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Debate between Patriots' Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe not as close as it appears

If Mac Jones can protect himself in and out of the pocket, it would stand to reason he'll return from a high ankle sprain to play on Monday night against the Bears at Gillette Stadium, even if Bill Belichick isn't ready to make any declarations (for those who don't know, the Patriots coach isn't into making declarations about his team/players before he has to).

Jones, who took snaps with the first-team offensive line on Thursday, has been pushing to play for a couple weeks now but has yet to be cleared by the team since sustaining the injury on Sept. 25. The Patriots even went so far as to have him travel with the team to Cleveland this past weekend -- so you're saying there's a chance? -- before ruling him out prior to the game and giving rookie Bailey Zappe his second consecutive start.

When I asked Bill Belichick on Wednesday if he has faith that Jones would tell him what he is and isn't capable of as he recovers from the injury, he was definitive in his response. 

"Yeah, I have total trust in Mac and our conversations over the last couple of years," said Belichick, adding that there was "nothing to talk about today" because the team wasn't practicing.

The Patriots' top draft pick in 2021, Jones was rounding into form before he injured his ankle late in that Week 3 loss to the Ravens, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for well over 300 yards. Yes, there was the matter of the 3 interceptions, but the end zone pick by Marlon Humphrey fell square on the shoulders of wideout DeVante Parker and the final INT occurred when Jones and the offense were in desperation mode. 

But with Zappe Fever running rampant in New England -- the CBS broadcast of Pats-Browns got a 71 TV share locally, which, for comparisons sake, was higher than last year's 70 share for Tom Brady's return to Foxborough in Week 4 -- there has been some question as to whether or not Jones gets his starting job back, especially with Zappe going 2-0 as the QB1. But when you take a closer look at the two quarterbacks' numbers, you'll see it is not as close a comparison as some would have you believe. 

For starters, the Patriots have made a clear effort to put Zappe in significantly safer positions compared with how aggressive they had Jones playing at the start of the season. The former Western Kentucky product is averaging just 6.6 air yards per attempt, while Jones' average is 10, per Next Gen Stats. And by sheer design, the receivers have gained more target separation (3.6 to 3.1) for the rookie, never mind that it's nearly 2-to-1 in tight-window-throw rate for Jones as comped to Zappe (20% to 11%).

I mention design because it is clear that the offensive coaching collaboration -- headed by offensive line coach Matt Patricia -- is improving, both with their approach/plan heading into a game and their ability to adapt during the game. The Pats went from barely using play-action (they were at the bottom of the league through the first two weeks) to using it much more frequently with Zappe, important to create easier throws for the young QB. Zappe has had play-action called for him on 35 percent of dropbacks since becoming a starter in Week 5, over three times higher than Jones' 11 percent play-action rate from Weeks 1-3, per Next Gen Stats. And that is where Zappe has thrived, with a passer rating of 158.3 while averaging just over 15 yards per attempt despite this being entirely new for him.

"That's something I never really did in college or high school, so when I came here it was kind of a little new world for me," Zappe said on Wednesday. "But learning those things is something I had to do to be in this position and be in this league."

The other area where the coaching staff has proven to be resourceful and smart is how often they're using max protection with Zappe. The Patriots have used 7 or more blockers on nearly 14 percent of dropbacks in last two weeks, versus less than 4 percent with Jones at the helm, per PFF. And spreading defenses out is not something that's happening nearly as much on Zappe's watch, either. The Pats have used 5 blockers on 51.7 percent of pass plays for the rookie, while the number was 81.1 percent for Jones. So, it's clear they're being careful with how much they expose Zappe, something they weren't worried about as much with Jones -- though maybe they should have been. Amid the play calls and overall mediocre work from the offensive line early in the season, the former Alabama star was pressured on nearly 18 percent of his pass attempts (versus 10.5% for Zappe in his starts). Did that help create some ball security issues that have popped up for Jones (5 interceptions and a fumble)? That argument could be made. As for Zappe, he's thrown only one interception, but he has put the ball on the ground (3 fumbles) and struggled to finish the game Sunday versus the Browns.

Up 24-9 in the fourth quarter, Zappe took a regrettable intentional grounding penalty, which pushed the Pats back 16 yards and led to a rare Nick Folk field goal miss. During New England's next offensive series, with the score now 24-15, he took a second down sack and then got a throw batted back at him, which he caught for a 6-yard loss. Only a muffed punt returned momentum and secured a victory but in his two starts, Zappe has never found himself trailing. Jones, on the other hand, played catchup quite a bit in Weeks 1 and 3 against defenses that are ranked significantly higher in DVOA than those the Pats faced in Zappe's starts (the Lions and Browns). Detroit was ranked 32nd at the time the two teams played. Cleveland ranked 31st.

"I think he does a really good job for us and is doing what is asked of him," said center David Andrews after the Browns game, when asked about Zappe.

It's the second half of that sentence -- "doing what is asked of him" -- that has been oft-repeated by Pats players over these last few weeks. They respect the job that's being done, but there is another level this offense believes it can reach, and the locker room belief is that Jones is the guy that can get them there, perhaps as soon as Monday night. But until then, the debate will rage. After all, it's Zappe Hour somewhere.

Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter.

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