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Bills’ opponent preview: New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry

One of Mac Jones’s favorite targets goes under the All-22 microscope

If you hadn’t heard, the Buffalo Bills are hosting the New England Patriots in the Wild Card Round this weekend. Already squaring up twice in the regular season, the Bills and Pats are tied at one win each. Buffalo will look to pull ahead in that department, though New England isn’t likely to roll over. A major component of Mac Jones’s success has been his second-favorite target Hunter Henry. Buffalo mostly didn’t face Henry in their first contest and shut him down in the second (six targets, one catch, nine yards). The Patriots may look to work Henry in more effectively this time, so let’s take a peek.


Play 1

I ran some numbers because it’s kind of a thing I do. The Patriots pass the ball 52% of the time. That’s 4% less than league average. It’s tied for sixth-least passing in the league. Also factor, the Patriots are a running team. Seeing Hunter Henry run blocking should not be a surprise. The whole team does it.

Play 2

Bills fans trashing Mac Jones certainly have some ammo. Even I call him a system quarterback. As I said when I called him that though, it’s hard to knock it if it’s a good system. The Indianapolis Colts don’t do enough to disrupt Henry and Jones is on time with his pass. Here’s the result. If you’re wondering why Josh McDaniels’s name keeps coming up as a head-coaching candidate after his flame out in Denver and his walk out in Indy, this is why. Seriously, look at all of the GIFs here and meet me in the summary.

Play 3

Watching this game by this point even I was like, “A crossing route? Again?,” for Hunter Henry. Indianapolis apparently felt similarly. In the games reviewed I didn’t see anything to suggest that Henry is used in any exotic manner. The success he sees is in large part due to the timing of play calls. In a game of rock-paper-scissors you only have three options. But if you were a genius at knowing when to use each one you’d still have success. The Patriots are masterful at calling the limited route tree of Henry at the right time. The Colts called “scissors” to Henry’s “paper” on this play.

Play 4

In contrast, with the Colts up by a lot and playing soft, Henry became a “rock” to the Colts’ “scissors.”

Play 5

This is what I mean by “if it’s a good system, then ‘system quarterback’ isn’t an insult.” Mac Jones is willing to execute and, in all honesty, this is a great throw in a tiny window. Henry is on time and ready for it. Touchdown.

Play 6

Remember how I said the Patriots are a running team? Guess which game saw a season low in snap counts for Henry? Did you guess the “Wind Game” versus the Bills? If so, award yourself a gold star. It’s intriguing that in a game where the Patriots had three passes and ran a heavy personnel grouping nearly all game, that Henry only saw the field 29% of the time. It’s almost like he’s not their best blocker. Overall I think he did okay in the games I watched, but this play isn’t anything special. A better anchor widens the lane considerably.

Play 7

Let’s end on an off-script play since I’ve already spent a lot of time basically insinuating that the Patriots are highly dependent on the script. Hunter Henry is a veteran and knows how to help his quarterback. This isn’t much more than “keep running and float toward the soft spot” but often that’s plenty.


Summary

Seriously, Josh McDaniels has a bit of a reputation for being a bit of an [expletive deleted] but there’s a reason why people who are an [expletive deleted] find themselves in positions of authority/power. On most teams the Mac-Jones-to-Hunter-Henry connection would be pretty “meh.” That’s not to say Henry is untalented by any means. Bills fans of years past would have clamored for a Hunter Henry-esque tight end.

Let’s do a quick comparison. Who would I rather have, 2021 Josh Allen or 2021 Mac Jones? I’d rather have Josh Allen and it’s really no contest. Hunter Henry or Dawson Knox? Dawson Knox and that’s a lot closer but still not close. So how did New England only score three touchdowns less than the Buffalo Bills? Josh McDaniels. He knows when to call “rock.” Or “paper.” Or “scissors.” The Bills have faced better talent than Henry (and Jones). I’m not worried about the tight end. If you’re gonna worry. Worry about the coaching and strategy.