PATS REPORTER

Perry's mailbag: As running game struggles, time to pivot from play-action?

PATS REPORTER

Another week, another mailbag. Let's tackle your hard-hitting questions ahead of the New England Patriots' Week 5 game vs. the Houston Texans.

Scrap it? No. But to your point, Mac Jones has been sacked five times using play action, according to Pro Football Focus. That's the same number of sacks he's taken when not using play action, despite running play-action looks on less than a quarter of his dropbacks this season. Not ideal. Furthermore, per PFF, Jones has four turnover-worthy plays when using play action compared to just one turnover-worthy play when not using play action. 

Those play-action throws have been dangerous for the Patriots through four games.

But play action has also led to some of New England's better passing plays. Jones has a better completion percentage (75.8 to 68.5) when using play action. He has a better yards-per-attempt figure (6.6 to 6.3), and a better quarterback rating (100.3 to 80.6) when using play action. Even if the running game continues to struggle, as Chargers coach Brandon Staley pointed out this week, that doesn't mean the play-action passing game has to.

Let's think about this with both a short-term and long-term focus. Over the duration of the season, the expectation is that the running game will improve and the Patriots will be more balanced. Power running game. Quick passing game. Play-action game. Screens. The hope is that all and more are available to them when they need them.

But in the short term... There's a real possibility the Patriots are without four of their starting offensive linemen in Houston. I spoke to a handful of offensive coaches late in the week, and they suggested a few ways to deploy Jones in a situation like that.

 

If the Patriots can take some of the pressure off their blockers -- by using the quick passing game and going empty to allow Jones to get the football out of his hands in short order -- that would be ideal. But they're going to be faced with tough down-and-distance situations at some point, situations which might require Jones to hold onto the football to let plays develop. At that point they're going to have to be ready for Texans twists and stunts up front as well as occasional five-man rushes to dictate one-on-one matchups with a series of backups.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Going deep on the Stephon Gilmore deal, and could there be trouble in Texas? | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

As for the RPO solution? It'd be interesting to see them work it in. Jones orchestrated one of the most prolific offenses in the country with a steady diet of RPOs at Alabama last year. It also might benefit the offensive line because RPOs allow an offense to get its pass attempts in without asking linemen (in this case, reserve linemen) to put themselves in potentially-compromising positions by having to pass block.

"We don't major in that," Josh McDaniels said of RPOs earlier this week, "but there's an element of that that we have and we're aware of."

Mad at myself for not already having thought of this idea. I’ll keep you posted. Speaking of discounts, though… Don’t expect J.C. Jackson to be taking one any time soon. Spoke to front-office folks around the NFL after the Stephon Gilmore trade, trying to gauge Jackson’s league-wide reputation — is he a No. 2, a No. 1? — it’s becoming pretty clear Jackson is in position to get a massive deal next offseason.

The Byron Jones ($16.5 million per year) and Tre’Davious White (about $17 million per year) deals were viewed as realistic comps for Jackson this offseason. The reasons? He’s 25, he’s posted some eye-popping numbers as Gilmore’s running mate, and he’ll likely be viewed as the best in-his-prime corner on the market. The thinking is the Patriots may be best suited to give him the franchise tag in 2022 (it was about $15 million this year at that position) and then either give him a long-term extension or hope to have a younger potential No. 1 coming up behind him.

My understanding is the corner class in the 2021 draft was viewed as pretty top-heavy, which helps explain why the Patriots didn’t draft one even knowing both Gilmore and Jackson were slated to become free agents in 2021. After taking Mac Jones in the first and Christian Barmore in the second — both of whom are looking like hits — there just might not have been many options there they liked.

 

Let's hammer these out one at a time: 

* I could see it, particularly if Ja'Whaun Bentley (shoulder) and/or Kyle Van Noy (groin) can't go. 

* Not sure. Damien Harris should be able to handle three-down duties, and he might be their best third-down option at this point in time. He's not Sony Michel. He's a capable passing-game player. But if the Patriots want to go run-heavy this week in order to protect their quarterback and their offensive line, they'll need reinforcements. Could be Rhamondre Stevenson. Could be JJ Taylor. Could be both. 

* Not sure. So I guess it could be me? Way to get me in my own head before the weekend, Murph.

Theoretically, yes. They'd just need to produce two negative tests 24 hours apart. But even for folks who've been vaccinated, even for folks with no symptoms, there's no guarantee they'll be able to "test out." If that's the case with Isaiah Wynn, Mike Onwenu or both -- if they can't produce negative tests -- they may have to wait the full 10 days before a return. That would of course make them ineligible for Sunday.

Unless they suddenly find themselves out of the postseason mix, Matt, I think you have to give it a full season. To me, this was a team expected to compete and contend (there's a difference) in 2021. If they fall way short of that, of course the roster-building process will be worth a review.

I tell him every day, David. As far as the offensive line goes, it could look like this: Justin Herron at left tackle, Ted Karras at left guard, David Andrews at center, James Ferentz at right guard and Yasir Durant at right tackle. If the team likes Yodny Cajuste at left tackle, maybe he slides in there and allows Durant and Herron to figure out the right side.

Alex Redmond and Will Sherman are other practice-squad options to play one of the guard spots. Ferentz played over 200 snaps in 2019 and essentially split time between right guard (83 snaps) and center (109).

The game that comes to mind for me is Week 10 in 2015, when the Patriots won a thriller in the Meadowlands against the Giants. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer were hurt, kicking center Bryan Stork out to tackle. The starting lineup looked like this: Cam Fleming at left tackle, rookie Shaq Mason at left guard, rookie David Andrews at center, Josh Kline at right guard and Stork at right tackle. Kline and Andrews were the only Week 1 starters from that group, but Stork had plenty of starting experience (albeit at center). This week, Andrews might be the only Week 1 starter available. 

The Patriots have always wanted beefy linebackers to help stop the run. Those players have become less frequently sought after as teams have prioritized speed in recent years. (One good example is that Ja’Whaun Bentley was not on the draft boards of some linebacker-needy teams a few years ago because he was heavy relative to others — in the 250 to 260-pound range — and not viewed as athletic enough. The Patriots liked him, knew they could wait, and grabbed him on Day 3.)

 

There are 250-pounders who can set the edge. We’ve seen Kyle Van Noy do it. But not all 250-pounders are created equal. Jamie Collins hasn’t been viewed as an edge-setter. Josh Uche hasn’t seen much time on early downs for the same reason. Same goes for Chase Winovich. Guys like Matt Judon — or going back a few years Rob Ninkovich — who’ve shown an ability to set an edge tend to be a little heavier, in the 260-pound range.

Bottom-line, the Patriots like size. And they don’t often ask their big linebackers to do things that don’t fit their skills. You don’t see much in the way of Patriots off-ball linebackers dropping into coverage. Not relative to others around the league, at least. But you do see Patriots off-ball linebackers inserted into the pass-rush more than players with other teams. Bill Belichick builds his team with an identity in mind. He wants to be big, strong, physical and tough on the defensive side. So he acquires those players and then adjusts his scheme to what they do well.

If he wants speed at the second level, that’s when you see him use safeties like Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, who are probably better than most new-age (smaller, faster) linebackers in coverage, but still play the run well enough for Belichick.

Yes. Some growing pains at left guard. But the Patriots know Mike Onwenu has the ability to be a good player there. Still learning. 

We’ll see, Clare. Folk dealt with a leg issue — his plant leg — leading up to the Bucs game. I think we’ll continue to see him so long as he can get out there. Nordin still hasn’t been activated to practice yet. But he’s eligible to come back any time now with the IR rules requiring players miss a minimum of three weeks these days. It’s worth keeping an eye on moving forward. Nordin’s leg, if accurate, can be a weapon.

I do. Reps help. He got his share of first-team reps, but I don’t think it would’ve hurt for him to have more. But easy to say that now in hindsight. For me to be consistent, I have to point out that I argued before camp that the Patriots should settle on a quarterback choice after the second preseason game and gone from there. That almost ended up happening by default thanks to Cam Newton’s COVID-protocol-related absence. Mac Jones got the vast majority of reps that week and Newton was gone after the final preseason game.

So to answer your question, had they made Jones the No. 1 sooner, yes I think he’d be further along. But my suggested pre-camp plan was very similar to the way it ended up playing out in reality. 

 

Thanks, Doug! You know the Patriots will be active around the deadline, as they always are, as they already have been. I’m not sure the Patriots want to acquire someone like Burkhead, who’d impede the progress of younger players in whom they’ve already invested. Taylor and Stevenson may be in the doghouse, but that likely won’t last all season. They’re going to need those guys to contribute eventually and I think they will. If you bring Burkhead aboard, it could end up being something a lost season for the younger duo, which the Patriots shouldn’t want. 

I think the Patriots will try to keep an eye on the tackle market, though I’ve been told not to expect much in that regard. Teams don’t typically trade away capable tackles. Even backups. Too valuable. But maybe there’s a bad team that’s a seller near the deadline that would be willing to swing a trade to help themselves in the future. If Trent Brown is going to miss an extended period of time — and if Isaiah Wynn is forced out at any point this season — the Patriots may be forced to bring in some help. They have three backup tackles, but none have proven to this point they are starting-caliber players when an injury pops up.