NFL ANALYST

Cassel: How Mac Jones can be successful Sunday night

NFL ANALYST

The hype around Sunday night's game is incredible. And rightly so.

We've all had Tom Brady's return to Gillette Stadium to play against the New England Patriots circled on our calendar since the NFL schedule was released.

One of the things Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones has done a good job at since arriving in Foxboro is not getting distracted by outside noise and remaining focused.

His main focus has got to be on blocking out the hype on the outside, the comparisons to Brady, all the talk about Brady's return and understand this is an opportunity for our team to go up against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and make a statement after not playing as well as we wanted to over the last few weeks.

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It is difficult, though, especially during a week like this with social media takes flying and every different outlet covering this game and offering up analysis. There's a lot that goes into it. It's not that you don't hear it as a player, but as a quarterback, especially one who played at a high level like Jones did for Alabama in national championship games and high-pressure SEC matchups, he's always been around a lot of noise.

So he's been programmed to deal with this type of environment and these types of situations. I don't think the scene Sunday night will be too big for him, given how he's reacted throughout the offseason, the first three weeks of the season and when any adversity has come up. He's handled it with poise, calmness and just gone about his business.

 

And he's not going against Brady. That's one thing he needs to realize, and I think he does. He's getting ready for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, which creates its own problems because of their front and because of their back end. They're a good defense with a lot of speed and a lot of quality pass rushers.

This Bucs defense is obviously predicated on the front seven creating pressure, and they're very good against the run. I don't think you can do what the Dallas Cowboys did in Week 1, where they just kind of said, "We're not going to run the ball, we know we have to throw the ball to win." The Patriots can't abandon the run. You have to create some plays on the ground, but staying in manageable situations is important, too.

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The place where the Bucs have struggled mightily is in the secondary. Teams have been able to take advantage of this unit. The Patriots will have to throw the ball efficiently to win this game, but getting Jones going early with some completion balls, some quick gains, maybe some movement stuff to get him outside the pocket. Those types of plays will build momentum and keep the defense a little off-balance. You can't just drop back and stay inside that pocket all day long against a team like this.

You have to change your launch point, and by that I mean creating play-action off of the zone and move that pocket a little bit so the Bucs aren't just teeing off at the same spot every chance they get. The Patriots also need to take their shots downfield when they have them. Tampa Bay's defense has been hit on some big plays throughout the course of this season. It's something they've been susceptible to. An aggressive mentality is helpful against a team like the Bucs because their offense is going to put up a ton of points. Tampa has plenty of firepower, and you need to match that.

A fast start also is critical for the Patriots, and they've got to maintain possession of the ball and keep it out of Brady's hands. That was something we always talked about before playing quarterbacks like Peyton Manning. We knew once he had the ball in his hands and how electrifying his offenses were, if we could take possession of the ball and run time off the clock and limit their opportunities, then not only did we keep him on the sidelines but also made sure our defense was fresh in the fourth quarter.

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There's got to be a sense of urgency inside that building right now. The Patriots are sitting at 1-2 and, really, got dominated last week for the most part against the New Orleans Saints. It was close late and they battled to have a chance in the fourth quarter, but at the same time, neither one of the units played extremely well.

 

If the Patriots give a quality performance Sunday night, it's definitely a confidence booster because the Bucs are one of the best teams in the NFL. This is a standard that's been reset. It used to be that playing the Patriots was everybody's Super Bowl, but now with the Buccaneers being where they're at, this is a team you get up to play. It's "Sunday Night Football." As a player you've got to be excited to play on this stage and play in front of all these people in prime time.

It's not going to make or break the season whether they win or lose, but at the same time winning this game would give Jones and the team overall a great amount of confidence and a validation that they're moving in the right direction. If they lose, you want to at least be competitive in this game. Losing is one thing, but you don't want to go out there and have a terrible performance because that can rattle your confidence as a group.

Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.