PATS REPORTER

Perry: Signs of an explosive offense emerging with the Patriots

PATS REPORTER

The one that flew under the lights is the one that everyone saw.

Against Washington in his preseason debut, Mac Jones sent a high-arcing pass about 40 yards through the air and squarely into the bread basket of Kristian Wilkerson. It wasn't caught. But in a region where summertime quarterbacking is the focus of the sports-consuming public, the result of the play was unimportant.

Did you see that throw?

Other such lobs off Jones' fingertips have gone largely unseen, thrown on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. But the rookie first-round pick has submitted them on a fairly regular basis. They've continued to pop up in Philadelphia this week, too.

There was a deep touch pass to Nelson Agholor for a touchdown. There was another dropped in the bucket to Agholor along the sideline. Jones zipped another to N'Keal Harry from about 20 yards away for a touchdown that effectively ended the first joint practice with the Eagles on Monday. On Tuesday, the Alabama product floated one to James White for an over-the-shoulder touchdown.

Eagles DB trolls Cam Newton during joint Patriots-Eagles practices

Jones has shown all throughout the course of Patriots training camp that he's unafraid to test defenders down the field. And he just so happens to be doing it for a team that was less likely than almost any other to throw long a season ago. Is it possible that whenever he becomes the starting quarterback -- whether it's Week 1 of the regular season or down the line -- the Patriots could actually feature an aggressive down-the-field attack?

 

Signs point to a change

Jones' long-ball ability probably won't be the deciding factor when Belichick determines which quarterback starts the season for the Patriots. But it will be a factor, in all likelihood.

It should be. Otherwise why pay Agholor, who averaged over 18 yards per catch for the Raiders a season ago, like a top-25 wideout? Why invest in tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith who can threaten seams and stress defenses vertically?

For years in Foxboro, we've often heard the best offenses force opponents to defend "every blade of grass." But last season the Patriots offense usually only forced defenses to guard the ones closest to the line of scrimmage. The offseason spending spree on that side of the ball made sense.

They're not built like a track team by any means. But at least they should pose a threat to opposing secondaries in the deep portion of the field. At least the Patriots will give defensive coordinators something to think about on the back end. That wasn't always the case with receivers Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, N'Keal Harry and tight end Ryan Izzo leading their position groups in snaps in 2020. It wasn't always the case with Cam Newton, who appeared to struggle at times physically to push the ball down the field, behind center.

New England's offense was one of the least-productive in football when it came to creating chunk plays through the air last season. The Patriots were 29th in explosive pass plays of 15 yards or more, according to Sharp Football Stats. Part of the explanation for that ranking was that the Patriots rarely even tried to get the ball down the field.

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Drew Brees of the Saints was the only quarterback -- out of 26 in the NFL last season with at least 400 dropbacks -- who attempted fewer than Newton's 29 deep attempts (an attempt of 20 yards or more through the air), per Pro Football Focus.

Newton's accuracy percentage last season on "vertical lead" throws, per PFF, was 36 percent. (League average: 45 percent). His "over-the-shoulder" throw accuracy percentage, at 17 percent, was also well below league average (34 percent).

 

While Newton's quarterback rating when throwing deep was in the middle of the pack in the NFL (14th among 39 qualifiers), his dearth of attempts down the field was an indication that the deep ball was just not a consistent piece to the Patriots offense.

It could be in 2021. It should be based on the personnel added to their locker room. It has to be, if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wants to force opponents to defend turf inside and outside, shallow and deep.

Why explosive plays matter

Can an offense still win by going with an old-school, slobber-knocker style? We've seen it.

Not all that long ago, back in 2018, the Patriots decided to emphasize the more physical aspects of their playbook, hammering defenses with a knock-down-drag-out running game, and they ended up winning a Super Bowl.

But that team still needed a late-game explosive pass play from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski to beat the Rams and hoist a Lombardi Trophy. It needed a pass-happy drive at the end of the AFC title game to beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

There was balance in that offense. Punishing defenses with a running game wasn't enough.

Now, given the nature of the rules in today's game and how it's officiated, given that the NFL's point totals -- climbing steadily for decades -- reached new heights in 2020, it's as important as it has ever been for teams that want to contend to be able to score. And quickly.

That's why there's a bit of a new-age axiom for winning games among some football cognoscenti. It's not enough just to win the turnover battle anymore. Wins and losses, depending on who you ask, are often decided by turnovers and explosive plays.

The most explosive offenses in football last year, the ones who forced defenses to account for "every blade," were for the most part the engines that drove the league's best teams. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Chiefs led the league in explosive passing plays in the regular season -- tied with the always-trailing Texans and quarterback Deshaun Watson. The eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs were third. The Bills were fourth. The Packers were 10th. All four made the conference finals.

 

 

Three of the four conference finalists in 2019 ranked inside the top eight of the most explosive passing offenses in football. In 2018, three of the four conference finalists ranked in the top nine of the most explosive passing offenses in football.

Even the run-happy Patriots in 2018 ranked inside the top half of the league (12th) in accumulating explosive passing plays. But during that same season, Brady wrestled publicly with the idea of pushing the ball down the field if it meant incurring more risk.

Wrong direction

Patriots' explosive passing plays in 2018
68
Patriots' explosive passing plays in 2020
38

"Maybe part of my problem as I’ve gotten older is I want to make so few mistakes," he told WEEI. "Maybe there’s not as much aggressiveness as I would like because with aggressiveness comes more risk. We have, like, a 95 percent chance of winning when we don’t turn the ball over and I think that’s always in the back of my mind, being a little less fearful with the ball and a little more aggressive."

It should come as no surprise that oftentimes the teams that can do both, remain aggressive while taking care of the football, are among the most successful. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick explains here a formula that led to a metric called "toxic differential" he used during his coaching days. 

It's simple: Add a team's turnover differential to its explosive play differential (explosive plays created versus explosive plays allowed) and you have its toxic differential.

Different sources have different definitions of what's "explosive." But for Sharp Football Stats it is a run over 10 yards or a pass over 15 yards. Based on the site's numbers for 2020, the top nine teams in toxic differential made the postseason, and 11 of the top 12 were in the playoffs. The only teams not to place in the top 15 of the NFL in toxic differential and survive beyond the regular season were the Steelers (19th) and Bears (29th). The NFL's final four -- the Chiefs (1st), Packers (6th), Bucs (8th) and Bills (9th) -- all ranked near the top of the league.

The Patriots had a relatively explosive running game in 2020 (7th-most explosive runs in the NFL), but they still ranked 18th overall in explosive plays created, per Sharp. The numbers would suggest that bumping up their explosive passing production -- while continuing to have a positive turnover differential and limiting opponent "explosives" -- would be one clear way in which they could help themselves rebound from last year's 7-9 finish.

 

With a revamped group of pass-catchers, and with a quarterback who was one of the most productive deep-ball throwers in college football last year, the pieces are there for the Patriots to become more toxic in 2021.

In a good way. 

So ... bombs away?

One only has to watch a handful of reps during a Patriots practice this summer to understand that they are doing anything but going into the kitchen to reheat their play-it-safe passing game from a year ago. They're often looking to push the ball down the field.

And Jones isn't the only one testing defenders deep. He may do it more frequently than Newton, but the 2015 NFL MVP has shown flashes of long-ball accuracy himself. On Day 2 of camp, he hit Henry with back-to-back throws down the field in 11-on-11 work. On Day 3, Newton connected with Smith for a chunk gain down the seam. On Day 6, Newton hit Agholor for a deep touchdown. On Day 10, it was Wilkerson's turn to link up with Newton for a deep-ball score.

Flashes.

Belichick understands the importance of making secondaries think twice about getting beat over the top. When asked last week what constitutes for him a well-executed deep ball, his answer went several minutes.

"I feel like that’s the kind of thing that we'd probably spend an hour on in a quarterback-receiver meeting in training camp," he said. "So much depends on the play itself, the coverage, the match up and what happens after the ball snaps. And then obviously the long pass is a play that takes the longest in football, and so there's a lot of things that can go right, and there's a lot of things that can go wrong.

"But in the end, when the ball finally arrives at the reception area, then there's a whole other level of execution that's involved regardless of what's happened on the previous, I don't know, 3 seconds, 3.5 seconds, that's already taken place on the play. The finish of that play, there's a lot at stake on both sides ...

"It's a very in-depth question. What leads to success and failure? There's more to that play in terms of timing and time then really there is in any other play. Things happen quicker on shorter passes and running plays and guys are lined up within a few inches of each other on the line of scrimmage ...

 

"I mean we could go on and on here, but it's really pretty specific. In the end, it comes down, most of the time, to the finish of the play, assuming that the ball is catchable."

The Patriots are now paying weapons who should be able to finish those plays. They have a rookie quarterback in Jones who had a passer rating of 128.0, per PFF, on throws 20 yards or more down the field for Alabama last season. Jones led the country in deep passing yards as a redshirt junior. He should be able to provide catchable footballs, whenever he gets the call.

Newton, meanwhile, dubbed "Checkdown King" by an Eagles defender on Tuesday for attempting too many short throws in a red-zone period, has been trending toward becoming a more conservative thrower over the last few seasons.

As MVP in 2015, Newton was 7th in the NFL in pass attempts that traveled 20 yards or more (73). The following year, he was 7th again (71). In 2017, after surgery on his throwing shoulder in the offseason, he was 19th in deep tries (57) among the league's 25 passers with 400 overall attempts. In 2018, his last close-to-full season before becoming a member of the Patriots, Newton had the fewest number of deep shots (40) among the NFL's 23 passers with at least 400 attempts.

In 2020, he was in the 400-attempt club again but had just 29 deep passes to his name. That placed him ahead of only Brees, who dealt with a variety of injuries before retiring, including what his wife said was a torn rotator cuff.

Jonesing for more deep balls?

Newton's yards per attempt in 2020
7.2
Jones' yards per attempt in 2020 at Alabama
11.2

Tracking Newton's air yards (the average yardage his passes traveled beyond the line of scrimmage) season by season tells a similar story. He was third in 2015, according to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic. He was first in 2016. From 2017-2020, Newton went from 9th, to 27th, to 28th in 2020 after an injury-shortened 2019.

The Patriots will, in all likelihood, remain a run-first team in 2021 no matter who is behind center. They have an accomplished stable of backs. They have what's considered one of the top offensive lines in the game. They have two tight ends and a fullback that could lead to an unrelenting usage of heavy offensive personnel.

 

But the Patriots have to threaten deep. And they should have the ability to do just that with their new pass-catchers, a ground game that will lead to openings down the field, and a young quarterback who can effectively go long despite not possessing an other-worldly arm.

It's unclear exactly when Jones will get his opportunity to be Belichick's starting quarterback. But whenever he does, in a pursuit of balance, in a pursuit of threatening "every blade of grass," expect the Patriots offense to set its sights on becoming more explosive upon his promotion.