LAS VEGAS – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Marcus Jones emerges: The rookie's emerging triple-threat role -- in which he is making game-altering plays at wide receiver, cornerback and returning kickoffs and punts -- puts him in a class by himself in the NFL this season.
How Jones is preparing for it, and how the coaching staff is dividing Jones’ workload, is an evolving and intriguing development behind the scenes.
“The main thing is that we meet at different times. I meet with the defense. Then I meet with the offense. They tell me the things I need to know,” Jones told ESPN this week at the University of Arizona, where the team practiced in preparation for Sunday’s game at the Las Vegas Raiders (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox).
Jones played 67 defensive snaps in Monday’s win over the Cardinals, thrust into an unexpected top role after fellow rookie cornerback Jack Jones was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. He also chipped in a season-high eight offensive snaps and 11 on special teams.
Cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino relayed a lighthearted story from the sideline that night as the offensive staff called on the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Jones for his most expanded role of the season.
“When Jack went down, I’m kind of like, ‘Hey guys, this is my starting corner!’” Pellegrino said with a smile.
“But it’s whatever helps the team. He’s talented and he’s going to help us win. The guys on defense are always cheering for him a little bit extra when he’s out there, busting his chops a little bit more in practice. Every time he’s on the field, it’s high alert in practice.”
It’s been that way in games too.
Jones’ 86-yard punt return for a touchdown with five seconds remaining to beat the Jets on Nov. 20 was the team’s most electric play of the season. His 48-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Bills on Dec. 1 -- the first time he was utilized on offense -- wasn’t far behind. And Jones added an interception last week against the Cardinals to go along with one catch for 12 yards.
.@GilletteStadium was going crazy 🔋#NEvsMIN 11/24 on NBC— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 21, 2022
Since 1970, there is only one other player who has returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass, and also registered an interception in the same season.
It was Deion Sanders in 1992; not bad company to keep.
In all, Jones has played 166 defensive snaps, 10 offensive snaps and 125 special teams snaps. He joins Seattle Seahawks linebacker/fullback Nick Bellore as the only two players in the NFL to have logged 10-plus snaps each on defense, offense and special teams this season.
Last year, only Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde did it, and in 2020, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick did. But the difference with them is that their “offensive” snaps were in kneel-down situations as a "just in case" safety net.
“He has a lot on his plate, but he’s making plays in all three phases, which is unique -- especially for a rookie,” special teams coordinator Cam Achord said of Jones. “You’ve seen the athleticism in space. So that’s kind of our job as coaches -- just maximizing the number of times he can touch the football.”
Coaches and teammates credit Jones’ intelligence and preparation for being able to handle the triple-threat role. There is also a premium placed on communication with coaches and Jones during games, because there is a process of Jones needing to get the proper adjustments.
Jones, in turn, said he leans on teammates to help him go over the playbook, and he makes it a priority to receive physical treatment daily.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s nothing I feel I’m not ready for,” he said. “I have a lot of trust in the coaches, so if they feel like I’m ready for it, I feel like I am too. It’s having that confidence and making sure I know what to do.”
2. Patriots’ 3D vision: Coach Bill Belichick has long placed a premium on versatility, so Jones’ three-way role isn’t groundbreaking from that standpoint. Linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts was the last player to total double-digit snaps in all three phases -- 56 offense, 191 defense, 144 special teams -- in 2019.
Receiver/cornerback Julian Edelman (114, 89, 137) receiver/safety Matthew Slater (40, 108, 276) and fullback/linebacker Dane Fletcher (13, 263, 134) accomplished the feat in 2011. And, of course, goal-line tight end/linebacker Mike Vrabel did it multiple times.
Achord, the special teams coordinator, was speaking of Jones when he said the work of strength coaches Moses Cabrera and Deron Mayo, along with director of performance and rehabilitation Johann Bilsborough, is critical to pull something like this off.
“They do a great job getting guys in shape to handle the loads asked,” he said.
3. Bonds on trip: Spending a week together in Arizona seems to have strengthened bonds -- and spirited debate -- among players. “After we study, before we go to our rooms at night, we hang out and enjoy each other and talk. It’s a lot of laughter,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. Ultimately, the success of the trip will be judged based on Sunday’s game, with several players believing it was setting them up to secure the result they desire. “It’s been beneficial for us, for sure,” linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley said.
4. Teacher vs. student: If recent history is any indication, the Patriots will be facing an uphill climb against former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, now head coach of the Raiders. From 2000-2017, Belichick had posted a 13-8 record against his former assistants or coaches. But from 2018-present, he is just 6-10, which includes a 2-7 mark on the road. Quarterback Mac Jones highlighted the chess match with McDaniels when he said: “He knows a lot of our stuff. Then, obviously, we’re familiar with them too. It’s a good matchup.”
5. Uche’s favorite move: Patriots defensive end Josh Uche, the AFC’s reigning Defensive Player of the Week, is on a pass-rushing tear. He has tallied all 10 of his sacks this season in his last six games and had a notable answer when asked his favorite pass-rush move: “The one where I’m not thinking.” He’s just letting it rip.
6. Defensive identity: The defense has been the most consistent unit for the Patriots and veteran safety Adrian Phillips described the identity of the unit as physical and mysterious. How so? “You won’t know what’s coming,” he explained. “We have a lot of people who can play a lot of different positions. We’re able to mix it up and give you a lot of variety, and I think that’s what makes it tough on offenses.” That’s fair, but the D is still looking for a signature performance against a higher-rated quarterback, and the Raiders’ Derek Carr would qualify.
7. Patriots-Dolphins flex? If the NFL is looking for a more appealing Sunday night game on Jan. 1 than Rams at Chargers, the Dolphins at Patriots matchup could be a consideration. The league will make that call by Tuesday at the latest, and there aren’t many compelling options. Jets-Seahawks and Panthers-Buccaneers were a couple that caught the eye as being in the Patriots-Dolphins category.
8. Schooler’s in session: Undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler leads the Patriots with 13 special teams tackles, five more than perennial Pro Bowler Slater. Schooler isn’t yet garnering league-wide Pro Bowl consideration, but the 37-year-old Slater believes it’s warranted, saying, “I think he’s playing as well as anyone in our league right now."
9. Did You Know, Part I: The Patriots have totaled 45 sacks this season (third in the NFL), their most through 13 games under Belichick (since 2000). The last time they had 45-plus sacks at this point of the season was 1986, with 48.
10. Did You Know, Part II: The Patriots are allowing 18.4 points per game this season, ranking fifth best in the NFL. They can become the first NFL team since the 1970 merger to finish in the top 10 for fewest points allowed in 11 straight seasons.