Marcus Jones entered Week 11 as one of the most prolific punt returners in the NFL. The New England Patriots third-round draft pick had averaged 13.4 yards on his previous 13 runbacks, good enough for the fourth highest such number in the league.
The New York Jets knew this. They had to know this, right? Or did they simply not care?
Regardless of their mindset heading into that final 4th-and-3 with 26 left in the fourth quarter, the Jets gave Jones and opportunity. The rookie did not flinch, fielding Braden Mann’s punt at the New England 16-yard line and crossing the goal line 84 yards later to deliver his team a 10-3 win over its division rivals.
The play put a stunning end to what had been a defensive struggle throughout the day. It put the Patriots at 6-4, allowing them to sweep the Jets for a seventh straight season and to leap-frog them in the standings.
It also left quite an impression on those watching it.
“How the game ended, it was phenomenal,” said New England defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. during his postgame press conference. “It was almost like a movie script, in a sense. I think out of all the football movies, Rudy, Any Given Sunday, and Remember the Titans, this beats it. The way it ended was phenomenal.”
Wise Jr. and the Patriots were on the right side of Jones’ first career touchdown. The Jets, meanwhile, were left devastated on a day that saw their defense give up just three points.
“I’m still in disbelief,” said cornerback D.J. Reed. “Marcus Jones, I know him from college, he went to Houston. Hell of a punt returner, and they gave him a chance. He is a great punt returner and he got his touchdown. Credit to them for doing that. I’m in disbelief. It’s a tough loss.”
Reed hit the nail on the head in his answers: they gave him a chance. First, the Jets did by punting right to him. Then, the Patriots did by setting Jones up to take the ball to the house.
Marcus Jones you beautiful man! pic.twitter.com/t5qO6cXuKO— Pats Pulpit (@patspulpit) November 20, 2022
How exactly did the play happen, though? Let’s take a look at the All-22 game film to find out, starting with the initial setup.
The Patriots opened the play with six players in the box and one working off the ball. Additionally they had three over the Jets’ gunners: Pierre Strong Jr. (35) one-on-one on Ty Johnson (25) on the receiving team’s left, with Raleigh Webb (44) and Jonathan Jones (31) double-teaming Justin Hardee (34) on the right.
“They got a good block, they were out front,” Hardee said after the game. “I tried to chase him down, I obviously wasn’t close enough. I tried to track him down, and I got hit. Whether it was on the side or in the back it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t up to my standards, it wasn’t up to the Jets standards.”
With Jabrill Peppers (3) later coming in to help from his off-ball position to help double-block Hardee alongside Jones, the Patriots used a full-team effort to get one of the best gunners in football out of the play. That block was therefore a perfect example for the play as a whole.
In general, after all, the Patriots received positive contributions all across the board to spring Jones open. Take a look at the first 20 yards he covered:
Jones (25) had to back-pedal from his original position to field the booming 52-yard kick, but when he did there was no Jets coverage player within 15 yards of him. That space allowed him to properly scan the field, and to allow his blocks to be set up.
And set up they were. Not only did Peppers and Jonathan Jones take care of Hardee, Brenden Schooler (41) came from the middle and made another key block play-side, patiently waiting for his man to come before sealing him off.
Right edge Anfernee Jennings (58) also did a great job tracking his assignment and cutting him off to open a lane. Matthew Slater (18) also got in the action, delivering a late block on the left gunner. This helped Strong Jr. dominate his assignment — Johnson — downfield.
The most prominent blocks to create an alley for Jones to push through were made by Webb after he had peeled off of Hardee and Raekwon McMillan (50), though. Together with the block on Hardee, they opened up a lane down the right sideline.
Jones was only able to get there, though, because he took a good angle on the Jets’ Tyler Conklin (83) as his first cut.
“I was just trying to get down there and do my responsibility as the first person down,” Conklin told reporters post-game. “At the end of the day no matter what the punt is, as a unit we’re not supposed to allow that to happen. It doesn’t matter if the punt is high or low. As a punt unit you can’t let that happen, so it’s on everybody.”
Just as the Jets giving up the big play was on everybody, so was Jones bursting through the coverage to get into the open. Once there, all that was left to do was get past Mann (7).
“And then I saw the punter and I was like, ‘If I make him miss then I should be able to go the distance,’” Jones said after the game.
The young punt returner did both those things, racing the final 40 yards relatively uncontested:
There was only one potentially dangerous moment, when Mack Wilson (30) delivered a block on a fast-recovering Hardee at the 22-yard line: had Wilson hit Hardee in the back, he would have drawn a flag.
However, he came in from the side — getting the all-clear from the officials (even if he had not, though, the Patriots would have been in range to attempt a game-winning field goal).
“As I was running, I felt confident that I was in front of him, “Wilson said in the locker room after the game. “That’s why I blocked him the way I did. I feel like, if it was close, I probably would’ve just given him a [push].”
No flag was thrown, however, and Jones was able to effectively end the game in his team’s favor. The Jets’ kickoff return following the touchdown went nowhere.
Patriots 10. Jets 3.
After the game, team captain Devin McCourty sang the punt return team’s praises. He also mentioned how his teammates were able to execute the play: by hustling for one another.
“Coach Belichick mentioned it earlier this year, when you have a guy that can return the ball it makes everyone want to do more,” McCoruty said. “You saw guys out here, Jon Jones, I don’t know how many plays he played on defense but he is playing on defense. We have other guys out there that are playing in their other roles on the team and giving just 100 percent effort because we all know if you make a couple blocks, Marcus can do the rest.
“To go out earlier in the game and come back and just be ready to go, locked in, biggest moment of the game as a rookie. Everyone always talks about experience. It’s being ready to go, it’s knowing what you’re supposed to do, and it’s executing. Marcus did that and it was a huge play for us, I’ve never been a part of anything like that. Great feeling, great team win.”