The Patriots started off preseason week three with a rather tumultuous series of events that all began with arguably the biggest storyline in sports; Cam Newton going on the COVID list.
I’m not one to speculate on specifics, but it would appear that Newton is unvaccinated, given the punishment for his “violation of team rules” in regards to the COVID protocols. No matter what side of the fence you land on for that situation, all Patriots fans should agree that having your starting quarterback unvaccinated, given the NFL’s harsh protocols, is less than ideal.
This news led to a rather loud roar from the Mac Jones QB1 camp insisting he should be named the starter immediately. All of the media noise and questioning of Newton’s week-to-week availability led to a Patriots nation divided on the situation.
While no one really knew what the next steps were in the competition, two simple words from a soft-spoken Bill Belichick added fuel to an already ignited fire saying, “It is”.
Those two rather choice words went against the usual grain of a Bill Belichick presser, especially when talking about rookies. This answer was in response to a question asking if this week was a big one for Mac Jones.
Jones was given the opportunity to run with the starters in joint practices against the Giants while Newton was sidelined with his COVID issue.
Then, Jones went berserk.
The tweet from the great Jeff Howe says it all, but Jones simply lit the Patriots’ practice field on fire against the Giants, and Newton could hear Jones’ footsteps in Foxboro all the way from his apartment in Boston.
Despite all of the noise Mac was making on the practice field, it didn’t directly translate to Sunday’s game in New York.
In true Patriots fashion, a week of excitement over the incumbent challenging the veteran for a starting job was more or less put to bed by the time the field was taken. Newton started the game and received all of the first-team reps while Jones took the field in the second quarter with the second-stringers.
On the bright side of things, we still got to see Jones and the backups against most of the Giants starting defense, and boy did he impress.
Here’s how he did it:
As is common practice in the preseason, the opposing defenses are more or less asked to run certain coverage schemes so that the Patriots could evaluate their personnel more efficiently. Last week against the Eagles it was a lot of cover 2, this week it was a lot of cover 3/cover 1 man.
The Patriots run this deep curl/flat concept to the boundary side against a cover 3 defense.
Jones hits the top of his drop and sees the second level linebackers (out of the frame) cheating down against these three underneath routes. Jones knows he has a window between the second-and-third level defenders to Wilkerson on this curl if the linebackers cheat up enough.
This was a recurring theme throughout the game, but the pocket was compressing against Jones rather frequently. (This will happen when the Giants starters are out there against the New England backups). Despite this, Jones hangs tough in there with his eyes downfield and delivers a strike between defenders crashing in on him. Showed a great ability to hang in the pocket and take hits, something rookies tend to struggle mightily with.
The ball is feathered beautifully over the linebackers but placed low enough so that Wilkerson can use his body as a shield to catch the ball in front of the corner and safety bearing down on him.
Making the right read is one thing, putting the ball in a safe and accurate spot is another. Jones has shown the ability to excel in both areas throughout this preseason.
This next play is a Patriots staple concept, “Hoss Y-juke”. I don’t need to explain the specifics, but it’s a great cover 3/cover 1 man beater. The Patriots actually used this play three straight times in their game-winning touchdown drive against the Rams in Super Bowl 53.
The read on this play is on the outside corner (bottom of the screen). If he jumps the curl route, then the seam route to Isaiah Zuber (red route) should be open seeing as an LB is covering him. Jones would throw to his back shoulder. If the corner drops deep then Jones will have a split second to fit the ball into a tight window in between the corner and the deep safety.
Jones sees the LB jumping to get underneath on this curl route and identifies cover 3 zone. He knows he has Zuber quickly if he can fit it in the window.
He jams the ball in a perfect spot right on Zuber’s face mask so he can catch it in stride between the two defenders closing in on him. He makes the catch and lowers his shoulder for the TD. Easy pitch and catch at first glance, but great process and accuracy from Jones here.
This next play in the red zone gives Jones two options.
If he identifies zone coverage pre-snap, he works the three-receiver side to try and find a hole (likely to Asiasi on this stick route). If he identifies man coverage pre-snap, throw the fade ball (red route bottom of screen).
RB Rhamondre Stevenson motions out wide and is followed by a linebacker, which indicates man coverage to Jones. From the moment that happens, he knows he’s going to the fade right away, especially since there is no safety help to the boundary side.
As he takes his drop, he’s eyeing the fade the entire time. This is important because throwing fades is really all about reading the leverage of the corner and throwing it where he can’t get it. Jones hits the top of his drop, plants his back foot in the ground and gets the ball out quickly.
The ball is placed perfectly on Zuber’s back shoulder and he gets his hands on it at the ball’s highest point, just like receivers are taught to do. Either the corner gets his hands on Zuber’s arms forcing the incompletion or he flat out drops it. Regardless, near-perfect placement for Jones on a throw that every NFL QB needs to be able to make.
This last throw was Jones’ best of the night.
The Patriots are running a four verticals concept, which is quite literally exactly what it sounds like. All four receivers running vertically. Another great cover 3 beater.
Once again, the pocket becomes muddy for Jones. On these downfield, longer-developing routes, Jones knows he needs to stay in the pocket as long as possible despite it being pushed at all angles around him. He identifies man coverage with one free safety but realizes that the CB covering Devin Asiasi is playing with inside leverage when he should be outside of him. This means that Jones can throw Asiasi open with a back shoulder ball on this seam route despite the CB running stride-for-stride with him.
You can see it better with the full replay, but the screenshot here doesn’t do how beautiful this throw was justice. The CB was locked on Asiasi but Jones threw him open away from both defenders. To make this throw with a clean pocket is impressive enough, but to make it while actively getting hit is very, very impressive. Not the type of stuff you see from rookies. Jones’ football IQ is years ahead of 99% of rookie quarterbacks.
It’s looking like Cam Newton is going to start the season despite Bill Belichick’s unwillingness to give the media a clear answer as to who the week one starter will be. While what I have seen from Jones this preseason is extremely encouraging, I would be shocked if he was named the starter based on how the Patriots have handled the situation to this point.
The question now becomes, how long of a leash does Newton have with Mac breathing down his neck? While I’m sure after every incompletion there will be someone out there yelling at the clouds for Newton to get benched for good, I’d be willing to bet his leash is pretty long. That doesn’t mean we won’t see Jones at all this year, but rather we should temper expectations, for now.
Regardless, the future is very bright in New England with Jones on the team.
We, as Patriots fans, are so spoiled. How did the league let us get away with this again.