The Patriots head into Monday Night Football against the Bears with quarterback Mac Jones having a legitimate chance to return to the lineup.
After sustaining a high-ankle sprain on New England's final offensive play in a Week 3 loss to the Ravens, Jones sat out the last three games and is officially questionable this week but is expected to play vs. the Bears at Gillette Stadium on Monday night, according to reports.
Along with Jones, 11 other players are questionable for Monday night's game: WR Nelson Agholor (hamstring), DL Christian Barmore (knee), WR Kendrick Bourne (toe), DL Lawrence Guy (shoulder), LB Anfernee Jennings (calf), CB Jonathan Jones (ankle), CB Jalen Mills (illness), G Mike Onwenu (ankle), LB Josh Uche (hamstring), CB Shaun Wade (illness) and OT Isaiah Wynn (shoulder).
The Patriots also removed RB Damien Harris (hamstring) and tight end Jonnu Smith (ankle) from the injury report -- they're good to go.
Speaking to reporters in the Patriots locker room on Friday afternoon, Jones had an optimistic tone about his rehab from a severe ankle injury and his potential return to the lineup on Monday.
"I think it [the ankle] feels pretty good. Just trying to work through all the stuff to be able to play in an NFL football game. I want to be able to go out there and help the team, and once I'm there, I'm there. I'm definitely making a lot of progress, and we've done a good job with the treatment."
"Gonna try to do my best to put the hours in to get ready. Definitely moving better, so I feel pretty good," Jones told reporters.
If the Patriots starting quarterback returns on Monday night, our attention will be on how the coaching staff scripts the game with Jones back under center. After having so much success managing the game for rookie Bailey Zappe, will some of those elements remain in the offense?
There were three tangible differences between the offensive play-calling with Zappe compared to when Jones was at quarterback in the first three games of the season: more play-action, fewer downfield throws, and keeping extra blockers in to protect the QB on passing plays.
New England was terrific throwing the football off play-action on 31.6% of Zappe's pass attempts, averaging an NFL-best 15.3 yards per play-action attempt, with Zappe under center on over 48% of his snaps. The Pats only dialed up play-action on 10.8% of Mac's drop-backs, averaging 9.8 yards per attempt, and were only under center on 28% of his offensive plays (run or pass).
Furthermore, the Patriots offense led the league in deep pass attempts (20) in the first three weeks of the season, and Mac ranked second in average air yards per attempt (10.4). Zappe, on the other hand, is averaging 6.6 air yards per attempt and has only thrown six deep passes.
Lastly, Zappe's benefited from extra blockers in pass protection on 48.3% of his drop-backs while the Pats used seven-plus blockers on 13.8% of his throws. For Jones, he had a standard five-man pass protection on 81.1% of his passing plays, according to NextGenStats.
Due to those changes and playing against inferior defenses, the Zappe-led offense was far more productive, averaging 30 points per game and only turning the ball over twice in the rookie's two starts. With Jones, the Patriots averaged 16.7 points per game and gave the ball away eight times, including five interceptions by the 2021 first-round pick.
The goal for New England heading into Mac's second season was to become a more explosive passing offense capable of attacking downfield as Jones did in college at Alabama.
However, a more aggressive approach led to an unsustainable number of turnovers, with all five of Jones's interceptions coming on passes of ten-plus air yards. In theory, pushing the ball downfield to become a higher-scoring offense to compete against elite teams made sense. But it was too volatile of an approach, and it cost the Patriots games earlier in the year.
The key for the Patriots moving forward is striking a balance between the two styles, making things easier for Jones as they did with Zappe to hopefully cut down on negative plays.
With Jones potentially returning as the starting quarterback on Monday Night Football, the focus should be on building a more stable offense by keeping the Zappe elements on the call sheet.
The Pats offense will also get a boost from having their running back duo back intact on Monday night. Although Rhamondre Stevenson has been terrific this season, the second-year running back was forced to play 88% of the offensive snaps and carried the football 44 times without Harris (hamstring) over the last two games.
Stevenson should be a featured back in the offense each week, but the best thing for the team in the long run is to have a timeshare in the backfield. Harris is still a starting-caliber NFL running back, so keeping the tandem fresh by splitting up the workload benefits both players.
Finally, Patriots DL Christian Barmore, who left Sunday's win in Cleveland due to a knee injury, is officially questionable. This week, Barmore was seen with a wrap on his knee and a noticeable limp in the locker room. Although anything is possible, we'd say Barmore's hopes of playing on Monday night are low.
Due to playing on Monday Night Football, the Patriots don't need to make practice squad elevations official until 4 pm ET on Monday, rather than the standard day before the game procedure.
New England will host the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium with kickoff at 8:15 pm ET on Monday night in Foxborough.