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All-22 analysis: Zay Jones a victim of circumstance against New England Patriots

There are valid criticisms for the third-year receiver, but this ain’t it.

Following the Buffalo Bills’ 16-10 loss against the New England Patriots, plenty of blame was passed around, but one player particularly drew the ire of fans: third-year wide receiver Zay Jones. Jones was targeted eight times in the loss, but only caught two of those passes for four yards. Two other passes in his vicinity were instead intercepted.

Jones hasn’t lit the scoreboard on fire at all this year, with seven receptions for 69 yards on 18 targets. Of course, you could also argue he hasn’t managed that in his career, with only two games of more than 70 yards and none over 100. But let’s set that aside for a bit and address the question: “Was Jones a liability against the New England Patriots?”

To answer that, I went to the All-22 and logged the various targets to Jones.

What we know about the Patriots’ defense is very evident in these clips: They challenged the Bills with an aggressive Cover-1 setup. This defensive call puts a single deep free safety onto the field, asks its cornerbacks to play man coverage (often press-man) across the board, and either puts the box safety into man coverage or into a “rat” defender role where he can roam to cause havoc.

This is a defense you use if you have elite talent in the secondary and faith in your front seven to reach the quarterback, because if any player can’t cover his man you’ll give up chunks of yardage left and right. That said, the Patriots do have that talent. Stephon Gilmore is one of the best in the business, the brothers McCourty are well-known, and second-year cornerback J.C. Jackson already has five career interceptions in 17 games.

Buffalo’s task was to create separation for their receivers and stay on schedule for moving the chains. Jones was the third or fourth option on most plays.

Alright, let’s discuss this first one. First quarter, 1st-and-10 from the New England 48. This is shot-call territory. The Patriots are in man-free, and you want to take a chance for a huge play (or six points). The play call sends three receivers left and has Jones crossing deep to the right.

Josh Allen runs through a play-action drop, but the coverage is still pretty tight on Jones, so he hesitates. By the time he starts to throw, he’s under pressure, and Allen retreats instead of stepping into his throw. It’s a lousy underthrow and gets intercepted, through no fault of Jones.

Okay, next play I tracked. It’s almost a full quarter later, with a minute remaining in the half. 1st-and-10, from the Buffalo 47-yard line: It’s another shot call. The Bills run four verticals.

While New England initially has two deep safeties, they rotate into a Cover 1 robber look post snap. Allen correctly identifies that the free safety is on the left side of the deep field, isolating Jones 1-on-1, and takes a throw. Again, the pocket is messy and again, Allen doesn’t really step into his throw, and this one is overthrown by a few yards.

Next play, early in the third quarter. It’s 1st-and-10 from the Buffalo 48, but given that the earlier deep throws were off target, Brian Daboll has Allen doing a quick-pass game to the sidelines to help him establish a passing rhythm. This is one of those concepts.

The Patriots line up with a single-high safety and man coverage at the top of the image. Buffalo’s play is a designed pick play for Jones. The goal is to get 3-5 yards. Jones catches the pass, the rub route isn’t super effective, and he gets three.

Okay, last play for today. This is Allen’s second interception attributed to Jones. It’s late in the third quarter, 1st-and-10 from the Buffalo 23-yard line. Drive starter. The Bills call one of their favorite plays, the mesh-wheel concept. Zay Jones on the backside of the play has a comeback route, and Dawson Knox starts with a seam route that he turns into a corner route.

The big problem here stems from pressure. At the moment Allen reaches the end of his drop, he’s flushed from the pocket by interior pressure. He escapes right. The two receivers on the right side of the field recognize it and start the scramble drill (comebacks to create room for the QB to throw the ball), though Dawson Knox continues his route to the sideline instead.

Allen sees something and throws without setting his feet as he’s leveled by a defender. It’s not clear to me whether he intended to hit Jones or Knox with this pass, but Jones’s reaction to the ball being thrown makes me think the throw was just all kinds of wrong. I can’t fault Jones, who did what he should’ve done up until the ball was thrown.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the end-zone play where Matt Barkley tried throwing to Jones, who couldn’t haul in the high pass. For that play, I place more blame on Barkley, who put the pass in a place where Jones could not possibly catch it and also score on the play. Had Jones leaped and grabbed it, he’d be tackled at the one. That throw needed to be at Jones’s knees and to the side so he could twist into the end zone.

But, to be frank, the real blame for that play is on Brian Daboll. On fourth-and-goal from the three, with the game on the line, your best call is a designed fade to Zay Jones, your Number 3 receiver? What the heck? Give me a pick play to Cole Beasley, a bubble screen, a halfback draw, a halfback sweep, mesh/wheel, literally anything but that.

To summarize here, the bad day didn’t so much belong to Jones as it did Josh Allen. The Patriots flushed him with pressure (real or perceived) all day, took advantage of his tendency to scramble to the right, and forced him to make difficult throws. Allen’s footwork was lousy all day and he made things more difficult for his receivers. Jones was open during this game, he just wasn’t given a fair shot at the catch.

That being said, we can’t fully exonerate Jones as a player. While he’s effective at separating in coverage, his inconsistent hands (especially when playing contested catches) are a big reason why the Bills signed two veterans and demoted him to the third option. The Bills need reliable pass catchers to keep their offense on schedule, and Jones hasn’t shown the consistency to handle that role for the team.