about their personnel at this point in time. They could play rookie Demario "Pop" Douglas more snaps, since he appears to have legitimate explosive athleticism. He saw just 17 on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, a far cry from the number played by JuJu Smith-Schuster on the day (53). But considering Smith-Schuster's lack of production (one catch on three targets for five yards), perhaps there's a shift in how playing time gets doled out in the receiver room.

Receivers coach Troy Brown gave a tepid endorsement of Smith-Schuster's progress in the Patriots offense this week.

"He's been fine," Brown said. "He's done everything we've asked him to do... He's trying. Trying to get blocks. Trying to get open and catch the ball, all the things we ask him to do."

Further evidence that the Patriots are struggling on the outside: No team in the NFL has a lower expected points added figure than the Patriots against man coverage this season, per Sports Info Solutions. They're third in pass attempts against Cover 1 defenses -- man-to-man looks with one free safety deep -- indicating that teams aren't afraid to test the ability of New England's receivers to win one-on-one matchups on the outside. 

The Patriots are limited at wideout, particularly when it comes to having options who can win outside the numbers and down the field, and their opponents know it.

Play-action lacking

Scheme can help, there's no doubt. Thanks in part to some struggles in the running game through the first two weeks of the season -- Rhamondre Stevenson averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in two games -- the Patriots remain near the bottom of the league in play-action usage. They're 29th in play-action rate (14.8 percent), even though it's been productive when called upon; Jones has a rating of 132.3 on play-action passes (helped by a long Pharoah Brown touchdown in Week 3) to this point in the year.

How about Jones in a vacuum, when play-action isn't part of the equation? Can the Patriots deep passing game get a boost from better quarterback play? 

Jones certainly can't be absolved of blame. He's the one with the football in his hands on these attempts at chunk shots. And he's 32nd in PFF passing grade on deep attempts. He didn't connect on any of the five deep attempts he tried in Week 3 against the Jets, but there's some context worth noting. There were throws -- like his third-and-3 miss to Smith-Schuster in the fourth quarter -- where Jones took the better-safe-than-sorry route, preferring not to risk an interception in a low-scoring game in bad weather.

But there were passes that looked like sheer misses -- his early overthrow of DeVante Parker might've been a throw impacted by the rain he'd like to have back -- and/or moments of miscommunication, like when Jones and Smith-Schuster didn't see things the same way on a pair of third-down back-shoulder attempts in the fourth quarter.

“I mean in those instances we work hard on those throws during practice," O'Brien said. "It’s sometimes early in the season, it’s really hard to simulate that and in practice. And it comes from a lot of repetition. It’s not any excuse at all. We need to do a better job of practicing those, making sure that we hit those in practice, and then getting it done in the game. We were close. But close isn’t good enough, and we gotta start connecting on those type of plays."

Maybe with more reps, Jones and Smith-Schuster -- or Jones and other relative newcomers like Douglas or tight end Mike Gesicki -- will find more success on their deep tries. But more time in the pocket could help as well.

Quick countdown to launch

The one area in which one would presume the Patriots see real improvement in the near future would be with their offensive line. 

They've had four different starters at guard. Second-year pro Cole Strange missed Week 1 and couldn't finish Week 3 due to injury. Left tackle Trent Brown has been in and out of the lineup. The right tackle spot has had two different starters in three games and was manned by recent acquisition Vederian Lowe, a sixth-round pick of the Vikings a year ago.

With a shifting group in front of him, Jones has been under pressure on 35.6 percent of his dropbacks, despite the fact that he has the fourth-quickest release time in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. He's seventh in the NFL in total dropbacks under pressure (48), and he's pressured more quickly than only four quarterbacks (2.94 seconds on average). 

Per Ben Baldwin's composite rankings -- which pull from PFF, Sports Info Solutions, and ESPN Stats and Info data -- the Patriots have the second-worst pass-protecting line in the NFL through three weeks.

Despite that, Jones has performed well when bothered. He's sixth in PFF grade under pressure with only one turnover-worthy play under pressure so far this season. He has the third-best catchable pass rate when pressured, according to SIS, as well as the third-best WAR (yup, there's a football version) when pressured. He has the 10th-best sack percentage when pressured and the 10th-best quarterback rating when under duress, per SIS.

Considering the bodies around him in the pocket, it's fair to wonder that when those instances are mitigated, once he's protected better, if more high-quality shots down the field will follow, leading to better production.

The Patriots aren't a scramble-drill, playground-style passing game type of team. They aren't a bootleg play-action team. To push it down the field, they need to be one of the best pass-protection teams in football. They aren't. But when that area of their offense improves, so too should the number of chunk plays they're able to generate.

What we know is they're going to keep trying.

"I mean," Jones said, "you’re not going to catch anything if you don’t keep throwing them, you know what I’m saying?"

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