PATS REPORTER

Perry: How will Mac Jones handle things if Mike Vrabel, Titans heat him up?

PATS REPORTER

FOXBORO -- Through 11 weeks in the season, we're starting to get a clearer picture of who Mac Jones is as a quarterback.

We can say he's not the Checkdown Charlie he was accused of being through two weeks of the season, when he ranked 27th in the NFL in average depth of target. But he's not an air-it-out-at-all-costs guy, either. On the season, he's 22nd in that category (7.7 air yards per target) -- ahead of Justin Herbert (7.4) and behind his opponent this week Ryan Tannehill (7.9) -- and he's 17th during his team's five-game winning streak, according to Pro Football Focus.

We can say he's among the most accurate quarterbacks in the league. Not only is Jones second in the league in completion percentage (70.2), but for the majority of the season, he's ranked inside the top 10 when it comes to Next Gen's completion percentage over expectation metric. (You can read about how Next Gen calculates completion probability here.) He's currently fifth in that category among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, behind only Kyler Murray, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Burrow and Dak Prescott. 

We can say the Patriots have done plenty to help Jones with their play-calling. Since Week 5, they are the most run-heavy team in football in "situation-neutral" moments (when the score is within seven points during the first three quarters, excluding the final two minutes of the first half).

They use play-action at the sixth-highest rate in the league, and they use screens at the ninth-highest rate in football. Those are the kinds of quarterbacking cheat-codes that can make a young passer's life a little easier. And they've worked. The Patriots -- thanks in part to the league's biggest offensive line -- are the most efficient offense in football during their five-game winning streak.

 

But we can also say that when the team has needed Jones to bail them out, he's been excellent of late. Since Week 5, in third-and-five-or-longer situations -- when the straight dropback passing game is typically the answer -- Jones is first in passing success rate and first in quarterback rating.

On third down this season, the Patriots are fifth in conversion rate (45.8 percent), and Jones is 10th in the NFL when it comes to his third-down aggressiveness. He's attacking the sticks in third-and-long spots more often than former MVPs like Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson and Matt Ryan.

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When the Patriots do take to the air, even if Jones isn't launching it deep as often as others, they remain explosive. They're third in explosive pass rate this season (11 percent of their throws result in gains of 15 yards or more) and second since Week 5, per Sharp Football Stats. 

It turns out two things can be true: Jones has been helped by his situation, and he's been good. 

Bill Belichick has surrounded him with an impressive running game and one of the league's best defenses. Josh McDaniels has helped him manage the rigors of the position with his play-calling approach. And in those inevitable junctures on third down, when a good quarterback needs to make good reads, throw accurately and on time -- when good quarterbacks elevate their teams -- Jones has been extremely effective over the last month and a half.

There is yet another truth we can take away from Jones' play through his rookie season's first 11 weeks. In particular, there is one very specific way in which defenses have tried to attack him: Blitz him to kingdom come. 

Jones has been blitzed at the second-highest rate in the league this season (34.9 percent), behind only Jackson (36.1), per PFF. And it's been a fairly steady wave of pressure for him from the jump. Over the last month, he's been blitzed 34.2 percent of the time.

Why? Because Jones and his Patriots teammates haven't consistently burned defenses who do turn up the heat. When blitzed, Jones averages 6.7 yards per attempt (20th in the NFL), and he has a quarterback rating of 81.0 (18th). Those are significantly lower figures compared to when Jones isn't blitzed (7.6 yards per attempt, 102.0 rating).

 

Pressuring the rookie

QB Rating when blitzed
81
QB rating when not blitzed
102

It's why a team like the Falcons blitzed Jones on 40 percent of his dropbacks -- sacking Jones on three blitzes -- even though Atlanta defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been pretty open about the fact that he's had to be relatively vanilla with his calls this season.

"There’s a little bit of copying in our league, obviously we all know that," McDaniels said this week. "I think when you look at the broader foundation of 11 games and the way that it has gone, there’s certainly been an element of testing the waters with regards to pressuring and blitzing us a little bit more. But, some teams have had success with that and some teams haven’t. We’ve done better in some games handling it and producing against it than we have in others. 

"I think that we always try and look at the things that have given us some issues over the last month to six weeks because generally speaking that’s probably what the opponent is looking at the closest, and try and see if we can help ourselves improve in those areas during the course of a week of practice."

Over the last month, with the Patriots offense rolling, Jones has a yards-per-attempt figure (6.2) and a rating (73.2) against the blitz that are actually worse than his season-long numbers. What does that mean for this weekend's game with the Titans, then? Even though Tennessee is 27th in the NFL in blitz rate this season, according to Pro Football Reference, the Patriots will probably still get blitzed. Pees was, after all, Tennessee defensive coordinator for two years under Mike Vrabel. 

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Vrabel was asked this week if he may borrow from his old assistant's plan this week.

"It's going to be a huge challenge no matter what we call on defense," he said. "It's going to be a huge challenge to stop the run and (stopping) all the things they're doing well -- converting third downs and being very efficient."

And if those calls include blitzes, it'll have to be the entirety of the Patriots offense that helps pick things up.

"Personally, I think Mac has done a really nice job throughout the course of the season of trying to handle almost anything someone has thrown at him," McDaniels said. "It’s not perfect by any stretch, we all know that. But for his first time seeing some of this stuff, being able to react to it, being able to handle his responsibility, being able to get the ball out of his hand most of the time and to the right place, I think he’s been fairly effective doing that. 

"There’s definitely been stretches that have challenged us, and we need to be ready for that coming down the stretch here. In regards to the other night, there were a few situations where we all have to do our job. When you do well against the blitz, it’s not because the quarterback knew it was coming only. The quarterback has to be aware of it, but there’s five guys on the offensive line, sometimes there’s tight ends, fullbacks, halfbacks that have a responsibility to do their assignments properly against blitzes. If one man breaks that chain against the pressure team, it could look like you have a bad play. 

 

"I think in general terms we’ll prepare as if we’re going to get a normal dose of pressure, which we basically do every week and try and do the best we can to back those up properly and go to the right spot when we do."

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Whether or not Vrabel sends the house at Jones, it sounds like the rookie has a believer in Nashville.

"He's really improved," Vrabel said. "He's really got a great grasp of what they're trying to do and how they're trying to play the football game. Making great decisions. I'm sure he'd like to have that one back from the other night. But all in all, a lot of accuracy, a lot of command, poise. He's playing well."

Can Jones remain one of the league's most efficient passers of late? Can he identify where pressures are coming from and punish Vrabel for making those calls? How well he does those moments will go a long way in determining Sunday's result.

Prediction: Patriots 20, Titans 10

X-Factor: Jeffery Simmons

One of the benefits of blitzing Jones this week would be that top-tier pass-rushers Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry would be provided with one-on-one matchups along the line of scrimmage. That wouldn't be a bad world in which to live for Tennessee. 

Harold Landry, a second-round choice out of Boston College in 2018, is fifth in the NFL among edge rushers in total pressures. His flexibility and athleticism off the edge could make him a handful for both Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn. 

But it's Simmons who has emerged as one of the best young defensive players in football. No interior defensive lineman, including Rams star Aaron Donald, has more pressures this season than Simmons. Taken in the first round (No. 19 overall) in 2019 despite having a torn ACL, Simmons has made the Titans look like geniuses for that roll of the dice.

If David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Ted Karras can prevent Simmons from pushing the pocket from the interior, that should leave Jones with enough space to step up, avoid edge pressure, and throw accurately. If not, it could be a long day. 

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Even if the Titans aren't typically a blitzing team because of the individual talent they have up front, even if they're a top-10 defense in terms of passing yards allowed per attempt (7.0) with that approach, maybe adding an extra body to the rush so that Simmons gets a one-on-one would make it worth it to Vrabel to shift gears.

 

"It’s not a lot of exotics," Belichick said of the Titans defense this week. "They give you different looks and all that, but they don’t play a lot of different things. They just play them very well, and then they’re hard to block...

"They don’t try to out-gadget you. They keep you honest with a little pressure here and there, mix in some blitz zones with their zones, but they’re really just a good, solid, sound, fundamental team... Landry is a dynamic player. Simmons pushes the pocket in the middle, which really helps Landry on the edge, (Denico) Autry on the edge. They’re all hard to block. They do a good job."

Number to Know: 22

That's Tennessee's offensive ranking, based on expected points added, since losing running back Derrick Henry to injury. They went from being No. 8 overall (No. 2 in EPA per rush) to No. 22 (No. 20 in EPA per rush) just... like... that. 

Henry is their identity offensively. Without him, they may run some of the same types of plays -- which Patriots defenders have said on multiple occasions this week -- but they simply aren't as effective. 

That's especially true in the play-action passing game.

With Henry in the lineup, the Titans averaged 10.2 yards per play-action attempt and had a 79.1 adjusted completion rate on play-action throws, per PFF. Without him? The Titans average 8.2 yards per play-action attempt and they have a 73.9 adjusted completion rate on those types of throws. Without Henry, the Titans are also using play-action less frequently (21.1 percent versus 29.0 percent).

Having AJ Brown banged up doesn't help Tennessee. Ditto for Julio Jones being on injured reserve. 

But without Henry, the Titans offense just isn't the same. That's why Tennessee should have a difficult time moving the football with running backs Jeremy McNichols (has missed practice this week with a concussion), D'Onta Foreman (limited with a tricep injury) and practice-squad call-up Dontrell Hilliard against the most efficient run defense in the NFL over the last six weeks (No. 1 in EPA allowed per rush).