Perry's Report Card: Zappe's recall impresses Belichick, teammates

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FOXBORO -- There is no quarterback controversy in New England. Mention of that particular phrase was met with laughter at One Patriot Place on Sunday. When Mac Jones is healthy, he'll be the starter.

But that doesn't mean third-string rookie Bailey Zappe didn't impress his teammates and coaches with the performance he put together in a 29-0 romp over the Lions to move the Patriots to 2-3 on the season.

On a day when Zappe completed 17 of his 21 attempts for 188 yards, one touchdown and one interception (which wasn't at all his fault), it was his recall between series that was especially noteworthy.

 Patriots Talk: THE AFTERMATH: The climb begins? Patriots blow out Lions behind Bailey Zappe | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Both head coach Bill Belichick -- who spent plenty of time working on the offensive side of the ball during Sunday's game, as he has the last four weeks -- and backup Garrett Gilbert noted that there wasn't much of a discrepancy between how Zappe saw the Lions defense from snap to snap and how the pictures told the story on the tablets. Zappe having that kind of real-time understanding of what he was looking at expedited the entire between-series sideline operation, allowing the offense to be better prepared when it was time to get back on the field.

"He does a good job of seeing the game and can come off and identify and articulate what he saw, what happened," Belichick explained. "That's usually right. What he saw is usually what I saw or maybe when you look at the film, maybe there's something that's a little gray in there that his explanation is actually good. It was the way he saw it. Maybe he might not have done the right thing, but he saw the game."

"I thought he did an outstanding job," Gilbert said. "He was very communicative on the sideline. Stuff he liked. Stuff he wanted to get to. Stuff he was seeing on the field and everything, you know, for the most part, held true from what we were seeing on the iPad. He did a nice job of that.

"Really, that's all you can ask for. The iPad is going to show us in between drives what we were seeing, but he did a really nice job of communicating between series how things were going out there in the huddle."

Zappe had command of the huddle Sunday, according to his teammates.

Belichick has high praise of Zappe after Week 5 win

"He was really under control," guard Mike Onwenu said. "He made the right decisions at the line of scrimmage. "I thought he did a great job in managing the game, making the right calls and checks," center David Andrews said.

And his effectiveness within the offense goes without saying after he completed 81 percent of his throws for 9.0 yards per attempt.

"Shout-out to the coaches for just having a good game plan, calling the right plays and for him to go out there and execute it for us," said wideout Jakobi Meyers.

Combine it all with Zappe's real-time recall -- something for which Belichick used to laud Tom Brady when Brady was a young quarterback -- and even if Zappe didn't put himself in position to win the starting job any time soon, he did more than enough to put his team in position to win the game.

On Sunday, that was his job. And he did it well.

Quarterback: B+

The numbers are good. Most of 'em, anyway. Completion percentage (81 percent). Yards per attempt (9.0). They'll end up at or near the top of the league for Week 5. The advanced numbers seem to be split on just how well the fourth-rounder out of Western Kentucky performed, though.

On the one hand, you have Next Gen's completion percentage over expected metric, which ranked Zappe's game as the second-most accurate of any quarterback in the league headed into Sunday Night Football. His 6.5 percent over expected mark was No. 2 only to Seattle's Geno Smith (7.0). But in terms of expected points added (EPA), Zappe ranked only 21st during Week 5 headed into Sunday night. And ESPN's QBR ranked him 23rd as well. 

Perhaps punished by the numbers for an interception that was coughed up and out of the hands of Nelson Agholor, it was hard to find egregious errors in Zappe's performance. An early third-down throw was slightly behind Hunter Henry. Zappe fumbled trying to hand off to Rhamondre Stevenson in the second quarter. Zappe nearly took a delay of game penalty at the end of the first half, but the Patriots called timeout.

He and the Patriots were 0-for-4 in the red zone, and finishing drives with six was a point of emphasis for veterans in the locker room looking for avenues to improve. (Though on one of those failed red-zone drives, Zappe passed just twice on 11 plays, completing both for 22 yards. Not on him. On another, the score was already 26-0 in the fourth quarter and the Patriots threw once in seven plays.)

But Zappe did make a handful of impressive plays that bump this grade to where it ended up. It wasn't all taking care of the football and helping the coaching staff set up for the subsequent drive.

On the offense's lone touchdown drive, he hit a third-down out route to Henry that looked like his third read on the play. Later he hit a tight-window slant for 10 yards. And his first-career touchdown pass was a Cover-2 "hole shot" -- in front of the safety but behind the corner -- that was well-timed to Jakobi Meyers.

He stepped up for a 23-yard play-action pass in the fourth quarter that helped get the Patriots in field-goal range, and earlier in the game he hit Henry on a scramble-drill dump-off that led Henry up the field and went for 17 yards. 

Deatrich Wise told me after the game that he couldn't have foreseen a performance like this one from Zappe back in training camp, but he's clearly grown since then.

"He's a rookie," Wise said, soon after congratulating Zappe in the locker room. "And we don't expect much from rookies. But we've seen a lot of poise these last two weeks."

Running back: A

Any time you can get Bill Belichick to proclaim his love for you at the podium, you're doing something right. That's exactly what Rhamondre Stevenson did after running for 161 yards on 25 attempts (6.4 yards per carry), catching two passes for 14 yards, and stepping up with some key blocks in pass protection.

Damien Harris (four carries, 11 yards) left the game with a hamstring injury, leaving Stevenson as the only back in uniform. Didn't matter. He ran with power and elusiveness throughout. On his 15-yard screen catch-and-run, he made three would-be tacklers miss. On his 49-yard scamper, he knifed through contact and lamented later that he got caught from behind before getting to the end zone.

"You have to give him a ton of credit," Belichick said. "With Damien out, we only carried two backs for the game, and he put it all on his shoulders and finished with a couple of first downs there at the end of the game in the four-minute offense. Yeah, he is always good. He does a great job with the ball in his hands. He is a strong runner, but he can make people miss. He is a really good football player. Really a good football player. So glad we have him.

"Had a couple of blitz pickup plays right up the middle where he stepped up there. He is a good all-around back. Love him. Love him."

Wide receiver: B

"It’s a little boring watching on TV and watching on the sideline," Meyers said after the game. "Just being out there, being able to do what I love again. I really enjoyed it."

With 111 yards on seven catches, it would make sense that Meyers had a more exciting Sunday than he did in the previous two weeks, which he missed with a knee injury. Meyers also hauled in the lone offensive touchdown of the day. And though the Patriots used a range of wideouts, because of Meyers' usage as a slot receiver, and because of his skill as a blocker, he was part of the reason the Patriots ran like crazy against Detroit. He carried this grade, though a couple of defensive pass interference flags (47 penalty yards) drawn by DeVante Parker didn't hurt. 

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Nelson Agholor, meanwhile, held it back by gift-wrapping a pick for the Lions when a well-placed Zappe pass glanced off Agholor's hands and into the arms of DeShon Elliott. Agholor didn't finish the game as he dealt with a hamstring issue.

Kendrick Bourne caught just one pass for one yard and was flagged for two penalties -- one for heading up the field too quickly when motioning and one for aligning improperly. The Patriots were excited to get Tyquan Thornton on the field for his pro debut, but he had a quiet outing, catching two of three targets for seven yards. 

Tight end: B-

Without Jonnu Smith, the Patriots rolled with Henry and Matt Sokol as their lone tight ends. Henry finished with a season-high four catches for 54 yards on five targets, including one 23-yarder on the game's first drive when Detroit defensive back Saivion Smith suffered a neck injury that knocked him out of the game. (The Lions said later that he had full motor capabilities, and coach Dan Campbell hoped he'd be able to travel home with the club.)

Henry was on the field for nearly every snap of a 35-carry performance for the offense. He may not be the people-mover type, as seems to be the case when the Patriots occasionally ask him to block interior defensive linemen, but he does enough.

Offensive line: A

Think Zappe appreciated what his linemen did for him at Gillette Stadium on Sunday?

"They played amazing today," Zappe said. "To be honest with you, all five of those guys -- actually six, including Marcus Cannon -- were the MVPs of today. We ran the ball well ... Play action (passed) well. Kept me clean in the pocket. We were able to go through second, third reads, get to your check-down. They played really well today. To be able to have those guys up front is amazing to have that."

The Patriots knew going into the week, with a rookie at quarterback, they were going to rely on what had been by some metrics the most efficient running game in the NFL. They finished with 35 rushing attempts for 176 yards, including 16 first-and-10 rushing attempts on 26 such snaps.

"That's the kind of game that you live for," said Onwenu. "Depend on the run game. Put it on our backs. You prepare yourself mentally and physically and say, 'All right. This is going to be one of those types of games.' It's mano a mano."

The Patriots had a sack off Isaiah Wynn's side wiped away due to a Lions illegal contact penalty, but other than that Detroit didn't have a single quarterback hit. Still, it was the effectiveness of the running game that had the Patriots encouraged. 

"I think it's important we find our identity and know who we are," Trent Brown said, "and just stick to our guns."

Special teams: B+

Nick Folk was due for a game like this one, where he seemingly carries the scoring. He drilled all five of his field goal attempts and both extra points.

"Nick is so consistent," Belichick said. "You kind of start to take it for granted, and then you realize how difficult it was. Today it was not an easy day to kick. The wind gusted, and it was blowing straight across the field really from our bench to their bench. When you kick straight into it, you can't kick it as far, but it goes straight. If you kick with it, it goes further, and it pushes the ball. The crosswind, especially when it gusts, is tough. Nick makes it look so easy.

"Honestly, it's kind of what it's like in practice. We've got some wind out there, some crazy wind, and the ball goes in between the uprights all the time. Yeah, I mean, I can't say enough about Nick Folk. He is so professional, so consistent, so dependable. When you stop and think about how hard that job is over the amount of time we're talking about, it's really, really impressive."

Defensive line: A

"We took it personally," Wise told me of how the Patriots felt about the rushing yardage they'd allowed in the two previous weeks.

Lamar Jackson ran all over them in the second half of Week 3. The Packers averaged almost 6.0 yards per carry in Week 4. Against one of the top rushing offenses in the league, the Patriots wanted to get back on track Sunday. They did, allowing just 3.7 yards per attempt to the Lions, whose top back D'Andre Swift was out injured. 

This group flexed on the Lions on fourth-down, too. As a team, the Patriots shut down a whopping six fourth-down conversion tries. Davon Godchaux mentioned he found their approach on fourth down "disrespectful." Given what the Patriots had allowed prior to Week 5, you might understand it.

Moving forward? What this unit did in short-yardage and gotta-have-it spots, they'll force head coaches to second-guess themselves if they find themselves going Full Campbell.

Linebacker: A

Matt Judon came up with a pair of sacks despite working on a pair of talented tackles -- including a strip sack that turned into a scoop and score. He's been a force through five weeks.

"Ju had another great day," Belichick said. "Again, he is a very physical presence for us on the end of the line. Yeah, Ju had another solid game. Again, with Wise and (Josh) Uche, we have two different types of players that generally play opposite of him. That's worked out fairly well for us."

Uche got into the backfield and met Judon at Jared Goff for one of 'em. Uche and Ja'Whaun Bentley both generated pressures that helped force incompletions. This group was critical to the success the Patriots had on the ground on fourth down -- Raekwon McMillan stuffed their final fourth-down attempt of the day -- and they made plays in coverage, too.

Mack Wilson helped break up a pass at the goal line on fourth down. Wilson ended up with a personal foul penalty for a high hit on Goff, but that wasn't enough to drop this grade out of the "A" range.

Secondary: A

Jack Jones got the party started for the defense Sunday. The former high school wideout looked like a veteran receiver when he high-pointed a poorly-thought-out throw from Goff and then tapped his feet down just inside the boundary line. It was his second interception in as many weeks, and it flashed the "God-given" instincts we discussed on the most recent Next Pats podcast with Devin McCourty and Jones himself

But Jones' play wasn't the only big one from this unit. Jonathan Jones came up with a strong open-field tackle to record one fourth-down stop. Kyle Dugger came up with a scoop-and-score touchdown off of Judon's strip sack, and he also had a tackle for a loss after fighting through a double-team in open space on a receiver screen. Myles Bryant was on the scene for that goal-line breakup with Wilson. Even Marcus Jones got some defensive run.

A big-time day from a unit that is a little banged up. Jonathan Jones dealt with an ankle issue he suffered during the game, and Jalen Mills appeared to be a bit limited due to a hamstring injury that has lingered for multiple weeks.

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