Jones, Patriots Not Built for Playoff Success

New England Patriots QB Mac Jones
New England Patriots QB Mac Jones
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 16 - A quick peek at last weekend's Bills-Patriots boxscore paints an ugly picture for rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The Bills' pass defense held Jones to 14 completions on 32 passes for 4.5 yards per attempt, zero touchdowns, and two picks. Statistically speaking, only Jones' three-interception capitulation against the Saints in Week 3 can compare. It was bad.

A deeper dive into the film shows Jones was not solely at fault for how poorly the passing offense produced. It's not as though Jones made a string of questionable decisions or poor throws. Rather, the Bills put together and executed the perfect game plan to slow down the Patriots' somewhat-limited passing offense. That does not absolve Jones entirely, seeing as he is part of why the offense has limitations, but it does make it clearer how and why he was only able to produce at that clip despite not actively making many bad plays.

Buffalo's game plan was as much about stressing Jones as it was abusing the Patriots' middling receiver corps. Jones, for all the good he has shown, struggles to drive the ball outside the numbers at times. He also has an affinity for finding his checkdowns and taking guaranteed yardage. On its own, embracing checkdowns is not necessarily a bad habit, but it is one that can be targeted. As for New England's pass-catchers, many of them have valuable skills, but none of them are particularly elusive separators or outside vertical threats.

Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier took all of that information to craft a game plan centered on three core tenets:

  • press and play tight to routes;
  • play inside leverage whenever possible;
  • and blitz the running back to keep them in protection.

The first two principles took advantage of the Patriots' lack of speed and separation among their pass-catchers, as well as forcing Josh McDaniels and Jones to rely on throws outside the numbers (away from the coverage leverage). The last principle, blitzing (or hugging up) the running back, helped take away Jones' options underneath and dared him to make tight-window throws.

The Bills got rolling on the first third down of the game. On a third-and-10, the Bills hit on all three principles with a 2-man call to get the Patriots off the field.

Buffalo rotates late to a 2-man coverage with Tremaine Edmunds (49) blitzing the running back straight away. To the bottom of the screen, both of Buffalo's cornerbacks work to get inside leverage and stay underneath the routes while being physical. With all of Buffalo's extra zone defenders deep over the hashes, the cornerbacks want to be low and inside in order to have body presence on both sides of the receiver. Against a better offense, the risk to this strategy would be getting beat down the sideline or to the outside with speed, but neither New England's receivers nor quarterback strike that kind of fear in a defense.

The Bills leaned on a similar 2-man call on this third-and-10. Again, both cornerbacks to the two-receiver side work to inside leverage in order to take away any in-breakers over the middle. Additionally, since the receiver to the bottom of the screen runs across the field on a shallow, the Bills' boundary safety is no longer threatened deep to his side and can turn back to the two-receiver side to poach any crossers coming his way. While the "hug the back" aspect fails this time as Edmunds allows the running back to escape into a route before entangling him, Jones starts to feel the heat and tries to squeeze in a throw to a nonexistent window beyond the sticks. Credit to Jones for his pocket movement and poise, but the Bills forced an extremely difficult throw and he could not connect.

This is where Buffalo's game plan started to show some flexibility. For one, the Bills disguised their coverage shell. The Bills showed a one-high structure with a weak-rotated safety, only to bail the weak cornerback (bottom) into a deep half and have the safety underneath him take the solo receiver in man coverage. On top of that, Edmunds takes a new tack. In the previous two clips, Edmunds was blitzing the back and either forcing him to stay in or trying to chase him if he went out on a route. This time, with the back into the boundary, the Bills run a similar-looking concept, but with a "peel" tag for the edge player and Edmunds staying on his blitz no matter what. In short, Mario Addison (97) is a designed rusher who turns into a coverage player if the back releases outside to him, which is exactly what happens here. Jones likely saw Edmunds blitzing out of this coverage look again and assumed he could find his running back with room on the perimeter, but Addison did a commendable job coming off his rush path to stop this catch short of a first down.

At the end of the play, the Bills were essentially in two-high man coverage with immediate presence on the running back, but the way they got there was different than what they had shown before. Those little tweaks make things difficult for an offense.

To be fair to the Patriots, Jones converted the ensuing fourth down with an awesome play out of the pocket, and Damien Harris punched in a rushing touchdown two plays later. It's not as though the Bills completely choked Jones and the Patriots out, they just made the game a grind and forced the Patriots to convert 5-of-6 on fourth downs after making them go 1-of-10 on third downs. Nothing came easy.

Anyway, the Bills also molded their coverage shell to the Patriots' offensive formations. In the previous three clips, the Patriots used all the space available to the wide side of the field and split out their receivers accordingly. The Bills responded with two-high shells. When the Patriots went to tighter formations and/or receiver alignments, however, the Bills more commonly responded with one-high shells, to get more bodies in the box to defend the run against tighter offensive formations. Buffalo largely found the same results despite the change in safety shell.

The Patriots have a tight offset stack to the top of the screen. That alignment forces a tighter box by its proximity to the core of the formation, which the Bills respond to by rolling a safety down over the tight end and kicking their linebackers to the passing strength. From this defensive alignment, the Bills can now man up across the board with the outside linebacker (Edmunds, 49) hugging up the running back, the box safety covering the tight end, and the middle linebacker floating around as a robber to clog up the middle.

To the top of the screen, nickel cornerback Taron Johnson (24) does well to sort out the stack formation and fight hard for inside leverage, once again taking away the intermediate in-breaker the Patriots tried to run. That combination of technique, skill, and the film study required to know what the Patriots want to run worked together to present an airtight window for Jones. To the rookie's credit, Jones almost threads the needle and still gives his guy a chance here, but the ball was a smidgen behind where it needed to be and ended up being contested by Johnson.

On this first down, the Bills went back to the Cover-1, well but with a different flavor. Rather than keeping a robber in the middle of the field, the Bills blitz their weak safety off the right-hand edge of the offense and ask both linebackers to play man coverage. As usual, Edmunds (49) runs up immediately to hug up the running back and keep him occupied while the tight coverage behind him does work. To the top of the screen, Johnson is again playing tight coverage with inside leverage on his man, while outside cornerback Levi Wallace (39) stays just inside his receiver and looks to turn his back inside to cut off any potential in-breakers. Similarly to what we saw the previous play, Jones nearly fits the ball into an improbable window, but the throw sails a bit and ends up in the dirt.

All game long, those were the margins of error the Bills imposed upon the Patriots offense. McDermott and company dared Jones to beat them by fitting tight windows and operating without his usual checkdown help. In a perfect world, the Patriots could have responded by attacking the weaknesses the Bills' defense opened itself up to outside the numbers, but neither their quarterback nor receivers are particularly equipped to do that—and the Bills knew it.

The playoffs will present the Patriots with more and more defenses who can play them this way, including the Bills. Even Week 18's pseudo playoff game against the Miami Dolphins will present similar issues, just as it did in their Week 1 loss. The Patriots cannot hope to run away from this problem on their way to and through the postseason.

To be clear, the Patriots offense is far from bad. In fact, they are still quite good and present a daunting matchup for particular teams. It's fair to wonder if they have reached their limit, though. They are running out of time to prove they can beat every style and caliber of defense. New England's coaching staff is great, but at the end of the day, players play, and this current iteration of the Patriots passing offense does not have the players to put themselves over the top for playoff football.

Comments

21 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2022, 11:47am

#1 by mehllageman56 // Dec 30, 2021 - 10:45am

Would not be surprised to see the Dolphins do this to the Patriots too.  Jones and Co. need to win this week; fortunately for them, they're playing the Jaguars.

Points: 0

#2 by Anon Ymous // Dec 30, 2021 - 11:49am

Meh.  Outside of the NE's first drive and the one that started on their goal line, every NE drive ended with a touchdown or an unforced error (or referee error).  Buffalo's defense showed very little capability of stopping NE and all evidence suggests that, had JC Jackson held onto the 4th quarter pick, NE would likely have punched it in for a 27-26 lead.  It was really Buffalo's *offense* that slowed NE down, by possessing the ball so much and ensuring NE's methodical approach wouldn't have that many opportunities to score.  

If a playoff rematch comes down to Buffalo's defense against NE's offense, I am very confident that NE would walk away victorious.  

Points: 0

#3 by dank067 // Dec 30, 2021 - 12:22pm

I don't know about this, even before you take the interceptions into account, the Bills held the Pats to 4.2 yards per dropback. You're not going to win many games with that type of passing game efficiency. I'd also be a little skeptical of a methodical approach that required them to convert on 4th down twice on two different drives to help them get two of their touchdowns in a game they still lost by 12. Good on Belichick for going for it on fourth, at least.

Points: 0

#4 by Tutenkharnage // Dec 30, 2021 - 12:26pm

Meanwhile, the Bills rolled into the red zone on every meaningful drive and ended up leaving 12 points on the board (Sanders drop, TD that turned into FG, missed 2PAT they wouldn’t have had to attempt). If New England comes to Buffalo in the playoffs, they’re going to get shellacked. Jones couldn’t execute in the friendly confines of Gillette in front of a silent home crowd. The idea that he’ll come to Orchard Park as a playoff rookie and somehow win the game … just take the glasses off. They’re clouding your vision.  Also, pray for another hurricane, because that’s the main reason the Pats walked out of here with a 4-point win that everyone hailed as some kind of “destruction” even though the wind contributed directly to 4 points (2PAT they wouldn’t have attempted, 33-yard FG Moss wouldn’t have missed otherwise).

Points: 0

#5 by Anon Ymous // Dec 30, 2021 - 12:41pm

Meanwhile, the Bills rolled into the red zone on every meaningful drive and ended up leaving 12 points on the board (Sanders drop, TD that turned into FG, missed 2PAT they wouldn’t have had to attempt).

I know, that's why I said, "if it comes down to NE's offense vs. Buffalo's defense".  For that to happen, NE's D must do a better job of slowing down the Bills.  

Points: 0

#7 by Tutenkharnage // Dec 30, 2021 - 1:48pm

But the Bills have held the top defensive DVOA spot, or close to it, for the entire season. They’ve also allowed the fewest points, or close to it, all season. They aren’t flashy: they are near the lead league in pressure rate but bottom five in sacks, and they keep passing yards low but don’t come up with a lot of turnovers. These limitations mean they can be had by some of the league’s best offenses, but that list does not include the 2021 New England Patriots. We know running alone is unlikely to get it done, given that the Pats rushed for 5.5 a carry last Sunday and still got dunked on. 
 

tl;dr: The Buffalo defense is much, much better than the New England offense. Every defense has to give up something when they line up, but the Bills can afford to give New England things Mac Jones can’t take on his own anyway, like deep sideline routes. 

Points: 0

#8 by Anon Ymous // Dec 30, 2021 - 5:36pm

If that gives you confidence about that math up in a rematch, great!  What I've seen tells me that the strengths of NE aligns very well with the weaknesses of Buffalo, and that there is little Buffalo can do about it, so long as NE doesn't a) make a bunch of unforced errors and b) play so poorly on defense to make the other side irrelevant.

Points: 0

#9 by Tutenkharnage // Dec 30, 2021 - 5:55pm

The Pats might have to go 5-for-5 on meaningful fourth downs again just to keep within double digits. One thing to do it in Gillette; good luck to them doing it here!

Points: 0

#10 by Anon Ymous // Dec 30, 2021 - 6:07pm

The Pats might have to go 5-for-5 on meaningful fourth downs again just to keep within double digits.

Maybe!

Points: 0

#15 by IlluminatusUIUC // Dec 31, 2021 - 11:21am

What I've seen tells me that the strengths of NE aligns very well with the weaknesses of Buffalo, and that there is little Buffalo can do about it, so long as NE doesn't a) make a bunch of unforced errors and b) play so poorly on defense to make the other side irrelevant.

Even in the game when New England supposedly "dominated," they scored 14 points, converted 2 of 12 3rd downs, and outgained Buffalo by only 11 yards. And regarding unforced errors, in that game Buffalo had: a fumbled handoff, a TD bounce off Diggs' arm, multiple 3rd down drops, a missed 33 yard field goal, and a false start on 3rd and goal at home. All in game lost by 4.

A win's a win and New England won, but I don't see how it's being characterized as a critical weakness for the Pats to exploit.

Points: 0

#16 by Anon Ymous // Dec 31, 2021 - 11:59am

I never said anything about dominating and I've never disputed Buffalo's offensive success or earlier mistakes.  All I've said is a) the article seems to cobble too firm a conclusion out of a handful of plays and b) NE's strengths align with the (relatively) weaker parts of Buffalo's defense.  I'm confused why either are viewed as controversial or chest-puffing on my part.

Points: 0

#17 by IlluminatusUIUC // Dec 31, 2021 - 1:53pm

I never said anything about dominating

You didn't use the D-word, but when you write things like "Buffalo's defense showed very little capability of stopping NE" or "If a playoff rematch comes down to Buffalo's defense against NE's offense, I am very confident that NE would walk away victorious" it seems clear you were adopting that perception of the matchups.

NE's strengths align with the (relatively) weaker parts of Buffalo's defense.

I'd say that New England needs a very specific game script in order to beat this Buffalo team, and they got it in Week 13. But I don't know that either game demonstrates a specific strength of NE's offense vs. Buffalo's defense, given that both of them would be considered below average performances had Buffalo caught any of its potential TDs in the former game.

 

Points: 0

#19 by Anon Ymous // Dec 31, 2021 - 5:27pm

it seems clear you were adopting that perception of the matchups.

Not at all.  Not even close, actually.

That NE moved the ball well against Buffalo is right there in the game log.  There really isn't much to dispute it.  Certainly it's ridiculous to claim that the game somehow proves that they are fatally flowed on offense. 

And it's really quite funny how my tepid if NE's defense slows down Buffalo and the game comes down to a couple NE offensive possessions, I like their chances comment ruffled so many feathers.  I thought it was Pats fans who are supposed to be touchy!

given that both of them would be considered below average performances had Buffalo caught any of its potential TDs in the former game.

Why are you again bringing Buffalo's offense in when I've said from the very beginning that they dominated that match up last week?  What do I have to say to make it clear that my "confidence" depends on the - perhaps unlikely - assumption that Buffalo's offense being a lot less productive than they were last week?  

Points: 0

#21 by Scott P. // Jan 02, 2022 - 11:46am

If New England comes to Buffalo in the playoffs, they’re going to get shellacked. Jones couldn’t execute in the friendly confines of Gillette in front of a silent home crowd. The idea that he’ll come to Orchard Park as a playoff rookie and somehow win the game …

Jones and the Patriots are 6-1 on the road and 3-5 at home this season. Their win against Buffalo came in Orchard Park!

Points: 0

#11 by Roo Mal // Dec 31, 2021 - 9:11am

Always a Patriots fan is going to get upset about anything that doesn't basically say "Patriots will win the Superbowl."    This is a fan base that is not emotionally equipped to handle an article with film evidence about any weaknesses, period.  It's pointless to argue, they are incapable of accepting anything less then we win the superbowl.  They're insufferable after postseason losses:  It's always the refs fault and luck when season ends without confetti.   
   They'll probably become a dynasty again soon, but the mere possibility that its not THIS season is something to argue about.  

Points: 0

#12 by Anon Ymous // Dec 31, 2021 - 10:03am

Wow, that's some impressive projection your part.  Might I suggest reading what is actually written next time and not what you wish it said?  Frankly, it's a useful skill in all facets of your life, and can spare you some trouble when things get more serious than a silly sports site.  

No need to thank me, just knowing you've grown a little is enough for me.  :-)

Points: 0

#6 by Raiderfan // Dec 30, 2021 - 1:18pm

I am not so sure based on the plays you show:

the first one has a play call where three receivers all run to the same place, between the two high safeties.  If the coaching staff is great, which you state, that will probably not happen again.

the second one shows the rb open for what would have been a 20+ yard gain.

the third one led to a touchdown.

the fourth one shows superb coverage by every Bills pass defender.  It is not just a NE offense that cannot beat that.

the fifth one shows the number three receiver open if the qb would have thrown it quickly, and the receiver at the bottom open if he had run any route other than a post.

so, your analysis may in fact be correct, but none of your examples prove it.

Points: 0

#13 by Anon Ymous // Dec 31, 2021 - 10:10am

Gotta agree.  The big takeaway from this past week's game is how well Buffalo's *offense* played, particularly their offensive line.  If that happens again, Buffalo will win again, probably by more than 12 points.  The stuff in this article seems to be pulling out a few plays and a jump to conclusions mat.

Points: 0

#14 by BJR // Dec 31, 2021 - 10:30am

That was kinda my impression watching the game too. If the Patriots can rush for 5.5 ypa, they are going to be in fairly good shape. The Bills are #2 in pass defense DVOA remember - a long way ahead of #3 (New England), and a country mile ahead of #4. Mac Jones won't face a test like that very often, playoffs or otherwise. 

Even on defense it wasn't like the Patriots were being gashed. It took a huge effort from Josh Allen with his legs, and a career day for a depth chart receiver to overcome them. 

None of which is to say the Patriots aren't underdogs against the very best teams in the league (like the Bills). But it's silly to suggest they don't stand a chance based on this one game. 

Points: 0

#18 by mehllageman56 // Dec 31, 2021 - 2:28pm

What I take from this article is this scheme is how to play against Jones going forward.  It wouldn't surprise me if Belichick's schemes against Pennington after the first loss looked similar.  That doesn't mean that other teams will be able to do what the Bills did; many teams are not capable of playing man.  The Dolphins are a team capable of tight man to man coverage, though.  Fully expect that game to be tough for Jones, although the Pats defense and run game may save the day.

Points: 0

#20 by Anon Ymous // Dec 31, 2021 - 5:35pm

I won't be surprised if Agholor's return makes the passing offense run more smoothly.  Harry has become a good blocker, but he is a lost cause running routes.  It isn't just that something like 50% of his passes have either ended up as incomplete or intercepted (another dropped pick last week), it's that he doesn't have great timing or spacing.  When you see guys in the same area, Harry is usually one of them.  Just having someone running the right routes and pulling defenders in the right directions could make a notable difference.  

Points: 0

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