Is Bill Belichick on the hot seat?
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However, not everything is sunny and rosy up in Foxborough.
Through two-plus quarters Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, quarterback Mac Jones was playing some of the best football of his career.
He was decisive in the pocket. He was fluid on his feet as he evaded pressure. He was making throws with impressive velocity, something New England Patriots fans were clamoring for all offseason.
Then, suddenly, he was not.
A pair of head-scratching interceptions helped doom the Patriots, and they lost to the Ravens by a final score of 37-26. Making matters worse, Jones suffered a high ankle sprain on the final play of the game, his third interception of the afternoon, and his availability for the next few weeks is uncertain.
Now, the Patriots sit at 1-2 in the AFC East, two games behind the Miami Dolphins — and with a loss to Miami already in hand — and are set to take on the Green Bay Packers this weekend with Brian Hoyer at the helm.
Where do the Patriots go from here?
We can start with what is going well in New England as they look ahead to Week 4.
While giving up 20 points back in Week 1 to the Miami Dolphins, and another 37 last week to the Ravens, does not look great on paper, the pieces are starting to come together for New England on the defensive side of the football.
It starts up front. New England has been looking for a complementary pass rush for years, and they may have found it in the pairing of Matthew Judon and Deatrich Wise Jr. Through three games the two have combined for seven sacks, with Wise leading the way with four of those.
In Week 3 against Baltimore, Wise became the first Patriot to record three sacks in a game since Chandler Jones, who did so back during the 2015 season.
Wise has also grown into a full-time player for New England this season. While the Patriots tend to rely heavily on rotations along the defensive front to keep players fresh, Wise has logged over 82% of New England’s defensive snaps through the first three weeks of the NFL season.
With the added opportunities, he has become a disruptive force for New England up front. On this play against the Dolphins in Week 1, Wise beats the right guard with a quick swat, before working around the pocket to the quarterback, punching the ball loose from Tua Tagovailoa:
On this play from Sunday against the Ravens, watch as Wise works past rookie left tackle Daniel Faalele to get to Lamar Jackson:
This is a great example of a pass rusher using a rip move on a blocker, allowing him to angle into the pocket and get home for the sack. Wise uses Faalele’s block almost as a brake, enabling him to change directions quickly and get to the QB.
With Wise and Judon, the Patriots look to have the tandem of pass rushers their fans have been dreaming about for years.
Now in the secondary, while that unit faced questions heading into training camp, that group is starting to gel as well. Perhaps most notably is the play of Jonathan Jones, who the Patriots relied on as a slot cornerback for the past few years, but who has slid outside this season.
The Patriots still rely heavily on man coverage, and through three games Jones has allowed just 3 catches for 46 yards according to charting data from Pro Football Focus. He also has an interception to his credit, along with a pair of pass breakups.
His interception against Jackson is a great example of his awareness and experience. Jones begins this play at the bottom of the screen, in off-man coverage over Devin Duvernay. But watch as he diagnoses the route concept and makes a break on the throw to the crossing route coming from the other side of the field:
So while the results might not be fully there yet — although one can argue that holding the Dolphins to 20 points back in Week 1 can be viewed in a different light after Miami’s 3-0 start — the Patriots are starting to gel on the defensive side of the ball, both in the secondary and up front.
As for the offense, well, that does remain a work in progress. But there are bright spots. Cole Strange, the rookie offensive lineman whose selection in the first round raised some eyebrows, has shown through three games that he belongs in the NFL. Strange has allowed just one sack through the three games, according to Pro Football Focus charting data, and has been a solid run blocker for New England.
Here against the Dolphins, watch as Strange controls the defensive tackle from his left guard spot on this outside zone running play:
Speaking of outside zone, one of the bigger storylines coming out of New England this summer — beyond the question over who would be calling plays — was the idea that the Patriots were shifting their emphasis on the offensive side of the ball to a “McVay/Shanahan” system relying heavily on outside zone concepts.
That was met with mixed reviews, and produced mixed results, during the preseason.
Through three weeks, however, the Patriots have been one of the more efficient run games in the NFL. According to this chart from Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, New England is one of the few running games with a positive Expected Points Added per rushing attempt this season:
How has this success come about? Well, while New England might have started out the season with that emphasis on outside zone designs in place, things have shifted in the past two weeks. According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, New England has run outside zone concepts 12 times this year, with 9 of those coming back in Week 1 along. However, while they were not charted with any gap or power designs against Miami, since they they have run 15 such plays, which is still good for second-most in the league despite just two games of use.
Plays like this run against the Ravens are now not just part of the menu, they seem to be a featured course:
Ultimately, however, this is a passing league. Which is why what Patriots fans saw from their quarterback through the first two-plus quarters against the Ravens is everything they had been dreaming about all summer long. They saw confidence, they saw subtle pocket footwork, they saw velocity.
They saw a passing game that could compete in today’s NFL.
They saw plays like this one, which finds Jones reading out a four-receiver concept on the right side of the field before bringing his eyes left to spot DeVante Parker on the backside dig route:
Or this snap against the Ravens, where Jones pulls out of a play-action fake and layers in a throw perfectly to Parker on a crossing route, taking into account both the underneath defender and the man coverage defender trailing the receiver:
What stands out here is the awareness Jones displays for the underneath defender. Oftentimes a quarterback will fail to take that defender into account, and a throw that comes more on a line ends up hitting that defender in the chest. Here, Jones navigates that threat with loft and touch, leading to the big play.
Maybe the throw from Jones that excited New England fans the most was this back-shoulder ball to Parker from early in the third quarter, delivered with the kind of velocity and placement fans have been waiting to see from Jones:
These clips are also evidence of the growing level of chemistry and trust between Jones and Parker. However, that seems to have come with a price, as the two back-breaking interceptions Jones threw (before the interception on the final play when the game was no longer in doubt) were both in Parker’s direction. First was this deep curl route, where Jones missed the threat of the underneath defender:
Then there was this disastrous turnover in the end zone, where it seemed like Jones made the decision to target Parker upon breaking the huddle, as he locked in on his receiver from the snap:
Now, Jones is dealing with a high-ankle sprain, and while he is reportedly pushing to play on Sunday against the Packers, he did not participate in practice on Wednesday and his status is in doubt. The injury was described as “severe,” and images of him after the loss to Baltimore illustrate just how much pain he was in.
So, just where do the Patriots go from here?
In year’s past, Belichick often has used the first few weeks of a season almost like an extended training camp, taking the time to figure out what works best on both sides of the football before relying on those concepts and players for the rest of the season.
That process might very well be playing itself out again in Foxborough. After hearing so much about outside zone concepts in the running game all summer, the Patriots seem to have moved in a different direction the past few weeks. After hearing so much about offensive play-callers during training camp, the focus now is on improving the passing game and the flashes have been there, as we saw early against Baltimore.
Defensively, the Patriots seem to be coming together there, thanks to a tandem of pass rushers up front and talent in the secondary, with Jonathan Jones kicking to the outside after spending the bulk of his career inside. Perhaps we should have expected that transition to go well. After all, when the Patriots would play the Kansas City Chiefs over the past few years, Jones would draw the Tyreek Hill assignment. An assignment he drew in Week 1 this year. If Belichick trusted him in that role, he would certainly trust him in others.
Still, this team is off to a 1-2 start and there are still questions, most notably about their quarterback. This was to be a year for his development and growth as a passer, a potential leap year for his NFL career. But with Jones now dealing with the high-ankle sprain, and the passing game still trying to find weapons beyond Parker, that development seems perhaps delayed.
Furthermore, the team is trying to find the right combination of players on the offensive side of the football. Sunday against Baltimore the team relied heavily on 11 personnel groupings, despite wide receiver Jakobi Meyers out with an injury. While that might have created more opportunities for Kendrick Bourne, who has created some explosive plays in the passing game despite limited opportunities, instead the Patriots continue to rely on Lil’Jordan Humphrey as a receiver, almost in a blocking role similar to that of a tight end.
Despite breaking the bank of a pair of tight ends a year ago in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry:
Kendrick Bourne (18 snaps) played less than he did in Week 2, even with Jakobi Meyers out injured.
Rhamondre Stevenson (41) plays more than Damien Harris (25) for the second straight week.
Another 11-personnel day Sunday. Hunter Henry (46) sees more work than Jonnu Smith (32). pic.twitter.com/ixUUaaTmWb
— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 26, 2022
The thought might be to get teams into lighter personnel packages with three wide receivers, giving New England the opportunity to run the football against lighter boxes. But if teams start to treat Humphrey as a tight end, then … maybe just play with a tight end? In the second half Sunday, Baltimore started playing with more 3-4 personnel packages in response to New England’s three-WR sets with Humphrey on the field, a trend teams could follow starting this week.
In the end, Jones’ development is still the critical question that needs to be answered for this team. Getting that on track might be the biggest thing facing the Patriots at the moment. It might start with getting Jones back on the field. Will that indeed happen Sunday, or will Patriots fans have to wait a little longer to see that growth get back on the right path?