Faced with the possibility of starting the 2021 season with an 0-2 record (both overall and in the AFC East), the New England Patriots took the field at MetLife Stadium for their week two divisional matchup with the New York Jets determined to make their mark in the win column.
In a battle of promising first-round rookie quarterbacks, New England’s Mac Jones outdueled New York’s Zach Wilson as the Pats defeated the Jets 25-6. New England rushed for 101 yards as a team, with impressive touchdown runs from Damien Harris and James White. J.C. Jackson (twice), Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips each took their turn in intercepting Wilson, as the Pats earned their first win of the season.
Though the spirits in New England’s locker room are considerably higher than that of last week, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned from the Pats performance on Sunday in East Rutherford.
Lesson One: Depth at Tackle Could be an Issue
With starting right tackle Trent Brown sidelined with a calf injury, the Pats turned to Yasir Durant to start in his stead. The 23-year-old struggled mightily against an aggressive Jets’ defensive front. Durant let up three sacks in the first half, and was eventually removed from the game. His replacement, Justin Herron, suffered an injury during his first drive. Yodny Cajuste, who had been a limited participant in practice this week with a hamstring injury, completed the day’s rotation at the position.
Without Brown in the lineup, the Pats had a great deal of difficulty protecting both the pass, and the run. As a result, the offense struggled to find success on third down. The Pats converted only one of their first five third downs, often facing third-and-10 situations. While Durant, Herron and Cajuste have the potential to be solid depth pieces, it is clear that New England needs Brown to return to his starting role as soon as possible.
Lesson Two: The Pats Can Still Make Things Happen in the Secondary
As the Patriots await the return of primary cornerback Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson continues to prove that he is more than capable of being the top option at the position. The 25-year-old has built a strong reputation as a playmaker, having notched nine interceptions in 2020. On Sunday, Jackson picked Jets’ quarterback Zach Wilson twice, making it his third career game with multiple interceptions. Jackson was particularly impressive on his first interception, demonstrating great body control when tipping Wilson’s pass and coming down with the catch.
Though Wilson’s throws might be described as ill-advised, safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips parlayed savvy field position into solid interceptions of their own. While the Pats are still searching for some stability at outside corner (aside from Jackson, of course), the versatility of their defensive backs proves that they are still capable of timely takeaways, and making big plays when needed.
Lesson Three: Damien Harris is Tough
Following his disappointing fumble in the Pats’ season-opener against Miami, Harris was intent on earning redemption in week two. The Alabama product finished the day with 16 carries for 62 yards and one touchdown. However, it was the nature of his touchdown run that truly demonstrated his toughness and tenacity. Breaking several tackles, while carrying a few defenders, Harris rumbled to the end zone, capping an impressive 26-yard run. After the game, the 24-year-old offered his thoughts on his third-quarter score:
“(I was) very determined, obviously. Anytime you touch the ball, you want to get it in the (end zone). It was a great play. Everybody was blocking their butts off. I got a lot of help from a lot of guys. Apparently, I got some help from Mac Jones, too. I’ll have to watch the film to see that. It was a great play. It was just great to have that moment with the team. Everyone was feeling the energy. Everybody was excited, so it was truly a great moment.”
While Harris’ physical toughness has seldom, if ever, been questioned, his resilience in bouncing back from last week’s game showed a mental fortitude beyond his years. Where many might have wallowed in self pity, Harris practiced hard and focused on helping the Patriots return to their winning ways:
“First and foremost, we got our first win of the season,” Harris said. “Everyone is excited about that. That’s the main focus. We lost a game last week and we won the game this week. It’s what we are focused on. We have to get ready to do it again. We’re playing a tough team next week, so we have to get ready to prepare so we can hopefully win again.”
Lesson Four: The Passing Game Needs to Start Finding the Endzone
For the second straight week, Mac Jones’ stat-line (22-of-30 for 186 yards passing) would not adequately tell the story of the rookie’s performance on the field. Jones was both accurate and timely in his delivery, despite facing abundant pressure from the Jets’ aggressive defensive front. Still, the Patriots continue to be a bit too conservative in their passing game play calling. While recent difficulties along the offensive line are likely contributing factors to this, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has yet to truly test the team’s latest acquisitions; namely receiver Nelson Agholor and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. While Agholor was expected to be an asset to the Patriots as a vertical threat, Henry and Smith were specifically brought to New England to bolster their production in the red zone. Thus far, the Pats are a combined 2-of-7 in the red zone in the first two games, with both Henry and Smith having been targeted only once on Sunday. McDaniels must begin to take some chances with his young quarterback, and allow his two tight ends to create mismatches and win contested catches in the red area. Additionally, the Pats need to test Jones’ ability to throw deep. While some credit should be given to the Jets’ defensive strategy in preventing some of those chances, New England will eventually need to dial up some looks in which Jones takes some shots deep down field. Following Sunday’s game, Jones acknowledged this and indicated that it may be an item on which he and the offensive coaching staff will work this week:
“I think it was just me, I can push the ball down the field more,” Jones said. “They did kind of what we expected them to do. They obviously have a good defensive line like we said, and I can definitely just hold the ball in a good way, and maybe just move and try to make a better throw down the field on a lot of plays. I just have to watch it and see, but when you’re out there you can see it, talk about it with Josh (McDaniels) and Brian (Hoyer) and then kind of move from there. We’ll watch it and we’ll find ways to improve on that.”
The Patriots will now return home to the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts to host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, September 26th at 1:00pm ET.