Welcome to the Week 4 Patriots mailbag. Things are a little more upbeat after Sunday’s win over the Jets, but there are still plenty of questions about the state of the offense, the play calling late in Sunday’s game, the personnel in the secondary, and much more. Let’s get to it.
Why did the Patriots go for a long pass play toward the end of the game when they only needed six yards for a first down, when they haven’t been successful all year at that?
— Paul, Maine
Paul, I had to go back and double-check the fourth-quarter play-by-play to make sure it really happened: After the Matthew Judon sack, which should have sealed the game, the Patriots had two three-and-outs that gave the Jets some late life.
In this case, I’m assuming your specific play call was the third-and-3 pass attempt to JuJu Smith-Schuster right after the two-minute warning. On a day where I thought most of the offensive play calling was pretty good (we finally saw some real play-action!), that stuck out like a sore thumb. If you get a first down from Ezekiel Elliott there, you can pretty much run out the clock.
Chris, I know it was the Jets … but what is Bill O’Brien doing? In the fourth quarter, we had to give the ball back twice with minutes to go in the game. Is it me or is Mac just not getting it? I saw some play-action and two-tight-end sets, but we need to put up more than 15 points. Don’t give me that ‘Well, the Jets have a good defense.’ They do, but we’ve got to be better than 17 points per game.
— Ralph Vitale, via e-mail
Completely fair questions, Ralph. They ran the ball as effectively as they had all season long for 56 minutes, but in the end, that four-minute offense just wasn’t there down the stretch. Two punts in the last three minutes of a one-score game is tempting fate.
Like you, I’d like to see more play-action, and more two- and three-tight-end sets, but I think that’ll come with improvements along the offensive line. Other than that, I’m not sure I have that much of a problem with the play calling against New York. Ultimately, I feel safe saying they’re going to need more than 15 points to beat Dallas.
Are there any plans to trade for a No. 1 wideout before the trade deadline?
— David Gurwitz, West Palm Beach, Fla. (by way of Natick)
Not that I’m aware, David. However, if the Vikings continue to slide, it’ll be interesting to see what might happen with Justin Jefferson, an all-world pass catcher who could help out just about anyone. Jefferson was taken by the Vikings one pick ahead of the Patriots in the 2020 draft. (Ultimately, the Patriots ended up trading down and taking Kyle Dugger at No. 37.)
Not saying New England would have pulled the trigger if he was there at 23, but it’s worth speculating what the offense would look like with him. For what it’s worth, Bill Belichick has always loved him. “He’s been phenomenal,” Belichick said last season. “Of course, we haven’t seen him in the NFC, but watching him a little bit in the offseason, then looking at him now … yeah, he was no secret.”
What will it take for Mac Jones to complete a pass over 15 yards? (Not counting catch-and-runs.) Is the inability to connect on longer throws a QB issue? Receivers? OL? It’s painful to watch.
— Glen G., Minneapolis
Glen, I’m going to give you a boring answer to a good, nuanced question: It’s a little bit of everything, at least at this point.
It all starts with the offensive line and an inability to give him time. (At least until Sunday’s win.) There’s the opposing defensive scheme, timing issues with some of the receivers, as well as play-action (which includes having success in the ground game).
Bottom line? Right now, I’d put it more on pass protection that anything. All that being said, they were able to take some good shots downfield against the Jets because the group up front was able to hold up.
With the offensive line trending in the right direction — at least health-wise — and with more play-action, I have to imagine we’ll see more shots downfield moving forward.
Why don’t the Patriots and Bill O’Brien develop a long passing game?
— John Lima, Columbus, Ohio
John, I’ll echo what I told Glen: There are multiple reasons at this point. Chief among them? The offensive line, at least right now, isn’t capable of providing Jones with enough time to take some of those shots.
The good news is there’s a belief the line may have started to turn a corner, at least from a health perspective. If they can get both guards going wire-to-wire and keep Trent Brown off the injury report, that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
What has happened to Jalen Mills? It looks like he got zero snaps against the Jets. He’s gone from starting to a hybrid CB who doesn’t play.
— Alan Davidson, Boston
A few different things at play here, Alan. 1. Jabrill Peppers and Kyle Dugger have become the two lead safeties at this point, leaving Mills (and Adrian Phillips) on the outside looking in. 2. Christian Gonzalez has led a group of surprisingly good young corners, and when Jonathan Jones comes back, they could be even better. All that adds up to less playing time.
For the record, Mills has played 45 snaps this season, or 23 percent of the time on defense. He played 23 snaps against the Jets, a season high.
Do you think the Pats are on the right track to compete with all the good teams they have on their remaining schedule?
— David Faria, Chicago
Depends on the team and the time of year. If they had to play Buffalo or Miami on the road right now, not by a long shot. Honestly, the Jets were the right team at the right time for a team that just needed a win to try and jump-start some momentum.
But as we’ve seen over the years, there’s always room for growth on both sides of the ball, and there’s been just enough flashes of good this year to suggest that they could be competitive with some of the AFC’s elite down the road.
This season, more than ever, it’s been a work in progress on offense, particularly along the offensive line. They get some consistency and continuity up front, good things will happen for the offense.
When will the Patriots get rid of mediocre Mac Jones? Apparently, he’s a dirty player, as well as a less-than-inspiring QB.
— Steve Saltonstall, Tucson (by way of Cambridge)
I don’t think they’re going to get rid of Mac any time soon, Steve. But your second point is a worthwhile one. I was talking about this with a colleague after the game, and Jones’s rep continues to take a hit when he does stuff like that. There have been multiple situations over the last couple of years.
One or two minor dustups, and I’d be willing to write it off as foolish. But it’s progressed now to a point where Jones isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt with neutral parties around the league. Bottom line is that I don’t think it’ll be a huge issue going forward, but it’s getting awfully difficult to explain them away as isolated incidents. (Love former Patriots defensive end Chris Long jokingly referring to Jones as “Conrad Throwbler” on X Monday.)
At what point does Robert Kraft the owner say he has had enough and fire Bill the GM? The game is evolving and the Pats just aren’t.
— Michael S., North Carolina
Fair question, Michael. I had a similar question last week, and I’ll reach back and update it here, with a couple of additions. 1. I agree with you to an extent. I wish Belichick had a true counterpoint in the front office who will push back on personnel issues. 2. I do think Belichick has evolved, at least as a coach. After years of assiduously avoiding having ex-players on his staff (with the exception of Pepper Johnson), he has four on staff now in Adrian Klemm, Billy Yates, Troy Brown, and Jerod Mayo.
I doubt that’s coincidental. A 71-year-old coach needs to find ways to connect with a younger generation of players, and having four guys who played for him on staff is a step forward when it comes to communicating.
How does Mac Jones compare to Brock Purdy? Is the primary difference that Purdy has Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Trent Williams, and Kyle Shanahan? What would Mac be able to do as QB of the 49ers?
— Doug Grant, Lexington
Doug, this is a really good question that had me thinking. Purdy is good, but (as you mention), he has a cadre of elite offensive options around him, including McCaffrey, Samuel, and Kittle, a trio that might be unmatched if you’re looking for one guy to handle three different phases of the game. (I’m glad to mention Williams, who is an absolute rock.)
He’s also being led by one of the most quarterback-friendly coaches in the league in Kyle Shanahan. So I’d say it might be a tossup when it comes to actual physical skills, but I’d give Purdy the edge when it comes to personnel and coaching.
What are the chances Trey Flowers is on the 53-man roster in Week 5? Ditto for Cody Davis? Tyquan Thornton? Riley Reiff? Jack Jones?
— Miguel Benzan, via Twitter
All excellent questions. I’ll say Trey Flowers, Tyquan Thornton, and Jack Jones are on the roster for Week 5. Flowers is a Belichick favorite who will get all the time in the world to get right, while the two others are positions of immediate need.
Davis and Reiff might be a tossup; you can argue offensive line is the biggest area of need right now. But when it comes to Reiff, $5 million in guaranteed money can buy you a lot of second chances.
What adjustments need to be made on offense for them to score more points and avoid three-and-outs?
— Ken Matias, via Twitter
Start fast, Ken, and make first down matter. If you are ineffective on first down, it leads to second- and third-and-long situations, and it drastically cuts down on your options. If you can consistently pick up 4-plus yards on first down, that’s a good first step in the right direction.
As previously mentioned, you’re also going to see offensive success if/when the line is able to develop real consistency and continuity. There have been many great offensive lines that are made up of five mediocre players, but they all find a way to work well together. That’s the goal with this group.
Is there any shot of Kayshon Boutte getting snaps over Parker or JuJu Smith-Schuster? The team desperately needs wideouts that finish their routes and have any sort of semblance of athleticism.
— Mace, via Twitter
Mace, I wrote before Sunday’s game that Boutte could be in line to be this year’s redshirt rookie. There is some positional redundancy when it comes to Boutte and Parker. Parker is a little bigger — Boutte is 6 feet while Parker is 6-3 — but they are both receivers who flourish more on the boundary than in the slot. That means the opener, where Boutte was up and Parker was inactive because of an injury, could ultimately end up being a bit of an outlier.
Ultimately, Boutte could be bound for that redshirt role that many have played over the years (Shane Vereen, James White, Trey Flowers, etc.). There’s also the very real possibility that Tyquan Thornton could play a role at this spot as well before the season is through.
I have noticed something ain’t clicking with the timing with Mac & JuJu Smith-Schuster. Is it lack of reps?
— Mark A. Rufo, via Twitter
Both sides are saying the right things. Smith-Schuster keeps expressing optimism that a breakout is coming as he continues to put his time in, while Belichick publicly remains in his corner. (“He’s been great. I love working with him. Tough kid, really smart,” Belichick said on WEEI Monday morning.)
But something is just not clicking for the 26-year-old, at least to this point. In three games for the Patriots, he’s had 10 catches on 16 targets for 66 yards and no touchdowns. Sunday against the Jets was the first time since 2021 that he failed to catch at least two passes in a game. Certainly a situation worth keeping an eye on.