The New England Patriots are riding the wave of a red hot streak heading into Week Twelve. Following an impressive 25-0 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday (their fifth-consecutive win) the Patriots positioned themselves to enter Sunday’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans, with a record of 7-4, and in prime position to contend for a spot in the postseason.
One Patriot, in particular, has likely been looking forward to this matchup a bit more than his peers this season. Former Titan, and current Patriots tight end, Jonnu Smith is undoubtedly excited for Sunday. He is also likely to be eager to shake the specter of what has been a slow start to his 2021 season.
Since Smith joined the Pats in March on a four-year, $50 million contract ($39.25 million guaranteed), he has been expected to provide exactly what the Pats lacked in 2021, productivity and a reliable scorer at the tight end position. At his best, the 26-year-old is a prototypical move tight end, best utilized as an effective target in the red zone. In his final season with the Tennessee Titans in 2020, he totaled 41 receptions for 448 yards and eight touchdowns. All eight of those scores came in the red zone.
Still, Smith’s tenure in New England has not been overly productive, to date. Through ten games played in 2021, Smith has compiled 210 yards receiving on 22 targets with one touchdown. He has also added four carries for 20 yards as a ball carrier. Surprisingly, the Florida International product has been used more prevalently in run protection schemes. Although Smith is a more than capable blocker, one would think his talents would be better utilized as an offensive scoring weapon. Yet, in Thursday’s matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, Smith was deployed on only seven routes, while aligning on 22 run-blocking snaps.
Learning the Ropes?
Transitioning into a complex offense such as the one which the Patriots have run so effectively for decades, is challenging for any player; even those with Smith’s impressive skill set. When speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Smith expressed similar sentiment when asked about his first year in the Pats’ system.
"You go anywhere for the first time in your life, it's an adjustment," Smith remarked, echoing the recent observations made by Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. In his meeting with the media on Monday, McDaniels praised Smith’s efforts, while reminding reporters that the first season in New England’s offense can be best described as “foundational.”
“The tight end position, obviously here and everywhere, is unique because you’re involved in so many different things — run-blocking, pass receiving, pass protection, alerts, motion,” McDaniels said. “There’s a lot of different things you have to do well. Jonnu’s tried really hard to do all the things we’ve asked him to do. I always think the first year that we have an opportunity to have a free agent in our system is kind of a foundational year.”
McDaniels’ viewpoint was more complimentary than critical, he was careful to indicate that New England’s offensive foundation is certainly one that has a unique style and language all its own. At times, that can be difficult to grasp on the first try.
“They might have heard NFL vernacular and been around NFL football, but sitting in Bill’s [Belichick] squad meetings, listening to what we do on a weekly basis, fitting into how we change the offense from one week to the next to try to attack the defense’s weaknesses or protect our weaknesses; I don’t know how much of those things happen at other places. … But no question he adds an element of unique ability and he’s been a good addition, a great teammate.”
Jonnu a True Pro
Despite the alterations to his expected role with the club, Smith remains steadfast in his dedication. He is approaching the remainder of the season "It is what it is right now. I'm thankful to be in the position I'm in...I don't worry about the role, I just embrace it," Smith stated on Tuesday.
In Week Twelve, the Patriots will be facing an aggressive Tennessee defensive front. As a result, the 6-foot-3 248-pound former Titan might be poised for a breakout performance as a ball carrier, or as the red zone target for quarterback Mac Jones. His knowledge of the Titans’ system, as well as the resolve of their head coach Mike Vrabel, gives Smith a pertinent viewpoint, which is likely to be given great attention in the Pats’ locker room this week.
When asked about his former team, he replied with affection, while making a notable correlation between both franchises.
“[I had] some of the greatest four years” [with the Titans.] “Nothing but love for the organization. [Coach Vrabel] was a great guy. Great energy. A lot like this guy [Bill Belichick] …Not personality, but coaching styles. They demand the best from their players.
As Smith prepares for his first matchup against his former mates, one hurdle that appears to be behind him is a nagging shoulder injury that has hampered him throughout the past few weeks. ‘I’m feeling good, feelin ready,’ Smith remarked when replying to an inquiry on his health. That is great news for the Patriots, who will need all hands on deck for Sunday’s tough and pivotal matchup. Should Smith be able to provide the Pats with size and strength in their running game, as well as provide Jones with another red zone target, New England may begin prime position to pull off the victory.
Are the Patriots up to the challenge? Jonnu Smith knows they will be.
“We're going to be ready to play. It’s gonna be a hell of a game.”
The Patriots will host the Titans for a post-Thanksgiving matchup with the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, November 28, at 1:00pm ET.