What’s wrong with the Patriots’ passing game and how to fix it?

By henry mackenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

the new england patriots he opened the season with a drive that seemed, initially at least, amazingly efficient.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that Mac Jones and Matt Patricia dazzled on that opening record. The first seven plays were for positive yards, and even though they didn’t have a play that went for more than 12 yards, the Patriots won piece after piece of the field. They soon met at the Miami 22-yard line.

That’s when he went south. Jones threw a 50-50 pass to wide receiver DeVante Parker and the ball ended up in the hands of Dolphins safety Jevon Holland for an interception. That play boded ill for New England’s passing game.

“I just miscalculated it, so the next time you find out, just do it,” Parker said after the game.

Fast forward to next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jones threw the ball downfield to Parker. One more time: an interception. This time, Jones was clearly at fault, apparently missing safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who fielded the pass much more easily than Parker could have. The receiver finished the game with zero receptions.

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So far this season, the Patriots have put Parker on the field for 109 snaps, and he still has just one nine-yard reception. Parker, who joined the team in a trade this offseason, has been the team’s No. 1 WR in terms of plays, but barely makes it on the stat sheet.

New England’s highest-producing receiver, Jakobi Meyers, is second in snaps. There is no doubt that he is the most reliable option of his, mainly lining up in the slot. His use and production seem to be on point, with Meyers serving as Jones’ preferred option, particularly on third down.

But on the outside, New England has struggled to get production out of its best outside receiver. It has been going on for years. Go back to 2020 and New England put Damiere Byrd on the field for the most snaps. He finished second on the team in receiving with 604 receiving yards. In 2021, Nelson Agholor ranked second among receivers in snaps (64%) despite missing two games. He finished fourth on the team in receiving yards (473).

Of course, now that Agholor’s snap percentage is down to 54%, he enjoyed his best game as a Patriot, with six catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. Agholor won a 50-50 pass, stealing an interception from the Steelers, for a 44-yard touchdown.

“He got a lot of plays and he’s really been one of our most consistent players this year,” Belichick said of Agholor.

But we know from looking at the numbers that Agholor hasn’t gotten many snaps. It’s WR3 and you saw fewer snapshots in week 2 (50%) than in week 1 (58%). Meanwhile, Agholor has generated 3.8 yards of separation per route, 18th-best in the NFL and best among the Patriots.

That’s a head scratcher, right?

If Agholor has been one of the most consistent players, why doesn’t he watch the field more? Maybe the Patriots think less is more. Maybe their logic is that he couldn’t handle the role of WR1 in 2021, so they don’t feel like putting him through that again. They prefer to give Parker a chance.

But if the Patriots are working with what they learned in 2021, then they should remember that Kendrick Bourne was the most explosive receiver on the team. He is just playing. Bourne has 26 snaps total (21%) through the first two weeks after a tough training camp.

Bourne entered the field twice in the first game and quickly put together a 41-yard reception at the critical moment of the fourth quarter. But that was all we saw of him. He had 24 snaps in Week 2 and had two catches for 16 yards.

Meanwhile, Lil’Jordan Humphrey received 26 snaps during the first two weeks. Although Humphrey is a receiver on the depth chart, he was on the field almost exclusively as a run blocker, with the Patriots running the ball on 23 of 26 (88%) of his snaps. So, Humphrey is essentially a blocking tight end, and he’s good at it, with a 90.9 run block rating in PFF, the best on the Patriots in Week 2.

But the Patriots seemed interested in being less predictable as an offense, not more predictable. They removed the fullback from their offense to try to avoid pointing the run at opposing defenses. And yet Humphrey is doing just that. Plus, if he’s the No. 3 tight end, he’s taking work from TE1 Jonnu Smith (39 plays in Week 2) and TE2 Hunter Henry (34 plays). That is another rarity. Those two make $12.5 million per year.

It’s early in the season. New England is clearly figuring out who will and can do what for its offense. The Patriots often spend the first four weeks of the season playing around with their personnel and scheme to figure out what they do best. The idea is that if they experiment and lose a game or two in the process, they will be better equipped to win the remaining 13-16 games. It is not necessarily the time to panic. But New England is beginning to have some clear indicators.

Meyers is the best and most reliable option on the team. He must stay on the field.

Parker is struggling on offense and should soon see his plays reduced in favor of Agholor and Bourne.

New England’s tight ends are struggling and the team could be smart to use more three-receiver formations to get their three best playmakers on the field: Meyers, Bourne and Agholor.

Humphrey is an effective blocker, but he will instantly tip defenses to run plays.

And now that? The Patriots will have to figure out how to make sense of their pass-catching conundrum, because, of course, they can only have so many players on the field at one time.

By my estimation, New England isn’t getting enough production from Parker, Henry, Smith or Bourne. In turn, Jones has had problems. He has completed 64.6% of his passes for 465 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in two games. But he also doesn’t seem to be processing as efficiently as he did in late 2022. It’s all related.

The Patriots need a scoring rebound because they are 0-5 when allowing 25 or more points in the Jones era. There are 10 teams in the NFL averaging 25 or more points per game. New England’s defense is pretty good, allowing 17 points per game, eighth-best in the NFL.

If the Patriots want to take Jones to the next level in his NFL career, they need them to play with the personnel to produce results in the coming weeks. Or they could find themselves in a deep hole in the AFC East, where the Dolphins and Buffalo Bills appear to be early playoff favorites.

Before joining FOX Sports as a reporter for the AFC East, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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