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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Feb 27 - 02:00 PM | Thu Feb 29 - 11:55 AM

NFL Notes: Pats should keep airing it out

With the Patriots officially eliminated from the playoffs, the offense should continue to throw the ball downfield with Bailey Zappe.

NFLNotes-Zappe

It was one half of football, and the production certainly disappeared after the break, but the changes the offense made in Pittsburgh under Bailey Zappe made a difference.

Bill O'Brien's mindset entering this game seemed to be different. He went into the night with the idea of throwing the ball downfield early, and the results were positive. On the opening drive, Zappe went deep toward JuJu Smith-Schuster and was rewarded when the veteran wideout came down with the ball for a 37-yard pickup. The game was barely a minute old, and it was just the third play, but O'Brien's willingness to let Zappe take a shot proved to be the jumpstart for the team's best offensive output in almost two months.

The play itself was even more noteworthy due to the way it unfolded. Smith-Schuster wasn't necessarily running in the clear as both Damontae Kazee and Minkah Fitzpatrick were trying to bracket the receiver. But that didn't stop Zappe from taking a shot, putting up what amounted to a jump ball that Smith-Schuster high-pointed effectively and came up with a big play. Five plays later the Patriots scored their first opening drive touchdown of the season.

Zappe dialed up a couple more downfield shots, one resulting in a beautiful 24-yard touchdown to Hunter Henry just over the outstretched arms of the safety. The aggressiveness allowed the Patriots to put some points on the board, which was the most important result, but it also effectively moved the Steelers coverage away from the line.

Ezekiel Elliott enjoyed an excellent game as a receiver, catching seven short passes for 72 yards out of the backfield. Elliott caught his first pass on the second play of the game, quickly eluding a pair of would-be tacklers who were in position to make the play for a short gain. Elliott's burst allowed him to pick up 12 yards and a first down.

After Smith-Schuster's grab, the flats were a little bit more open as backup linebacker Mykal Walker struggled in coverage. Elliott capped that first scoring drive with an 11-yard touchdown on a swing pass that saw virtually no resistance. It was a common occurrence the rest of the way as Walker was consistently late trying to deal with the veteran out of the backfield.

The Steelers opted to back off a bit following the downfield throws, unlike the Chargers the week prior, who consistently operated with 10 or even 11 men within 5-10 yards of the ball. The offense enjoyed its best half of football arguably all season, racking up 219 yards, 11 first downs and 21 points.

Then with a 21-10 halftime lead, things went a bit conservative and traces of the "normal" 2023 Patriots attack were evident. Elliott had a hard time finding running room, averaging just over 3 yards per carry, and Zappe wasn't able to maintain any drives. New England had just 84 yards of offense in the second half with three first downs and no points.

Obviously playing with the lead allowed the Patriots to stick with the close-to-the-vest approach, but perhaps allowing Zappe to continue to air it out might have allowed the team to put the game away. Zappe's one interception came on a short throw to Smith-Schuster that was deflected. After the game Zappe admitted he missed an open Henry on the play.

But with little to play for down the stretch it might make sense to revamp the offense a bit and see how the players respond to a different approach. Zappe certainly looked like a different quarterback from the one who struggled throughout the shutout loss to the Chargers. Was it a one-game aberration or something his skill set is more suited to?

One of the issues with the offense is its conservative nature requires a high level of execution, one that unfortunately hasn't been met more often than not this season. Chunk plays like the one to Smith-Schuster have been lacking, but the impact they can have is apparent.

Not much has gone right in what has been a lost season, but the offense on display in the first half in Pittsburgh was much more enjoyable to watch than most of what we've seen. Let's see if Zappe has more of that in store the rest of the way.

Toeing the line

It would be hard to find a player who has hurt his team more consistently than Kadarius Toney has the Chiefs. His latest gaffe was inexcusable as he lined up offside – well offside – to wipe out a potential go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute to play. The Chiefs eventually failed to pick up a first down and lost their second straight game, a 20-17 decision to the desperate Buffalo Bills.

There was no shortage of opinions in the aftermath of the play, which was an incredible throw from Mahomes to Travis Kelce, who circled around near the Bills 20 before firing a lateral across the field to – you guessed it – Toney, who ran untouched the rest of the way into the end zone.

It was a truly special play that could have potentially won the game, although most have forgotten that Buffalo would have had 1:08 left and all three timeouts to mount a scoring drive of its own. But replays clearly showed Toney not just in the neutral zone at the snap but lined up ahead of the ball. While it's rare to see an offensive player called for lining up in the neutral zone, it was a pretty egregious error by Toney and it has now been called 13 times this season league-wide. The Eagles have been flagged on a couple of occasions when trying to execute their "tush-push" play.

Mahomes and coach Andy Reid were livid after the game, and while it's understandable that anger would bubble over following such a heartbreaking play, I wonder if the frustration had more to do with Toney and the Chiefs receivers who have struggled so badly all season. Mahomes continues to play at an exceptionally high level but each week watches his receivers drop passes and fail to make plays. The Chiefs still have time to right the ship, but the offense just can't seem to operate at the championship level it has in the past.

Bears dilemma

On the surface Chicago looks to be in pretty good shape with potentially two picks in the top 10 of next spring's draft. The Bears own Carolina's pick, which currently sits at the top, as well as their own. At 5-8 that pick projects to be between Nos. 5-10, giving the Bears the opportunity to grab two impact players.

But Chicago will have some tough decisions to make. General manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus may or may not return, so it's really tough to project the direction the team will go. Whoever makes the call will need to decide whether or not to stick with Justin Fields, who will enter his fourth season in 2024.

The options are plenty as the Bears could deal the top pick, as they did with Carolina a year ago, and allow Fields to continue. They would still get two first-round picks plus whatever else is added to the deal. They also could keep the top pick and grab Caleb Williams, or whichever quarterback they deem worthy of the first overall selection.

Fields has a tantalizing set of skills but remains very much a work in progress. He is 8-26 as the Bears starter after being selected 11th overall in 2023. He has yet to develop fully as a pocket passer and does his best work as a runner. Since returning from a thumb injury he has strung together some promising performances, but his penchant for mistakes has persisted.

Fields almost certainly won't have his fifth-year option picked up, but if he remains the starter he could earn an extension much like the Giants Daniel Jones did in New York in 2022. Or the Bears could end the experiment now and watch another team benefit if he develops further.

Not an easy choice for Poles or the next coach/GM in Chicago.

Power 5

  1. San Francisco (10-3) – The Niners explosiveness and balance is unmatched.
  2. Dallas (10-3) – Big win in Big D for the Cowboys. Now comes the hard part: consistency.
  3. Baltimore (10-3) – Lamar Jackson still misses Mark Andrews but the Ravens keep winning.
  4. Philadelphia (10-3) – The Eagles have some soul-searching to do after back-to-back blowouts.
  5. Miami (9-4) – There are bad losses and then there's what Miami did Monday night. Brutal.

Presenting the best game photos from the Patriots 21-18 win over the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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