Obviously, the big story in Week 4 of the 2021 NFL season is Tom Brady’s return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since his 20-year relationship with Bill Belichick ended. Brady won yet another Super Bowl with a fully-developed Buccaneers team that only needed a transcendent quarterback to push it over the top, while the Patriots were a team in transition with a ton of defensive opt-outs and Cam Newton as Brady’s one-year replacement. Newton was never a fit with the Patriots — the Patriots didn’t maximize Newton’s ability as a runner, especially in the red zone, and Newton’s combination as a passer of explosive plays and randomness wasn’t ideal for a head coach in Belichick and an offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels who were used to Brady, the mechanical freak and robotic quarterback.
So, the Patriots decided to put their real post-Brady future in the hands of Alabama’s Mac Jones, which on the surface presented the best possible option for Jones’ combination of consistency, pocket movement, and complete and total lack of second-reaction ability. This was only going to work if the Patriots could give Jones the same plan they gave Brady early in Brady’s career — run a great defense out there, lean on your run game, and give Brady just enough of the offense to avoid messing things up.
But through three games, Jones has been asked to create explosive plays more often than expected. Per Pro Football Focus, he’s thrown 16 passes of 20 or more air yards, tied with Trevor Lawrence and Aaron Rodgers for fourth-most in the league. And on those throws, Jones has completed four for 97 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception.
Last Sunday in a 28-13 loss to the Saints in which New Orleans had a 21-6 lead late in the third quarter, and the Patriots had to try and lean on Jones’ ostensible ability to get the ball downfield, it was even worse. Jones attempted 11 deep throws, completing one to his own team for 27 yards, and one to Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The interception was a desperation heave at the end of the game, where the Patriots ran four verts and Jones made a horrible throw, but the point stands. Jones is not throwing deep well at all, and when you’re facing a Buccaneers team that leads the league averaging 34.3 points per game, if you can’t create explosive plays in the passing game, you are in a lot of trouble.
Brady isn’t incredible with the deep ball so far this season, completing seven of 18 deep attempts for 198 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, but it’s not a problem for Bruce Arians’ offense — at least, not at this point, and probably not against an opposing quarterback with fairly epic deep-ball struggles.
“I think it just goes back to execution,” Jones said after the Saints loss, in which he had no choice but to heave the ball 51 times, completing 30 passes for 240 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and two sacks. “I can do a better job just sticking to my reads and being patient and letting things develop. I didn’t do a good job of that today. We’ll get better, and we’ve made it a point of emphasis. Today it didn’t show, but we’re going to just flip the page and continue to work and try to find ways, whether it’s creativity or whatever. It’s really not my job to call the plays. Josh is going to do a great job coming up with ways to improve that. I know he will because he’s a competitor just like all of us and we’re all wanting to score points. It’s not like we’re all happy with just kicking. We want to score as much as we can.”
They’ll need to score as much as they can to beat Brady and the Buccaneers, but perhaps relying on Jones to air it out isn’t yet the answer.
Jones’ first two deep incompletions came on second and third down of the Patriots’ first offensive drive. On second-and-3 from the New England 30-yard line, Jones tried to hit receiver Nelson Agholor on a backdoor fade with Lattimore manning him up through the boundary. Pre-snap motion indicated man, which you really don’t need to do when you’re playing the Saints — this season, they’ve played more snaps in man coverage (63) than anyone else (the Broncos rank second with 49 snaps in man), and this is a Cover-1 blitz with man across the board.
The problems here were multiple. Jones and Agholor didn’t connect, Jones telegraphed the throw all the way, and Agholor — who proved last season with the Raiders that he can get deep separation in the slot and in combo routes where he doesn’t have to be the primary guy — also proved that when he is the primary guy against an opponent’s top cornerback, it doesn’t work as well.
Agholor tried to stutter Lattimore free from coverage, and let’s just say that it wasn’t the most athletic maneuver. You can fault Jones for not throwing it with favorable anticipation, but you could also wonder what the ideal place for Agholor would be in this scenario. And when you look at this entire play, it appears that the 2021 Patriots have a similar issue to the 2019 and 2020 Patriots — no receivers who can credibly separate against tight coverage using nothing but their own athletic attributes.
Jones was pressured on 18 of his dropbacks against the Saints, but per Sports Info Solutions, that wasn’t the primary issue on his 11 deep attempts — on passes of 20 or more air yards, he was pressured just three times with three incompletions. The third-down throw on the first drive was one of those plays.
Here, the Saints matched their defenders up top, defensive lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon got through on a bear front blitz on an inside game in which safety Malcolm Jenkins was the extra rusher, and Jones tried to hit running back James White deep on the backside with no other receiver getting separation (again) on underneath stuff (again). Jones had this completion if he had hit White earlier on the wheel-and-up, but elevated processing speed is not yet a strength. Were Jones to look off that deep route, he would have very little else to work with.
Another deep throw that died at the hands of New Orleans’ pressures? This incompletion to tight end Jonnu Smith with 9: 54 left in the first half.
Here, Jones was flushed out of the pocket, and this is not where he lives. Never has been. I expressed severe concerns about Jones’ second-reaction ability during his time at Alabama, and this throw, though it was borderline catchable, shows a quarterback who is not at all comfortable letting it rip on the move. Jones threw off-platform, and he didn’t square his shoulders to the target, which quarterbacks more comfortable on the move will do.
The end zone angle shows this.
Tampa Bay’s coverage is not great right now, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles generally knows how to tie pressure to coverage, and you can expect some creative blitz looks to get Jones off his ideal spot and out side the pocket.
Through the first three weeks of the 2021 NFL season, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in completions allowed (104), and passing yards allowed (1,046), and they’re tied with the Packers and Colts with a league-high nine passing touchdowns allowed. They’ve also allowed five deep completions on 10 attempts for 166 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. You can chalk some of that up to opposing offenses having to air it out, and there are two reasons for that. First, the Bucs score so much and put your offense on its heels. Second, nobody runs well against Tampa Bay’s defense, and the Patriots don’t look like a natural exception to that rule.
Another part, and it’s one reason the Bucs outbid several other teams for the services of Richard Sherman, is the combination of injuries and communication issues along the secondary. Head coach Bruce Arians spoke on Monday about the importance of pressure and coverage working together, and how neither aspect is working for his defense right now. The Buccaneers have the NFL’s fourth-most pressures (56, tied with the Rams), but they’re also tied with the Packers for the league’s fewest sacks — just three. Todd Bowles will be looking to scheme things up something fierce.
“Yeah, the [lack of] sacks are probably the biggest thing that disturbs me because we can rush the passer,” Arians said. “Now, we’re getting close; we’re not finishing deals. In the first [quarter of the 34-24 Week 3 loss to the Rams] – think back to the start of the game. Joe [Tryon-Shoyinka] gets a good pressure, incomplete; Devin [White] gets a good pressure, incomplete; all of a sudden, the pressures are gone and it’s bam, bam, bam, here we go. You can’t ask our secondary, especially with the shape it’s in, to go play a ton of man-to-man, which limits you. The ball’s not going to be held for sacks to happen. It’s a little bit of both. We’ve got to do a better job of getting some man-to-man pressures and going in there and getting after the quarterback. And then also when we’re playing zone, we’ve got to get home. The secondary and the front [are] just not meshing very well.”
At this point, it doesn’t look as if Sherman will play this Sunday night. So, all the more reason for Mac Jones to try and make the most of his big-play opportunity. Because there’s one thing we know: The quarterback on the other side probably wants this win as much as he’s ever wanted anything that wasn’t a Super Bowl, he’ll be out for blood, and if Jones can’t match Tom Brady punch for punch, it’ll be Brady walking away with the win — and the knowledge that for the second straight season, his former team is much less capable on offense without his presence.