The Patriots have had a nice enough start to the 2021 season and the Mac Jones era.
Jones hasn’t exactly lit it up, and the Patriots probably should be 2-0 instead of 1-1, but all things considered, they have plenty of reasons for optimism. Jones has been smart and safe with the football, and the defense is already ranked top five in several categories.
But the Patriots have high standards, and the players and coaches will readily admit that they have plenty of room for improvement after two weeks. At the top is scoring more points (the Patriots rank 23rd at 20.5 points per game) and cutting down on turnovers (they had four fumbles in their Week 1 loss to the Dolphins, losing two).
But those are obvious. Here are six other areas in which the Patriots need to improve, starting with Sunday’s game against the Saints:
1. More aggressiveness from Jones. Being safe with the football is more important than being aggressive, so from that standpoint, Jones has been outstanding. While fellow rookies Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson lead the NFL with five interceptions each, Jones is one of eight starters who have yet to throw an interception. He has shown poise in the pocket, and he ranks sixth in the NFL with a 73.9 completion percentage.
But Jones’s standard is not the other rookies — it’s the other NFL quarterbacks, because unlike the Jets and Jaguars, the Patriots are here to win in 2021. And Jones clearly needs to push the ball downfield more.
Despite being sixth in completion percentage, Jones ranks 22nd in passing yards (467) and 24th in yards per attempt (6.78). His leading receiver is running back James White (12 catches), and no Patriot ranks in the top 50 in receiving yardage. On third down, Jones averages just 5.15 yards per attempt, and his completion percentage drops to 60 percent.
Jones has played like Joe Montana compared with his fellow rookies, so this is not a major criticism. But if the Patriots want to be a dangerous playoff team this season, they’ll need Jones to push the ball downfield more as the season progresses.
2. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone. It has been only two weeks, but the Patriots rank 32nd in red zone touchdown percentage (28.6 percent), scoring on just 2 of 7 opportunities.
They actually have done a decent job of moving the football and putting points on the board. They have scored on 10 of their 19 possessions for a 52.6 percent rate that ranks third behind the Rams (57.9) and Chiefs (55.6). Their seven red zone drives rank 11th.
But they are stalling once they get inside the 20. Despite having seven possessions, they have run just 15 total plays in the red zone, and they’re averaging 2.07 yards per play, which ranks 27th. Only the Jets and Jaguars have scored fewer red zone touchdowns.
While the Patriots lead the NFL with seven field goals, they have scored touchdowns on just 3 of 19 possessions, a 15.8 percent rate that ranks 27th. They are one of five teams that doesn’t have a 10-play touchdown drive yet.
3. Consistent run blocking. The run game has been decent enough. The Patriots rank 13th in yards (113 per game), 16th in average (4.2 yards per carry), and Damien Harris ranks eighth with 162 yards. Harris has broken two big runs, a 35-yarder against the Dolphins and a 26-yard touchdown against the Jets.
But the run blocking (which includes the tight ends and fullback) has not been nearly consistent enough. Take out the two big runs and the Patriots are averaging 3.17 yards on the other 52 attempts.
The Patriots also are tied for the league lead in negative rushes with seven. Thirteen percent of their runs are stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, which is the fourth-highest rate in the league. Only 40.7 percent of their rushes go for at least 4 yards, which ranks 22nd.
The offensive line is a work in progress, with right tackle Trent Brown missing most of the first two games and Mike Onwenu getting used to a new position at left guard. And tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are still relatively new to the offense.
The run blocking is good in spurts but needs to be more consistent if the Patriots are going to win with a rookie quarterback.
4. Consistent run defense. The run defense is having the same problem. The Patriots lead the NFL by stuffing seven runs behind the line of scrimmage. But they also have allowed nine rushes of 10-plus yards, more than every team but Kansas City (11) and Arizona (10).
5. Getting more touches for their tight ends. I know Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels don’t care much about targets and touches for their top players as long as the Patriots win, but it’s a little surprising that Smith and Henry haven’t been more involved in the passing game after getting more than $56 million fully guaranteed this offseason.
Neither has a touchdown catch. Among tight ends, Smith ranks ninth in targets (10), sixth in catches (9), 17th in yards (70), and 32nd in yards per catch (7.8).
Henry ranks 22nd in targets (7), 24th in catches (5), 15th in yards (73), and third in yards per catch (14.6).
6. Kick coverage. The Patriots have been a little sloppy on kickoff and punt coverage. The average possession by Patriots opponents starts on the 25.9-yard line, which ranks 25th.
The Patriots rank 25th in kickoff-return average and allowed Braxton Berrios to return one to the 38-yard line last week. They also rank 26th in punt-return average (12.0).
And Jake Bailey, who had the second-highest net punting average in NFL history last year at 45.6 yards, ranks only 23rd this season at 39.7.