Will the Patriots Run-Game Get on Track Against the Dallas Cowboys?

One of the biggest frustrations of the 2021 season thus far for the New England Patriots has been the complete lack of a run game. In the pre-season, there was an embarrassment of riches at the RB position with 6 guys having a legitimate chance to make the roster and contribute. It was clear that Damien Harris was the lead back and James White would definitely have a roster spot as a receiving back, but after them there was rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, and Sony Michel who were all solid RBs. The once deep and exciting group, has turned into a thin and disappointing one really quickly.

Seeing that there was not room on the roster for 6 RBs, Bill Belichick sent Sony Michel out west to the Los Angeles Rams the day prior to their 3rd and final pre-season game. It became clear that Bill wanted to give an opportunity for the others in the group to take some snaps and Stevenson and Taylor had both had some nice runs in the pre-season, so he hedged and traded Michel which at the time made sense. The season started off solidly on the ground for the Patriots, with a 23-carry, 100-yard performance from Harris in the 1-pt loss to the Miami Dolphins (30 carries as a team – White 4, Jonnu Smith 1, Bolden 1, and Stevenson 1). There was an unfortunate late-game fumble from Harris that clouded his performance, but overall it was solid.

Facing the Jets in week 2, the Patriots had a decent game on the ground with Harris rushing 16 times for 62-yards and White picking up 20-yards on 5 carries. The workload was lighter, only 24 carries as a team, but the balance was still as expected with Harris leading the group. Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints is where things went bad and in a hurry. Against the 4th best run-defense in football, the Patriots weren’t able to get the much going on the ground, partially because they were trailing the entire game. The leading rusher in the game was Mac Jones, with 28-yards on 6 carries and Harris only had 14-yards on 6 carries (2.3 yards per carry). Bolden had 3 rushes for -1-yard and Taylor and White had 1 rush each. Unfortunately for the Pats, James White was carted off the field and his season was over with a hip injury.

Coming off the White injury, the Patriots had the most anticipated regular season game in history against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs and the run game was absolutely atrocious. As a team, the Pats had -1-yard for the game, with the only positive rush coming from WR Nelson Agholor for 4-yards. They only attempted 8 rushes and were absolutely crushed on 7 of the 8. When your team has 6 rushes from 3 RBs that amount to -4-yards, you’ve had a miserable day. Good thing for the Pats, their opponent in week 5, the Houston Texans, would be easier to run on.

The Pats began to right the run-game ship this past Sunday against a mediocre Texans defense. J.J Taylor was inactive, but the Pats rushed 30 times for 136 yards, 25 attempts from Harris and Stevenson. While they still didn’t look great and Harris had another fumble, they took advantage of the Texans who have allowed the 7th most rushing yards to opponents on the season. In a bizarrely close and uncomfortable game, the Pats snuck out of Texas with a 3pt victory on a walk-off Nick Folk field goal, but no one felt good about the performance. During the game, Harris sustained a rib injury and has barely practiced (as of Thursday).

If Harris is inactive or limited, the Patriots enter the game against Dallas extremely thin at RB. Stevenson would presumably pick up the slack for Harris, but then it’s really only Brandon Bolden left on the depth chart. J.J. Taylor was played very little and it’s unclear why (besides his fumble), but could be an option just in case. The once 6-deep running back core is down to 3 or maybe 4 and isn’t going to have an easy time running on the Cowboys who have allowed the 5th fewest rushing yards against this year. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are still without 3 of their 5 offensive linemen due to injuries and COVID-related absences.

If I were a betting man, I’m not taking the Patriots run game to turn it around this week. They have struggled mightily against strong run-defenses and at best, their lead RB will not be 100% with a rib injury that I imagine will hurt every time he gets hit and at worst, he won’t play. Harris and Stevenson have 3 combined fumbles in 5 games, which is not what the Patriots, or any team, want to see. This game could be a big opportunity for Stevenson to show he can be a lead back going forward, but it will not be easy. I’m predicting fewer than 70 yards on the ground this week, so Mac Jones has to be ready to throw 40+ times if the Pats want to have a chance to topple the 4-1 Cowboys.

Biggest Winner on Sunday was Mac Jones

I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.

Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?

While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).

Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.

Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.

I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.

While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.

5 Things to Watch for in Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro

If you don’t know that Tom Brady is returning to Gillette Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to face the Patriots this weekend then you must be living in a bunker somewhere. Since the moment the Patriots vs Saints game ended on Sunday (and frankly before), there have been flurries of articles and posts about one of, if not the most, anticipated regular season matchup in NFL history. Ticket prices are absolutely insane and there are as many opinions this homecoming as there are Dunkin Donuts in the greater Boston area. I’m taking simple approach and just looking at the top 5 things to watch for on Sunday night.

1. All-Time Passing Record

This is one of the biggest stories of the Tom Brady return to Foxboro. Brady is just 68 yards away from breaking Drew Brees‘ all-time passing yards record for a career with 80,258 and it will happen on Sunday night at the stadium where he threw the majority of those passes. Could you script a storyline any better than the reality? I don’t think so. The biggest question is how the Patriots and NFL will recognize this accomplishment that likely will never be broken again the way the game has evolved. When Peyton Manning broke the record in 2015 they game was halted to allow for players to congratulate him, there was a tribute played on the video board, and the ball was removed from play to head to the Hall of Fame in Canton. The biggest difference is that Manning was at home in Denver, but I’m still wondering what the moment will be like in front of fans who supported and loved Tom Brady for 2 decades.

Will everyone put aside the differences and give Brady the proper congratulations? Will the Pats allow for a video board tribute or some type of acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishment? If you are as interested as I am, it’s likely the record gets broken in the 1st half, probably the 1st quarter, so don’t grab a snack or take a bathroom break when the Bucs are on offense early in the game.

2. Defensive Struggles for Both Teams

For both teams, their defenses, and specifically their secondarys, have struggled at times early in the 2021 season. For the Bucs, they have allowed the 7th most 1st downs to opponents (71), the most passes completed to opponents by a lot (104), and the most yards (1,015). While part of that can be explained by their opponents, if they want to have a deep run in the postseason like last year and defend their title, the defense needs to improve. It was announced on Wednesday morning that CB Richard Sherman would sign with the Bucs which will help their weak secondary, but he won’t solve all of their problems. QB Mac Jones should be able to find some windows to throw into on Sunday and hopefully he can take advantage of the weaker secondary of the Bucs and show off in front of his predecessor.

The Pats on the other hand have to face the greatest QB of all-time in his homecoming on the night in which he will break the all-time passing yards record, which is a brutally difficult task for any defense. While the Pats stats on defense don’t look terrible on paper, that’s primarily because they have faced QBs Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, and Jameis Winston in their 3 match-ups thus far and sit at just 1-2 against them. Their opponents relied heavier on the run and the Pats weren’t always up for the task. Sunday night’s game will be an entirely different test for the secondary and there is a real risk of an absolute blowout with Brady throwing for 400+ yards. Can Bill Belichick disguise coverages and actually do anything to trick his former QB? He must in order to have a chance at winning this game.

3. Rob Gronkowski‘s Usage

One of the more interesting early-season NFL stories in 2021 is the return of Rob Gronkowski to an incredible form we haven’t seen in a long time. In just 3 games, he has 4 TDs, has caught 80% of passes thrown to him (16/20) and is averaging 9.2 yards per reception. He racked up a lot of those numbers in the first 2 games of the season (12/13) and is likely coming into Sunday night’s game looking to prove himself against his former employer. In 2020, his first year in Tampa, Gronk only caught 58.4% of balls thrown to him, which was a career low and while he played 16 games for the first time since 2011, his numbers were not particularly impressive. He clearly came into 2021 trying to prove he still has more to give the NFL.

When you pair Gronk’s early season success with a defense that occasionally has trouble covering TEs, especially when the WRs are as strong as the Bucs, and it could be tough to watch (unless you are a big Gronk fan). While Gronk is only 32, his track record makes me doubt he will be healthy for the entire season and will be able to sustain his blistering start, especially with a 17-game schedule, but you know he’s going to leave it all on the field this week and then probably take it easy through the middle of the schedule to be ready down the stretch and in the postseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 2 Gronk TD spikes this week at Gillette.

4. Post-Game Handshake

In no other area of the country does the post-game handshake get this much attention, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both infamous for ignoring the typical handshake protocol post-game. Depending on how this game unfolds could determine what the post-game interaction looks like between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, if there is any. If Tom Brady absolutely smokes the Pats, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Belichick go straight to the locker room and the same might be true if Brady were to somehow lose. Belichick has been clear in his press conferences this week (as clear as BB ever is) about his desire to keep Brady with the Patriots before his departure, but according to his words “we weren’t as good an option as Tampa”.

With all the chirping from Tom Brady Sr. this week and the competitiveness of both player and coach, you just never know how they really feel about each other and if either will take the high-road and have a nice post-game interaction regardless of the game’s outcome. Despite it being a late Sunday night game, I’ll be glued to my TV for post-game.

5. Danger of a 1-3 Start

The Patriots come into Sunday’s match-up with a tough 1-2 record. Beyond all the Brady headlines and talk of the reunion, a 1-3 start for the Pats could put serious doubts in their ability to make the postseason. Since 1990, just 14.2% of teams beginning the season with a 1-3 record have made the postseason and the average finishing record for those teams is 6-10 with just 1 of the 218 teams winning the super bowl: the 2001 New England Patriots. This year will be a little different with the addition of a 17th game which could have an impact on those numbers, but it’s still not the place you want to be if you have aspirations of playing into mid-to-late January and early February.

A win would obviously be a tremendous accomplishment for this young QB, but I expect 1-3 is in their future. I don’t think this team is a super bowl contender regardless of a 1-3 or 2-2 start, but in the best of circumstances, a run into the postseason is always on the table in New England and the deeper the hole the team digs early on, the harder that will become.

An Appreciation for J.C. Jackson

When I heard that Stephon Gilmore would be out for at least the first 6 weeks of the 2021 season, I had some significant concerns for the New England Patriots secondary. The DB group is solid with Gilmore, but without their CB1 it forces everyone up the depth chart and seriously weakens the matchups across the field. I also questioned whether J.C. Jackson is a true #1 and would continue to be successful without having Gilmore on the other side of the field shutting down the opponent’s WR1. Now just 2 games into the season, my feelings are beginning to shift.

Let me preface by saying that I know the Patriots played the lowly New York Jets on Sunday so the stats will naturally be skewed, but I was still impressed by the play of J.C. Jackson. Looking back at his career, Jackson has 19 interceptions in just 47 games and of those 47 games, he technically only started 24 of them. It’s hard to argue against Jackson being one of the best undrafted rookie signings in recent memory with his ball-hawking nature.

Jackson had a monster year last season with 9 interceptions, but overall he has been near or at the top on the Patriots in interceptions and passes deflected over his 3+ seasons in the NFL. He has worked his way up the snap count every year, playing just 38% of the defensive snaps his rookie year in 2018, 68% in 2019, 84% in 2020, and 100% this year through 2 games. He has become an invaluable member of the secondary which seems to have had an impact on the Patriots’ negotiations with Stephon Gilmore.

“…The ninth pick of the season, I feel like I could have had more than that. But that’s a hell of a season, to have nine picks. I’ve just got to continue to grow and get better for the 2021 season.”

J.C. Jackson on his 2020 season

Looking beyond the Patriots and across the league, Jackson is leading the NFL with 2 interceptions in 2021 (through 2 games), finished 2nd in the NFL in interceptions in 2020 (1 behind Miami’s Xavien Howard) and tied for the 2nd most interceptions in 2019 with 5. He’s beginning to get some recognition across football as well, placing #49 in the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 NFL Players this offseason, just 2 spots behind Stephon Gilmore (the only 2 Patriots players to appear on the list).

Although Jackson isn’t yet the same shutdown CB1 that Gilmore has become, he is proving to be a more than capable of holding his own as the leader of the CB group and he’s only 25 years old. He should continue to get better each year and has forced himself into a position where he is an incredibly important piece to lock-up on a longer-term contract. He will have a tough test in week 4, as will the entire Patriots defense, when they play Tom Brady and his gazillion top tier receivers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I feel like I’m not even at my highest level yet. I’ve still got some room to improve and have some things I need to work on.”

J.C. Jackson in January 2021

Jackson is currently on a 1-year, $3.38 million contract that felt a little like a prove-it deal for this season. So far, in just 2 games (have I said that enough yet?), Jackson is proving to Bill Belichick that he can continue to learn and become the CB1 of the present and future. If that continues, I’m hoping the Patriots ownership will think long and hard about a multi-year deal to keep Jackson with the Patriots as a protection plan for when the 31-year old Gilmore decides to move on (or is not resigned). If Jackson hits free agency this offseason after a strong year, the Pats will probably not be able to pay him what others teams might leaving them in huge trouble in the secondary.

With the likely retirement of Devin McCourty in the next year or two and the likely departure of Stephon Gilmore, the Pats need to be planning for the future in the secondary. They have the next-person-up already on the roster, the time is now to lock him up for the next several years.

Mac Jones With a Statement in Week 1

All eyes were on the 1st round QB on Sunday afternoon in New England. In his debut with the New England Patriots as QB1, the pressure of the entire northeast was on his shoulders and he put on a show. Although the Patriots lost 17-16, Mac Jones showed everyone that not only does he belong as a NFL starter, he has all the intangibles to stick around for a while. Perhaps the Patriots aren’t as far from being contenders as some believe.

Any time a QB goes 29/39 (74.4%) for 281 yards and a TD, its noteworthy. In New England the last nearly 2 decades it became commonplace and expected for the QB to have top performances week in and week out. Now for a rookie to put up those numbers in his debut in New England week 1 against a really tough Miami Dolphins team is beyond impressive.

The Pats were faced with a tight contest from start to finish and in order to have a chance at winning on Sunday, they needed to convert 3rd downs and keep the ball moving down the field. Mac did just that, completing 9 of 12 3rd down passes for 89 yards. He made smart, quick, confident decisions throughout the game with only one or two exceptions. When the team needed him the most in the 4th quarter down 1pt, Mac took the team down the field 41 yards on 9 plays to the 11-yard line before Damien Harris fumbled.

The 4th quarter drive will be remembered for the unfortunate Harris fumble, but my takeaway was the composure of Mac. He knew the situation and executed it perfectly. The Pats got the ball with 8:07 to play and after picking up a first down at the Miami 39 following a short run and 2 short passes to Jakobi Meyers, Jones went into clock-wasting mode without becoming stagnant. The Pats obviously still needed to score, but knowing that a field goal could potentially win the game, it was important to leave Miami with as little time left as possible. Over the next 6 plays, Jones took 3 minutes off the clock and still moved the team well inside the red zone.

I hate the comparison of young QBs to successful veterans in general, but that drive screamed classic Tom Brady. It never felt like Mac wasn’t in control or completely understanding and on top of the situation at hand. He calmly and confidently brought the Pats down the field and put them in a position to take the lead. It’s incredibly unfortunate, both for Harris and for the Pats, that we couldn’t see Mac finish that drive off in the end zone.


While you never want to lose, especially in such an anticipated divisional game week 1 at home, most of us, myself included, are feeling a lot more confident about the future of this team and franchise. It’s obviously SUPER early, but it says a lot about the character and composure of a player when you see them perform in their first ever professional game like Mac did on Sunday. The good news? The Patriots have an immediate opportunity for redemption when they play the Jets next week.

Mac Jones Shines in Patriots Debut

Since April, New England Patriots fans have been waiting for one moment: the first snap for Mac Jones. When the Pats were led onto the field for their third series of their first preseason game by #10 QB Mac Jones, the crowd erupted. There was hope in the air and a belief by many that this could be the beginning of a beautiful partnership that may someday return the Pats to the top of the NFL mountain. The very early results were incredibly promising.

The overall impression Mac left was very positive. He didn’t make any deep throws or show off in any extra-special way, but his actions screamed loud and clear that he fits this system and can win games in the league. Putting aside his numbers for a minute, his confidence and command of the offense was impressive and surprising. Frankly, I expected him to look like a rookie QB, indecisive and nervous at moments. Instead, he looked loose and calm. The best part? He made quick decisions and got rid of the football.

My #1 issue with Cam Newton as QB1 is his indecision. Last year, he routinely held on to the ball for 5 or 6+ seconds while trying to figure out who to throw to or whether to take off and run. When a QB takes that long, the offensive line breaks down and the defense has a chance to adjust in the secondary. What has made the Pats consistent contenders over the years is their ability to take the 5-step drop (or shotgun snap) and get rid of the ball quickly. Yes, they were led by Tom Brady, but the approach is what’s important. The quicker a decision is made and the ball is out, the less likely the defense is set and ready for the pass. It keeps the defense off-balance and unsettled and leads to more completions.

Mac Jones did just that on Thursday night in his debut. He confidently took the snap, dropped back 5 steps, and released the ball. No hesitation, no delay, no uncertainty. Most all of his throws were short, mostly accurate and clean. You got the sense watching him that he fits the system perfectly if he can continue on the path laid out. He finished the night 13 of 19 for 87 yards (no TDs or INTs) which is just what the doctor ordered. Most of those snaps were with an entirely 2nd or 3rd string roster, including the offensive line, on the field that was legitimately the least talented group he’s played with since high school. The receiving core was significantly worse than he had last year at Alabama, yet he was still able to make some throws and prove he can move the ball in any situation. The most important drive was a calling card for Josh McDaniels, the hurry-up, 2-min drill drive in the 3rd quarter which saw Mac take control and go 8 for 9.

All in all, that’s about the best you could hope for as a Patriots fan from the QB position after one preseason game.

Will Bill Belichick actually start Mac Jones early in 2021?

Photo from the New England Patriots

As Patriots training camp opens, there are a number of positional battles and storylines to watch, but the one that will likely receive the most attention is the QB position. For more than a decade it was the least contested position on the field in New England, but now that the Pats have spent high draft capital on their guy Mac Jones and re-signed Cam Newton, the path for 2021 is less clear. When will we see the young 1st round pick under center? Does Bill Belichick have it in him to start Mac Jones week 1 if he significantly outperforms Cam Newton in training camp?

It’s always hard to judge exactly how good players truly look in training camp. Each day there will be lots of reports talking about how player X is looking stronger and quicker and player Y has been lifting in the offseason. My favorite are when a reporter picks a seemingly random player and hypes him up on the off chance he has a breakout year, then the player doesn’t make the roster or get any reps. To be fair, it can be hard to predict some of the decisions that Belichick and his staff make, which is why we’re left wondering about the real plan for Mac Jones.

I think we’ll see pretty quickly, if we haven’t already, that Mac Jones has a stronger and more accurate arm than Cam. The bar is set fairly low with Cam’s arm strength looking pretty awful at times last season, but it’s worth noting. I know the receiving core didn’t do Cam any favors in 2020, but a 7.2 yds/pass average put him near the bottom of the league. However, Cam did have a higher completion rate than Tom Brady in 2020 (by 0.001%) albeit with 159 fewer completions on 242 fewer attempts. Another gap between the two QBs is around playbook and awareness.

When it comes to the Pats playbook, an extra season under your belt vs being new in town can be a cavernous divide, whether real or just in Belichick’s head. I’m not saying Cam had an amazing grasp of the offense and knew exactly what to do on every play last year, but his legs made up for the moments when he was lost and he studied and practiced each week. Mac Jones isn’t slow, but he certainly isn’t a running back either, and having just a few months to learn and digest the system is tough. Until Belichick feels Mac has a really strong grasp on the playbook and a bit more awareness of situations on the field, he’s going to be very hesitant to start him, like we’ve seen with some other young QBs in the recent past (i.e. Jared Stidham).

Besides a grasp of the playbook, there is also the sense of loyalty that for some reason Belichick has with Cam. Bill seems to love Cam like a son and has been willing to give him a pretty long leash up until this point. I’m not sure if that’s partially a product of his distrust in Stidham or his true love for Cam. This year will certainly test that theory, because there is now a legitimate contender on the bench behind Cam who can probably step in and win some games even before he’s really “ready”. If Mac outduels Cam in training camp, it’ll push Belichick to make a tough decision (or at least it should).

Another factor in the decision revolves around the schedule. Overall, it’s not the hardest schedule the Pats have had, which is helpful, but there aren’t any stretches of several games playing bad teams to easy Mac in. It seems to be a tougher game followed by an easier game for the majority of the season making it difficult to see an obvious run of games to hand Mac the reigns if not on week 1.

My ideal scenario is that Mac crushes in training camp and Belichick has no choice but to hand him the ball week 1. If they believe he is the future, start the path now knowing that there will be bumps and bruises along the way. He’s not going to take this team deep in the playoffs for a year or two, but neither is Cam, at least Mac’s playing time would be building toward the future. Give him a decent leash knowing that the veteran Cam is there to guide him through and step if things really go off the rails. I think realistically, Belichick will wait to start Mac until 1. Cam is completely incompetent and he has no choice; 2. Cam gets injured; or 3. They are out of the playoff hunt post the week-14 bye.