When the NFL shortened its preseason from four to three games, teams were forced to adapt and modify their player usage. Previously, the third game was seen as a “dress rehearsal” for the starters, with the fourth an opportunity for bubble players to make one final push for the roster.
Since 2021, that preseason structure has looked different. For the New England Patriots, this meant also playing the starters in the third and final exhibition contest.
In 2020, both incumbent Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones saw action in the third preseason game. One year later, in a matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders, Jones played the first 25 snaps over a total of four series.
Conventional wisdom would suggest the Patriots will take a similar approach in this year’s preseason finale versus the Tennessee Titans. However, sitting Jones might actually be the better play for the team this time around — not because of the third-year passer himself, but rather because of those lining up in front of him.
New England’s offensive line, after all, has had its ups and downs this summer. Missing both starting guards for a majority of camp and with the right tackle position seemingly still not set, keeping quarterbacks clean has been a problem in practice and preseason alike.
So far, Patriots quarterbacks have been either sacked, hit or hurried on a combined 16 of 62 dropbacks for a pressure rate of 19.4 percent. While that number is relatively solid, it does not tell the whole story: Jones, for example, was pressured on one third of his dropbacks last Saturday versus the Green Bay Packers.
Most troubling was the fact that he took four hits, including a pair of sacks.
Jones’ final snap of the day was the most concerning from that perspective. Backup left tackle Andrew Stueber, who had entered the contest in place of starter Trent Brown, was beaten around the edge; Jones was taken down from his blindside, fumbled the ball, and was slow to get up. He did not appear to suffer any injury, but the play was still of the “hold your breath” variety.
The Patriots did get starting right guard Michael Onwenu back this week, but he should not be expected to suddenly enter the lineup against the Titans on Friday night with no prior practice time. Furthermore, left guard Cole Strange remains out with an injury of his own.
Considering that the line would therefore again be a makeshift ensemble with only two regular starters in their projected positions — Trent Brown at left tackle and David Andrews at center — keeping Jones out would make plenty of sense. He did get plenty of snaps in during this week and in Green Bay.
The risk is probably not worth the reward.