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Cardinals DC: Patriots look 'like a defensive guy calling offense'

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FOXBORO -- Vance Joseph shrugged his shoulders and smiled wide when describing the Patriots offense on Thursday. He couldn't help himself.

"It's a very conservative pass game," the Cardinals defensive coordinator said during his press availability period. "Lots of screens. All kinds of screens. It's like a defensive guy is calling offense."

At that, a nod to Matt Patricia's NFL expertise as a long-time defensive coordinator with little offense-specific background, the media in attendance chortled.

Joseph continued: "It's how a defensive guy would call offensive plays, right? Let's not turn the ball over. Let's get four yards a play. Try to burn clock. That's what they're doing. That's what he's going to do on Monday night. He's going to be patient. Maybe take a shot from time to time. But for the most part, it's running game, it's quick game and it's screens."

Hard to argue.

The Patriots are screen-happy. Mac Jones is sixth in the league among 28 qualifiers in screen percentage (14.5 percent), according to Pro Football Focus, which actually slots him in behind Arizona's Kyler Murray (fourth, 15.0). Since taking over as the full-time quarterback for Bill Belichick in Week 8, nobody has thrown screens at a higher rate than Jones (17.7 percent).

They're also extremely conservative in terms of their passing depth. Since Week 8, Jones' average depth of target is 6.0 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which is shortest among 29 qualifiers. That's a wild swing from when the Patriots were among the deepest-passing teams in football through the season's first three weeks. During that stretch, he was third in the league in average passing depth with an ADOT of 10.4, behind only Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.

 

The Patriots are also a top-12 team in terms of their run rate this season (45.9 percent) but are not a heavy play-action team. Among 28 qualifiers, Jones ranks 24th in play-action pass usage. On early downs outside of the fourth quarter -- when the game is still contested, generally speaking -- Warren Sharp has the Patriots ranking as the 30th team in the league in terms of play-action rate. And that's despite the Patriots ranking first in expected points added per play on play-action passes in those situations.

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Jones was asked Thursday if there's any reason the Patriots haven't used more play-action.

"I didn't know that," he said. "Like I always talk about, it's one of those type of plays that we can run. It's something we've done really well around here. We've done really well here this season when we've done it. It can help us. There's a lot of factors that go into that from a coaching perspective. It's protection, where guys are on the field and all that. There's a lot of logistics that to the common eye... You've gotta make sure you've got all those squared away. 

"We want to be able to do that... Whenever, however we want to do it, make it look similar to the runs. That's what every team does. They have their runs and they have their play action. We definitely want to improve in that area, too."

Until the Patriots become more aggressive, they'll continue to be characterized as Joseph characterized them: a conservative attack coached by a defensive guy.