FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s fair for the Patriots to blame their dearth of play-action passes and surplus of deep shots on the situations they’ve found themselves in through three games, but game script doesn’t tell the whole story of why the team has shied away from a potential strength and leaned into a weakness early in the 2023 season.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones leads the NFL in passing attempts of 20 yards or more, per PFF’s charting. He’s just 3-of-18 on those deep targets for 53 yards with two touchdowns and ranks fifth in deep passing rate, 20th in deep passing completions and 31st in deep passing yards.
It is true that falling behind in Weeks 1 and 2 forced Jones into attempting to create more “chunk” plays. He was second among all NFL QBs through the first two weeks of the season with 13 deep attempts. But the Patriots led the Jets nearly all game in Week 3, and Jones still tossed five deep targets. He didn’t hit on a single one.
“I love chunk plays,” Jones said Wednesday. “My whole career I’ve kind of thrived off those play action and normal chunk plays. So, just trying to keep doing them. You’ve got to keep the hook in the water I guess they say. So, you have to have the bait out there and continue to fish. I think we’ll hit them or 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 can I improve on it? How can we improve on it as a team?’ The offensive line is doing good protecting. So, we definitely need to hit them and definitely just looking forward to growing in that area.”
Tight end Hunter Henry said Wednesday the team accomplished its goal of not turning the ball over in Sunday’s win over the Jets, its first of the season. But now the Patriots are trying to generate more explosive plays.
The Patriots are last in the NFL in passing plays of 20-plus yards. They’re tied for 11th with one passing play of 40-plus yards. That was a completion to tight end Pharaoh Brown on Sunday, but the majority of the 58-yard play came after the catch.
“We’re close,” Henry said. “We’re close on a lot of different things. I think it’s just continuing to work at it. Picking the right moments to choose those explosive plays. All of us working together. We need all 11 on the offense to do the right thing and everybody to hold up or run the right route or be in the right spot Just continuing to work. It’s going to come. We’re close.”
It would help if the Patriots were utilizing play-action more. They feel like they couldn’t in the first two weeks of the season because they had fallen behind early against the Eagles and Dolphins in the two early-season losses.
Jones ranks 30th among qualified QBs in play-action rate (14.8%). He used play action on just 13.3 percent of dropbacks through the first two weeks of the season, which also ranked 30th. That rate only improved to 20% (21st) in Week 3.
The Patriots QB believes that number will continue to increase.
“I think the data’s skewed,” Jones said. “I try not to look too much at it. But I do enjoy looking at data around the league. For us, it’s just skewed because of the first couple games. I think that’ll change with time, you have to look at it with truthful eyes. You’ve got to look at the All-22 with truthful eyes. I think we definitely do that around here. It’s sometimes hard when you keep hearing that you want more play action, explosive plays, but when you look at the tape, there’s a lot of good things that we’re doing. We’re definitely going to improve.”
The Patriots used play action on 26.8% of Jones’ dropbacks in 2021 and just 16.7% in 2022. Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien deployed play action on roughly 25% of Deshaun Watson’s dropbacks in 2018 and 2019 when he was head coach of the Texans.
History suggests Jones will perform better using play action. It also suggests O’Brien isn’t averse to using it.
The hope is that more chunk plays come with the play fake.
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