Despite being a limited participant in all three practices this week, starting quarterback Mac Jones's (ankle) return to the lineup will likely need to wait at least another week.
Jones, who suffered a high-ankle sprain in the team's loss to the Ravens in Week 3, is doubtful for Sunday's home game against the Lions. New England ruled out DT Lawrence Guy (shoulder) and rookie special-teamer DaMarcus Mitchell (concussion), while TE Jonnu Smith (ankle) is also doubtful, and six others are listed as questionable (Dugger - knee, McMillan - thumb, Meyers - knee, Mills - hamstring, Phillips - ribs, Wynn - hip).
With veteran backup Brian Hoyer now on injured reserve due to a concussion, the Patriots will probably turn to fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe at quarterback this week versus Detroit.
Although the Patriots lost in overtime to the Packers in Week 4, Zappe stepped in for an injured Hoyer and didn't look out of place inside a hostile environment at Lambeau Field. The rookie quarterback finished the game going 10-of-15 for 99 yards and a touchdown, showing solid poise and mostly throwing catchable passes when there were open receivers downfield.
"Last week, it was pretty encouraging. I know he was nervous, especially that's a hard place to play your first snap as a QB in Lambeau Field. That's tough. Credit to him for coming in poised. We went back and forth with Aaron Rodgers. I think that's a pretty good thing for him," Patriots left tackle Trent Brown said of Zappe on Friday.
The positives for Zappe mainly came off under-center play-action while the Patriots had the running game rolling. The Western Kentucky product completed five of his six attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown off play-action in the game, including a 25-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver DeVante Parker that capped off a seven-play touchdown drive in the third quarter.
Detroit's defense enters this week ranked dead-last against the run in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric, so the Patriots will likely feature another run-heavy plan to take the pressure off Zappe in his first career start and open up easy throws with play-action.
However, as we saw in Green Bay, there will come a time when Zappe will need to make a play with his arm for the Patriots to win on Sunday, especially against the top-scoring offense in the NFL. When that time comes, Zappe will likely face heavy pressure from the blitz-happy Lions.
In the first month of the season, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn called more cover-zero, all-out blitzes than any team besides the Miami Dolphins. With a first-year quarterback under center, one would expect Glenn to make Zappe beat him under pressure.
After sitting in mostly clean pockets at Western Kentucky, Zappe struggled to stick with his reads and get the ball out of his hands on time. The Pats QB's average time to sack on three sacks was four seconds, and he went 0-for-3 with a fumble while under pressure last week, according to Pro Football Focus.
For the Patriots to avoid an upset at home this Sunday, they'll need their running game and defense to lead the way, but Zappe must make more plays from muddy pockets as well.
Along with clarity on the quarterback situation for Sunday, the Patriots also ruled out key run defender Lawrence Guy against the top-ranked rushing attack in yards per attempt in the Lions.
New England's run defense is now ranked 31st in the NFL in DVOA, one spot ahead of Detroit, after allowing 387 rushing yards over the last two weeks. The team brought veteran linebacker Jamie Collins back on the practice squad this week, and there's a chance Collins will be promoted to the game-day roster to provide reinforcements at the second level. But the Pats defense also missed Guy's sturdy presence to take on double teams and plug gaps as a 3-4 defensive end.
The primary concern for the Patriots is the C Gap, the gap between the play-side tackle and tight end off the tackle's outside shoulder. The Pats are allowing 6.5 yards per rush on plays off the left tackle's outside hip, which ranks 27th in the NFL. The Packers and Ravens attacked the edges, but Baltimore really exposed that weakness with counter schemes.
Detroit is a heavy gap scheme offense whose go-to run-blocking scheme is long trap plays with a similar point of attack as those big runs by the Ravens. Typically, the Pats would play Guy on the strong side of the formation over the tackle (four-technique) or shaded outside the tackle (five-technique). Instead, they're getting by with Christian Barmore and Deatrich Wise.
The Patriots also haven't gotten the contributions they had hoped for from the linebacker level. McMillan, who has been dealing with a thumb injury, only played on special teams last week, while newcomer Mack Wilson was benched for Jahlani Tavai in the loss to Green Bay. Wilson has struggled to find the football over the previous two weeks, and that combination of things led to the team bringing back Collins.
The Patriots will need to shore up their run defense against arguably the best rushing attack in football without one of their best run defenders in Guy, a big challenge indeed.
After sitting out Friday's practice and missing last week's game, CB Jalen Mills (hamstring) is officially questionable. Rookie Jack Jones could have another opportunity to flash his playmaking skills as he did a week ago with a pick-six and a forced fumble and recovery vs. the Packers.
And lastly, wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (knee), who sat out the last two games, is also listed as questionable but continues to be in good spirits. Meyers hopes to play on Sunday.
For the Lions, top wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (ankle) practiced on Friday and is questionable. Detroit ruled out starting running back D'Andre Swift (shoulder/ankle), but their running game hasn't skipped a beat with backup Jamaal Williams as the primary ball carrier in their last two games.
The Patriots and the Lions will kick off at 1:00 pm ET at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.