GREEN BAY -- Matt Groh was out of seat in the Lambeau Field press box, standing and smiling. The Patriots director of player personnel watched as rookie corner Jack Jones celebrated his pick-six, the first in a series of moments Sunday afternoon that had to have Groh encouraged by the rookie class he helped bring to New England.
If the Patriots are going to continue to follow the formula they followed against the Packers -- run the ball, create points on defense, be dynamic in the kicking game -- their rookie class may have to continue to come up with outsized performances. Those performances weren’t quite enough Sunday in a 27-24 overtime loss, but they kept the Patriots close.
Jack Jones, a fourth-rounder out of Arizona State, contributed the highlight-reel plays for first-year Bill Belichick pupils. Early in the game he forced a fumble and recovered it to put the Patriots in field goal range. Later, he jumped an Aaron Rodgers out-route and took it to the end zone untouched.
“Personally, I feel like it’s disrespectful to throw an out route on me,” Jones said later. “If you can throw ball past me to get to the receiver, I’m no good.”
Bailey Zappe, another fourth-rounder from Western Kentucky, left teammates in awe of his preparedness, coming in for Brian Hoyer after the second drive of the game and keeping the Patriots in it.
Marcus Jones, a third-round corner out of Houston, got some run as a return man in Week 4 and made the most of it. He averaged nearly 25 yards per punt return and nearly 28 yards per kick return (including one 37-yarder). The most explosive returner in college football, and the Paul Hornung Award winner as the most versatile player in the nation last year, Jones took over return duties from previous punt returner Myles Bryant and looked like a threat for a big play with every touch.
First-rounder Cole Strange was part of a line that opened up holes for ball-carriers to pick up over 5.0 yards per carry Sunday. Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell were staples in the kicking game.
Groh wasn’t the only one encouraged.
“Really proud of the young players on this team,” Matthew Slater said. “Had a lot of rookies step up and make some big plays. Obviously Bailey, but Brenden in the kicking game and Marcus in the kicking game. Jack Jones. Proud of the way the young guys played. Proud of the way this team competed. It's unfortunate. We wanted to win the game. We don't really say this is a moral victory because this is the National Football League, but I think we can build upon this.”
The rookies still looked like rookies at times, of course.
Zappe said after the game he could’ve made more throws to push the Patriots to a win. Jack Jones had issues as a run defender at times. Just before the two-minute warning, Marcus Jones let a Packers punt bounce behind him and be downed at the 2-yard line. Strange appeared to be on the scene when a second-down run in overtime for the Patriots that was blown up for no gain.
Still, across the board, young Patriots showed promise in Green Bay.
And if they’re going to continue to rely on field-flipping plays from their defense and special teams as their quarterback situation resolves itself, the rookies -- and the Joneses in particular -- are going to need to provide. They showed on Sunday that they were capable of doing exactly that.