Perry's Report Card: Errors overshadow DeVante Parker's breakout game originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
FOXBORO -- There was one play on Sunday that summed up "The Mac Jones Experience" to this point in the season. It happened with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter of New England's loss to the Ravens, 37-26.
On a third-and-goal situation from the Baltimore 10-yard line, Jones surveyed the defense and then opted to change the play. He signaled, "Alert!" He pointed to the ear holes on his helmet. In the Patriots offense, that changes the play to the second play that was called in the huddle.
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But then Jones noticed something that quickly forced him to change his mind. "Reload!" He waved his fingers in a circular motion, signaling to his teammates to go back to the original play-call. His pass-catchers on the right side of the formation understood, and they confirmed by signaling back to Jones the circular hand gesture.
On the left side, DeVante Parker watched Jones but wasn't sure what to do. He briefly turned his palms skyward as if to say, "Huh?" Jones snapped the ball, Parker got off the line with some speed but really didn't run a route, drifting into the end zone. Against a Ravens blitz, Jones drifted back and to the left and lofted a pass Parker's way.
The result: a back-breaking interception that took an easy three points off the board that would've made it a two-point game.
On the one hand, an onlooker could say: Throw it away! Take the points! Bad decision! And maybe Jones would say the same.
Even with Parker having a tremendous game statistically to that point, maybe Jones would look back at that moment and say that he shouldn't give Parker a jump-ball there, even if it's viewed as a touchdown-or-incompletion type of play. Parker hasn't been effective enough at batting down those 50-50 balls to make that assumption that the outcome was a binary proposition.
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But on the other hand, the coaching staff is what it is at the moment. Relatively inexperienced. Still trying to forge an offensive identity. Seeing players let small details -- like understanding nuances in communication at the line -- slip through the cracks.
Was that pick all on Jones, then? Was it at all on a coaching staff that wants Jones to push the ball down the field when he has the opportunity? Is it on a teammate who isn't up on the ins and outs of the team's pre-snap calls? Or is it on the coaches for not having that teammate up to speed?
When it comes to an exercise like this one where we slap letter grades on player performances, the installation of a new offense by a new offensive coaching staff complicates the process. Odds are it won't get any easier to divvy up the blame pie if Jones misses time injured. Yet we'll be right back here, trying to do exactly that, sorting through key moments and wondering whether it was operator error or a flaw in the design.
Let's get to this week's Report Card...
Jones has to take a bit of a hit on the end-zone pick to Parker. It was a risky throw into coverage. But he probably believed Parker knew there was a chance the ball was coming his way. After getting confused at the line, it looked like Parker assumed he wasn't one of Jones' reads. That's not on the quarterback, who was hoping his receiver would be able to bat the ball away if not catch it outright.
Perhaps Jones' more glaring error in this one was linebacker Josh Bynes' pick on a hard wide-zone play-action pass. Jones didn't seem to see the second-level defender and turned it over. But, as was the case on the end-zone pick, it's worth wondering how coaching factored into that particular error.
The Patriots hadn't yet run wide zone to that point in the day. Still, they ran a wide zone fake. Not surprisingly, Ravens linebackers -- who likely saw that wide zone was not a major part of either of New England's first two games of the season -- didn't bite. Bynes was right where he needed to be to make the play. That's partly on the play-caller.
Outside of those two errors, though, Jones made multiple plays with his legs -- including recording his first-career rushing touchdown -- and he had one of his most explosive days throwing the football. He had five of what Pro Football Focus deems "big-time throws" (their most difficult and highest-graded passes). That's the most in a single game he's compiled in his young career.
His bucket throw to Parker for 40 yards in the first quarter was a beauty, and he led Parker perfectly on his first pass of the game for a 30-yard shot. His sideline dart to Parker for 25 yards was placed on a dime, as was a 36-yarder to Parker along the right sideline. The throw Jones hit to Nelson Agholor -- which Agholor eventually fumbled -- seemed dangerous but was extremely accurate. And even an incomplete throw to Parker between two defenders deep down the field, though perhaps inviting some trouble, was well-placed.
It was, according to Next Gen Stats, one of the most accurate games of Jones' career. He had a completion percentage-over-expected figure of 10.2 thanks to some of those tight-window heaves. Jones' intended air yards figure, per NGS, was second in the NFL in Week 3, with his average toss traveling 12.1 yards.
Yes, there is clearly an emphasis on going long in the Patriots offense this season. Jones is now fourth in the NFL in average intended air yards (10). But there are mistakes that are the cost of doing business with that type of approach. Which is why Jones' grade lands where it does.
Running back: B
Rhamondre Stevenson showed tremendous vision in being able to bounce runs out into space, picking up 6.1 yards per carry to go along with a late touchdown. He finished with 101 yards from scrimmage, adding four catches to his 12 rushes.
That's a sizable workload for a player splitting work at the position with an accomplished veteran like Damien Harris, but it's worth wondering if the Patriots should be getting Stevenson even more work. He's clearly the choice in passing situations, playing on 25 pass plays to Harris' 11. Harris had 3.7 yards per carry and a touchdown, adding two catches for just five yards, which knocks this grade down a tad.
Wide receiver: B+
Parker had a monstrous day statistically, emerging as the explosive-play threat the Patriots imagined he'd be. Particularly after he had such a strong training camp. In Week 3, going into Monday Night Football, no receiver had more deep targets (six) or yards on those types of passes (125) than Parker, per PFF. His toe-tapping sideline catch, according to NGS, had only a 7.4 percent chance of being completed.
Kendrick Bourne continues to produce in limited work, but he fumbled (and recovered) at the tail end of his last catch, hurting this grade a tad. The bigger blunder was the turnover Agholor coughed up in the fourth quarter with the game still hanging in the balance. That kept this grade from landing in the "A" range.
Lil'Jordan Humphrey went catchless on just one target, serving as primarily a blocking option. That's not helping the mark here all that much, but -- once again -- that's more a coaching decision to substitute out a potential playmaker like Bourne for a blocker like Humphrey in a game where the Patriots had to try to keep pace with one of the league's most explosive offenses led by an MVP-caliber quarterback.
Tight end: D
Five catches. Thirty-three yards. One catch for Hunter Henry. They now have 86 combined yards on 10 catches in three games. An average of about three grabs for under 30 yards, combined? The tight ends didn't always appear to be put in the best position to make an impact in the running game, either. That's not what the Patriots envisioned when they adjusted their offense this offseason to utilize both players more frequently.
"I think it's just week to week, man," Henry told me after the game. "You gotta adjust to the different things the defense gives you, too. Obviously we both want to be out there as much as we can and affect the game in a lot of ways. But we want to do what helps the team in a lot of ways, too. (Twelve personnel packages) can give us favorable fronts sometimes, favorable coverages that we want."
Offensive line: C-
While the Patriots' running game was effective, Jones was under pressure on almost a third of his dropbacks (12 of 40), and two of his three picks came with him under duress. Isaiah Wynn was flagged for two penalties, while David Andrews picked up one. It looked like Andrews and Cole Strange were both on the scene for multiple pressures in this one.
"Old adage, you can’t win until you keep from losing," Andrews said after the game. "I think this game kind of sums that up. We did a lot of really good things, moved the ball well. Some good situational football, but at the end of the day you can’t win until you keep from losing, so I think we’ll come in tomorrow and that’s the thing, the NFL is a game where a couple of plays can mean all of the difference. That was today."
Jones has been under pressure at least 30 percent of the time in each of the last two weeks. Per PFF, the Patriots hit that number six times all of last season. To bring coaching back into the discussion, when the Patriots struggled with their protection early last season, it was with starter Trent Brown out injured. The Patriots have had their starters available throughout the last three weeks.
With offensive line coach Matt Patricia leading the way, it's worth wondering how the staff alterations and schematic changes have inhibited the protection of Jones, who suffered a back injury in Week 1 and is now dealing with an ankle injury that could take him off the field.
Special teams: C-
Myles Bryant has been an issue as a punt returner. For the second time in as many weeks, Bryant muffed the first punt-return opportunity he saw. Still, he remained in the game and returned the next punt that came his way. It was his last opportunity of the day.
Could the Patriots keep Bryant in that role even with experienced return man Jabrill Peppers and dynamic college returner Marcus Jones on the roster? They did Sunday.
Ravens returner Devin Duvernay took one back 43 yards, which impacts this grade as well. Based on a back-and-forth with officials that occurred soon thereafter, Matthew Slater thought a hold could've been called, it seemed. But there was no flag and the Patriots were on the wrong end of another big play.
Defensive line: B-
Deatrich Wise carries this grade with his three first-half sacks. He added one more tackle for loss for good measure. Christian Barmore came up with a pressure that helped lead to a Jonathan Jones pick. But even for them, it wasn't a perfect game.
Lamar Jackson posed a unique threat and hurt the Patriots around the edges and up the guts of their defense. Whether it was Wise outside, Barmore, Lawrence Guy or Carl Davis on the interior -- all got sealed off on key Ravens runs. Justice Hill hit them for a long one, but it was Jackson who did the bulk of the damage.
It was curious to hear Bill Belichick during the week point out that Jackson was about to get a massive contract. It's rare for the Patriots head coach to get into that topic in that setting, and looking back, it's worth wondering if the Patriots believed Jackson wouldn't run much because he's still waiting to get his life-altering pay day. Jackson ran 15 times through the first two weeks of the season, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh wondered if the Patriots were daring Jackson to carry it more often in Week 3.
Jackson finished with 11 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown.
"Well, it makes it really tough to defend," Harbaugh said of the designed quarterback running game Baltimore employs. "I think it makes it challenging because if I was assessing what they were doing, I think they were going to force Lamar to run a little bit and say, 'OK, are you really willing to do that? Is he willing to do that?' Because they basically took away the sweep lanes.
"They were playing tough against the running back stuff, especially in the first half and into the third quarter between the tackles, and then they were saying, ‘OK, run Lamar.' See how much he'll do it, a little bit. A little bit. They played good defense against him. But Lamar is a tough guy. He made a lot of plays that way and made the running game go."
The Patriots seemed to have significant issues at the second level when it came to defending Jackson. Blitzes appeared to get linebackers out of position, and there was a lot of movement at the line -- offensive linemen pulling, backs running away from Jackson -- that helped give Ravens blockers excellent angles on Mack Wilson and Ja'Whaun Bentley at times. Both Patriots 'backers were taken out of the play quickly on Jackson's 38-yard scamper in the third quarter that led to a Ravens score.
Matthew Judon finished with five total pressures, including a sack and a quarterback hit. But that wasn't enough to raise this grade much higher than where it sits.
Patriots defensive backs had their issues wrangling Jackson, too. Devin McCourty was one-on-one with Jackson and couldn't get him down on his touchdown scamper. Jalen Mills and Jabrill Peppers -- playing key snaps with Kyle Dugger (knee) out -- also had moments when Jackson wriggled through their grasp.
Jonathan Jones read Jackson's eyes well enough to pick him off in the second quarter, and Jackson only finished with 218 yards through the air. But in the red zone Jackson and the Ravens went 5-for-5, including touchdown passes into one-on-one coverage for Duvernay (Jack Jones in coverage) and tight end Mark Andrews (McCourty in coverage). Rashod Bateman dropped a long potential touchdown pass against this unit, but he made a move on Jonathan Jones in the open field that led to a 35-yard pass play in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens provided the Patriots secondary with a variety of problems on Sunday, and not enough of them were answered.
"It's like when you play the triple option in college," McCourty said. "It's an offense that you don't see every week. It's the play-action, it's the threat of the QB run, the pistol formations you don't see all the time, then it's the tight end streaking across the middle. You have so much to look at, and that's what makes it tough."