FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have been passing their screen tests lately, and it’s led to starring roles for all three of their tailbacks.
After struggling to gain traction in the screen game early in the season, New England has seen a vast improvement in an area that has long been a staple of its offense.
The Patriots picked up 44 yards on screen passes in the win over the Titans and have averaged more than 30 yards per game during their current six-game win streak.
Screen passes can be terrific options to help neutralize aggressive, blitz-happy defenses. The goal is to catch defenders either overpursuing or flat-footed.
These plays can be particularly confusing for defenses because the quarterback is trying to sell the pass presnap, in order to get the pass rushers to come full-bore. The QB will then normally fake a handoff before quickly getting the ball to a pass catcher, who ideally has positioned himself behind a convoy of blockers.
It can be a chaotic couple of seconds, but when executed properly, there’s usually plenty of space to be found and yards to be gained.
While the Patriots have a long history of exceptional receiving backs — Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen, and James White to name a few — this season they have a sort of versatile three-headed monster at the position.
Brandon Bolden has taken over many of the third-down duties that were White’s domain until his hip injury in Week 3 and leads the backs with 31 receptions for 296 yards. However, Damien Harris (13 catches) and Rhamondre Stevenson (12) have shown flashes as pass catchers, allowing the offense to be less predictable.
In addition, the Patriots have plenty of options when it comes to employing receiver and tight end screens.
So, why did New England sputter on screens earlier in the season? Center David Andrews, who threw a couple of hellacious blocks Sunday, pointed to a recent rule change.
“They changed the rule this year with linemen cutting in space, right? That was a big thing,” he said. “It took us a little bit to adjust to that because [previously] you could go out there and just really throw a cut, either get a guy down or he jumps around you. You’re usually blocking a lot more athletic people when you’re out there.
“That was a rule change, and that was different for us because since I have been here with Scar [former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia] for as long as I have, that was ingrained in us. You go out there on a screen, you better throw a cut because if you didn’t, there would be hell to pay, maybe.”
Timing is of the utmost importance on these plays, and having all 11 players doing the right thing is critical, because if one block is missed, the ball carrier can get blown up quickly.
So far, Mac Jones has shown a good command of the passing game, particularly showing a deft touch on screens.
“You have three different types, like short, intermediate, or long, and then the screen game, so that’s kind of good that we’re developing that, and we just have to continue to improve in that area,’’ the rookie said.
Status is pending
As expected, safety Kyle Dugger and running back J.J. Taylor were not at Thursday’s full-pads practice and they remain on the reserve/COVID list. Depending on their vaccination status, there’s a chance they could come off the list in time for Monday night’s game against the Bills.
If Dugger and Taylor are vaccinated and symptom-free, they can return after two negative tests 24 hours apart. If they are unvaccinated, they must quarantine 10 days whether they are experiencing symptoms or not.
Linebacker Harvey Langi, who had been on injured reserve, returned to practice, opening a three-week window in which he can be activated or revert to season-ending IR.
The Patriots listed eight players as limited on their first injury report of the week: Linebackers Dont’a Hightower (ankle) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (ribs); defensive lineman Christian Barmore (knee); Andrews (shoulder); right tackle Trent Brown (calf); receiver/returner Gunner Olszewski (ankle); Bolden (knee); and kicker Nick Folk (left knee).
It’s their honor
Jones was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month for November. He completed 76 of 99 passes (76.8 percent) with 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in four games. His 142.1 passer rating in the Week 10 win over the Browns was the fifth-highest single-game rating by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. Deion Branch (September 2002) is the only other Patriot to win an Offensive Rookie of the Month award … Cornerback J.C. Jackson was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month after recording a league-high 4 interceptions (including a pick-6), with 6 passes defensed, and a forced fumble. Jackson joins Eugene Wilson (September 2004), Devin McCourty (September 2019), and Stephon Gilmore (October 2019) as Patriots defensive backs to be so honored … The Patriots were undefeated in November … Andrews, Jackson and long snapper Joe Cardona continue to lead their positions in Pro Bowl voting for the AFC … The forecast for Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday calls for a daytime high of 50 degrees with rain turning to snow with wind in time for the 8:15 p.m. kickoff. Pack your gloves, hats, and thermies.
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.