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Perry: Belichick's Mac Jones conundrum and a Patriots-Browns preview

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Bill Belichick Mac Jones

FOXBORO -- It's looking like it'll be another week of Bailey Zappe behind center for the Patriots. But rather than digging into the matchup between Zappe and the Browns defense --- it ain't the juiciest of the year, admittedly -- folks have spent a chunk of this week digging into Bill Belichick's comments about Zappe and Mac Jones.

Might Zappe's play over the last two weeks against the Packers and Lions allow the Patriots to be patient with Jones as he works his way back from a high-ankle sprain, Belichick was asked?

"Totally independent," Belichick said. "Doesn't have anything to do with it."

Will Jones be the team's starter when healthy?

"We'll see where he is," Belichick said. "I don't know."

Patriots Talk: Should the Patriots rush to get Mac Jones back? And a big Browns preview | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The first of those two comments seems like an acknowledgement on Belichick's part that there is no discussion about injury timetables until a player has been cleared by the Patriots medical staff. The second of those two seems like a choice not to call Jones the unquestioned starter of the team. Which is why it's the second of those that seems to be generating the most discussion.

 

Was Belichick simply hellbent on not getting any further into the topic? Or was he trying to tweak Jones in some way, letting him know that nothing is given -- even for a first-round pick who helped his team to the postseason less than a year ago?

Consider these comments from back on September 30th, when Belichick was asked about Jones and was a little more forthcoming with his thought process.

"Ultimately, that will be a decision made by the medical people, in consultation with Mac, of course," Belichick said. "Like we do with any player. He's no different than any other player. I mean he is, but I'm just saying the process is the same. Medical evaluation, talk to the player, and as a coach you, at whatever point, get the information that you get and you make a decision, if there's a decision to be made. 

"If there's no decision to be made medically, then I'm out of (it). But if there's a decision to be made, if a player's at X percent, he can do this. The player feel likes he can do this. He's ready to play. Then I'll make a decision. Do I want this player at X percent? Or somebody else at, let's call it, 100 percent? But a lot of times it never gets to that point. Occasionally it does. If it does then that becomes my decision, in consultation with the player, and usually his position coach, or the staff."

Still, when asked earlier this week, he could've simply said that Jones is his guy once he's fully healthy.

Curran: Browns game comes at pivotal point in Pats' path to relevance

Belichick did, of course, constantly throw his support behind former quarterback Cam Newton in the public sphere. And in 2014, when asked if the quarterback position was going to be "evaluated" after a poor Tom Brady performance and a blowout loss in Kansas City, Belichick scoffed. Little different situations. Those weren't injury-related.

But the idea that Belichick might be trying to light a fire under Jones by not outright calling him the starter when he's healthy is fascinating. 

Maybe that theory is true. Maybe Belichick feels as though he can get the best out of Jones -- someone who for his entire collegiate career and into his first rookie training camp was fighting for a starting spot -- by not committing to him publicly.

But if Belichick's commentary has something to do with how Jones played for three weeks before getting injured? If it has to do with a run of turnovers that has Jones' quarterback rating sitting at 76.2, 29th in the NFL? If this is an opportunity for Belichick to try to curb Jones' picks by sending him a message? 

Little bit of a head-scratcher. That would assume Jones is the one who needs to be reined in. But shouldn't the new system in New England bear at least some of the responsibility?

 

The nature of the Patriots passing game has done a complete 180-degree turn since Jones' rookie season under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Through three weeks, it looked at times like a launch-first-ask-questions-later type of attack.

If we assume average depth of target (how far beyond the line of scrimmage passes travel, on average) are a byproduct of scheme, the expectation should be that risky throws are an inevitability in an offense with an emphasis on pushing the ball deep.

Now, perhaps some of Jones' down-the-field aggressiveness is his own doing. When he's presented with decisions to make in real time, maybe he's choosing to live dangerously. That's what Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer suggested on Arbella Early Edition with Trenni on Thursday night.

But the Patriots have made very clear their intentions to become more explosive this season. They traded for DeVante Parker and drafted speedster Tyquan Thornton in the second round for a reason. They knew Jones had a great deal of success with the long ball at Alabama, Matt Patricia said recently, and they made an effort to lean into that skill set during the spring and summer. Jump-ball completions to Parker were a regular occurrence during training camp.

The organizations intentions seemed clear: Get the ball deep.

Makes sense. To keep up with the Bills and Chiefs and other top teams in the AFC, the Patriots would have to threaten the deep portion of the field more often and more effectively than they did in 2021. 

But through Jones' first three games, there's evidence to suggest they may have overcorrected.

Jones' average depth of target is 10.2 yards, which is the third-highest figure in the NFL this season. Is that all Jones? Is it all coaching? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and the truth is that the results have been mixed. 

That aggressiveness down the field has led to explosive pass production; Jones led the NFL through Week 3 in passing yards on throws that traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. It's also led to interceptions; four of Jones' five picks have been targeted for Parker, their veteran boundary option.

That just might be the cost of doing business. "No risk it, no biscuit," long-ball devotee Bruce Arians used to say.

There's also some statistical proof that paints a picture of just how difficult it can be to throw deep and consistently take care of the football. Any guess as to how many quarterbacks in the last two seasons achieved a below-average interception rate and an ADOT of 10.0?

One. Russell Wilson in 2021. The only other two quarterbacks to exceed 10.0 air yards per attempt last season were the two worst passers when it came to interception percentage: Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson.

In the last five seasons, only four quarterbacks have accomplished that feat. Wilson did it again in 2019 and 2017. Matthew Stafford got there in 2019, too. And Carson Wentz (2017) and Ryan Tannehill (2019) hit the same marks in out-of-nowhere MVP-caliber seasons.

 

That's it. The list of some of the league's deepest throwers in that span -- Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Allen as a rookie -- were also among its most turnover-prone.

Is it realistic, then, to assume that Jones can bomb away while simultaneously avoiding turnovers?

By the looks of it, a tweak to the offense might be just as beneficial for Jones -- if not more so -- as a tweak at the podium from his head coach.

Phil Perry

The Patriots for years had a sign on the door leading out of their facility stating, among other one-liners, "Manage expectations." What was the expectation when this new offense was installed? Was it to have their cake and eat it, too? Deep-passing productivity with the typical Belichickian ball security? With a second-year quarterback and no true top-end talent at receiver?

Jones, of course, is the one with the ball in his hands. And turnovers have long been avoided like the plague in Foxboro. The Patriots have to be able to strike a balance between tolerating some risk down the field without handing over possession so frequently. Patricia acknowledged as much after Week 3.

We know the Patriots coaching staff knows how to scale back its aggressiveness. Just look the Packers and Lions games with Zappe behind center. The attack has become much more conservative and much more conducive to providing open throwing windows. 

Zappe's passes in the last two weeks (7.1 intended air yards) average three full yards shorter than Jones'. And on a percentage basis, the team is using more than three times the amount of play-action passes with Zappe (37.5) compared to Jones (10.8).

By the looks of it, a tweak to the offense might be just as beneficial for Jones -- if not more so -- as a tweak at the podium from his head coach. If that's in fact what happened this week.

Let's get into the matchups for Week 6...

Matchup that will win the first half

Myles Garrett vs. Trent Brown

The best pass-rusher on the Browns may have to carry them in this one. His teammate on the opposite side, Jadeveon Clowney, has been ruled out. Arguably their best corner, Denzel Ward, has also been ruled out.

In any other week, that may not matter. Garrett is a force in the passing game, recording 20 total pressures to this point in the season, which is 10th in the league despite the fact that Garrett missed a game. But this week? He'll have one of his toughest tests of the season in Trent Brown, who is playing some of his best football as a member of the Patriots.

Garrett typically works off of the offensive left side of the line, but if Brown can stop him in his tracks, he'll give Zappe the opportunity to make a handful of throws in the first half to keep the chains moving. If Brown loses on more than one occasion? Could set the Patriots up for a bad half and a long game. 

 

Matchup that will surprise you

David Njoku vs. Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick

The star of the Browns offense in the passing game is Amari Cooper, who ranks among the NFL's leaders in targets this season (41, 14th among receivers), and is eating up over a quarter of Jacoby Brissett's pass attempts this year. But Njoku is the one who got the eyebrow-raising praise from Belichick this week. 

"Njoku (is) a productive tight end," Belichick said. After Ozzie [Newsome], probably the best tight end the Browns have ever had, which that's saying something."

Njoku is the second-highest-graded tight end by Pro Football Focus, behind only Travis Kelce. He's third in yards per route run (2.02) behind only Mark Andrews and Dallas Goedert, and he's third in quarterback rating generated when targeted (121.6). No tight end is catching more of the targets sent his way (85.7). He's been a disappointment since being selected in the first round in 2017, but this has been his best season to date.

The Patriots have a tight-end eraser option in Kyle Dugger -- who at times did an excellent job smothering T.J. Hockenson last week -- but the Patriots will have to make sure they mix up their looks and have myriad answers for Cleveland's clear-cut No. 2 in the passing game.

Sounds like Belichick won't be surprised if Njoku flashes, but -- based on his career to this point --- you might be. 

Matchup that will bring you joy

Rhamondre Stevenson vs. Browns defense

Somehow, the Patriots are yet again facing the worst run defense in the NFL. It's remarkable, really. The Patriots have already squared off with the Packers and Lions, who ranked at the bottom of the Football Outsiders DVOA barrel when it came to stopping the run. Now they get the Browns, who are 32 of 32 in that regard. They're also allowing 5.3 yards per carry.

Cleveland is light in the front-seven with linebackers like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) and the newly-acquired Deion Jones (6-feet, 222 pounds) expected to take real roles. Now in rolls in Stevenson at 230 pounds and fresh off a 161-yard performance against Detroit.

He's averaging 4.24 yards per carry after contact, which is second-best in the league and actually slightly ahead of Cleveland's own wrecking ball Nick Chubb (4.23).

Matchup that will take years off your life

Jacoby Brissett vs. Himself

Brissett, you might be surprised to learn, is looking like an efficient quarterback to this point in the season.

He's sixth in ESPN's QBR, ahead of Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson. He's eighth in success rate. He's sixth in EPA per play. He's 12th in completion percentage over expectation, indicating he's been above league average when it comes to his accuracy. According to PFF, he's ninth in their turnover-worthy throw percentage category. And for a quarterback who has had an issue taking sacks in the past, he's only taken five this year. 

 

To see a backup quarterback -- one who was drafted by the Patriots, no less -- potentially have a day could be a miserable experience for fans in New England. But Brissett both giveth and taketh away for the Browns. 

When playing ahead of the chains and ahead on the scoreboard, life has been good for Brissett. But in crunch time, when asked to shoulder the load, he's been scattershot.

Is Jacoby Brissett the reason for Browns' struggles?

Brissett's last two plays in Atlanta, sniffing a game-tying field goal, down three, were abysmal. He took a bad sack on second and long. Then he threw a pick into coverage on a shot play that didn't need to be a shot play. It was such a wonky decision, it looked as though he lost track of the down and distance in the most important moment of the game.

Against the Jets, with 13 seconds left and a timeout in his pocket, needing about 15 yards to get into field-goal range, disaster struck again. He fired one about 10 yards beyond what he needed for a field goal, right to a Jets safety, effectively ending the game. 

If the Patriots can put the ball into Brissett's hands, even if it means a handful of efficient drives, they'll have a chance to force him into a game-changing mistake late.

Matchup that will decide the game

Patriots defensive linemen vs. Browns offensive linemen

The Patriots defense seemed to have found something against the Lions. They attacked the line of scrimmage aggressively after getting run over the previous two weeks, and they held one of the most productive rushing attacks to 3.7 yards per carry.

How'd they do it? Part of it was gap-sound play from the big bodies up front like Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore and Deatrich Wise. The Lions used a variety of zone runs that had trouble getting started because their strength -- and thanks in part to some veteran savvy from Godchaux. With blockers looking to get to the second level to wall off linebackers, Godchaux used a series of subtle tugs to prevent offensive linemen from getting where they wanted to go, giving linebackers and safeties freer shots at ball-carriers. 

Can the Patriots do the same against the all-world offensive line that resides in Cleveland? Like Detroit, Green Bay and Miami -- all early-season Patriots opponents -- the Browns utilize their fair share of zone schemes. (Head coach Kevin Stefanski is a disciple of Gary Kubiak, who was one of Mike Shanahan's top assistants when his zone running system took off in Denver.)

With the Patriots oftentimes using safeties like Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips at the second level in linebacker roles, the Browns will have a conundrum on their hands: keep their offensive linemen on New England defensive linemen for an extra beat to get Chubb started, or get those linemen to the second level as quickly as possible? The speed of Patriots safeties may force Cleveland to go with the latter approach, potentially opening up Godchaux and others to win one-on-ones. 

 

Play that out one step further; can the Patriots win enough of their one-on-ones and then actually tackle Chubb before he gets a head of steam? That's the game. If the Patriots can't do it, Cleveland could answer a run-heavy Patriots offense with a run-heavy plan of their own.

The result may be what looks like a good, old-fashioned, low-scoring early-1990s AFC matchup. 

Prediction: Patriots 20, Browns 16