FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ only explosive offensive play in Thursday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills came courtesy of a defensive player.
With just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Patriots took wide receiver Kendrick Bourne off the field and inserted rookie cornerback Marcus Jones. Jones lined up in the left slot and, on the first offensive snap of his NFL career, took an RPO screen pass 48 yards for a touchdown.
Jones got a block from wideout DeVante Parker and then outran four Bills defenders to the goal line, showing the same speed and elusiveness he displayed on his game-winning 84-yard punt return against the New York Jets. Safety Jordan Poyer dove at his ankles near the 10-yard line but could not bring him down.
“It was one of those situations where you have to be ready, no matter what it is,” Jones said after the game. “That’s a Mac (Jones) read, and whatever he sees, that’s what we go with.”
Using Jones as a receiver was a new wrinkle for New England’s offense, and it provided a badly needed — if short-lived — spark. Jones’ quick-strike touchdown was the only one the Patriots scored in their 24-10 defeat at Gillette Stadium, marking the fourth time in five games that they failed to reach the end zone multiple times.
It wasn’t a foreign experience for the third-round draft pick, though. Jones was a three-way player at the University of Houston, catching 10 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown last season while also serving as his team’s No. 1 corner and the nation’s top kick/punt returner. He was a deserving winner of the Paul Hornung Award, given to the most versatile player in college football.
Jones’ potential as an offensive weapon simmered after the Patriots drafted him, with NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein tweeting: “Do not be surprised to see Bill Belichick find ways to use Marcus Jones not only as a slot corner, but also as a receiver.”
Zierlein called Jones “absolutely unguardable” and “electric with the ball in his hands.”
But it took months for New England to tap into that aspect of Jones’ multifaceted skill set. The 24-year-old said he didn’t begin taking practice reps on offense until this week, when the coaching staff approached him about taking on some new responsibilities.
“Coach came up to me and asked me about different things, and there ain’t too much to it after that,” Jones said. “I just came in and just tried to do what Coach said.”
Jones was the first Patriots defender to see action on offense since linebacker Elandon Roberts moonlighted as a fullback during the 2019 season. The Patriots also have brought in defensive players for goal-line scenarios in the past, most famously using linebacker Mike Vrabel as a red-zone tight end throughout his New England tenure.
Asked why the Patriots waited until December to utilize Jones on that side of the ball, Belichick said he didn’t want to overload the rookie, especially after double offseason shoulder surgery limited Jones’ participation in spring practice and the start of training camp.
“Marcus is a player who?s developed a lot over the course of the season,” the Patriots head coach said Friday morning in a video conference. “Wasn’t able to do a lot in the spring; he did what he could do. Wasn?t able to do everything at the start of training camp, but did what he could do. Got into training camp late, into practicing full-time late. So (we were) just trying to move him along as a player. I don’t think you take a player like that and throw everything you could possibly throw at him on the first week of the season, returning punts, playing defense, playing outside, playing inside, at times he has to play safety, play offense, return kickoffs, return punts. I just don?t think that?s a good idea, so we didn’t do that.
“But his role increased from not much to kickoff returns, to punt returns, to some snaps on defense, to a little different role (Thursday) night.”
Jones ranks in the top four in the NFL in punt and kick return average after beginning the season as New England’s backup at both spots. His defensive playing time has been sporadic, but he made his first career start against Buffalo in place of an injured Jalen Mills and tied his career high in defensive snaps, playing both outside and in the slot.
All told, Jones played 34 snaps on defense, 10 on special teams and three on offense in the loss, finishing with two catches for a team-high 51 yards. It’s unclear whether more offensive opportunities are forthcoming for the 5-foot-8, 175-pound defensive back, but he already has proven he can deliver impact plays in all phases.
“He’s a player who’s gained confidence, gained experience, has been used in different ways,” Belichick said. “We’ll see what we do going forward, but I think there’s a process of bringing a player along like that, and that’s what we tried to do.”