Welcome to Season 11, Episode 4 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Let’s talk about the Patriots’ quarterback situation, and the foolishness of even pondering the suggestion that rookie fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe should be the long-term starter.
That’s not a knock on how Zappe played in the 27-24 overtime loss to the Packers last Sunday after relieving a concussed Brian Hoyer in the first quarter. What he did, given the circumstances and his NFL experience level — which consisted of three weeks of being inactive on game day — was admirable.
Zappe completed 10 of 15 passes. He threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open DeVante Parker, a rare situation in which a pass headed Parker’s way wasn’t a 50-50 ball. Zappe did not turn the wrong way on any handoffs, throw a screen pass into a defensive lineman’s mitts, or look wide-eyed or overwhelmed.
But Matt Patricia and the Patriots also leaned heavily on an effective running game and kept the passing game rudimentary. They had Zappe utilize play-action, for some reason something they have foolishly resisted or ignored when Mac Jones was taking the snaps. They made it simple. They tried to make it easy, though playing quarterback in the NFL never, ever is.
Zappe did a competent job, much like Jacoby Brissett did in Week 2 in 2016, when he stepped in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who was filling in for a railroaded Tom Brady, and completed 6 of 9 passes 92 yards in a win over the Dolphins. But it also was obvious that Zappe’s internal clock is not yet set to NFL time — his awareness was as lacking as Isaiah Wynn’s mobility on Rashan Gary’s strip-sack — and now that teams have film on him, it may get harder before it gets easier.
If learning the Patriots playbook is akin to a math class, Zappe is beginning Pre-Algebra, Jones is figuring out how to get through Introduction to Calculus, Hoyer is acing Advanced Calculus but you never want to see him actually apply it, and Brady was writing problems on a chalkboard that would stump Will Hunting. (Garrett Gilbert? No math comp there for the recent signee. I’m just hoping to stop calling him by his dad’s name, Gale Gilbert, at some point soon.)
Perhaps contradictorily, Zappe did give the Patriots a better chance to win in Green Bay than Hoyer would have had he not been injured. Hoyer completed 5 of 6 passes in the first quarter, but there wasn’t a truly accurate throw in the half-dozen, and he would have had more leeway to make plays — and more likely mistakes — than Zappe had.
With Hoyer on injured reserve, Zappe is in line to get his first career start Sunday. The Lions are an oddball of an opponent; they are the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to rank first in points per game (35.0) and last in points allowed (35.3) through four weeks. But they have been hammered by injuries on the offensive side, with standout receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and running back D’Andre Swift missing last week’s loss to the Seahawks. While St. Brown was a limited participant at practice on Friday, Swift was still among six players who didn’t participate.
The Patriots haven’t been inclined to score a lot of points (18.5 per game, 23rd in the league) and their defense is much better than the numbers suggest (24.5 per game, 22nd in the league), so something has to give against a Lions team that keeps the scoreboard operators busy on both sides.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
Trent Brown: Those concerns after his lethargic performance in the Miami heat in the opener have been assuaged and then some. Brown has been outstanding at left tackle since then, with any offensive line issues instead coming from the other side, where Wynn has been a sieve at right tackle.
Brown was at his best in the loss to the Packers, clearing holes alongside rookie guard Cole Strange for a Patriots ground attack that ran 33 times for 167 yards and a touchdown.
The Lions’ run defense has offered little resistance this season, allowing a league-worst 5.6 yards per carry, while ranking 30th by allowing 165.5 yards per game. Last week, Seattle’s Rashaad Penny ripped through them for 151 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 17 attempts.
With Zappe starting, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn knows that running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson will get plenty of work. But with Brown now in the habit of blasting open huge running lanes, the Lions won’t be able to do much about it.
Jonathan Jones: Quick power ranking of the Patriots’ Joneses: 4. Mac Jones. Football purgatory is no fun. 3. Marcus Jones. Electrifying in the return game against the Packers, and should be again against the undisciplined Lions. 2. Jack Jones. The designated gambler among the cornerbacks. 1. Jonathan Jones. What, you thought it would be Tebucky Jones? You need to catch up.
Jonathan Jones has emerged as one of the Patriots’ best and most reliable defenders, and he’s done so while switching from the slot, where he spent the majority of his time during his first six seasons, to the responsibility of covering outside receivers. This season, he has allowed just 11 catches and one touchdown, with an interception of his own against Lamar Jackson in Week 3.
Jones wasn’t flawless against the Packers, with Romeo Doubs beating him for what would have been a 40-yard touchdown had he not dropped the ball. But his importance in slowing Aaron Rodgers for at least half the game was evident in his snap count — he played all 73 on defense — and his ability to do his job well as the de facto No. 1 cornerback after missing all but six games last season with a shoulder injury has been a welcome development.
Aidan Hutchinson: The No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 draft out of Michigan — my goodness, he wasn’t even born when Brady played there — racked up six tackles and three sacks from his defensive end position in a Week 2 win over the Commanders. But in the other three games, he has been somewhere between ineffective and invisible, with no sacks and just six tackles (two solo) in sum.
Lions coach Dan Campbell talked this past week about moving Hutchinson around more or perhaps having him operate from a two-point rather than a three-point stance. Perhaps these are typical issues with a young player, even one as decorated and talented as Hutchinson. But the Patriots should be able to exploit his early inconsistency.
Grievance of the week
I wouldn’t go so far as to headline this edition of the Preview as “Everything I Know About The Lions I Learned From ‘Hard Knocks.’ ” But it’s not that far from the truth, and watching this year’s edition of HBO’s behind-the-scenes-in-training-camp docuseries does inform my opinions of the team.
For instance, Campbell is impossible not to like. Sure, he hits all the meathead clichés: He favors a hat that says “GRIT” on it, does pushups with his players, and there’s a distinct possibility that he’s actually a sentient Slim Jim. But he seems genuine in his emotional investment in his players, and it is refreshing to see a coach who isn’t ruthless for the sport of it. I actually thought one assistant coach took advantage of Campbell’s genial nature to act like an unprofessional maniac on the sideline.
Eighteen teams have committed more penalties than the Lions’ 23 (I’ll pause while you suggest that’s the exact number Wynn has) but I’d bet discipline is a bigger issue for them as the season goes on.
Anyway, the actual grievance: I wish the Lions were the team HBO was following during the season. Instead, it’s the Arizona Cardinals, who have a quarterback who stops talking to anyone any time they fall behind by more than 3 points, which is often, and a coach in Kliff Kingsbury who thinks he looks like Ryan Gosling and actually does if you have at least one cataract.
The Cardinals version of “Hard Knocks” premieres Nov. 9. I’m going to miss Coach Grit Hat, the man Randy “Macho Man” Savage pretended to be.
Prediction, or don’t you think Calvin Johnson could help the Patriots right now?
Bill Belichick has won 255 regular-season games as Patriots coach. He also has lost 102, and seeing that number this past week made me wonder: Who is the least-accomplished head coach who has defeated Belichick?
He never lost to the likes of Hue Jackson, Marty Mornhinweg, or Cam Cameron. But he did lose to Chris Palmer, Jim Bates, and Gary Moeller. The last time the Patriots played the Lions, in September 2018, he lost to Matt Patricia, 26-10. That might be our answer. It probably is.
He also lost to Campbell, back in 2015, when Campbell was the interim coach of the Dolphins for 12 games after taking over for Joe Philbin. The Dolphins beat the Patriots, 20-10, in a strange game in which they played some regulars, sat others, and ended up blowing the top seed in the AFC.
Campbell should savor that win, because it’s highly unlikely he’s getting No. 2 against Belichick this weekend. The Patriots’ so-called moral victory against the Packers was worth feeling good about. But at 1-3, they need a real victory against a Lions team that is talented but depleted.
The Lions are led by a quarterback in Jared Goff who is playing well but was downright embarrassed by Belichick in Super Bowl LIII, to the point that the Rams realized they had to trade him. He’s better in cahoots with Campbell, but he isn’t ready to solve a Patriots defense that we’re going to realize is rather good after Sunday. Patriots 26, Lions 20.