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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Can Jonnu Smith turn his season around?

Related: Jonnu Smith is not worried about his current role in the Patriots offense

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

While the great debate of whether macaroni and cheese is good or not (it is) dominated the New England Patriots headlines this week, they actually have a pretty important football game on the schedule this Sunday as well.

So, before we all enter Thursday’s food coma, let’s get right into this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.

@nypatriotsfan What are the Top 2 things we need to do to beat the titans?

While the top seeded Titans were upset by the Houston Texans last weekend, the Patriots may not be following a similar blueprint to Houston. Despite scoring just 13 points, the Titans gained 420 yards of offense while the defense allowed two early scoring drives before basically shutting down the Texans offense the rest of the afternoon - 10 of Houston’s 22 points allowed came off of turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, that's ultimately how Houston won the game. Ryan Tannehill threw four interceptions while they also muffed a punt, something that Bill Belichick said New England cannot count on happening again.

If New England was looking for a blueprint, there wasn't much there. In fact, the Patriots may be better at taking what the Texans did poorly against Tannehill and the Titans offense, such as undisciplined defense. Houston’s defense was often out of position on Sunday, often as a result of following “dummy” pull blockers in the run game and Tannehill’s eyes in the passing game.

One thing New England could take from Houston to use to beat the Titans is using pressure to force Tannehill into mistakes. Again, it’s unlikely he hurls four more interceptions, but the turnover battle could be a significant part of this matchup. Looking at Tannehill’s interceptions, different pressure looks were involved to make life difficult for the quarterback.

In the play above, Houston appears to be bringing pressure before dropping their linebackers back into zone. Tannehill never sees them and throws it right to the former Patriot Kamu Grugier-Hill. In the play below, Houston actually brings pressure, using their linebackers to get a 2-on-1 against Dontrell Hilliard, causing pressure and an under throw.

Besides trying to force Tannehill into more mistakes, taking A.J. Brown out of the game will certainly be New England’s main defensive focus. With both Derrick Henry and Julio Jones on injured reserve, the Titans are in a similar position as the Falcons were last week, down several of their key playmakers. The Titans are quite banged up besides those two, so taking away their best playmaker remaining would provide New England a huge advantage. Expect lots of J.C. Jackson coming A.J. Brown’s way.


@byShourjya seems Hunter Henry has carved out his role in the offense – now with Jonnu back, how does this affect our 2 TE-sets moving forward?

The return of Jonnu Smith did not result in an increase of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) for New England Thursday night. The Patriots lined up in two-tight end sets just four percent of the time, while they used their 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) 39 percent of the time.

Throughout the current win streak, the shift from 12 to 21 personnel has been noticeable. New England has nearly doubled their usage of 21, as Jakob Johnson continues to lead the way in the run game. Despite going away from two-tight end sets, it still has been effective for the Patriots when called upon and has produced more explosive plays. If New England can continue to pound the football the way they have been, I would expect them to continue to rely on their 21 personnel.


@BigPapaSwid I believe Jonnu Smith will find his niche in the offense, do you feel the same?

Speaking of Jonnu Smith, I still have high hopes for one of the ticketed offseason additions. Smith has certainly not lived up to his four-year, $50 million contract so far, catching only 22 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.

Smith is a unique talent at the position, as he showcased elite versatility, YAC ability, and posed as a vertical threat between the numbers throughout his time in Tennessee. New England’s offense hasn't had an athlete like Smith in several seasons, and pairing his athletic build with his past success with the Titans, he seemed primed for a career year in New England - especially after he was being used like an old No. 81 Patriots tight end throughout training camp.

On the field however, it just hasn't been there for Smith. His production at his current cap hit has really been the only negative for the Patriots this season, as Josh McDaniels himself noted this week that this has been a “foundational year” for Smith.

“The tight end position, obviously here and everywhere, is unique because you’re involved in so many different things: run blocking, pass receiving, pass protection, alerts, motion. There’s a lot of different things you have to do well,” McDaniels said. “Jonnu’s tried really hard to do all the things we’ve asked him to do. I always think the first year that we have an opportunity to have a free agent in our system is kind of a foundational year.”

There’s still plenty of time for Smith to put it together, and a second half resurgence would provide another valuable weapon for the Patriots passing game. McDaniels and Co. have to continue to try and get him the ball in space (like his only catch versus Atlanta below), where they can let him use his best abilities to his advantage. Perhaps a matchup against his old team can be the start of a strong second half for Smith.


@SwimBoston After this past weekend. I feel Titans & Bills no biggie and looks like the NFL is putting the fix in again for KC but stop Hill and Kelce is manageable. Indy played well, but think they look like we did a month ago. Who do you see as Pats biggest challenge in AFC?

Even with their early season struggles, the Kansas City Chiefs were always the biggest threat in the AFC. Pairing Patrick Mahomes and the best offense in the league with the fact that they appear to be getting back on track defensively, they are again the undoubted top dogs in the AFC.

It would be interesting to see how New England would approach matching up with Mahomes and crew if they were to meet down the road. Belichick has had success against them in the past and held their offense to just 19 points in the infamous Brian Hoyer game last year. The Patriots often dropped seven to eight defenders in coverage, using a spy on Mahomes and passing along deep crossers in zone. Only time will tell if the two sides will meet.


@Stormwind23 Will the Pats pay JC Jackson

I am on the train that the Patriots will pay J.C. Jackson. If there were any doubts that Jackson can be a true No. 1 cornerback, after some struggles last season filling in for Stephon Gilmore, Jackson has put those to rest.

Jackson’s ball skills and production have been no secret and he is a perfect fit for Belichick’s defense. A new deal for Jackson will certainly be expensive for the Patriots, but locking up the 26-year-old should be a priority.


@PatsFanKev If the draft started today, what position are you scouting for the first round?

Offensive tackle and cornerback. New England could use extra bodies at both positions and could be searching for immediate starters at both spots next season.

Regarding offensive tackle, Trent Brown is set to hit the open market at the end of the this season, while Isaiah Wynn’s fifth-year option kicks in for 2022. New England will need new talent at tackle somewhat soon, as Michael Onwenu likely will move back to the interior of the offensive line.

As for cornerback, it becomes the immediate No. 1 need in case J.C. Jackson walks in free agency. But, finding another young stud to pair with Jackson would lead to an even more lethal defense. Jalen Mills has impressed at corner this season, but adding another player at the position and using Mills’ versatility throughout the defense would not be a bad thing.


@CheyenneSulli14 Why doesn’t Henry see more targets ?

Hunter Henry has been held at four targets or less in eight of 11 games this season, pilling up just 45 targets in total — fourth best on the team. In short, no Patriot receiver is going to pile up massive target numbers. They have a bevy of consistent pass catching options, allowing them to spread the ball around and target mismatches. Pair that with the fact that they are still a power running team, there just isn't tons of targets to go around.

Despite the lack of targets, Henry has been great in his role since signing this offseason. Henry has provided New England with a reliable red zone option that they haven't had since the Rob Gronkowski days, as Henry’s seven touchdowns are more than double the next best on the team.


@TheHastingsZone Should we keep Slater if Cody Davis and Justin Bethel can play Special Teams very well?

Matthew Slater should retire a Patriot and I believe he will. He also should have a job here as long as he wants to play, as his play level still hasn't seemed to decline. Davis and Bethel, who are both signed through next season, have been great since joining New England and will certainly be part of the solution of replacing Slater whenever he does call it quits.


@bkh1 Next year, what will we be saying about Mac Jones?

Hopefully a lot of what we have been saying over the past month. Jones has been extremely impressive this season and has ultimately played as a top-10 quarterback. His accuracy has been as advertised and he looks more comfortable within the offense/at the line of scrimmage each and every week. The Patriots offense is rounding into form at the perfect time and Jones has a lot to do with that.


@matthewlstone What do you think about N’Keal Harry in a Cordarrelle Patterson type role? It’d get the ball in his hands more often and maybe in a way that better utilizes his skill set.

We’ve been banging the drum for more N’Keal Harry touches/targets since he entered the league. Perhaps not as a straight away runner like Patterson, but getting him the ball in space and on the move (jet sweeps, shallow crossers, etc.) could be a start. And if you want to better utilize his skill set, use him in the red zone. Harry’s skill set is vastly different than the other receivers on the roster, and better utilizing them could truly benefit New England’s offense down the stretch.

(Also, shoutout to everything he is doing in the run game.)


@caveatbettor 11-6: over or under?

Over. Life is too short to bet the under.

(Also, New England should beat Tennessee this weekend and Indianapolis in Week 15. That means they are a split with Buffalo and wins over Jacksonville and Miami away from a 12-5 record.)


@TheHastingsZone Why is Jakob Johnson underutilized?

I would actually argue the opposite. Jakob Johnson has been having one of his best career seasons and has been heavily leaned on as of late, as New England continues to rely on their 21 personnel. Johnson’s 26 snaps Thursday night was his second-highest total this season in what was one of his best career games.


@Ethanlavoielax1 Do you think Tom will come back to New England for any coaching job/move back to New England after retirement

Coaching does not appear to be in Tom Brady’s future. However, he himself said he was excited to come back to New England after his retirement after the Week 4 matchup this season.

“I’ll be apart of this community for a long time,” Brady told NBC postgame. “They'll see me around. I’ll be here at games. When it’s all said and done and I retire I’ll be around and they'll get a chance to see more of me.”


@JuanShip98 Lets say the draft is done again with the knowledge we have at this present time Lets assume Mac goes second overall behind Lawrence, which QB do you think could have similar success as Mac this season

When reviewing the rookie quarterback class, it’s important to remember two things regarding Mac Jones. First, Jones was deemed the most “NFL ready” quarterback in this class and, secondly, he landed in the best situation out of any rookie quarterback. It should be no surprise Jones has looked the best out of the rookie quarterbacks through 11 weeks, as he is on the best team and best situation. Now, nobody expected Jones to look this good this early, so his play is certainly a promising sign for New England.

If the Patriots weren't able to land Mac, that likely means Zach Wilson or Justin Fields would fall to them. In this hypothetical, Fields, who I believed was the second best quarterback prospect in this class, would have success in New England as well. Fields had lots of big game experience at Ohio State, while Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels certainly would have found ways to use his talented skillset to his advantage.


@foonoof on a completely unrelated note, who yall rooting for in the new usfl lol

Add me to the Birmingham Stallions fan club. Easily the best name/logo combo.


@Chris69193368 Favorite thanksgiving dish?

Certainly not going to say Mac N’ Cheese after the controversy throughout the Patriot locker room this week. But, the answer is stuffing. I still have no idea why we limit ourselves to stuffing for one week of the year. Maybe that's what makes it so good.


@JenniferEffect I’m here for the hard-hitting queries…. Favorite beer for Thanksgiving? Or just straight to the bourbon?

As this is just my first Thanksgiving in a post-college world, I could actually use some suggestions here. We should treat ourselves throughout the holidays, so the cheap lite beers probably won't be at the Thanksgiving table.

Drop your favorite beer to wash down your Thanksgiving meal and leftovers with in the comments.


@TeamCrazyMatt Second-greatest Patriots Thanksgiving memory?

Guessing we are counting the Buttfumble as the obvious No. 1 moment. So, if it’s not the 21-point fourth quarter explosion in the red throwbacks in 2010, then it’s certainly this:


@Advil did you have a nice day

Yes, Advil, I had a great day. I hope you did as well.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!