FOXBORO — To this point, the Patriots offense has been a work in progress.
They’ve been working through the growing pains of installing a changed system, seeing what works and what they do best before truly putting a stamp on their blueprint.
Mac Jones going down in Week 3 didn’t help. With Brian Hoyer in concussion protocol, they’re on to Bailey Zappe.
At least, Zappe appears likely to start against the Lions on Sunday and who knows after that.
Given the quarterback shuffle, does that mean the Patriots must be in a holding pattern with the offense? Or might they still be able to further establish their identity?
Let’s just say no matter who’s at quarterback, they can still shape who they’re going to be in the coming weeks. They can find that identity.
They just need to nail it down over the next five weeks before heading into their bye on Week 10.
“I think finding our identity is a continuous work in progress,” running back Damien Harris said Thursday. “I think every week, we have to continue to do the things we do well, and continue to do them well, and improve on the things we don’t do well. If we continue to do that, we’ll form an identity. That’s really what we’re trying to do every week, form that identity.”
Through four weeks, they’ve played a mishmash of styles. Now, play-caller Matt Patricia must settle in on what works best.
At times, they’ve been a shotgun passing offense. But they’ve also been a run game offense that is propelled with the quarterback under center.
Can they be both? Can they marry the two and be successful? Or do they need to choose between one or the other?
That’s what needs to be discovered in the coming weeks.
But here’s a hint: play-action needs to be a big part of this equation. And that usually works best with the quarterback starting under center.
It’s what they do best. It’s one of the benefits of having a very good run game.
It was a staple of the offense Josh McDaniels ran with Tom Brady, especially during the later years. It was also a tool McDaniels used to help Jones through his rookie season last year.
That’s why it should also be a go-to for Jones, Hoyer, Zappe, or whoever is leading the Patriots in 2022. That’s why Patricia needs to continue to set it up, and dial it up.
Last week against the Packers, play-action served as a huge pick-me up for Zappe and the Patriots offense. With Packers defenders inching up to try and contain the Patriots potent run game, they often got sucked in by the fake, which left Zappe throwing to open receivers.
He was much less successful throwing without the benefit of using play-action.
Prior to last week, the Patriots had strangely avoided play-action. Playing blitz-heavy defenses was one reason, but that shouldn’t eliminate it from the playbook.
The Patriots can run the football. Whether using power gap runs inside, or zone schemes on the outside, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson have been effective, especially of late. That’s the strength of the offense. And given the Lions troubles stopping the run this season, it would be crazy if the Patriots don’t go heavy with the ground and pound against Detroit on Sunday.
Bottom line: most successful offenses in the NFL are good at running the football in some fashion.
While the run game doesn’t necessarily have to be working full throttle for play-action to be effective, it sure doesn’t hurt when teams can bring it on the ground.
And if there’s one thing we’ve learned through the first four weeks, the Patriots can bring it.
Jones thrived on those plays last year. On play-action passes last season, he averaged 8.5 yards per attempt compared to 6.8 yards on non-play-action plays. It’s just easier to create explosive plays using play action. And the Patriots clearly want to be a more explosive offense.
Another benefit of having the quarterback under center?
More of the playbook can be utilized, whether it’s play action, screens, stretch runs, toss plays, etc. So it’s not as easy for defenses to predict what you’re doing.
The options aren’t as plentiful in a shotgun.
Most of the time, quarterbacks are back there to throw the football, so there’s no mystery for the defense. That’s fine if you have an elite cast of playmakers who can get open whether the defense knows you’re throwing or not.
It doesn’t work as well for teams with receivers who can’t create separation.
Jones, however, was more effective in the gun, surveying the field, reading the defense, and letting it go.
SiriusXM NFL radio analyst Jim Miller, a former Patriots backup quarterback, believes the Patriots can integrate the shotgun, along with utilizing the quarterback under center.
It just depends on the week, and which style they deem would be more effective since the Patriots tend to be game-plan specific toward the defense they’re facing.
“I think you can marry the two,” Miller said. “Bill (Belichick) has always been game-plan specific. So if you go against a team where the corners aren’t good, or the secondary isn’t great, you’ll probably see more of the shotgun passing attack especially if you think you have good matchups. Bill is really conscious of that and it changes week-to-week.”
Like this week, it makes sense to count on a heavy run game with the quarterback under center to set up play-action.
“If Bailey Zappe’s in there, and even for Mac Jones, play-action just opens up windows. It makes things bigger,” said Miller. “It creates a conflict of interest for the defense. The linebackers may suck up an extra step, now the in-cut behind is a little more open, and you see it a lot better.
“So I think Bill, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge will do that to help out either of their young quarterbacks.”