FOXBORO -- Mac Jones was decleated.
Bucs linebacker Devin White sprinted through the middle of the Patriots offensive line, untouched, and laid his right shoulder into Jones' right armpit as Jones uncorked a pass down the field. White hit his target in such a way that the rookie quarterback was briefly sent airborne and twisted to the turf.
The play resulted in a Jones interception and it was one of a dozen hits he absorbed over the course of the night. It also served as perhaps the latest and most jarring reminder that Jones has been battered at an alarming rate through the first four weeks of his rookie season.
Jones has been hit 34 times this season, officially. That's an average of 8.5 hits per game. Using that figure, which includes sacks and knockdowns, Jones is on pace to be hit a whopping 144 times in 17 games this season. That would be the most hits absorbed by any quarterback over the course of the last decade.
Even without the added 17th game to the NFL schedule -- Jones is on pace for 136 hits over 16 games -- that would be a level of quarterback punishment not seen in recent league history.
Atlanta's Matt Ryan took 128 hits in 2019, most of any quarterback between 2011 and 2020, according to NFL data. In 2018, Deshaun Watson was hit 126 times. Russell Wilson (123 in 2017), Carson Palmer (119 in 2016) and Andrew Luck (117 in 2012) round out the top five when it comes to quarterback hits in a season during that 10-year span. Watson's hits-per-dropback figure of 20.1 percent in 2018 was massive, the largest of any of the five seasons listed above. But Jones -- who has a 19.5 percent hit rate -- isn't far behind.
Bottom line: At this rate, it's possible Jones spends his rookie year taking more hits than any other quarterback in the last decade.
Luckily for Jones and the Patriots, they'll see the Texans this weekend.
Houston is 29th in the NFL in sacks and doesn't possess a defensive front with the kind of talent that will strike fear into the hearts of opponents on a weekly basis. Their pass-rush group is led by edge defenders Whitney Mercilus and Charles Omenihu -- who have combined to account for about four pressures per game -- as well as defensive tackle Maliek Collins.
That doesn't necessarily mean Jones will be out of harm's way, though. Chaos has stricken his offensive line.
Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn and starting left guard Michael Onwenu were both placed on the COVID-19 reserve list earlier this week. It's unclear either will be eligible to play Sunday. Trent Brown (calf) has missed two practices this week as he continues to deal with an injury he sustained in Week 1. Shaq Mason (abdomen) has missed both practices this week as well. That means 80 percent of Jones' starting offensive line may be in jeopardy of missing Sunday's game.
The Patriots could be forced to split tackle duties between some combination of Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste and Yasir Durant. Ted Karras -- who replaced Onwenu mid-game against Tampa -- figures to be the top fill-in at guard, while practice-squad options Alex Redmond, Will Sherman, James Ferentz or Drake Jackson could be called up to play on the other side of Andrews if needed.
"The biggest thing for us is just next man up," Herron said Thursday. "Nothing really changes. We have some guys that are down, which is unfortunate. But all we can do is focus on the now."
There has to be some urgency in protecting Jones, New England's 6-foot-3, 217-pound, 23-year-old quarterback. But while undermanned along the offensive line, the options for how to achieve that goal seem limited.
The simplest? Drop Jones' hit total by reducing his number of dropbacks.
He's seventh in the league in dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, sixth in attempts, and he's attempted 91 passes over the past two weeks. Part of that ballooning attempt figure is due to the Patriots' anemic running attack. They ran six times for -1 yards against Tampa Bay. They are 29th in the NFL in yards per rush (3.5).
"I never want to be one-dimensional," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. "I don't think we ever do here. There's certainly been games in the past we can all point to and say we probably didn't give [the running game] a chance and had to lean on the passing game. But I would say as a rule of thumb that is not a sustainable method of playing offense."
It also might not be a sustainable method of keeping the team's starting quarterback healthy and available.
"He's certainly responded to anything we've asked him to do," McDaniels said of Jones. "He's obviously got a great mindset, and a great attitude about it ... But I think as we move forward here, the goal would be to hopefully use that method of play less, not more."
So can the Patriots establish some semblance of a rushing attack on Sunday in Houston? The Texans are allowing 4.5 yards per carry and they're 28th in the NFL, allowing 137.0 rush yards per game. They're 31st in the league in both expected points added per opponent rush attempt and rush success rate allowed.
Even if backups are in the game, the Patriots should try to run it. There should be openings for them there. And if there are, they should take the opportunity to give their quarterback a respite from the beating he's taken.
Yes, there is evidence to suggest that some quarterbacks are more responsible for the hits they take than others. But that doesn't appear to be the case with Jones. He's just below the median NFL starter when it comes to the percentage of his dropbacks that last longer than 2.5 seconds, per PFF (18th, 50.6).
He hasn't been a quarterback who lingers in the pocket, waiting for something to develop down the field, subjecting himself to hits. He's simply been pressured and pressured quickly, at times -- he's been blitzed at the second-highest rate in the league -- which has led to an inordinate number of shots.
Even though the Patriots running game has been struggling lately, with a banged-up offensive line, against a porous run defense, this might be a week for them to "ground and pound." Anything to keep their quarterback upright for a week.
That might lead to a low-scoring affair, but winning while keeping the quarterback in one piece should be enough to offset any lack of style points.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Texans 10
X-Factor: J.C. Jackson
He's the No. 1 guy now in New England. Of course ... he has been ever since Stephon Gilmore tore his quad late last year. But he's no longer a placeholder. It's his gig. And he'll have his hands full on Sunday.
Former Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks is fifth in receptions through four weeks (28), sixth in yards (369), he has a 101.8 rating when targeted, and he hasn't yet dropped a pass this season. Speed is still his calling card. At 28, he's eyeing his sixth 1,000-yard season.
"I gotta be ready to put the wheels on," Jackson said of tracking Cooks.
Jackson's confidence and ball skills have made him one of the most productive corners in the league over the last couple of seasons. But when asked if he felt he was a No. 1 shutdown corner, he said no.
"I’ve still got a lot to improve," he said. "I don't want to get too complacent. I don't wanna get too complacent. I don't ever want to tell myself 'I'm there' yet.”
If Jackson shuts down Cooks at NRG Stadium, the Texans and their rookie quarterback Davis Mills should end up having a very long afternoon. Win that matchup, win the game.
Number to know: 4.2
That's the average number of yards Patriots pass-catchers pick up after catching passes from Mac Jones. If it sounds like a low figure, it should. Among quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts in 2021, Jones is 30th in the NFL in yards after the catch per completion, per Pro Football Reference.
He's just ahead of fellow rookies Trevor Lawrence (31st) and Zach Wilson (32nd) and even division rival Josh Allen (33rd). But Jones trails the vast majority of the rest of the league's starters.
That YAC number is surprising in some ways due to the fact that Jones' average depth of target (7.6 yards) is 22nd in the league. Shorter, higher-percentage throws can oftentimes lead to gaudy yards-after-catch numbers. San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo, for instance, has been on average one of the league's shortest throwers in recent seasons, but his yards-per-attempt numbers are often robust thanks in part to the yards his receivers pick up after completions. Garoppolo ranked first in yards after the catch per completion in each of the last two years. In an injury-shortened 2018, he ranked behind only his San Francisco teammates CJ Beathard and Nick Mullens.
But Jones and the Patriots haven't hit consistently on YAC-generators, like screens. Per PFF, he has averaged just 4.3 yards per attempt on those types of plays. Jones and his teammates also appear to be on different pages at times when it comes to catch-and-run opportunities over the middle.
Jonnu Smith had plays both in Week 2 and Week 3 when he seemed to stop his feet running across the middle for Jones. (The Week 3 incident led to a bobble by Smith and a pick-six to start the second half against the Saints.) Jakobi Meyers and Jones have also had several missed connections over the middle this season when it looks like Meyers has tried to throttle down in an open area while Jones has tried to lead his receiver.
Among Patriots wideouts, Kendrick Bourne leads the team in yards after the catch per reception (4.5, 38th among NFL wideouts). Maybe it's no coincidence he spent the first four seasons of his career in a YAC-focused offense with the Niners.
"Just running through the football," Bourne answered when asked how the Patriots could improve their after-the-catch production. "Transitioning. Not stopping and trying to catch the football. Have it all in one motion as I'm running through the football. Or whoever it may be on the team. That's how you get yards after the catch.
"If you stop, he's pursuing and he's gonna tackle you. For me, I just try to run a good route, get as open as I can so I can transition. Because if I'm fighting him, pushing him as I'm running through, I can't really focus on the football as much as I want to. It's about winning the route and transitioning so I can run. That's what I've been really focusing on, and it's been working out for me. Can't speak for other guys, but we all focus on that in the room."