It’s OK to feel good about the Patriots rookies, despite the loss in Green Bay
GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 02: Allen Lazard #13 of the Green Bay Packers lays on his back as Jack Jones #13 of the New England Patriots returns an interception for a touchdown during the second quarter at Lambeau Field on October 02, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
The whole “moral victory” thing is a useless semantics argument and a waste of time. You can pull the good and the bad from any game, win or lose. And if you’re a Patriots fan, it’s OK to come out of Sunday’s loss to the Packers with things to feel good about going forward. You have our permission.
One of those bigger-picture things to feel good about was the performance of the Patriots’ rookie class. Almost every active rookie made meaningful contributions in the game, and would’ve gotten major credit if the Patriots pulled off a shocking road upset.
Obviously, it wasn’t quite enough for the Patriots in the end. But that’s not to say the rookies deserve blame for the defeat, because they do not. They did more to help the team win than to cost them the game.
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Here’s a closer look at each of the rookies who played Sunday…
New England Patriots defensive back Jack Jones returns an interception thrown by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a touchdown during the second quarter of their game Sunday, October 2, 2022 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY Network)
We’ll start with the fourth-rounder out of Arizona State, because if the Pats won he would’ve been THE player of the game. Jones made perhaps the best defensive play of the season so far for the Patriots with his pick-six against Aaron Rodgers, and also recovered his own forced fumble on Green Bay’s second play from scrimmage. And he somehow outdid himself in his postgame presser.
“Personally, I feel like it’s disrespectful to throw an out-route on me,” Jones said. “If you can throw the ball past me to get to the receiver, I’m no good.”
There were at least a couple of plays where Jones’ aggressive style got the best of him. On one play in the second quarter, he went for the strip on Packers wideout Allen Lazard after the catch, behind the sticks and near the sideline. Jones whiffed, and Lazard was able to pick up extra yards for the first down. Had Jones simply wrapped Lazard up and tackled him out of bounds, he would’ve set up third down.
There will be a give-and-take with Jones, if he continues to play so many snaps (99 percent on Sunday). He will need to learn when to pick his spots to go for turnovers, and when to have more discipline, because he’ll get burned for a long touchdown at some point. But you have to love the playmaking and the swagger.
GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 02: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots calls a play at the line of scrimmage during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on October 02, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Patriots 27-24 in overtime. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
It was clear that the coaches didn’t want their fourth-round rookie doing too much. Zappe did make 15 pass attempts against the Packers, but for only 6.9 (nice) intended air yards on average. Mostly short, safe stuff.
But it was still an impressive showing by Zappe, who was unexpectedly thrust into his first career appearance in a regular season game. He protected the ball as well as you can expect for a 23-year-old in that spot, and even made a couple of plays down the field, including his first career touchdown pass to DeVante Parker.
“He was well prepared,” head coach Bill Belichick said Monday on Zappe. “I thought, generally, he handled himself well. Certainly, things he can improve on. We’ll work on. But, I thought he did a solid job.”
The Patriots seem impressed with Zappe’s poise under challenging circumstances. That’s a good sign for his future in the league.
GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 02: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots celebrates with Cole Strange #69 after a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers during the third quarter at Lambeau Field on October 02, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
We’d be remiss if we didn’t bring up the first-round pick. Strange has been sort of up-and-down overall through four weeks, but that is to be expected when you have a rookie playing every snap. Sunday at Lambeau should be checked in the “good” column, though.
Strange had a clean sheet in pass protection, and made a few positive plays in the run game as well. He harkened back to the Joe Thuney days with his execution on pull blocks to the right, when he was able to get to the second level and open running lanes. He also took care of Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark 1-on-1 on Damien Harris’ fourth-quarter touchdown run.
“Cole’s given us a good level of play all year,” Belichick said. “He gets better every week, gets better every day. Smart kid, has learned a lot and is able to process a lot more on a weekly basis and certainly over the couple months that we’ve been here, August and September. That’s a lot of snaps, a lot of days, a lot of meetings, a lot of practices.
“He’s absorbed a lot of information and processed it well. Like every young player, has a long way to go, but he’s gaining ground.”
After a tumultuous summer, we’re really at the point that the only concern on the offensive line is right tackle, where Isaiah Wynn has struggled and was even replaced by Marcus Cannon in the second half. That’s kind of stunning. And a big part of that is Strange making an impact on the interior.
If this kid doesn’t have the punt returner job locked up after Sunday, we’d be shocked. Not only did Marcus Jones not muff any of his returns, he was a net positive in the return game. He averaged 27.8 yards per kick return and 24.5 per punt return. And two of his best returns came at crucial points in the game, a 29-yard return late in the second quarter and a 20-yarder in overtime, both of which set up the Patriots at midfield.
“Marcus has worked hard on the return game all year,” Belichick said. “The ball handling and decision-making and all that, at this level, is just a lot more difficult and a lot more challenging than what it is at the college level. Given the skill of the punters, and the kickers, and the kicking game in general. Felt like he had had a good week and we were ready to take a look at him in that role. I thought that he stepped up and handled it pretty well. That was good.”
The one time Jones seemed to make a mistake was when he let a punt hit the turf before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. The Packers ended up downing the ball at the 2-yard line. But Jones told reporters Monday that he did what the coaches told him to do on that play. So, if there’s anyone to second guess there, it’s Belichick or special teams coordinator Cam Achord.
Sep 18, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots safety Brenden Schooler (41) warms up before the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
The undrafted rookie special teamer made a nice open-field tackle on punt returner Amari Rodgers, which was unfortunately flagged for a horse collar tackle. The call was ticky-tack. It’s hard to ask Schooler to do much differently there. He’s been just fine in his specialized role.
GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 02: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots runs to the huddle during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on October 02, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Patriots 27-24 in overtime. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Expect Strange and Marcus Jones to continue to play regularly going forward. Belichick may even want to consider Marcus Jones at slot corner, considering the struggles of Myles Bryant.
Zappe is likely the starter at quarterback for another week if Brian Hoyer can’t return from a reported head injury. Mac Jones appeared to make a respectable effort in practice last week, but realistically, he’ll be out at least one more game as he recovers from a high-ankle sprain.
As for Jack Jones, he may have shown enough to earn a more prominent role at cornerback for the rest of the season. But if Jalen Mills is ready to return in Week 5, expect him to resume his primary spot on the boundary, with Jones rotating in.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.