The Patriots have had several opportunities to let Mac Jones throw into the end zone. Why haven’t they pulled the trigger?
Through two games in 2021, the Patriots’ red zone offense is just 2-for-7 scoring touchdowns. Entering Monday, that ranks 31st in the NFL. Jones has made seven dropbacks in the red area, compared to 10 running plays, and has yet to attempt a pass that travels beyond the goal line. His first career touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor targeted the receiver around the 2.
Furthermore, the Patriots have been curiously conservative targeting their two high-priced tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. They’ve each received just one target each inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Henry was targeted around the 10-yard line against the Jets, while Smith took a screen from behind the line of scrimmage for a 7-yard gain against the Dolphins.
Head coach Bill Belichick said it was “a combination of things” that led to the Patriots running more than half their plays against the Jets in “11” personnel (one tight end, three receivers), while running only 22.4 percent of their plays in “12” personnel (two tight ends). They averaged 4.6 yards per play in three-receiver sets against the Jets, compared to 8.5 yards per play in “12.”
It was in “12” personnel that the Patriots made their longest play of the game, a 32-yard strike to Henry down the seam. Damien Harris’ game-changing 26-yard touchdown run and Jonnu Smith’s 19-yard catch on a trick play also came in a two-tight end formation.
Jones is averaging 5.6 intended air yards per pass attempt through two games, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Of all quarterbacks to start and finish two games, only Matt Ryan (4.9) and Jimmy Garoppolo (5.2) are averaging fewer. It’s easy to use this as a criticism of the rookie, but it’s more a reflection of the Patriots’ conservative play-calling, and it’s been particularly striking in the red zone.
“I can push the ball down the field more,” Jones said after the game. “I can definitely hold the ball in a good way, just maybe move and make a better throw down the field on a lot of plays.”
Two games is obviously a small sample size. So it’s possible that the lack of shots at the end zone in the passing game, particularly to the tight ends, is just related to game flow and the Patriots’ propensity to spread the ball around.
“Everybody has an opportunity. Which ones come up and how it unfolds, that’s a little bit unpredictable,” Belichick said. “We don’t just throw the ball to one guy. Maybe on a screen pass, but so it just depends on how the play develops, but yeah. We have options for everybody.”
Some context: the Patriots had one “unsuccessful” red zone series late in the fourth quarter of their 25-6 win over the Jets. They ran three straight plays in “23” personnel (two running backs, three tight ends) with right tackle Yasir Durant checking in as an eligible TE, and netted -3 yards. This counts against their red zone scoring percentage, but with the Patriots already up by three possessions, running out the clock was the priority over moving the ball or scoring a touchdown.
Nonetheless, it’s curious that Jones, while having six red-zone pass attempts to his credit, has yet to take a shot at pay dirt. Especially considering he has two proven end zone targets at tight end. They obviously didn’t need it against the Jets, and arguably came within one fumble of not needing it against the Dolphins.
It’ll be interesting to see if the passing game starts to open up more in the red area as Jones’ rookie season progresses. And once the Patriots face more potent offenses that put pressure on them to score touchdowns.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.