Callahan: The Patriots can’t take Demario Douglas off the field anymore

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Thank God for the little guy out of Liberty.

The 5-foot-8 firecracker exploding out of the slot.

The best pure receiver Bill Belichick has drafted in 10, 15 … maybe 20 years?

Yes, Demario Douglas is that good, and the Patriots just might be winless without him.

Let’s review.

In Week 3, Douglas secured a long third-down catch the play before the Pats scored their only touchdown in a tight win over the Jets. Against Buffalo last weekend, the Patriots let Douglas play more than half of their offensive snaps for the first time all season. From those snaps, he squeezed 74 yards and half-dozen first downs that led directly to scores in a 29-25 triumph.

Sitting Douglas for more than half of any future game would be coaching malpractice. He can fumble or flip a couple birds at the crowd. It shouldn’t matter.

The kid has to play.

The Pats average 2.67 more yards per play with Douglas on the field versus when he’s off, the second-highest differential among their offensive regulars. He gets open faster than any other Patriot receiver and leads them in average separation, per Next Gen Stats. Douglas’ 3.2 yards of separation even out-ranks stars like Stefon Diggs, Jaylen Waddle and Justin Jefferson.

Douglas’ per-play production outpaces them, too. According to Pro Football Focus, whenever Douglas runs a route, he’s gaining an average of 2.23 yards; a number that tiny as he is, but ranks top-20 among NFL receivers with a meaningful number of targets this season.

New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas stiff arms Buffalo Bills defender Ty Johnson during Sunday’s clash in Foxboro. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

That efficiency out-shines stars like Waddle, Davante Adams, Deebo Samuel and Ja’Marr Chase. But like them, the best way to capture how Douglas impacts a game is with one word: danger.

He threatens defenses in a way no other Patriots pass-catcher does. Defenses cannot ignore his quickness or his long speed like they cold-shoulder most of his teammates. The kid carries a certain gravity to him, like an elite basketball shooter.

If Douglas motions pre-snap, even without the ball, defenses are suddenly on alert. And they should be, considering the Bills allowed 10.6 yards per play whenever a Patriots player motioned at the snap Sunday. More often than not, that player was Douglas.

Motion further weaponizes his playmaking ability, a trail of gasoline leading into a giant blaze. It allows him a head start, either into a route or a hand-off or sometimes a blocking assignment, like on Rhamondre Stevenson’s 34-yard catch-and-run that kick-started the Pats’ game-winning drive.

It sounds like Mac Jones would like more of that motion.

“I definitely enjoyed that part of the game,” Jones said Wednesday of Douglas going in motion. “Pop has done a good job. Just focus(ing) on how we can do that to get guys open, create areas in the defense that become open because of that. And you see that around the NFL, a lot of teams use motion. High school football, it’s big now. College football, it’s been big for a while.

“I definitely enjoy watching other teams use it as well and what you can learn from that information.”

New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (81) runs with the ball during the second half an NFL football game against the New York Jets on Sunday Sept. 24, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

On Tuesday, Patriots coaches described the Douglas-centric schemes as being game-specific. It’s a week-to-week decision, they added. Well, let’s make that decision easy for them: the answer is yes every day, and as many times as needed on Sundays.

Because the Patriots can speak about being an amorphous offense that shifts its identity week-to-week all they want. The truth is they don’t have the ingredients to cook different dishes on game day. Their menu is more sub shop than Cheesecake Factory.

Bill O’Brien is packaging the same basic concepts — bubble screens to Douglas, swing passes to Stevenson and in-breaking routes for Bourne and Hunter Henry — in new wrapping paper and bows each week to keep defenses guessing. That is what the offense is, and who the Patriots are. That’s fine, even if the Jets knew it in Week 2.

“They don’t really have a complex offense,” said Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner. “It’s pretty simple for the quarterback to get.”

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But Douglas brings a certain spice that can unlock a world of new flavors. Back in January, he struck the Patriots at the Shrine Bowl, a showcase for college prospects, where their assistants coached dozens of college players for a full week. Douglas separated instantly from defenders on the field, and pulled away from the other receivers in the classroom.

“He was a good kid, he was interested, and he sat in the meetings, and he learned,” said Pats wide receivers coach Troy Brown. “When he was able to get out there and go, he came out there and went and did pretty good.”

Douglas’ other position coach, Ross Douglas, confessed he was “shocked” that the young speedster was still available when the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round last April.

“Luckily, he fell in our lap,” Ross Douglas said, “and he’s a New England Patriot.”

Lucky, indeed.

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