Patriots

Analysis: Why Mac Jones is more dangerous than you think

The Patriots rookie showed off more than just brains and toughness in his NFL debut. Plus, a few defenders flew under the radar in the Week 1 loss.

Mac Jones Patriots
Mac Jones throws during the second half against the Miami Dolphins. AP Photo/Steven Senne
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Suffice it to say the Patriots fumbled away an opportunity to claim an early division lead in their 17-16 loss to the Dolphins Sunday.

A series of missed opportunities and miscues, which indeed included four fumbles (two lost), spoiled what should’ve been a victorious debut for rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

As Bill Belichick said multiple times in some form after the game: “There’s a lot of things all of us could’ve done better in the game. I think we all need to improve on the areas we’re responsible for and do a better job next week.”

That said, it wasn’t all bad for the Patriots, especially not where the quarterback play was concerned. Outside of Jones’s first pass attempt of the game on which he had perhaps his first true “deer in the headlights” moment as a pro, the first-round pick lived up to the billing more than many hoped in his first NFL game.

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His poise against Miami’s aggressive defense –14-of-18 for 124 yards against blitzes (one sack), and 7-of-10 for 71 yards and a TD while pressured — was outstanding for a young player.

The rookie also converted 9-of-12 third downs through the air for 89 yards, including a gorgeous throw to James White.

All told, Jones’s NFL debut, which ended with 29 completions on 39 attempts (74 percent) for 281 yards and a touchdown, made history. He became the only NFL rookie quarterback ever to complete 70 percent or more of his passes in his first game.

But as good as the numbers were (and as tough as he was to overcome nine quarterback hits), the best may be yet to come with Jones.

Jones’s upside may be higher than expected.

The beautifully lofted wheel route to White was excellent, but we’ve seen Jones do that before in practice.

His two best throws of the day were ones you can only really see in live action.

With 8:01 left in the third quarter, Jones drilled a back-shoulder throw in the sideline Cover 2 hole for 21 yards while taking a big lick from a blitzing Sam Eguavoen. One thing you’ll notice upon watching it again: a subtle pump fake that makes flat cornerback Xavien Howard honor Kendrick Bourne’s out route before letting it rip 30 yards on a line to Agholor.

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On the very next snap, Jones dropped back against a zone blitz but was flushed out to his right after Emmanuel Ogbah overwhelmed right tackle Justin Herron. With Jerome Baker in pursuit, the rookie tossed a dime 35 yards down the field to Bourne on the scramble drill while being pulled to the ground.

Of course, Herron got flagged for holding Ogbah well before Jones released the ball, so everyone knew it was coming back. But that play, as well as the one before it, still tells you something about Jones.

In particular, he’s got more raw physical skill than you think.

It was always unfair to compare him to the four quarterbacks taken ahead of him in the draft in that regard — all of them have absolute cannons for arms or the athleticism to run like running backs (or have both).

But Jones has shown he can extend plays in the pocket and that he has enough pure arm strength and athletic ability to make off-platform throws like the one to Bourne. Aside from that, his mechanics allow him to generate good power as well. You don’t make throws like the one he did to Agholor on the sideline if you don’t have a good arm.

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He also learned how to calibrate his throws against NFL defense during the game. One series after his post route to Jakobi Meyers was broken up by Jason McCourty because it had too much air under it, the young quarterback rifled a shot on a line to Agholor down the seam just in front of McCourty for another impressive completion.

Now that he’s put those skills on display, expect the Patriots to begin pushing the ball down the field more than they did in Week 1. Jones proved in college you can win down the field with superb accuracy and timing, and he’s already dropped multiple excellent throws in the bucket in practice this year.

Only nine of his 39 pass attempts on Sunday traveled further than 10 yards, but he completed six of those throws (67 percent) for 122 yards.

It’s time to really take the training wheels off and see if Jones can open up the offense. Sunday suggested he and the Patriots offense haven’t even thought about scratching the surface yet.

The two-tight end offense is here to stay.

The Patriots’ third play from scrimmage showed a glimpse of how their “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends) package can make life tough on defenses.

Hunter Henry lined up as an in-line (Y) tight end to the right of the formation while Jonnu Smith, playing the “U”/”move” role, lined up in the slot. Smith then motioned and took an end-around handoff from Jones for a 3-yard gain.

Through one week of the regular season, the Henry-Smith pairing looks exactly the offensive cornerstone everyone expected it to be. According to 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Matt Dolloff, the Patriots ran “12” personnel on just about half of the team’s offensive snaps (34-of-69).

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New England ran the ball on almost 62 percent of those two-tight end formations, but Henry and Smith did combine for three receptions on 13 pass attempts when both were on the field.

Two of them showcased the quandary playing Henry and Smith at the same time poses for defenses.

On the first quarter’s final play, the two both ran hitches on opposite sides of the field against zone coverage. The middle linebacker in coverage, Baker, had eyes on Henry, so Jones threw to Smith for the short gain on first down.

Then, to end the third quarter, Smith ran a shallow cross from left to right while Henry ran a deeper drag from the other side. Smith occupied the underneath linebackers, allowing Henry to get isolated on Dolphins backup safety Brandon Jones for a 16-yard catch.

What’s more, there were only two snaps all game when at least one of Henry, who played 52 of 69 offensive snaps, or Smith (50 of 69) weren’t on the field.

They each could have had bigger days as well, with Jones seeming to miss Smith on a corner route for what would’ve been a monster gain just before his sideline strike to Agholor in the third quarter and Henry getting open down the seam without a target on a few occasions.

As Jones gets settled in, expect those two to see an uptick in targets and receiving yards.

Safeties stand out.

It doesn’t matter that Kyle Dugger isn’t technically one of the two “traditional” starting safeties with Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips on the field. The second-year safety is essentially a starter anyway.

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Dugger was on the field for 50 of the Patriots’ 54 defensive snaps, suggesting the team wants him on the field as much as possible regardless of where he plays. In this case, the versatile young safety was employed often in “big nickel” (three safety) sets with the Dolphins putting tight ends Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe on the field together often.

No. 23 showed off some impact play late in the first quarter, defending a pass to Gesicki on a slant route out of the slot that fell incomplete and tracking down Myles Gaskin for a loss on the next snap. His speed as a downhill run defender is a major problem.

Not to be outdone, Phillips had his own game-wrecking series in the third quarter with the defense trying to keep it a one-possession game, almost taking the handoff from Tua Tagovailoa to Salvon Ahmed before taking the running back down for a 3-yard loss and then dropping Gaskin for a 2-yard loss on a screen pass.

Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Josh Uche played excellent football Sunday, but the Patriots’ safety play shouldn’t go unnoticed. They’ll be more important than ever with the cornerback room left thin by injuries.

Recapping the ‘Keys to the Game

  • The Patriots did in fact run the ball a lot in Week 1 to help protect Mac Jones, and they did it pretty well. New England rushed for 125 yards (100 of those came from Harris) and averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per tote. The offense did throw the ball more than they ran (39 passes to 30 runs), but the effort was pretty balanced overall. If Harris doesn’t fumble that ball, we’re talking about him as one of the stars of Sunday’s game.
  • Dolphins left tackle Austin Jackson ended up sitting out Sunday’s contest after missing practice all week. Rookie tackle Liam Eichenberg slid over to take his place and got a rude greeting to the NFL by Josh Uche on the latter’s second-quarter sack. Meanwhile, Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon seemingly took turns terrorizing Miami’s tackles and belting Tagovailoa, including a bone-crunching takedown by Judon on Tagovailoa’s YOLO interception to Jonathan Jones. That edge rusher group was the best unit on the field for the Patriots Sunday afternoon.
  • Talk about losing contain: Tagovailoa might’ve been able to skip into the end zone on this first-quarter rushing touchdown. Uche got suckered by the split-zone read-option fake to Gaskin and bit inside hard, leaving Tagovailoa an easy lane to score. Also, for whatever reason, New England ran a lot of “off” coverage, perhaps wanting to give cushion to Jaylen Waddle and DeVante Parker and trusting in their defense backs to tackle those receivers on short throws. That didn’t entirely work as both Waddle (four catches for 61 yards) and Parker (four catches for 81 yards) had chunk plays on short slants or return routes. The two receivers combined for 57 yards after the catch in addition to both having catches of 30 yards or more to set up scoring drives. Things could’ve gotten worse in that department if Waddle didn’t stone-cold drop a third-down conversion in the second quarter. The cornerbacks didn’t exactly play badly, but the lack of Stephon Gilmore definitely hurt yesterday.
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