Patriots

Mac Jones closes out strong as Patriots win preseason finale

Jones battled through a tough start and threw his first preseason touchdown pass, while the Patriots pass rush dominated the Giants again.

Patriots Mac Jones J.J. Taylor
New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) high-fives New England Patriots running back J.J. Taylor (42) against the New York Giants. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
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With that 22-20 win over the Giants, the Patriots’ preseason is over, and the regular season is now here. Real football is on the horizon.

This week, we’ll know who’s made the initial 53-man roster and see a few key roster battles come to fulfillment as the team begins to take its final form for 2021.

Does that mean we’ll finally find out who’s starting at quarterback for the Patriots in a few days? Maybe.

Bill Belichick and his coaching staff have certainly taken great pains to put Cam Newton forward as the starter. But could what they’ve seen from rookie first-round pick Mac Jones prompt a surprise?

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One thing everyone will know going into the season, though: this Patriots defense is no joke.

Here are some takeaways from the Patriots’ last dress rehearsal for the 2021 season.

Cam Newton still looks like the starting quarterback…for now.

Newton finished Sunday just 2-for-5 for 10 yards and an interception, ending his preseason with just 39 snaps played overall.

Though there are still two weeks of practice left for the Patriots before the season starts, that doesn’t look like someone who’s in an open competition for his job.

Newton started with the first-team offensive line against the Giants’ starters while Mac Jones got in with the backup line (albeit also against the Giants starting defensive). The veteran only played two series, earning a field goal on his first drive before finishing his second drive with the pick after being backed up due to a good Giants punt and a false start on Trent Brown.

The interception wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision. The Giants were playing a “Tampa 2” look – Cover 2 from the safeties with a linebacker playing the deep middle of the field – and the deep safety was angling for Kendrick Bourne’s sideline go route at first.

Newton took a chance on Jakobi Meyers running against linebacker Blake Martinez, who was eaten alive this week in coverage by Patriots receivers, and hit Meyers in the hands. Martinez just made a better play.

The fact that Jones took the field with the backup line after that suggests that was the Patriots’ plan all along rather than a reaction to the interception.

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But you can’t help but take that image with you into a critical week.

When asked who would start Week 1, Belichick (predictably) punted: “Yeah, no, we still have a lot of decisions to make.”

Again, the Patriots could certainly still go with Jones after seeing the rookie check all the boxes in practice and slightly outpace the veteran throughout training camp.

If so, though, they’re doing everything they can to conceal their intentions. Everything they’ve done, including re-inserting Newton back into the starting lineup in practice after his absence this week, suggests the former MVP will start the season behind center.

And yet…

Mac Jones wraps up a solid case to start

In a lot of ways, Mac Jones’s time on the field Sunday felt like Thursday’s joint practice with the Giants all over again.

Things started rough for the rookie, with a delay of game penalty right out of the shoot. After rebounding with a good throw to Kristian Wilkerson for a first down, he took a sack on third down in Giants territory after he didn’t see a crossing route from Gunner Olszewski come open.

Once Jones looked like he was getting into a rhythm, his supporting cast started to let him down. Olszewski had a costly drop on a nice Jones throw that would’ve extended a drive and later was the object of Jones’s ire for a miscommunication that led to the rookie quarterback getting sacked at the end of the first half.

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But true to form, Jones put the struggles behind him when the second half started, ending the game 10-for-14 passing with 156 yards and a touchdown.

He finished off his first third-quarter drive with a snap touchdown throw to Isaiah Zuber. The moment he saw the underneath cornerback vacate the area, he drilled the ball to Zuber’s seam route before the safety over the top could close. That’s what you can do when you have a plan on every play.

On his next drive, he dropped a beautiful back-shoulder dime to Devin Asiasi for 30 yards and should’ve had another touchdown to Zuber on an end-zone fade. Zuber, unfortunately, dropped it.

Still, what more do you want to see from the rookie?

Even when he makes mistakes, he always seems to rebound. That will be crucial whenever he does take the field for the Patriots because rookie mistakes are inevitable.

And when he gets dialed in, he looks like a guy who’s been doing it for a few years rather than a kid with no regular-season games under his belt.

To hear Jones tell it, he’s not concerning himself too much with who starts at quarterback and who doesn’t. “Right now, I’m focused on today. I think there’s a lot of stuff I can clean up,” he said of his performance Sunday, noting he held the ball too long on a few plays. He did take two additional sacks on his final drive in which he had open options at points or could have at least thrown the football away.

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But, he added, “I’ll be ready when my time comes.”

Yes, he will.

The Patriots defensive front is a problem…in the best way.

It was a continuation of what we saw in the two joint practices with the Giants: the Patriots defense owned the line of scrimmage early on.

Josh Uche continued his torrid performance this week, earning an early sack then later stuffing a goal-line run and pressuring Daniel Jones into an interception on the same series.

But he wasn’t the only one: the Patriots registered five quarterback hits and two sacks — one by Uche and by another by Deatrich Wise Jr. — in the Giants’ first two offensive possessions.

That kind of dominance creates opportunities for the players behind them to make plays, as it did for D’Angelo Ross on his pick of Jones. If Uche hadn’t read Jones’s bootleg so quickly and recovered back in to the frame to chase him, the Giants quarterback would’ve either had a much easier throw for a touchdown or had a chance to run it in.

Instead, he had to fire across his body to a covered receiver and threw behind his target into Ross’s waiting arms.

There might be a lot of questions at the cornerback position behind this defensive front, but the starting unit’s limited snaps have left no doubt how tough this Patriots will be to beat at the line of scrimmage.

The running back depth is as good as advertised.

The Sony Michel traded to the Los Angeles Rams essentially served as a vote of confidence in Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor. They proved once again on Sunday that the ball is in good hands whenever they’ve got it.

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The rookie fourth-rounder Stevenson just keeps impressing every time he touches the football, barreling through tacklers like a combination of Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount on his nine-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

He also showed off his soft hands and wiggle in the open field on a short catch-and-run. The fact that the Patriots already trust the rookie to split out as a wide receiver and actually be productive speaks volumes.

Taylor, on the other hand, might have wrapped up the best overall preseason for any Patriots offensive player. He runs with speed and impressive strength that belies his diminutive frame, catches the football well and even added a nice punt return in the second half.

Take it to the bank: the former undrafted rookie has a spot on this 53-man roster.

Shaun Wade shows up in his first Patriots action – both good and bad.

It didn’t take long for the newly acquired cornerback to show the qualities the Patriots prize in him.

One play in the third quarter especially stood out. With backup Giants receiver David Sills running a fade route toward the end zone, Wade put his press coverage skills to perfect use. He stayed glued to Sills as he tried to break outside toward the sideline, not allowing any separation on the route from start to finish. Mike Glennon’s throw ended up falling harmlessly incomplete behind them.

That might’ve been the rookie cornerback’s defining play of the night if he hadn’t given up a 43-yard touchdown on a Hail Mary in the waning seconds of the game.

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Wade didn’t play terrible coverage necessarily; he stayed deep enough on the play and was in position to play the football as it came down. But he lost his footing at the last moment, allowing the catch and setting up a chance for the Giants to tie the game.

But he shook off the miscue and competed against Dante Pettis to help force an incomplete on a tough two-point conversion throw.

The Patriots clearly have interest in Wade as real cornerback depth given how much he played Sunday – he also got some special teams snaps in punt coverage, which is a good sign.

One play aside, he acquitted himself well and certainly seems like he’s worth a longer look. Having him around with the cornerback room in flux due to injuries and uncertain futures could greatly benefit this defense moving forward.

Quick Hits

-Both Wilkerson (four catches for 72 yards) and Zuber (four catches, 50 yards, TD) had strong games Sunday as they fight for what could be the final receiver spot on the roster.

That assumes, of course, that the All-Pro punt returner Olszewski still has his spot completely locked up. The way Taylor returns punts, you never know…

-Asiasi finally showed some signs of life this preseason, which the Patriots have to be happy with given the injuries they’ve had at the tight end position. His adjustment on that back-shoulder throw from Jones was excellent, and he had a solid catch and run on a shallow cross. (Just cut out the unnecessary hurdle at the end, please.)

-Christian Barmore found himself in the backfield for a quarterback hit, making himself noticeable as he works his way into a bigger role in the defensive line rotation.

His pass-rush ability for a young interior defensive lineman is uncanny so far. As long as he keeps up the strong work against the run, you’re going to keep seeing him on the field getting real snaps.

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