FOXBORO, Mass. — Sporting their beloved red throwback jerseys for the first time in a decade, the New England Patriots decimated the visiting Detroit Lions on Sunday, cruising to a 29-0 victory at Gillette Stadium.
Here are six takeaways from that win, which featured a smothering defensive performance and an impressive first start from quarterback Bailey Zappe:
1. Defense makes a statement
Really? This was the NFL’s top-ranked offense entering Week 5? The Lions — who racked up 35, 36, 24 and 45 points in their first four games — looked like nothing of the sort against the Patriots’ aggressive, playmaking defense, which posted its first shutout since Week 11 of last season.
Matthew Judon hounded Jared Goff throughout the afternoon, registering two sacks and four quarterback hits, including a sack-fumble that Kyle Dugger returned 59 yards for a touchdown. Judon’s six sacks are the most ever by a Patriots defender in the team’s first five games.
Dugger’s scoop-and-score came on one of the Lions’ six fourth-down conversion attempts, with head coach Dan Campbell passing up a 50-yard field-goal try to go for it on fourth-and-9. They went 0-for-6 on those as New England’s defense excelled in clutch situations.
Detroit also went 0-for-3 in the red zone, with Jack Jones snuffing out one scoring chance with an acrobatic interception. It was the third takeaway in the last two games for the rookie cornerback, who rotated in with starters Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills.
2. Bailey Zappe shines
This was exactly the type of performance the Patriots were hoping for from their third-string rookie quarterback. Zappe, elevated to QB1 with Mac Jones still nursing a high ankle sprain and Brian Hoyer on injured reserve, didn’t post gaudy passing stats but was highly efficient, going 17-for-21 for 188 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
Zappe was neither sacked nor hit in the game — he evaded No. 2 overall pick Aiden Hutchinson with a slick juke on one dropback — and the Patriots finished the game without a three-and-out. His interception came on a mistake by Nelson Agholor, who bobbled a pass directly into the arms of a Lions defensive back. (Agholor did not play the rest of the game, with the Patriots later announcing he was dealing with a hamstring injury.)
Cheers of “Za-ppe, Za-ppe” could be heard as the QB took a pair of kneeldowns in the final minute.
The “play Zappe over Jones” chatter you’ll surely hear on sports talk radio this week is premature. But the Patriots can feel secure in Zappe’s ability to hold down the fort until their preferred starter is able to return.
3. Receiver rotation
The Patriots made the unusual decision to activate six wide receivers for this game, up from their usual four or five. Bill Belichick said in his pregame radio interview that all six would factor into the game plan, and they did, with New England cycling through more than a half-dozen receiver combinations.
DeVante Parker, Meyers and Kendrick Bourne were the Patriots’ most commonly used trio in the first half — with Bourne seeing his largest workload of the season to date — but they also deployed:
DeVante Parker – Kendrick Bourne – Nelson Agholor
Jakobi Meyers – Nelson Agholor – Tyquan Thornton
Nelson Agholor – Tyquan Thornton – Lil’Jordan Humphrey
Nelson Agholor – Tyquan Thornton – Kendrick Bourne
DeVante Parker – Kendrick Bourne – Tyquan Thornton
DeVante Parker – Jakobi Meyers – Lil’Jordan Humphrey
Jakobi Meyers – Kendrick Bourne – Tyquan Thornton
Jakobi Meyers – Tyquan Thornton – Lil’Jordan Humphrey
Meyers was New England’s leading receiver, snagging seven receptions on eight targets for 111 yards and a touchdown after missing the previous two games with a knee injury. Thornton, who was activated off injured reserve Saturday, caught two of his three targets for 7 yards in his NFL debut. Bourne caught one pass on one target for 1 yard and was penalized twice. Parker finished without a catch but picked up two defensive pass interference penalties totaling 47 yards.
4. Can’t stop Stevenson
The Lions’ run defense might be the worst in the NFL, and Rhamondre Stevenson took full advantage Sunday, rumbling for 161 yards on 25 carries in his best performance as a pro.
Forty-nine of those yards came on one first-quarter carry that featured no fewer than five broken tackles.
As was the case after the Patriots’ Week 2 win in Pittsburgh, the offensive line deserves kudos for its performance Sunday. It kept Zappe clean — Detroit’s only sack was wiped out by a penalty — and did a great job of clearing holes for the hard-charging Stevenson.
Starter Damien Harris exited the game with a hamstring injury before halftime, leaving Stevenson as the Patriots’ only available running back. He played every snap the rest of the way. If Harris’ injury causes him to miss time, the Patriots may need to begin relying on rookie Pierre Strong (a healthy scratch Sunday) or practice squadders J.J. Taylor and Kevin Harris for depth purposes. Ty Montgomery also is eligible to return from injured reserve next week, though it’s unclear whether he’ll be healthy enough to do so.
The Patriots are in good hands with Stevenson, though, who continues to look like a star in the making.
5. Hunter Henry breaks out
Largely invisible during the opening month of the season, Henry delivered an encouraging performance Sunday with four catches on five targets for 54 yards. All four of those receptions moved the chains, including a diving 6-yard pickup on third-and-3.
It was a much-needed bounce-back for the high-priced tight end, and it came while the Patriots were shorthanded at the position. Jonnu Smith was unavailable with an ankle injury, and elevated practice squadder Matt Sokol did not play an offensive snap until the fourth quarter. New England continued to use Humphrey as a pseudo tight end in certain situations, and Marcus Cannon came in as an extra O-lineman on a handful of snaps.
6. Easy road ahead
The Patriots improved their record to 2-3, and a string of five more winnable games awaits them on their upcoming schedule. They’ll visit the Jacoby Brissett-led Cleveland Browns next Sunday before taking on the Chicago Bears, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts and Jets again, with a bye week before the second New York matchup.
If the Patriots play the way they have in last week’s overtime loss in Green Bay and Sunday’s beatdown of the Lions, they can emerge from that cupcake stretch above .500, putting them squarely in the AFC playoff race.