PATS REPORTER

Perry: Colts jump on the 'doubting Mac Jones' trend

PATS REPORTER

It makes sense. Really, it does. Mac Jones threw the football three times in his team's last game, a win in windy Buffalo, and then he and his teammates hit their bye week.

That's a long time to leave the tangy These Guys Sure Don't Like To Throw The Football taste in everyone's mouths.

Seems as though that may be the case in Indianapolis, where linebacker Bobby Okereke was asked about Mac Jones and made it clear which phase of the Patriots offense is the lesser of two evils.

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"I think he's good," Okereke said earlier this week. "He's confident back there. He's got a good command of the offense. But we're really going to try to make the game one-dimensional, see what he can do. We're excited for the challenge."

Even if you were to put that Monday night performance in which the Patriots ran the ball a whopping 46 times aside, they clearly like to run the football. The Colts wouldn't be wrong to be over-preparing for the run. 

In neutral game situations -- when the score is within eight points, excluding the fourth quarter when teams are throwing to come back or running to bleed clock -- since Week 4, the Patriots have run more (58 percent of plays) than any team in football.

It is the cornerstone to their offensive identity. They utilize a fullback extensively. They have two of the biggest offensive linemen in the league. They employ big backs who run hard and are a pain to tackle.

Plus, they have a rookie quarterback who has benefitted greatly from an effective play-action game that has been buoyed by a potent rushing attack. Jones' completion percentage is 8.8 points higher when using play-action, per Pro Football Focus. His yards-per-attempt figure is nearly three yards higher with play-action passes (9.5) than without (6.7). And his quarterback rating jumps 12.7 points when he fakes a handoff before throwing.

 

"I know, from a philosophical standpoint," longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told Next Pats last week, "as an offensive staff, we always used to say, 'Look, if we can run the ball 24 times or more in a game, we felt we had a really good chance to win the game.' Because we were a balanced offensive football team. That, to us, was very, very important. We strived for that all the time.

"Yes, there are games where you get a little bit more one-sided than the other. But collectively as an offensive staff -- and I know (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) feels this way, and I haven't talked to Josh in a long time -- is that if you have a run game and you have a run-action game where you're showing the same runs and throwing the ball off those runs, you're going to make life miserable for a lot of people. We thought that was all really good."

It's the "see what he can do" bit from Okereke that seems to rub the Patriots the wrong way. For the last two months, they've been one of the best passing teams in the NFL by many metrics.

"I definitely do think we're under-respected," Kendrick Bourne said Tuesday. "Overall I think we are ... I think our group (in the passing game) has flown under the radar. But winning and everything else speaks for itself so that's what it's ultimately about."

There's more detailed evidence, beyond wins and losses, to suggest the Patriots possess a potent passing attack.

Since Week 4, once the Patriots' protection improved to the point where Jones was no longer on a record pace for quarterback hits, they have been the No. 1 team in the league in EPA per dropback. In that span, Jones is second in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.3) and third in both completion percentage (70.5) and quarterback rating (105.8). As a team, since losing to the Bucs in Week 4, they are the No. 1 team in football in terms of explosive pass play rate (14 percent), according to Sports Info Solutions.

 

Of course, the Patriots have been an effective running team. They are fifth in EPA per rush since Week 4. But you could make the argument that defenses should be more than happy to let the Patriots run, even if you look at their season-long stats. They're sixth in the NFL this year in yards per pass attempt (7.9) and 18th in yards per rush (4.2).

Yet teams are all too happy to try to put the game in the hands of the Patriots rookie quarterback. It's not just the Colts, either. The Titans took a similar approach in Week 12.

"As long as we keep the ball in front of us," Tennessee safety Kevin Byard said before the game, "[Jones] can dink and dunk it as much as he wants. If they do get in the red zone, we'll be good."

Jones threw for 310 yards and two touchdowns on 32 attempts that day in arguably the league's most impressive quarterback performance of the week. He came away with Offensive Rookie of the Month honors soon thereafter.

"I think that's just funny," Bourne said of Okereke's comments. "Obviously we're not a one-dimensional team. Last week we ran the ball, but conditions are conditions. That's just a funny comment to me. I feel like we can do anything. We're in control of what we do. It's literally not about any other team. It's about us. Mac knows the looks. We know the looks. We practice different looks. So nothing is a shock. Nothing is new.

"It's like, 'We've seen this look. We've seen this look. How do we adjust to the look?' That way, you can't make us one-dimensional. We know every look ... That's just a funny comment in my opinion. But it's all about playing on Sunday and proving it."

The Patriots have gone pass-heavy before. They threw 40 times against the Bucs in a losing effort. They threw 32 times against the Titans in a win.

Patriots play-caller Josh McDaniels said this week that if faced with a game that was the inverse of the Bills game for some reason -- if the Patriots needed to throw nearly 50 times instead of run like crazy -- he'd be open to it.

"Yeah, circumstances and the situation during the course of each game really dictates how the game flows and then how, in turn, you call the game," he explained. "At least it does for me. I can’t speak for anybody else. I just know that I’m keenly aware, after 18 years of doing this, of how the game is kind of taking form. And if the game requires us, as you’ve seen, if the game requires us to throw it 50-some times, like it did against Tampa this year and we didn’t run it very well, and we didn’t run it very much, either, then we were willing to do that, because that’s what was required based on circumstance and situation."

 

While Jones ranks among the league's top quarterbacks in certain categories, it's fair to say he's still relatively unproven in some facets.

Since losing to the Bucs, the Patriots have taken just 32 offensive snaps with a second-half deficit of six points or more. That's the fewest in the NFL. (Tampa is second with 37.) So to say Jones doesn't have a wealth of experience coming from behind in games would be apt.

The Patriots remain a mediocre red-zone offense relative to the rest of the league, cashing in on their opportunities inside the 20 at a 54.4 percent clip (26th in the NFL).

When blitzed, Jones has had his issues. He ranks 17th in the NFL in yards per attempt (6.9) and quarterback rating (86.1) when defenses heat him up.

But they're seventh in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (43.3). And Jones has recorded a NextGen completion percentage over expected figure that ranks him third in the NFL this season, behind only Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow as one of the most accurate passers in football.

"When you have balance in your offense -- which, clearly they have balance," Scarnecchia said. "They're not a one-sided team, you know? They can throw it effectively, and they can run it effectively. I think when you have that ability to do both, which they do, I think it just makes it really hard for the other guys."

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The Patriots obviously like to run the football. They made the entire country swallow that fact in Western New York the last time they took the field.

But to treat the Patriots as the Trent Dilfer-era Ravens would be a mistake. And to suggest that Jones is a complete unknown would be ignoring 13 weeks of action that suggests he's already a competent passer at the controls for one of the league's most efficient passing offenses.

The Patriots will try to run it Saturday night. But if the Colts -- 25th in the NFL in rush yards allowed per attempt (4.5), but fifth in rush EPA allowed (-0.128) -- can slow them down, they'll have other avenues to pursue. And if they win thanks to their work through the air, maybe that will be enough to help Jones earn a little more respect from opposing defenses.

 

Or maybe not.

Either way, sounds like he doesn't care all that much.

“I think that the No. 1 thing I can say about him is that he cares most about winning," McDaniels said of his quarterback. "This is not for personal statistics or glory or anything like that. I think that’s why you have a lot of people feel the way they do about him as a person, as a young guy on our team."