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That rookie wall has hit hard for Mac Jones as the Patriots approach the playoffs this weekend.
After 13 quarterback games bordering on the top 10 – an outstanding achievement as a freshman – Jones played like, well, a rookie.
In his last four games, he’s had the same number of turnovers (six) as touchdowns, throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble. Meanwhile, the Patriots have stumbled to a 1-3 record after their week off, including a loss to the Buffalo Bills which they will play on Wild Card Weekend.
The Bills’ defense, along with those of the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, made life so difficult for Jones that confidence in the rookie’s ability to lead New England to a playoff victory has much decreased since Sunday evening.
If Jones and the Patriots offense are to turn things around and surprise the Bills, adjustments need to be made. Fortunately, at least three of these from Jones could be pretty easy to do right away.
Stop focusing on Jakobi Meyers.
When the Patriots face third place and spread out onto the pitch, everyone knows who Jones wants more than anyone: Meyers.
The third-year wide receiver has made 19 third-down conversion catches this season, which places him tied at three for 10th in the NFL, according to STATS.com. Seven of those catches came with three yards or less to convert on the third down.
About 23% of Meyers’ receptions this year – almost one in four – came third. In addition, he gained 420 of his 866 receiving yards between the digits, almost all of them between 0 and 20 yards.
Teams were on notice of this for some time and used various strategies to stop it. In week three, the Saints resorted to Meyers’ familiar crossover routes, with Malcolm Jenkins (27) hanging on to Meyers below and Marcus Williams (43) playing receiver over in this example.
An analysis of the film by Evan Lazar of CLNS Media highlighted how the Bills intentionally used their cornerbacks with inside leverage to cut Meyers off midfield.
Next, the Dolphins ‘Xavien Howard took off from his Cover 2 flat blanket mission to sweep Jones’ third and 1 pitch aimed at Meyers and take it back for a score.
Although Meyers has continued to post numbers even with his focus more on him, Jones’ over-reliance on his favorite receiver is costing the Patriots in key situations. The young quarterback needs to involve Hunter Henry, Jones’ main red zone target, and Kendrick Bourne more when it’s time to move the chains.
In addition, however, New England must also adapt to keep Meyers open in these situations, which includes more spectacular routes and targets on the field. He had two deep catches for 67 yards in Week 18, which is a welcome change.
Be more aggressive – at the right time.
The rap on Jones is that his lack of elite arm strength limits his ability to pass deep and makes him reluctant to challenge defenses on the pitch.
While the first part is true to some extent, the second might be less so. Jones is actually tied for 15th in the NFL for average depth of target with Kyler Murray (8.3) and 18th for attempted passes over 20 yards (58).
The key for Jones is when he decides to push the boundaries and who he throws at when he does.
For one thing, the rookie seems more comfortable throwing the ball deep on his first read, especially if he recognizes the man’s cover. His first big throw at Meyers for 28 yards is a good example; Jones knew his receiver was having an away one-on-one and trusted him to play. (This piece is also an example of Meyers using the threat of his usual interior rupture routes to deceive the defense.)
His turns and fade routes to the sidelines are generally well placed and have good touch, although not all of them are finished.
It is when he tries to throw late on the field that he usually has problems. His second deep ball at Meyers against Cover 2 was hung up in the air and almost allowed safety to play on it – if not for an exceptional catch from the Patriots wide receiver. On other occasions, he’s had balls knocked over or removed because his deep throws just don’t have great speed.
But he’s also passed on individual mismatches to guys like Agholor and even Jonnu Smith, which are arguably his two most dangerous mismatches on the pitch. Smith, for example, has only 10 targets all season over 10 yards despite being taller and more athletic than most linebackers and the safeties that cover him. Meanwhile, Meyers, whose lack of deep speed and jumping ability makes him a less than ideal deep target, has the team’s second 20+ yard targets.
Jones doesn’t have to play like Tom Brady, who has the most attempts in the NFL this season, to be effective. But he still has to choose the good times and the good games to exploit.
Throw the ball (a little) more.
Obviously, the Patriots shouldn’t be claiming any Jones quarterback runs outside of the occasional QB with a yard up for grabs. Leading football is not his strong suit, and he clearly doesn’t like it.
But his reluctance to do so has left yards on the field for the Patriots lately.
When teams like the Dolphins send heavy pressure on Jones, they do so in the hope that the rookie quarterback will stand in the pocket almost every time and shoot to get the ball out of his hands if necessary. Plus, the rare times Jones escapes from a collapsed pocket, they rely on Jones to throw the ball and slump defenders in the secondary to avoid that.
Both of these strategies require Jones to take the five or six yards of green grass in front of him and keep the ball moving.
Although Jones is chased as he breaks the pocket in his game against Miami, he has a much better chance of landing a first down if he folds up and runs than trying a very difficult throw to Nelson Agholor than his arm. does not have. the force for.
The basic premise of Jones’ play is good: keep your eyes on the field and seek to throw even when you are slipping out of the pocket, and don’t expose yourself to unnecessary blows. But that doesn’t mean he should never run at all, especially when the defenses disrespect Jones’s ability and willingness to do so while selling himself to sack him.
There are times when having a possible first down with his legs is worth it, such as his 35-yard completion at Henry against the Dolphins as he rolled to his left. But if opponents are going to give Jones and the Patriots free yards, the rookie has to force them every now and then.
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