When the New England Patriots take the field in their Pat the Patriot uniforms on Sunday, they may do so with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe at center. With Mac Jones still with an ankle injury and Brian Hoyer (concussion) now on injured reserve, things appear to be headed for Zappe to make his first career start.
Last week, Zappe was drawn into a hostile environment at Lambeau Field to duel with reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. While no one would have blamed the rookie if a total meltdown had followed, Zappe showed his poise and confidence. He led the Patriots on two second-half scoring drives before coming up short in overtime.
But as expected with any rookie quarterback in his first NFL action, Zappe provided something of a mix.
With a limited playing sheet at their disposal, the Patriots leaned on their play-action passing attack with Zappe to mirror their potent running game. The decision to go to the call was a post-game action crossover combination, which Zappe explained after the game was a play he was “comfortable” with. New England used this concept four times against Green Bay, getting the 25-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker and a deep completion to Nelson Agholor off the road combo.
While success with the action game (5-of-6 for 69 yards and a touchdown) was a positive sight, Zappe looked like the fourth-round rookie he is at other points throughout the contest.
Zappe’s pocket presence was one of the main areas for improvement, as he tended to panic when under pressure. On 3rd-and-5 in overtime, Zappe missed the first read from him on the left (Hunter Henry), who got a bit of a break when Green Bay brings in five-man pressure. Despite Rhamondre Stevenson picking up the runner, Zappe looks the other way and breaks out of the pocket, leading to an incomplete and a punt.
Overall, Zappe played well for what he was. He guarded the ball in a conservative passing attack, but rightfully had flashes of a rookie playing in his first career game. The performance was admirable to keep up with Green Bay, but they’ll need more from the rookie if he gets the call on Sunday to get past the Lions’ top-scoring offensive unit.
Against Detroit, New England is likely to keep the ball on the ground to attack the Lions’ porous run defense, which ranks last in the league in EPA defensive rushing, while continuing to match game action. That would mean keeping Zappe in the middle, something he barely did in college at Western Kentucky, which featured a strict shotgun attack and passing attack.
“Much more comfortable than a year ago [dropping back from under center]”, Zappe joked on Wednesday. “That relates a lot to working with my teammates, working with my coaches, continuing to get comfortable with it and continuing to get reps before and after practice.”
However, if the Patriots feel more confident with their quarterback after a full week of practice reps and potentially need him to put points on the board, they could include Zappe more at shotgun, something they were doing with Mac. Jones in a high percentage. to start the season.
If the Patriots trust Zappe to open them up with a broader game script, Zappe would have the ability to attack this defense that ranks last in the NFL in terms of points allowed. Through four games, Detroit’s defensive unit has been torn apart by the likes of Jalen Hurts, Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins and Geno Smith.
So Zappe would have a chance to make some big plays down the field, while the potential return of Jakobi Meyers would be extremely beneficial in giving the rookie a reliable target in the slot, which was his favorite outing in Western Kentucky.
If his arm is trusted more, Zappe’s internal clock should improve on Sunday. This season, the Lions’ aggressive defense posts a 24.1 percent rush rate and the third-highest blitz rate in the NFL at 37.6 percent. That, too, will be a change from his college days in which he was under pressure shooting just 12.9 percent last season.
As the pressure forced some rookie mistakes against Green Bay, hopefully the experience on the field will help calm the 23-year-old’s nerves and produce better results.
“There are a lot of things,” Zappe said when asked what he learned from his first regular-season action. “There are some things I’ve learned from my fundamentals and being able to calm down. Continue to focus on my work and what I have in hand.”
Time will tell if Zappe will start Week 5 on Sunday, but the fourth-round rookie showed he’ll be ready if his number is called.