Mark Daniels: Patriots believe in Mac Jones, but are frustrated by offense
FOXBOROUGH – You could hear the joyous screams. You could see the smiles. The Patriots locker room was rocking on Sunday evening. Following Marcus Jones’ 84-yard game-winning punt return for a touchdown, players were in a euphonic inside Gillette Stadium.
It’s hard to win in the NFL. It’s hard to beat division opponents. It’s even harder to beat those division opponents twice. For those reasons, Patriots offensive players were happy. For other reasons, they weren’t.
They put on smiling faces afterward, but knew what they did – score three points at home against the New York Jets – wasn’t close to good enough.
“It’s super frustrating. It’s not good enough on our side of the ball. It’s just not,” said tight end Hunter Henry. “We’re not bringing it. We moved the ball, but we just beat ourselves and did not do very smart things. It’s the same script. We’ve got to fix it.”
Another Sunday meant another slow offensive performance. Two steps forward and two steps back. There were more negative plays and penalties. More porous offensive line play. The game had an offensive rhythm that either put you to sleep or made you want to bang your head against the wall. To make matters worse, this 3-point performance comes off the bye week where the hope was that this group would improve.
Offensive players left Gillette Stadium with mixed emotions. They improved to 6-4 and are in position to fight for a playoff spot. However, they’re 11 weeks in this NFL season and having the same struggles we saw in Week 1.
“That’s been the whole year,” said right guard Michael Onwenu. “We’ve been trying to stop with the penalties and stop beating ourselves.”
Can the Patriots figure this out?
From the outside, people question if the Patriots have the talent to be better on the offensive end. In the building, it’s never been a matter of confidence. Even through Mac Jones’ tough start to the season, players truly believed they had the right pieces to win games.
If there was a silver lining on Sunday – other than the fact that the Patriots gained 297 yards – it was that Jones looked improved.
The last time Jones played the Jets, he threw 194 yards to go with a touchdown and one interception. Truthfully, he was lucky to finish with just one interception. That game saw Jones sacked a career-high six times. The Jets again sacked the quarterback a career-high six times on Sunday, but this time he looked different. Jones completed 85% of his passes (23/27) for 246 yards.
On a day where the offense looked bad, the quarterback didn’t look like the problem.
We have to get the ball out of Mac’s hands. Like you saw, when he’s on time and everything is good, he’s one of the best. He’s great,” Henry said. “We’ve got to protect him. Everything has to come out on time. You can see how good he is when those balls are coming out.”
“He’s been doing a lot of good things and being very careful with the football,” Jonnu Smith added. “He’s making the right reads and doing everything he can. Mac’s a hell of a player, hell of a teammate and I have all the confidence in the world in him.”
In the past two games, against two good defenses, Jones has completed 75% (43/57) of his passes for 393 yards. He’s now gone two games straight without an interception since Week 12 and Week 13 of last season.
“It’s not all on Mac. It’s all of us together,” Kendrick Bourne said. “Yes, we need to be better, obviously, but we’re winning.”
Added Damien Harris: “Our entire team feels very fortunate to have Mac as our quarterback.”
Offensive line is a bigger issue than the quarterback
The harsh truth about the 2022 Patriots is that their offense isn’t talented enough to overcome negative plays. We’re almost in December and it feels like a certainty that anytime you see a negative run on first down or a holding call that it’ll result in the Patriots calling for their punter.
Those issues were clear on Sunday.
The first series saw the Patriots give up a sack on first down for a loss of seven. On the second, the first-down run gained just one yard. It shouldn’t have been surprising that both drives ended with three-and-outs.
The two missed field goals on Sunday followed a common theme. The Patriots got into field goal position and then got pushed back by a holding call and a sack on back-to-back plays.
“It was very frustrating. Put it on the o-line,” Onwenu said. “We’ve got to do our jobs better and just get in position to score and when we have those opportunities, scores.”
“I seemed like anytime we crossed the 50, we got in our own way,” added center James Ferentz. “It’s one of those things where I don’t know if it’s a mental thing at this point, but whatever it is, we’ve got to find a way to push through it. We’re getting to a point where every game matters, but even more so now as we get close to the end.”
Do coaches lack confidence in Mac Jones or the o-line?
Although players have vocal confidence in Jones, it’s fair to wonder if the Patriots offensive coaching staff feels the same way. There were several play calls on Sunday where it looked like the Patriots were simply trying to avoid a turnover rather than get a first down.
For example, the team’s second drive in the third quarter. Jones started this series with back-to-back 20-yard passes to Meyers and Henry. What followed was a run for two yards, a run for negative two yards and then a sack on third down.
The next drive saw Jones start the series with a 13-yard pass to Harris. What followed was a 6-yard run, a run for a loss of three yards, a four-yard run on third down and then a head-scratching run for zero yards on fourth-and-3.
When the Patriots opened the second half, their best offensive plays came when Jones threw the ball. Their worst offensive plays came when they ran the ball. Is Matt Patricia fearful of a Jones turnover or was he cautious due to the leaky offensive line?
The Patriots have four days to answer some of these questions. With back-to-back Thursday night matchups with the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills on deck, time is running out for this offense to prove their better than what they’ve shown this season.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” said Bourne. “We’ve just got to stick together. We’ve been dealing with this the last few weeks, so we know what we need to fix. It’s just about doing it. It’s sticking with it, sticking together and not pointing fingers as a group. A win is a win and we’re happy about that, but we want to score points. Hopefully we can figure it out.”