Five storylines to watch during Patriots-Colts in Germany

Five storylines to watch during Patriots-Colts in Germany originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO — Typically, as we get closer to game day, we dig into the Xs and Os that will decide that week’s outcome and come up with what we’ve called our Matchups Preview.

With the Patriots sitting at 2-7, and with the nitty-gritty of each week’s game mattering less than some of the bigger-picture Patriots issues at play, we’re going to roll with a different style of preview. Until further notice.

Here are the five storylines we’ll be tracking Sunday:

1. Can Mac Jones slow himself down?

Mac Jones wasn’t the primary reason the Patriots lost to the Commanders a week ago. He made throws to Jalen Reagor and JuJu Smith-Schuster that could have drastically impacted the outcome had they been caught. They weren’t.

But he also wasn’t good enough to paper over those mistakes. And Jones had his own miscues that drastically impacted the outcome themselves.

His footwork was shoddy, leading to missed throws. His decision-making was off, turning down throws that might’ve yielded big gains or checking into calls that failed. And though his one turnover deflected off Smith-Schuster’s hands in the waning moments of the game, he had another throw that could have been easily picked deep in Washington territory.

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Perhaps because he’s playing in a new offense, perhaps because he hasn’t trusted his protection, or perhaps because there’s something else that has made him unsure behind center, it appears as though Jones has been sped up in the pocket at times. He’s getting rid of the football more quickly than he should in those moments, or making choices with the football before he needs to make them.

Bill O’Brien acknowledged earlier this week that Jones has submitted those kinds of moments at points this season.

“I think there’s some truth to that,” O’Brien said. “It kind of goes under the umbrella of what it’s been for most of the year for us, which is inconsistency. It’s not just about one guy. You could really say that about obviously the whole offense. We just need to be more consistent, whether it’s coaching it better or executing it better.

“It’s not just Mac. It’s every position. We’re striving for that consistency. We still haven’t really found it. We’re still working hard to get it. There’s a lot of football left. Hopefully we can find it starting this weekend. That’s really what it falls under. There were times [against Washington] — the touchdown pass to Hunter (Henry) was just a beautiful play. Then other times where, yeah, maybe he was a little bit sped up, and we gotta do a better job of coaching it up and working with him. At the end of the day we all just have to strive for more consistency.”

When asked about playing too fast at times, and specifically about why that happens, Jones mentioned confidence.

“It’s just being confident in the plays and making sure that, like I said, my feet time up with the route and all that stuff,” he said. “Usually, when I’ve got a lot of confidence in the play, it’s better, and I’ve kind of identified that. And just making sure, like I said, my feet tie up with the route. Then from there you just deliver a confident and decisive decision.”

The way Jones explained it, being decisive rather than indecisive can perhaps outweigh actually making the right decision versus the wrong one. As a quarterback who has struggled late in individual downs at times this season — in a loss to the Cowboys, Jones turned it over twice after moving from the pocket — that logic has some merit.

“As a quarterback, you just have to make decisions,” he said. “Really for me, it’s just about being decisive. So, even if it’s the right decision and you’re decisive then you’re not going to be wrong. Obviously, there’s plays that I could hit or wait a little bit and hit some open guys. I definitely want to improve in that.”

If Jones can’t improve on that, the bye week may be a logical time for the Patriots coaching staff to assess what it has in backups Bailey Zappe and Will Grier.

2. How much buy-in remains?

It’s easy to look at things like J.C. Jackson and Jack Jones arriving late to the team hotel last Saturday — leading to both being benched to start the game the next day — as signs of dysfunction in the Patriots locker room. But the number of missed tackles, penalties and busted coverages that have piled up lately would qualify as on-the-field examples of a lack of buy-in.

The Patriots have a half-season to try to get this thing back on the rails and pointed in the right direction. Will that process begin this week in Frankfurt? Or will the team continue to backslide when it comes to the overall sharpness of the operation?

Bill Belichick’s club seems loose, starting with him. He was positively jovial at his Friday press conference. Mac Jones joked with reporters. Ezekiel Elliott talked about getting beers with his teammates while they take in what Germany has to offer.

That may be a good sign that the group doesn’t yet view this as a lost season. But if they fall to 2-8 ahead of their bye, and if the same issues continue to crop up overseas against a below-.500 team like the Colts, then it might be difficult for the level of locker-room investment in the 2023 season to rebound.

3. Do we see a more engaged Jack Jones?

It’s hard to imagine previous iterations of the Patriots would’ve held tight to Jack Jones. Those teams had players who created their share of disruption. But those teams were so successful, generally speaking, that those types of players didn’t last long.

Jones finished last year suspended by Bill Belichick. He dealt with weapons charges in the offseason. He walked out of a training camp practice. And now he has a first-quarter benching on his record after exhibiting some tardiness. It was during that benching that Jones appeared to keep to himself until he was inserted in the second quarter. He finished the game with the third-worst Pro Football Focus grade of anyone on the New England defense.

There’s a reason the Patriots are keeping Jones around. They believe he’s talented. They believe he’s worth whatever management is required to keep him engaged. But can he bounce back from being sat — not to mention a not-so-exemplary performance — and excel? If he can’t against a relatively unimpressive Colts receiving corps, the Patriots may need to reassess the merits of keeping him around.

4. Can Kayshon Boutte finally get a little love?

DeVante Parker has been ruled out. Jalen Reagor is coming off a rough performance. Demario Douglas has been limited all week with an ankle injury. Is this, then, the week when sixth-round rookie Kayshon Boutte gets his chance to shine?

Bill Belichick seemed to hint at the possibility of playing time for Boutte in his Friday back-and-forth with reporters. He also had Boutte practicing with the first-team offense to begin Friday’s practice.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

“We’ll see how all that goes,” Belichick explained. “Kayshon has had a good couple of weeks here. It’s definitely trending in the right direction, so that’s been good.”

Boutte had a rough go of it in his lone action as a pro to this point. In Week 1 against the Eagles, subbing in for an injured Parker, Boutte was targeted four times and did not have a catch. On one late-game target, Boutte wasn’t able to get a second foot inbounds on what might’ve been a game-altering reception.

It’s difficult to envision him lighting it up on Sunday, if he plays at all; he was a healthy scratch a week ago. But Reagor’s long-ball drop against Washington might’ve cracked the window open for Boutte to chip in. We’ll see if those early-practice reps were indicative of New England’s plans for him against Indy.

5. Who makes their case for the core?

We discussed the Patriots core moving forward on this week’s edition of Next Pats with Mike Giardi of the Boston Sports Journal. Players like Christian Barmore, Jabrill Peppers, Pop Douglas and David Andrews made the cut because they’re under contract and have performed well enough to warrant significant roles in 2024.

But are there others who can work their way into the conversation — even those who aren’t under contract who almost demand they be re-signed thanks to their relentless effort and unignorable effectiveness in the midst of a miserable season?

What if Kyle Dugger can continue his stretch of making plays on the football (two straight weeks with an interception)? What if Mike Onwenu can continue to settle down the Patriots line by shutting down Colts right-edge rusher — and Onwenu’s college teammate at Michigan — Kwity Paye? What if Hunter Henry can reel in a few more passes up the seam to give the team some semblance of a vertical passing game?

Even if the Patriots aren’t going to contend for a playoff spot, there are stakes this weekend. They have players who are playing for their next jobs. And whether those jobs are in New England or elsewhere, the back half of the 2023 season would be a good time to make a push. That starts now.

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