Mac Jones likes ‘cool gray area’ of Patriots’ new offense

1 – As the Patriots’ new offense continues to evolve and grow under Mac Jones’ leadership, the second-year quarterback clearly thinks an aspect of his successful production in college at Alabama could benefit New England as well: RPOs.

Run-pass option plays are essentially built as run plays aside from an option the quarterback has to throw to certain receiver if he feels confident it will be a positive, productive play and better than simply handing to the running back.

Jones ran RPOs nearly 20 percent of the time he was passing the ball at Alabama, completing 73-of-78 of those option throws for 890 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I like those plays,” Jones acknowledged this week after the Patriots sprinkled some RPO looks into the Week 2 win in Pittsburgh. “I think every offense has some of them, in some way, shape or form. They’re good plays. But we have to be able to do a lot of things. Like I always say, there’s different types of plays – short, medium, long, play-action, RPO, gadget. So there’s different buckets you put them in and you want to be able to do all of them. So yeah, I like RPOs. They’re cool.”

Jones noted that RPOs “put stress on a defense,” something he observed when Alabama coach Nick Saban would “explode” in practice at his Tide players trying to defend the look.

“So there’s a lot of cool gray area there from an offensive perspective,” Jones said, advocating for RPOs to be at least a complementary part of the Patriots’ attack. “Other teams were doing them too around the league, and having good production. So I think, like I said, every offense has their core plays and you don’t necessarily want your RPOs to be your core plays, which they’re not. But it’s always good to have that extra flavor you can have in there. Like you said, it’s a run, it’s a pass, what is it? So I think they’re always good.”

2 – While RPO snaps involve Jones reading the would-be pass option while putting the ball in the gut of the running back for the potential handoff, offensive linemen treat the play as a simple run. The swift nature of the play design allows for them to fire out with a run block without fear of getting downfield, without fear of being flagged for a penalty.

So RPOs are basically much ado about nothing for linemen, save for some wasted success.

“You always feel like when they do throw the ball it was probably your best block, right,” Patriots center David Andrews joked, seemingly also in favor of RPOs. “If the look’s not great it’s kind of an easy fix in my opinion. You maybe don’t have to change the play, there is an answer to it already built in. As offensive linemen it’s a way to do different things but you are only thinking about one thing – run blocking. I think they’re good.
They can be a good addition. They can be a good tool. But, always, I ran a few of them in college and stuff, and always feel like they throw the ball when it’s your best block.”

3 – There has been a lot of talk of so-called 50-50 balls as part of the Patriots passing game, even going back to training camp practice action when newcomer DeVante Parker declared that those thrown his way are actually 80-20 plays in his favor. In the Week 1 loss in Miami, a 50-50 in the end zone on the opening New England drive resulted in a Dolphins interception.
A week later in Pittsburgh, Nelson Agholor made an incredible catch in the second quarter for a 44-yard touchdown on a 50-50 ball, a key play in the Patriots’ win.

“I think we want to give all of our playmakers a chance,” Jones explained of what he’s described as a different philosophy in the passing game. “A lot of our plays there’s a certain read on it. I do like the freedom to be able to do that. I did that a lot in the past. It’s great. I think 50-50’s a slight term, it’s like oh it can go either way. But it’s hard to defend when you’re one-on-one and there’s not a lot of people around you. So, I know it’s hard on the defender, and obviously they can make good plays too. So, it can go either way. But we definitely trust the guys and we’ve worked on it a lot. You’ll have to have time to be able to do that with the offensive line which we have.
Just want to continue to grow with that. Sometimes they look close but then eventually they’re going to be really open. So, it just depends on the play.”

4 – NFL quarterbacks are under scrutiny at all times.
From coaches. From media. From fans. It’s the nature of the position. One might argue that it’s why they make the really, really big bucks.

Of course much of the criticism thrown the way of quarterbacks like Jones comes from people who, quite frankly, probably don’t know what they are talking about. At least that’s how Patriots captain Devin McCourty seems to see it.

“I will say first and foremost, overall there’s not many people who watch football who understand how to play quarterback,” McCourty said. “I think no matter what, including you. He would be crazy if he built his career off of what people write and say about him. Because for one there’s not many people who’ve played the position at a high level and can do that consistently. So I think no matter what in this league you come out, you play as a rookie, you have success as a rookie, you go out there and do good things…it sucks to say, but everyone is waiting to write bad things about you. That’s just how everything works. But I think he knows that in this building every guy in that locker room believes in him.”

5 – The Patriots have a familiar face on the practice squad who’s apparently doing good things on the practice field. Former longtime New England starting right tackle Marcus Cannon returned to the team via the practice squad Sept. 13 and has already impressed, earning recognition as one of the Patriots’ practice players of the week for the work leading up to last Sunday’s win in Pittsburgh.

A 2011 fifth-round pick out of TCU who overcame cancer on his way to the NFL, Cannon started 69 of 115 games played in New England from 2011-19. He sat out the 2020 season due to Covid and then started all four games he played in Houston a year ago before landing on IR with a back injury.

Now back in Foxborough, it sounds like a case of “when” not if Cannon will find his way back onto the game field for a Patriots team that traded away some of its offensive line depth last week by dealing Justin Herron to the Raiders.

“Marcus has had a great attitude. Comes in, works really hard. Just wants to do it the right way,” Belichick said. “Not come in and jump in but come in and start at the beginning. Work on his fundamentals, work on the lifting, all the preparation things that go into being a good football player. You start at the bottom work his way up. That’s really the way to do it is build a good foundation. Didn’t have training camp but he can use the time that he has now to put that in place. So when he does play, he’ll be, I think, able to hit a higher ceiling than trying to skip all those steps and just start playing. He has a great attitude, had a good week of practice, was impressive out there. So he’s good.”

6 – Belichick obviously knows a little something about elite kickers. Adam Vinatieri jumpstarted the Patriots dynasty with his game-tying kick in the Snow Bowl against the Raiders — considered to be the greatest kick in NFL history – and is expected to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his Super Bowl-winning work in New England and Indianapolis. Stephen Gostkowski and, now, Nick Folk have also played at an incredibly high level in New England under Belichick’s watch.

But Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Belichick and Co. will get a visit from not only the best kicker in the game today but arguably the best in the history of the game. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker really is just that good.

“He’s reset that position by probably a pretty decent amount,” Belichick said of Tucker. “This isn’t like being 200th of a second under the world record. This guy’s really reset the bar. No miss kicks, accuracy is very good, distance, range. He really shortens the field. He makes the field about 10 yards shorter than most everybody has it. Not just with his leg strength, but the fact of his accuracy and how good he is from long range as well.”

7 – Prediction Time: The Patriots and Ravens probably qualify as an NFL rivalry thanks primarily to splitting four postseason battles from 2010-2015. New England actually has an 8-2 record against Baltimore in the regular season under Belichick’s watch. None of that will matter on Sunday. New England’s home opener will be about two things – a new test against Lamar Jackson for a Patriots defense that’s played relatively well to open the season and an opportunity for Mac Jones to face what statistically is the NFL’s worst pass defense. Jackson has seemingly been a man on a mission since failing to reach a contract extension with the Ravens this offseason, and while he still makes key plays with his legs his ability to pass and read defenses has gone to the next level. Jackson will put plenty of stress on the Patriots’ defense, even if the doesn’t really have the luxury of a running game to help him out. The question is whether Jones is ready to keep up if a shootout develops against a team averaging more than 30 points per game with New England having scored just 24 points total in two weeks of action. While Baltimore has some big names and big money on its pass defense, Joe Flacco and Tua Tagovailoa both threw for more than 300 yards in the first two weeks against it. The most likely scenario here is that New England scores more points and makes more plays through the air as the offense continues to evolve. Unfortunately for them, the defense probably also gives up more plays and points as well. Health concerns for both Jakobi Meyers and Kyle Dugger are also less than ideal. In the end the bet here is a 28-21 Ravens win as Jones’ Patriots just can’t quite keep pace with Jackson and Co.

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