Sunday 7: Is Mac Jones bouncing back after bottoming out?

WEEI Sports Radio
WEEI Sports Radio

1 – There is no question that the 2022 season has been a burdensome struggle at times for Mac Jones. The second-year QB has had to deal with suspect coaching and scheme changes, a significant ankle injury and challenging on-field personal struggles for really the first time in his football career.

Weekly questions about the Patriots offense were essentially weekly questions about Jones’ performance and long term potential. Doubters grew louder while even supporters had to question No. 10’s pocket presence and too-many turnovers.

But it’s hard to argue that Jones hasn't played some of his best football of the season over the last couple games in the last week, the dogfight win over the Jets at Gillette Stadium last Sunday and Thursday night’s frustrating loss to the Vikings in Minnesota.

Jones notched a career-best with 382 yards passing against the Vikings. His 119.8 passer rating was his highest of the season and fourth-best of his career. After falling for each of his first four starts of the season, Jones’ passer rating has now risen in each of the last four games, including consecutive performances over 100.

Most importantly, Jones has now gone three straight games without a turnover, seemingly leaving the interception issue in the rearview mirror of the ugly early stages of the season.

Certainly one of the key factors for Jones’ success against the Vikings was improved pass protection from New England’s makeshift offensive line that was without starters David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn. Given more time and a more comfortable pocket, and getting rid of the ball more quickly, Jones found the productive, efficient rhythm that’s supposed to be the foundation of his game.

If Jones did indeed bottom out in terms of his play, dealing with both the pressure of a too-consistent oncoming pass rush and the pressure that comes with personal struggles, his resurgent play could be a key positive factor in the Patriots fighting for a postseason spot down the homestretch of the season.

2 – Jones’ performance was obviously one of the positives to take from the tough loss in Minnesota. The biggest negative takeaway was the inability of the Patriots pass defense to be more competitive against a talented Vikings aerial attack led by Justin Jefferson. Jefferson hauled in nine passes for 139 yards and a touchdown. As Devin McCourty noted, it’s going to be a long second half of the season if the coverage can’t be more competitive against opponents’ No. 1 receivers because, as Bill Belichick pointed out, Jefferson isn’t the last high-end receiver the Patriots will face this season. Over the final six games of the year New England will have to deal with Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs (twice), Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, Las Vegas’ Devante Adams, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase and Miami’s dangerous tandem of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. All are All-Pro caliber centerpieces of their passing attacks when healthy, guys who can embarrass even No. 1 cornerbacks and elite defensive backfields. All are major problems for Belichick, McCourty and Co. to deal with one week at a time over the final month-plus of the season.

3 – While McCourty and the coverage guys certainly have to be better in the back end in the oncoming challenges against elite receivers, New England also has to get more consistent pass-rush contributions than it did against the Vikings. Despite Minnesota playing with backup left tackle Blake Brandel, Matthew Judon and Co. couldn’t muster enough rush, Kirk Cousins sacked just once and hit four times. When the Patriots pass defense has been at its best this season it’s been thanks to the coverage and rush working in productive concert with each other, something that Belichick so often preaches. McCourty has openly praised the Judon-led pass rush often, especially when it comes to the reason for the interceptions in the back end. And Judon has been effusive in his praise of the coverage. Both came up short in Minnesota and both will need to be better given the oncoming offensive challenges the New England defense will face moving forward, beginning Thursday night with the Josh Allen-led Bills.

4 – With nearly 700 yards of combined passing between the Patriots and Vikings, plenty of receivers on both sides got a chance to make plays in Minnesota on Thursday night. While Jefferson deservedly gets a lot of attention, it could be argued that the Vikings’ depth of pass catchers was the bigger issue for New England. No. 2 receiver Adam Thielen and tight end T.J. Hockenson combined to haul in 14 passes for 104 yards, each finding the end zone. Few teams have the overall talent at the skill positions that the Vikings field each week.

Meanwhile, with Jakobi Meyers banged up at times in the game, New England also had to spread the passing wealth around. DeVante Parker caught all four passes thrown his way for 80 yards, his most productive game since Week 3. Nelson Agholor had six catches for 65 yards and a score, his most productive day since Week 2. Hunter Henry had a season-high 63 yards receiving, thanks to 37-yard catch-and-run TD that was his longest reception in a Patriots’ uniform.

Jones spread the ball around to six different targets on his way to nearly 400 yards passing against the Vikings, each of his receivers catching a pass for at least 17 yards, with five of the six making a play for 26 yards or longer. New England may not have elite, high-end options in the passing game but for at least one night the potential depth of the corps showed in Minnesota as the New England passing attack showed signs of late-season life.

5 – With the passing game performing well and Damien Harris limping off midway through the game, New England’s rushing attack pretty much took the night off against the Vikings. The Patriots ran it a season-low 13 times Thursday night, fewest since running the ball just eight times against the Bucs in Week 4 a year ago. While Rhamondre Stevenson has seen his role in the passing game explode – he had a career-high nine catches for 76 yards against the Vikings and has topped six catches in four of the last five games – his contributions on the ground have been a bit more limited. He had just seven carries for a respectable 36 yards against the Vikings, but has totaled a mere 61 rushing yards over the last two games as New England continues to seek its overall identity and balance on offense. Stevenson now leads the Patriots with an even 50 catches on the season.

6 – Jonathan Jones has taken well to his new role as an outside cornerback for the Patriots in 2022. The veteran former slot defender leads New England with three interceptions on the season after picking off Cousins in the losing effort in Minnesota. Jones has always been one of the more respected and underrated Patriots defenders and his off-field contributions in New England were honored when he was named the NFLPA Community MVP of the Week. Specifically, Jones was honored for his work fighting food insecurity during the bye week in a trip back to Auburn while also helping out locally in Boston where he provided holiday dinner for 250 kids at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club and also distributed turkeys and frozen meals to 100 more community members.

“It’s an honor being selected as the NFLPA’s Community MVP recipient,” said. Jones, whose smile has been a notable mainstay on the Patriots defense since he joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 2016. “My foundation, the Jonathan Jones Next Step Foundation, has pillars of education, mentorship and building practical life skills. As a professional athlete, it’s important for me to serve the communities that I am playing in.”

7 – It’s that time of year already where scoreboard-watching becomes part of the conversation and weekly look-ins on the playoff picture are notable, at least for fans and media. The Patriots loss to the Vikings, dropping New England’s record to 6-5, currently has Belichick’s team holding down the No. 8 spot in the seven-team AFC postseason field. Back in the basement of the AFC East, as least temporarily, the Patriots are a half game behind the Jets (6-4, hosting the Bears on Sunday) and Bengals (6-4, at Tennessee). There is a lot of football left to be played and it looks like the back end of the playoff seeding in the AFC is a going to be a bunched up competition heading toward January.

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