Some additional thoughts on this Monday:
1) Four weeks into the regular season, if what we’ve seen is any indication, it’s probably safe to say that the JuJu Smith-Schuster signing may end up being the thing that ultimately plagues the New England Patriots in 2023.
Smith-Schuster was targeted a combined five times on Sunday by both Mac Jones (3) and Bailey Zappe (2), with the receiver catching just one of those throws. If that’s not bad enough, his lone catch ended up being fairly frustrating, as he ran his route short of the sticks, catching the ball on a 14-yard gain when the Patriots were facing 3rd-and-15 early in the second quarter.
That set up the 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak where Jones was stopped short at the Dallas 41-yard line.
As a result, that play encapsulated what’s been a disappointing start to his career in New England.
When Smith-Schuster was signed, the hope was that he could replace some of the production by Jakobi Meyers, who ultimately signed with Las Vegas this past offseason. The decision to let him go so far hasn’t exactly worked in their favor. Meyers is currently sitting with 18 receptions for 199 yards and two touchdowns while also having missed a game with a concussion, while Smith-Schuster has 11 catches for 80 yards through four games.
The biggest vacancy remains on third down. Meyers had led that category by a landslide over the last couple of seasons, and no one has yet to pick up that slack. It’s also part of the big reason why Jones went 4-of-8 on third down yesterday, while Zappe went 0-for-3.
It’s tough to say how they’ll be able to navigate through this, and Sunday was an example of what happens when Jones is asked to do too much. But without a reliable target to help out their offense in big moments, it’s likely going to be a long season, regardless of who is ultimately under center.
2) Speaking of Jones, Sunday was obviously a mess. The three turnovers he committed were brutal, with the first coming after he was flushed out to his left and tried to take off, but he lost sight of Cowboys defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who ran him down from behind and knocked out the football.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch scooped up the turnover and took off for the touchdown. That put New England in an 18-3 hole with just over 11 minutes left in the half.
But if that wasn’t bad enough, Jones committed the cardinal sin of throwing back across the field twice on Sunday, getting away with it once, and then getting burned – badly – the second time.
Facing a 2nd-and-16 after Onwenu committed his third penalty of the second quarter (an offensive holding penalty that cost them 10 yards), Jones rolled to his right and found Kendrick Bourne by himself on the other side of the field, with the quarterback throwing back across the field to his left for what was a 16-yard gain and a first down.
Five plays later, Jones found himself again in a similar situation, having rolled to his right with Bourne again sitting on the left side of the field, but this time, with a defender close by.
Jones again fired it to that side, but defensive back Daron Bland was ready for it and he stepped in front and picked it off, running it back for the touchdown, which at the time buried New England at 28-3 and put the game well out of reach.
He then committed a final turnover on an underthrown pass to Smith-Schuster on their opening drive of the third quarter, which Bland again picked off on a 4th-and-2 attempt at the Cowboys’ 20-yard line.
Jones later came out of the game after he narrowly escaped another turnover on the ensuing drive, which led Belichick to sit him down in favor of Zappe.
One day later, Belichick had praise for Jones, and doesn’t appear to be ready to give up on him just yet.
“It’s the National Football League. It’s a competitive league and so we’re all under pressure every week, and that’s the job,” said Belichick. “Mac asks a lot of himself, he works hard, football’s really important to him, he puts a lot into it. But, I mean, we all do. Again, that’s the NFL.”
Belichick was also asked for his thoughts on Jones’ decision-making, with the Patriots coach noting like every player, there were certainly ones that Jones would probably like to have back from yesterday’s debacle.
“Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you’re just trying to make a play and then regret it afterwards,” said Belichick. “Every quarterback’s thrown interceptions, every quarterback’s made bad decisions. So has every player and every coach that’s ever played. So we’ve just got to make more good ones and just find more consistency in our execution, especially offensively.”
He was asked at one point during the interview if he felt like they have enough on offense to be successful. Belichick didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, I think we have pretty good talent on offense,” said Belichick. “We just haven’t been able to find a good consistent groove with it.”
3) Some people believe Zappe may be the better option, and time will certainly tell if that’s the case. But on Sunday, Zappe didn’t fare much better than Jones.
The second-year quarterback made a couple of decent throws, but he faced the same pressure and challenges as his teammate. The results ended up being similar, save for the lack of turnovers.
Zappe finished 4-of-9 (44%) for 57 yards on Sunday, including the 0-for-3 performance on third down mentioned previously.
Belichick did add on Monday that it’s possible Zappe could see more reps in practice depending on how things ultimately go, but that’s probably going to depending on how Jones rebounds coming off of this one.
The glaring issue still remains that the Patriots are without a key playmaker on offense, which would make the lives of both of those guys, and their other targets, easier. Both Miami and Buffalo were two teams who were a great example of that benefit on Sunday, with San Francisco being yet another, given what we’ve seen from Brock Purdy. The same could be said for Baker Mayfield, who struggled mightily after leaving Cleveland, yet having players like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans certainly seems to be helping him in Tampa.
Without someone to free this group up, we’re likely to see more of the same regardless of who ends up under center. And if the sweatshirts handed out last week are any indication, no one is likely coming, at least for this season.
4) Losing Judon is one thing. Losing Christian Gonzalez is another, and that one is going to sting in the coming weeks.
The Patriots may luck out and get Jonathan Jones back at some point, which would at least be a finger in what’s now a severe leak. But while he’s permitted to come off IR this week, Mike Reiss of ESPN has reported repeatedly that Jack Jones isn’t expected to be back until midseason, which will mean that Myles Bryant will likely be called on for at least a couple of more starts. Shaun Wade filled in and was serviceable, but saying they’re in tough shape is absolutely an understatement.
Gonzalez suffered a reported shoulder injury following a tackle he made in the first quarter against running back Tony Pollard, and his status is up in the air. But not having him at this point in the season, especially with two key games coming up against Buffalo and Miami in three weeks, is definitely going to be an issue.
Despite their record, he’s one of the big reasons they’ve been in each of their previous games, and his absence will absolutely put a strain on that group, especially if Jonathan Jones isn’t 100% healthy coming back from his ankle injury.
This next stretch may potentially decide their season, and if Gonzalez is gone for any significant amount of time, they’re definitely going to have their work cut out for them.
5) With Cole Strange sidelined, the Patriots had little success in the ground game again on Sunday. Rhamondre Stevenson had a tough time finding a hole to run through and was held to 15 yards on 7 carries, which was a 2.1 average.
That seems to be a trend we’ve seen when Strange has been out of the lineup. Sunday saw rookie Atonio Mafi step in after Strange was downgraded to “Out” on Saturday, and while he did a decent job in pass protection, the run game seems to be an area he’s still getting comfortable with.
The numbers tell the story. When Strange has been in the game, Stevenson’s averaged 3+ yards per carry. When he hasn’t (Week 1 and yesterday), he’s averaged 2.1.
As a result, his health also remains something to keep an eye on, as it’s clearly had an effect on what’s been a tough start for Stevenson so far this season.
Injuries, in general, have hurt them, and Sunday definitely didn’t help matters. Needless to say, one has to hope that they’ll fare a little better next Sunday against the Saints.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary