With a short week to prepare for Thursday night's game in Pittsburgh, Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe is trending toward his second consecutive start against the Steelers.
Although inserting him into the starting lineup didn't provide the spark head coach Bill Belichick was hoping for, Zappe seems like "the guy" at quarterback for New England at the moment. Zappe did some good things in the shutout loss to the Chargers, with flashes of good pocket movement and better play in the second half, but the results still weren't there for the offense.
Zappe deferred to his head coach to make an announcement, which Coach Belichick has been reluctant to do in recent weeks, but Zappe essentially confirmed he's starting on Thursday.
"Coach has made it pretty clear. But I'll let him announce it to everybody. That's private right now, and whenever he announces it, that's with him," Zappe told reporters on Tuesday. "I'm excited. It's a good opportunity for us to go out there and play as a team, play complementary football, and start playing well as an offense."
With the second-year quarterback expecting to start, Zappe reflected on his first start of the season this past Sunday, pointing to areas he's working on improving this week while acknowledging that he thought a bright spot was how smoothly the overall operation ran.
"I would say there were good and bad things. Of course, in every game, there's both. I would say that we didn't come out with what we wanted as a team – that was a win," Zappe said. "Looking back, there's a lot more things that I can learn from and grow from. Missing a few balls, ball placement, stuff like that."
"There were some missed reads by me, some missed throws by me. There were some things that I can improve, better ball placement, things like that. So I've just been working on that stuff as much as possible today and tomorrow before we head off and try to get ready for Thursday."
Besides improving his spotty accuracy, particularly in the first half, one area where Zappe could have been more effective was throwing the deep ball. Although you want to see him push the ball downfield, Zappe averaged 11.0 air yards per pass attempt but was 1-for-5 on his attempts over 20 yards, with the one completion coming on a throw to DeVante Parker. Sometimes, it felt like Zappe was zeroing in on go routes to Parker rather than seeing the whole field.
"That was something going into halftime that we talked about. That in the second half, we wanted to push the ball downfield a little bit." Zappe explained. "We have some guys who can get those 50-50 balls, and [DeVante Parker] is one of those guys where you kind of put it up anywhere, and he has an opportunity to go up and get it. That was our mindset. We just wanted to attack down the field. If it's one-on-one, I like my guy better than their guy. I'm going to let them go get it."
To be fair to Zappe, the Chargers defense dared him to throw the ball downfield by crowding the line of scrimmage. Even though it was unsuccessful, the Patriots had to make the LA defense back off somehow, and the only way to do so was by being willing to throw deep.
The other area where the offense will hopefully improve as they get more in-game reps with Zappe under center is timing and anticipation. New England's offense is predicated on the ball coming out quickly, with quarterbacks understanding how a receiver will break based on the coverage. There is also a lot of pre-snap stress on the quarterback to diagnose the defense.
Although there are advantages to option routes, the quarterback and receivers need to be on the same page. At the same time, the QB needs to understand a receiver's body mechanics. Repetition is key to building chemistry on those routes, which Zappe doesn't have right now.
The Patriots will hold one formal practice before traveling to Pittsburgh on Wednesday for a Thursday night game. Zappe got his fair share of reps in training camp, but his practice opportunities with top receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is new to the team this year, and Parker were somewhat limited, with Mac Jones serving as the number one quarterback.
"I feel like I get more and more comfortable every week. The more I watch film of the opponent, that also helps. Just the preparation through the week and understanding why we are alerting, why we are killing plays, and things like that. That always helps, so in a short week, all we have to do right now is just mental reps. So that's what I'm diving into right now."
"I'm comfortable with those guys, 100 percent," Zappe said of throwing to Parker and Smith-Schuster. "They're great players. It makes it easy for a quarterback. You can really put it anywhere, and those guys are going to make a play on it. Those guys are good receivers, and I'm excited to be throwing to those guys."
The Patriots offense is statistically near the bottom of the league. Most importantly, they're dead-last in scoring offense (12.3 PPG) and are 28th in DVOA. From the outside looking in, that would suggest the Patriots are far from being a productive offense. However, the Pats current starting quarterback doesn't feel they are that far away.
"We are close. We talk about that a lot. It's just one or two things that happen that alter you from scoring. We just have to fix those one or two things. Once we do that, I feel like we'll be able to start putting points on the board."
New England hopes that committing to Zappe for another week will pull the offense out of its current funk.