PATS REPORTER

Perry: Mac proved he can be a quality problem-solver in the NFL

PATS REPORTER

Mac Jones' voice could be heard loud and clear for anyone watching at home.

"Hunter! Hunter! Hunter!"

Jones was into the fourth quarter of his first meaningful professional football game, the new starting quarterback of one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. But he sounded like a tyke dying to tell his big brother a juicy secret.

In a way, he was both.

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The Patriots rookie waited for a shotgun snap on third-and-five Sunday when the Dolphins crowded the line of scrimmage with seven defenders. There were four Miami defensive backs in the secondary sagging well off their man-to-man assignments, none of them hovering in the middle of the field. 

Jones had to know exactly what he was looking at, a third-down staple of eminently-aggressive Dolphins head coach Brian Flores: Cover 0.

In that moment, as Jones was forced to do throughout the course of the afternoon, he had to solve a problem and communicate the solution to his teammates. And fast. The play clock read 20 seconds when Jones began barking. The ball was snapped seven seconds later.

The Dolphins blitzed Jones a whopping 24 times in Week 1, which constituted 60 percent of his dropbacks. They brought linebackers and safeties. They blitzed corners from the slot and from near the sidelines. They showed all-out blitzes and dropped multiple bodies into coverage. They called for zone blitzes at times -- a wrinkle for Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who prefer man-to-man defense -- to try to rattle a 23-year-old making his first-career start.

 

On those 24 blitzes, though, the Dolphins registered pressure on just seven. Jones went 19-for-23 when blitzed, for 153 yards and a touchdown. 

But it wasn't perfect. His errors against the blitz stung. Miami sent pressure on his first pro dropback, which forced Jones into what looked like a Madden video game glitch, where he threw a backwards bounce pass that went down as a fumble. And perhaps his most costly error came against the blitz when he threw too low on a fourth-quarter, third-down pass to Jakobi Meyers in the red zone. 

But his ability to recognize Dolphins pressure packages, often find a counter, and communicate instructions to his teammates in real time helped him have what was statistically one of the most impressive rookie quarterback debuts in NFL history.

"I thought he did a really nice job," Flores said of Jones after the Dolphins handed New England a 17-16 loss. "I thought he did a really nice job. Got the ball out, was able to kind of move their offense, pick up first downs, drive them down the field... Made the throws he needed to make. Made good decisions. I thought he played well."

Jones' fourth-quarter snap against Flores' Cover 0 served as a good illustration of his command at the line.

No team in football ran more Cover 0 looks than the Dolphins did on third down last year. Pro Football Focus says no coach in the last five years called for Cover 0 as frequently on third down as Flores did in 2020.

The look couldn't have been unexpected. But even though Jones knew heat was coming, he still had some orchestrating to do. He communicated with his offensive line and running back James White, gesturing toward the left side of the Dolphins defense. Then he motioned receiver Jakobi Meyers across the formation to the right.

Between White, Meyers and their five offensive linemen, the Patriots actually had the bodies to block all seven potential Dolphins rushers. For a time, at least. Whether or not they would was another story. But they had numbers.

Then came Jones' call to his veteran tight end Hunter Henry.

The Patriots may have been well-equipped to protect against the all-out blitz, but Jones gave himself a chance to attack when he shouted to Henry three times and held out three fingers on his right hand down by his right knee.

Jones barely looked at Henry. He was subtle about it. This was, after all, a secret he was trying to pass along. But Henry got the message. Out route.

At the snap, taking advantage of the space left by his sagging defender, Henry broke to the sideline at the first-down marker, caught Jones' low strike and rolled to a stop. 

 

Fresh set of downs.

"They certainly challenged us with a lot of different looks and pressures," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Tuesday. "That’s to be expected, and I thought Mac handled most of that very well. His communication, I thought, was clear. It was consistent. He was loud. I always tell rookies or young players, if you’re not 100 percent sure, it’s not OK to be quiet. I’d rather them be loud and wrong than silent. Then nobody knows what’s going on. 

"He’s always done a good job in that regard, and I would expect he continues to do so. Look, it’s no secret that our quarterback does a significant amount of communicating, along with our center and the rest of our skill players. That’s part of his job. He’s embraced that since he’s got here. I thought he tried to handle that as well as he could on Sunday, with obviously room to grow and room to improve and we’re looking forward to doing that this week on the road."

Some of Jones' non-traditional statistics from Sunday were indicative of a player taking that which the opposing defense gave him. He had the football out of his hand in 2.39 seconds, on average, per PFF. That was the third-quickest time-to-throw figure in football after Sunday's games. His average depth of target (6.5 yards) was 23rd in the league, making him one of Week 1's shortest throwers.

Blitzes came in waves, and Jones didn't appear all that interested in holding onto the football behind center to eventually launch deep. On a couple of occasions, in fact, he identified pressure quickly and threw directly into the direction of a blitzing defender to attack a vacated zone. Those passes went for short gains, and the thinking behind them seemed to fall under the quarterbacking cliche of "can't go broke making a profit."

Hard to blame Jones for that approach, though. The Dolphins were officially credited with nine quarterback hits Sunday, and he absorbed a 10th that was wiped from the record thanks to a roughing-the-passer call on linebacker Elandon Roberts. Soon after that hit, facing another blitz, Jones did some post-snap problem-solving when he read a cornerback's zone drop and decided on a shorter throw to Nelson Agholor rather than a deeper one to Jakobi Meyers for his first NFL touchdown.

Could Jones have taken more shots down the field? Sure. 

Could the Patriots have dialed up more opportunities for Jones to air it out? Maybe.

But he dropped back 40 times in his first start against one of the most blitz-happy defenses in football. He lost his starting right tackle Trent Brown (calf) early in the first quarter. The Patriots are a team built to run, and the Dolphins boast one of the most talented cornerback groups in the league.

 

McDaniels seemed pleased with the decisions Jones made pre-snap given the freedom the rookie had to adjust protections and routes at the line of scrimmage. Though he's young, he has been given the freedom to do some of those things.

"Our system has really been pretty much the same for a long time in terms of trying to provide quality answers," McDaniels said, "or give our offense an opportunity to run a play that has a chance to succeed. Hopefully we do a good job of that in the planning process and the quarterback doesn’t have to do that as much...

"There’s certain things [Jones] could do and there’s certain things that he’s not ready to do, and hopefully we make the right choices each week based on what the opponent does, how they play, and what we need to be able to do at the line of scrimmage as well."

Perry's Report Card: Mac deserves high marks for poise under pressure

While it was relatively clear during training camp that Jones had a strong grasp of that which had been thrown his way schematically, the speed of the game is different this time of year, McDaniels acknowledged. Defenses in September come in flavors other than vanilla. And Miami isn't the only team that will try to bother Jones by throwing pressure his way.

Take New England's Week 2 opponent, the Jets, for example. New head coach Robert Saleh dialed up blitzes on 51 percent of his team's third-down plays when he was defensive coordinator for the Niners in 2020, per PFF, and San Francisco allowed just a 35.5 percent third-down conversion rate last year, fourth-best in the league.

For the second straight week, Jones will need some "quality answers" at the line. But with those at his disposal in his debut, he showed he could survive the heat of the NFL's regular season.