As the New England Patriots will take the field in their throwback Pat the Patriot uniforms on Sunday, they may do so with rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe under center. With Mac Jones still nursing an ankle injury and Brian Hoyer (concussion) now on the injured reserve, things seem to be trending towards Zappe making his first career start.
Last week, Zappe was thrusted into a hostile environment at Lambeau Field to duel it out with reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. While nobody would have blamed the rookie if a complete meltdown had followed, Zappe flashed his poise and confidence. He led the Patriots on two second half scoring drives before ultimately coming up short in overtime.
But as expected with any rookie quarterback in his first NFL action, Zappe provided a mixed bag of sorts.
With a limited play sheet at their disposal, the Patriots leaned on their play-action passing attack with Zappe to mirror with their potent ground game. The go-to call was a post-crosser combination off play-action, which Zappe explained postgame was a play he was “comfortable” with. New England used this concept four times against Green Bay, striking the 25-yard touchdown to DeVante Parker and a deep completion to Nelson Agholor off the route combo.
While the success with play-action (5-for-6 for 69 yards and a score) was a positive sight, Zappe looked like the fourth-round rookie he is at other points throughout the contest.
Zappe’s pocket presence was one of the main areas for improvement, as he tended to panic when under pressure. On the third-and-5 in overtime, Zappe missed his first read to the left (Hunter Henry) who had a sliver of separation as Green Bay brings a five man pressure. Despite Rhamondre Stevenson picking up the rusher, Zappe looks away and scrambles out of the pocket leading to an incompletion and punt.
Overall, Zappe played well for what it was. He took care of the ball in a conservative passing attack but rightfully had flashes of a rookie playing in his first career game. The performance was admirable to keep pace with Green Bay, but they will need more out of the rookie if he gets the call on Sunday to outscore the Lions top scoring offensive unit.
Against Detroit, New England will likely keep the ball on the ground to attack the Lions porous run defense — which ranks last in the league in defensive rush EPA — while continuing to match play-action off of it. That would mean keeping Zappe under center, something he barely did in college at Western Kentucky, who featured a strict shotgun, air-raid attack.
“A lot more comfortable than I was about a year ago [dropping back from under center],” Zappe joked on Wednesday. “That goes a lot with working with my teammates, working with my coaches, continuing to get a comfortability with it, and continuing to get reps before and after practice.”
However, if a the Patriots feel more confident with their quarterback after a full week of practice reps and potentially need him to put points on the board, they could feature Zappe in the shotgun more - something they were doing with Mac Jones at a high percentage to start the season.
If the Patriots trust Zappe to open it up with a larger game script, Zappe would have the ability to attack this defense that is last in the NFL in terms of points allowed. Through four games, Detroit’s defensive unit has been picked apart by the likes of Jalen Hurts, Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins, and Geno Smith.
Zappe would then have the opportunity to strike a few big plays down the field, while the potential return of Jakobi Meyers would be extremely beneficial to give the rookie a reliable target in the slot, which was a favorite outlet of his at Western Kentucky.
If his arm is relied on more, Zappe’s internal clock will need to be better on Sunday. This season, the Lions aggressive defense logs a 24.1 percent pressure rate and the third highest blitz rate in the NFL at 37.6 percent. That will also be a change from his collegiate days where he was under pressure at just a 12.9 percent clip last season.
As pressure forced some rookie mistakes against Green Bay, the on field experience will hopefully help ease the 23-year-old’s nerves and produce better results.
“There are a lot of things,” Zappe said when asked what he learned from his first regular season action. “There are some things I’ve learned from my fundamentals and being able to calm myself down. Continue to focus on my job and what my job is at hand.”
Time will tell if Zappe will get the Week 5 start on Sunday, but the fourth-round rookie proved he’ll be ready if his number is called upon.