The New England Patriots had just gone up 10-0 thanks to linebacker Dont’a Hightower scooping up a fumble and returning it 26 yards for a touchdown, but the Cleveland Browns made sure to answer in style. The team handed the football to running back Nick Chubb, who had just coughed it up, on the very next play from scrimmage and the second-year back burst through a hole in the defensive front to get into the secondary.
At that point, Jonathan Jones was down on the ground. The Patriots’ slot cornerback was trying to reverse course to get to the ball carrier, but was pushed off balance by Browns offensive lineman Wyatt Teller. Jones did get up again in a hurry, however, and started sprinting after Cleveland’s running back before finally catching up with him at the New England 16-yard line. Then, all of a sudden, the ball was on the ground with fellow Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty recovering it for a turnover.
Jones channeled his inner Benjamin Watson, who made a similarly spectacular play for the Patriots against the Denver Broncos during the 2005 playoffs, and knocked the football loose upon tackling Chubb. The play turned into one of the biggest in a game full of them from New England’s perspective — and one the cornerback described in pretty straight-forward fashion after the game: “I kind of saw the ball and went for it.”
“He made a good play at breaking free, he was headed to the end zone and I was able to track him down,” said Jones when speaking about his impressive takeaway in the locker room following New England’s 27-13 victory. “It was just hustling. This whole defense hustles, flying around to the ball, and everybody is accountable to each everybody. So when we’re out there we give 100 percent effort to get to the ball.”
In that sense, the 26-year-old’s strip was a perfect example for the Patriots’ defensive approach of proactively creating plays and aggressively challenging the opponent on a down-to-down basis. Cleveland experienced this first-hand on Sunday, as Chubb’s second fumble in as many plays was actually the second act of a three-act drama in which the team’s offense turned the football over three times: the Browns’ very next play ended with an interception on a shovel pass.
As for Jones’ fumble, his teammates certainly seemed impressed but not necessarily surprised when talking about it after the game. Devin McCourty, for example, pointed out that the former undrafted rookie was one of the fastest players on the team — so him catching up with Chubb was nothing out of the ordinary: “That’s something as DB’s I think we all think about. When we’re running, we know we can catch guys from behind.”
“And when he did that, he did a great job of ball awareness,” said the Patriots’ team captain about the momentum-changing play. “That was his second play of the season just being able to attack the ball. So, you give up a big play like that, it was a great play by J. Jones, and then at the pile, everybody protecting me and coming up with the football, so you don’t have to give all that effort and then go back and play defense.”
Dont’a Hightower, who himself had just made a huge defensive play, also praised Jones while pointing out that the foundation for the play was actually laid in practice: “J. Jones made a hell of a play. I think a lot of that stuff is instincts. We do a lot of tackling and then turnover type things in practice. Obviously, it’s paying off. We try not to be put in that predicament too many times, but obviously what we do in practice — practice execution becomes game time reality. That’s definitely a big shot at that.”
“That was a great play,” added Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during his own postgame press conference. “Jon’s really fast. He plays with great effort all of the time and he’s made so many big plays for us in the four years that he’s been here. That was a tremendous play. He just tracked [Nick] Chubb down and timed the slap perfectly [...] getting it out was half the battle and then recovering it was the other half of the battle.”
“I thought the defense as a team, our effort and hustle on that play really speaks to the level of commitment that those guys have out there for each other and for the team,” Belichick continued. “When you chase a back like Chubb 50-60 yards downfield, knock the ball out and recover it — it was a huge play. Kind of a demoralizing play, but it ended up being a big play for us. It really just goes to their competitiveness and their effort. It was a great play by Jon.”