The Patriots gave everything they had against the Packers in Green Bay, turning in their grittiest effort of the season as they kept pace with Aaron Rodgers and his offense before falling just short as time ran out in overtime. Most notable from the injury-marred contest was the growing contributions from the Patriots' rookie class, as new faces have begun to emerge and offer promise for the days ahead.
"I thought some of our young guys really stepped up and played well. Marcus [Jones], Jack [Jones], [Bailey Zappe]...thrown into the fire, first time at Lambeau," said veteran Devin McCourty following the loss. "I thought those guys definitely stepped up and played well. We have to find a way to win these games."
Zappe tops the list after being thrust into the lineup following Brian Hoyer's exit with a head injury, but he was far from alone as the rookie class made some game-changing plays on defense and special teams as well.
Here's a breakdown of four rookies that played big roles against the Packers and who should see their roles continue to expand.
Zappe finished 10-of-15 for 99 yards and a touchdown. He also took three sacks and had a fumble on one of them, but avoided any game-killing mistakes. When he did fall short the defense was there to pick him up, producing a pick-six off of the one turnover that the rookie quarterback had.
"He was well prepared. I thought, generally, he handled himself well," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning after assessing the loss. "Certainly, things he can improve on that we'll work on. But, I thought he did a solid job."
"Of course, it was exciting at first," said Zappe following the game. "It was a dream come true to play in an NFL game. It's obviously not the outcome we wanted at all. First, I give credit to my teammates. They kept me calm, they kept me…getting the nerves out of me. They kept me in my space; cool, calm and collected. And everyone played well tonight. O-line played well. We ran the ball well. It really just comes down to me. I need to make more plays and the outcome's different."
Zappe was able to lean on a Patriots rushing attack that produced 167 rushing yards, but also had his share of needed throws like the 25-yard touchdown toss to DeVante Parker and a 21-yard pass to Nelson Agoholor that set New England up inside the 10-yard line with a Damien Harris rushing touchdown following two plays later. Offensive coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge were able to shepherd a solid performance from the inexperienced Zappe that gave the Patriots a chance to win despite difficult circumstances.
Few expected much from Zappe when the Patriots chose him in the fourth round of this year's draft, but after injuries to Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer, he's suddenly in the spotlight and could be called upon to make his first start this weekend against the Lions. There were throws to build off of, but as Zappe acknowledged he'll need to make more plays, as the offense stagnated in their final three possessions, failing to produce another first down with three punts.
Developing quarterbacks is always good business and while Zappe didn't quite make a case that he can be an impact starter at this point, this experience will serve both him and the Patriots well.
Jack Jones was also forced into the starting lineup due to an injury, as the rookie subbed in admirably for Jalen Mills, making two game-changing plays in the first half.
"Jack made some good plays and there are some other things he can work on like everybody, like all of us," said Belichick on Monday morning. "It was a big play at the end of the half."
First, Jones punched out a fumble on Green Bay's second play of the game and recovered it himself. While the offense wasn't able to score off the quick change, it stopped the Packers cold at midfield and helped maintain a first-quarter field position battle.
But Jones' best play was still to come, as he jumped an out route with under 30 seconds left in the half and took it to the house for the first touchdown of his career and one that gave the Patriots a 10-7 lead heading into the locker room.
The rookie was not without his growing pains as well, with Green Bay getting the edge in the run game while appearing to target Jones' side specifically at times. Jones' lack of size can hurt him against bigger running backs, but he shows no fear when coming up to make a tackle. While he got carried for some extra yards on a few plays, he also showed progress and had some nice stops, including one on Green Bay's final possession of regulation, holding Aaron Jones to just four yards on a second-down carry.
Mills shouldn't be out long term, but Jones' development provides critical depth and playmaking ability that cannot be ignored.
By now everyone should be aware of Cole Strange, as he once again played every offensive snap at left guard. Strange has been a key component of the rising rushing attack, often leading the way through the hole with his impressive athleticism. As with any rookie, it's been a process. But with four games now under his belt, Strange is living up to his first-round billing.
"Cole's given us a good level of play all year," said Belichick of Strange's season. "He gets better every week, gets better every day. Smart kid, has learned a lot and is able to process a lot more on a weekly basis and certainly over the couple months that we've been here, August and September. That's a lot of snaps, a lot of days, a lot of meetings, a lot of practices. He's absorbed a lot of information and processed it well. Like every young player, has a long way to go, but he's gaining ground."
Green Bay might've been Strange's best game yet. Against one of the best defensive lines he'll see all season, Strange held up well inside and did his part in establishing a throwing pocket for Zappe. But his best work is on the move when he's aggressively leading a convoy downfield and it's showing up as the Patriots often exerted their will on the ground.
Perhaps the most welcome surprise was the arrival of Marcus Jones' anticipated explosive return ability. Jones was one of the best returners in college football last season and after the Patriots selected him in the third round it seemed like just a matter of time before he took over those duties in New England. It was a bit longer of a wait than anticipated, but in Week 4 Jones showed he can be a difference maker at this level.
"Marcus has worked hard on the return game all year," said Belichick. "The ball handling and decision making and all that, at this level, is just a lot more difficult and a lot more challenging than what it is at the college level. Given the skill of the punters, and the kickers, and the kicking game in general. Felt like he had had a good week and we were ready to take a look at him in that role. I thought that he stepped up and handled it pretty well. That was good."
His stat line included two punt returns for 49 yards with a long of 29, and four kick returns for 111 yards with a long of 37. Those numbers are impressive by themselves but get even better when considering the context of the game.
The 29-yard punt would've translated to points if not for the one turnover of the day coming six plays later at the Green Bay 22-yard line. Even better was the 20-yard punt return in overtime that handed the Patriots a starting field position near midfield. The offense failed to get more than five yards from there, but Jones' return easily could've set up game-winning points.
He consistently managed to find seams while returning kickoffs and it's not hard to believe he'll break one for a big gain this year. Jones isn't the only rookie making special teams contributions either, as Brendan Schooler continues effective work as a punt gunner, despite a marginal horse collar penalty called against him vs. the Packers.
Jones could eventually see snaps at slot corner, a spot he occupied at times during the summer, but coming out of this game the team has to feel good about his growing role and potential game-changing contributions in the kicking game.