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This rookie wall is working really hard for Mack Jones as the Patriots get closer to the playoffs this weekend.
After 13 games of borderline top-10 quarterback play — an outstanding achievement as a first-year player — Jones has played like a rookie.
In his last four matches, he has had the same turnover (six) of touchdowns, hurled five interceptions and lost a fumble. During that time, the Patriots stumbled through a 1–3 record after their late bye week, including a loss to the Buffalo Bills they played on Wild Card Weekend.
The Bills’ defense, along with the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, made Jones’ life difficult to such an extent that confidence in the rookie’s ability to lead New England to a playoff victory has waned since Sunday night.
If the crime of Jones and the Patriots wants to turn things around and surprise the Bills, adjustments have to be made. Fortunately, it can be fairly easy to make at least three of them on Jones’ side right away.
Stop zeroing in on Jacobi Meyers.
When the Patriots are facing down third and spreading the field, everyone knows who Jones wants more than anyone: Meyers.
The third-year receiver has 19 third down-converting catches this season, putting him in the 10th place in the NFL in a three-way tie, According to STATS.com. Seven of those catches have come with three or fewer yards to convert on the third down.
About 23 percent of Meyers’ receptions this year — nearly one in four — have dropped to third. What’s more: He’s got 420 of his 866 receiving yards between numbers, almost all of which are coming in between 0-20 yards.
Teams have shown prudence for some time and have used various strategies to prevent this. Back in Week 3, the Saints resorted to bracketing Meyers’ familiar crossing routes, with Malcolm Jenkins (27) under Meyers and Marcus Williams (43) taking over the top receiver in this instance.
A film breakdown by CLNS Media’s Ivan Lazar highlights how the Bills deliberately played their slot cornerback with inside leverage to cut Meyers off the middle of the field.
Then, Dolphins’ Xavian Howard peeled off his cover 2 flat coverage assignment to swipe Jones’ third and -1 throw for Meyers and took it back for a score.
Although Meyers has continued to deliver numbers despite the extra attention he paid, Jones’ over-reliance on his favorite receiver has cost the Patriots key positions. The young quarterback needs to include Hunter Henry, Jones’ primary red zone target, and Kendrick Bourne more when it’s time to move up the chains.
Additionally, however, New England will also have to adjust to keeping Meyers open in situations that involve more out-breaking routes and goals down the field. He took two deep catches for 67 yards in Week 18, which is a welcome change.
Be more aggressive – at the right time.
The rap on Jones is that his lack of elite arm strength limits his ability to pass deep and doesn’t prepare him to challenge the defense down the field.
While the first part is true to an extent, the second may be less so. Jones is actually ranked 15th in the NFL in average depth of goal with Kyler Murray (8.3) and 18th in attempts over 20 yards (58).
The key for Jones is when he decides to push the boundaries and who he’s throwing when he does.
For one thing, the rookie feels more comfortable throwing the ball deeper when it’s his first read, especially if he recognizes the man coverage. A good example is his first big throw for Meyers for 28 yards; Jones knew his receiver was out face-to-face and trusted him to make the play. (That play is also an example of Meyers using the threat of his usual inside-breaking routes to fool the defense.)
Its corners and faded walkways towards the shore are all generally well placed and have a nice touch, even if they are not all finished.
He usually gets into trouble when he tries to hit the ground late. His second deep ball to Meyers against cover 2 was hanging in the air and allowed safety to play on it – if not for an excellent catch by the Patriots receiver. On other occasions, he has knocked down or picked up balls because his deep throws don’t have much velocity.
But they’ve also passed face-to-face mismatches to guys like Agholor and even Jonnu Smith, who are arguably their two most dangerous mismatches down the field. For example, Smith has only 10 goals over 10 yards all season, despite being larger and more athletic than most linebackers and the safaris that cover him. Meanwhile, Meyers, whose deep pace and lack of leaping ability make him a less-than-ideal deep target, is the second-most 20-plus-yard goal on the team.
Jones doesn’t need to play like Tom Brady to be effective, who has some of the deepest efforts in the NFL this season. But he needs to consistently take advantage of the right timing and the right matchups.
Run the ball (slightly) further.
Clearly, the Patriots shouldn’t be calling with a yard for any of Jones’ quarterback runs outside the occasional QB sneak. Soccer running isn’t his strong suit, and he clearly doesn’t like doing it.
But his reluctance to do so has left the field for the Patriots of late.
When teams like the Dolphins send heavy pressure against Jones, they are doing so with the expectation that the rookie quarterback will pocket almost every time and take a shot to get the ball out of his hands if needed. What’s more: Sometimes Jones is torn apart by a collapsed pocket, relying on Jones to throw the ball and move the defenders to the secondary to stop it.
Both of those strategies beg for Jones to take five or six yards of green grass ahead of him and move the ball forward.
Although Jones is being chased as he pockets his game against Miami, if he tucks and runs than if Nelson Agholor attempts a high-difficulty throw, he has a better chance of taking down first. Strength for the better chance that is not in his hands.
The basic premise behind Jones’ game is good: Keep your eyes on the ground and watch as you throw after avoiding pockets, and don’t subject yourself to unnecessary hits. But that doesn’t mean he should never run, especially when the defense is disrespecting Jones’ ability and willingness to sell him for sacking.
There are times when passing down a possible first with his feet is worth it, like when Henry rolled to his left when he completed a 35-yard run against the Dolphins. But if opponents are going to give Jones and the Patriots a guilt-free yard, the rookie needs to oblige them from time to time.
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