The New England Patriots played in their third preseason game on Friday night (which was also their first road test of the preseason), versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The third game is typically when teams play their starters most. The Patriots held true to that trend, playing quarterback Tom Brady and the healthy starters through the third quarter.
The Patriots were defeated 30-28, but their 1-2 record at this point in the preseason does not matter. In the preseason, what matters is getting the team ready to play come the regular season, while evaluating which players can play a key role on the team in the upcoming season.
It was not one of the Patriots’ better nights. Brady was not at his best. They only scored once in the game’s first 44 minutes, and the defense got off to a slow start in the first half. The Patriots also saw two important players—running back Shane Vereen and safety Steve Gregory—leave with injuries, although neither appeared to be too serious.
The following are key observations that were made from Friday night’s contest.
Logan Mankins: Key to Offensive Line Success
Friday marked the return of starting left guard Logan Mankins, a three-time All-Pro, to the field. Mankins, who had surgery for a torn ACL in February, started the game for the Patriots, and played the majority of the first quarter.
No unit has struggled more for the Patriots this preseason than the offensive line, and a big reason for that has been the absence of Mankins in the first two games. With Mankins on the field, they appeared to have more stability, and did a much better job opening up holes in the interior run game and holding off defensive pressure.
Once Mankins went to the bench, things fell apart once again. Donald Thomas, who played well at right guard in the first quarter, struggled mightily once he took over at left guard. As a result, the Patriots began giving up heavy pressure inside once again.
The interior line has certainly been a problem; at one point in this game, the Patriots were stopped on three consecutive downs, turning the ball over on downs after getting to second and one. An even bigger problem for the Patriots, however, has been the play of their offensive tackles. That continued tonight.
A part of the problem has been the absence of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was activated this week from the Physically Unable to Perform list, but did not return to action on Friday.
Left tackle Nate Solder certainly had a better game than he did against the New Orleans Saints or Philadelphia Eagles, but there are still concerns on whether he can be Brady’s blindside protector. It was another very tough day, however, for right tackle Marcus Cannon, who let way too many pass rushers into the backfield.
As a result of the heavy pressure that the Patriots allowed into the backfield, Brady took too many hits tonight—four—including a shot from Buccaneers' defensive end Michael Bennett which forced a fumble, but was recovered by the Patriots.
Brady looked uncomfortable in the pocket most of the night, and as a result, he performed unusually poorly. He completed 13 of 20 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown, but also threw an interception, and has a subpar passer rating on the night of 78.5.
However, while the offensive line woes certainly continued once Mankins left the game, it is clear that the Patriots are much better when they have their All-Pro in the fold.
Mankins looks to be fully back to form, and with a healthy Mankins hopefully to be joined by Vollmer and right guard Brian Waters when the season begins, the Patriots should do better up front. They must, because Brady’s health is being put at risk every time he lines up behind the currently-shaky offensive line.
Stevan Ridley Ready to Be Patriots’ Feature Back
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a very productive back for the Patriots the past four years, is now with the Cincinnati Bengals. It does not look like Patriots fans will have much reason to miss him. Second-year back Stevan Ridley has had a fantastic preseason, and looks ready to be an NFL feature back.
Ridley is a 220-pound back known for his power between the tackles. He has consistently shown, especially tonight, that he can run with speed too. On multiple occasions, Ridley went straight to the right side of the field with the ball, and went for big gains outside, including a 29-yard rush in the second quarter.
In total, Ridley had 16 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown, which was a power run up the middle. Ridley has the combination of size, speed, power and durability to be a complete running back, and he has put that on display this August.
It was a tough night for Vereen, the team’s second-string back. He only had two carries before leaving the game with what appeared to be a leg injury. One young running back who stood out in late action, however, was Jeff Demps.
Demps, a rookie who was signed last Friday, played in his first NFL action one week later. His entry into the NFL was delayed due to the Olympic Games, as he competed as a member of the U.S. 4x100-meter relay sprint team. Now, he is trying to use his speed to become a major playmaker for the Patriots.
While all of Demps’ action came in the fourth quarter against reserves, he showed glimpses of his potential. The highlight of Demps’ night came late in the game, when he used his speed to explode through a hole on left side. With a couple of very sharp cuts, he gained 29 yards in a single play.
If Vereen’s injury keeps him out for Wednesday’s preseason finale versus the New York Giants, it could be a great opportunity for Demps to get some significant reps spelling Ridley, and make his case for making the team’s final cut down to 53 players.
Defensive Backs Fighting for a Roster Spot
The Buccaneers’ offense got off to a very strong start: scoring on their first drive, and making the Patriots’ defense look awful in the process. The secondary, especially, was torched on that drive; including starting cornerback Devin McCourty, who was beaten badly twice for big gains by Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
After that, however, the play of Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman became much more pedestrian. Although the Patriots’ defense did not bring considerable pressure throughout the game and gave up some soft yardage, they held their own by keeping the Buccaneers to only 283 total yards for the game.
Two young defensive backs fighting to make the roster stood out as the game progressed.
The Patriots made one of the most surprising selections of the entire 2012 NFL draft when they selected Ohio State’s Nate Ebner—a safety who played almost exclusively on special teams for the Buckeyes—in the sixth round. Ebner has made strides, however, in every preseason game, and it looked on Friday night like the Patriots may have found yet another late-round gem.
Ebner, who never cracked the first-team defense at Ohio State, received some work on the first-team defense tonight. With Patrick Chung out, Ebner was the third safety behind Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson, and he played consistently from the first to the fourth quarter.
Ebner gave up some soft completions in the middle of the field, but overall, he has looked good on the field. He has displayed very good instincts, has made sound tackles (tied for a team-high five on Friday) and looks incredibly polished for a rookie who played very little defense in college.
Ebner has played better than the revolving door of safeties that the Patriots had for much of last season: Sergio Brown, James Ihedibgo and Josh Barrett. With Ebner also being a skilled special teams player, he should have carved a spot out for himself ahead of all three of them, and could turn out to be a real steal.
Another defensive back who has made a big impression this preseason is cornerback Marquice Cole. Cole received considerable reps as a nickel back with the first-team defense on Friday night, and performed very well.
Cole tied for a team-high five tackles, and also had two pass breakups. He has shown that he tackles well for a cornerback, and has very good instincts. He is also a skilled special teams player, greatly improving his chances of making the Patriots’ final roster.
At this point, Cole seems to be ahead of veteran Will Allen and rookie Alfonzo Dennard for the Patriots’ fifth cornerback spot.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots gameday correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.