Despite his offensive line's pass blocking being ranked 29th by Ben Baldwin's composite rankings no quarterback has attempted or completed more passes than Mac Jones this season. So he’s not the problem. In fact, a quick glance at Jones’ QB grid on NextGen Stats compared to his 2023 throws demonstrates one of the problems. His highest passer rating came on deeper passes over the middle in 2022. This year the majority of his passes have been short and his left.
One of the other problems (which may be causing the first problem) is the inability to establish the run. But having said that Jones himself is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and he’s picked up five first downs on the ground in 2023. So that’s a glimmer of hope. Maybe Bill O'Brien needs to mix in some designed QB runs.
Every elite passing attack needs a focal point. It’s Amon-Ra St. Brown in Detroit, the Dolphins have two with Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle, but that’s just showing off. Even the Vikings have Justin Jefferson. You’d be hard pressed to name the focal point of the Patriots passing offense. So far in 2023 Hunter Henry has caught the most passes and he’s only played 85% of the snaps. Jefferson has played 99% of the Vikings’.
Essentially the Patriots need to find a Christian Gonzalez on offense. Bill O’Brien might want Tyquan Thornton to be the Patriots' focal point and he certainly got the skills, but if there’s no backup plan O’Brien’s got a problem. Thornton is currently on IR and only started 13 games in 2022.
"Unlike along the offensive line, where something as simple as time on the field should yield better results, there's no easy-to-find solution for how to improve New England's weapons.- Phil Perry NBC Sports Boston
Save for one: Play Demario "Pop" Douglas.
In an NBC Sports Boston column, Phil Perry suggests that Demario Douglas is the answer. Rookie Douglas was a sixth-round pick out of Liberty. He's only had six touches of the ball so far, but he has made three first downs. That's a pretty good strike rate, but Douglas' lost fumble against the Dolphins led to Miami's first touchdown. That was Douglas' last catch of the game, it came with 10 seconds left in the first quarter. If O'Brien is going to stop using players after they make mistakes he's going to run out of players.
Marcus Jones always provides a spark when he's used on offense, he is currently injured though and even if he plays this week he'll be covering for the injured Jonathan Jones. Whoever becomes the focal point they’ll need to have some creative routes than the ones Kendrick Bourne has been running in the first two weeks. In Los Angeles Sean McVay has focused on how to get Puka Nacua and Tutu Atwell into space. They have combined for 462 receiving yards, that’s 92% of the Patriots’ 2023 total.
The Patriots have their yards after the catch monster in Juju Smith-Schuster. Fresh off winning a Super Bowl with the Chiefs, Smith-Schuster has only played 59% of the snaps in the first two weeks. That's even more surprising considering how effective he is as a run blocker, the inconsistent use of the talent on the roster seems to be manifesting itself as inconsistency on the field.
The running game struggles appear similar to the passing game issue. It’s not a case of having a bad run game or bad backs. It’s a case of not optimizing what the team has. Rhamondre Stevenson is excellent in space and running stretch plays outside the tackles. Yet in Week 1 he only ran 12 times, and they were all between the tackles. Arguably Ezekiel Elliott and Ty Montgomery are more effective downhill runners, so why not use them to do that? Yes, it’s easy for defenses to clue in on what’s about to happen, but Elliott averages 4.4 yards per carry over his career and Montgomery 4.5. It’s one thing knowing what’s coming, stopping it is something else. And if running between the tackles actually works it will open up the play-action passing game.
However O'Brien decides to fix it, the Patriots need to find a way to fire up the running game. Forcing defenses to bring more defenders to the line of scrimmage will open up more space for the passing attack to exploit. Kendrick Bourne one on one is a better target for Jones than Kendrick Bourne one on three is.
With five offensive linemen on the Week 3 injury report and two receivers on Injured Reserve it looks like patience will be a virtue for Patriots fans in 2023. That's cold comfort in the short term and when just six teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3 things are looking desperate. One person who won’t be on IR this season is the person who is the answer to the “who needs to step up?” question. Bill O’Brien. Someone with 52 wins as a head coach should realize that his offense hasn't worked in the first two games. It's time to adapt his favored offense to an effective Patriots offense.