New England Patriots: 8 Things We Learned Through Week 3 of the Preseason
Like any other NFL team, the New England Patriots' preseason results should be considered with heaping piles of salt. Though there is always a temptation to dissect and evaluate the first game samples of the 2013 season, the reality is, preseason is virtually worthless in predicting future team success.
However, the games do provide an environment to examine individual skill sets, an invaluable evaluation tool for coaches and fans alike. On top of the months of spring practices and training camp, those who could potentially provide meaningful regular-season contributions have likely already distinguished themselves.
With 35 draft picks over the past four years, plus a handful of undrafted free agents, the Patriots' youth movement should be bearing fruit imminently. Whereas Pats fans usually knew what to expect from the veteran-laden champions of the mid-2000s, the relative youth in Foxboro makes this year's preseason results a tad more relevant than usual.
Not all of the developments that have taken place the past three weeks will translate over into the regular season, when game-planning often alters an individual's role in his unit. But as the fourth preseason game is essentially a showcase for end-of-the-roster players, the time for exhibition competition and observation is over.
Thus, here are the eight most important things (sorry, Tebow time) Patriots fans have learned as the regular season approaches.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The Passing Offense Will Be Just Fine
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It always seemed a bit foolhardy to question Tom Brady's ability to keep the Patriots offense humming. The 2013 Patriots have received comparisons to the 2006 incarnation led by Reche Caldwell and Ben Watson, but that unit still finished seventh in points.
Seventh would be a significant drop from New England's runaway title as the best offense in the league last season, but Brady's early chemistry with his receivers gives reason to believe the passing offense will remain elite. Brady threw just two incompletions in the first two preseason games, with touchdown passes to Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola illustrating a vertical element to the passing game.
The rookie receivers' quick integration has been vital to the early success, particularly undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld (more on them later). Running no-huddle in preseason against vanilla coverages is roughly akin to playing "Madden" on rookie difficulty, but it's still encouraging to see the young receivers successfully execute the offense at an up-tempo speed.
At 36 years old, Brady will not be around for another decade, even if he would like to try. But at least for 2013, it appears he is set to once again carry the Pats offense to its customarily lofty perches.
The Interior Pass Rush Could Surprise
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If the passing game has been the bedrock the Patriots could always rely on, the interior pass rush has been the exact opposite: the perpetual weakness the defense could never shore up. But preliminary signs indicate the Pats might have their best inside push since the halcyon days of Richard Seymour.
Tommy Kelly's signing in the bargain-bin portion of free agency already seems reminiscent of the Andre Carter acquisition two seasons ago. The 32-year-old Kelly compiled just 1.5 sacks last season, but 14.5 sacks from 2010-11 earned him a reputation as one of the league's best pass-rushing defensive tackles.
Kelly has immediately made an impact, with a forced fumble against the Philadelphia Eagles and consistent push up the middle. The Patriots received just 2.5 sacks combined from co-starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick last season, and it looks like Kelly represents a huge upgrade from that middling duo.
In addition, ex-Cleveland Browns cast-off Marcus Benard has carved out a role as a 3-technique rusher in sub-packages, much like what the Patriots attempted with Jermaine Cunningham last season. At 6'2", 256 pounds, Benard's size and quickness is perfectly suited for the role, and he's shown up positively with nine tackles and a sack so far.
If the Pats can compile eight to 10 sacks from Benard and Kelly, that would go a long way toward making offenses respect someone other than Vince Wilfork in the interior. The potential domino effect could lead to more one-on-one opportunities for edge-rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, something that would undoubtedly be a boon for the Pats' perpetually mediocre pass rush.
Kenbrell Thompkins Is the No. 2 Receiver
Likely because of his undrafted status, Kenbrell Thompkins has had to constantly prove his worth to earn the benefit of the doubt from Patriots followers. Unlike second- and fourth-round rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, Thompkins has not had a roster spot gifted to him.
And yet, he has, by far, been the most impressive performer. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Thompkins earned the majority of the first-team reps alongside Danny Amendola, playing 21 out of 25 snaps with Brady at the helm, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston.
When I broke down Amendola's touchdown last week, an underrated aspect of the play was how Thompkins helped draw the safety away from the middle with a nice outside stem on his post route, demonstrating his high football IQ.
In the Pats' 40-9 debacle against the Detroit Lions, Thompkins was one of the lone performers to truly stand out in a positive light. The eight-catch, 114-yard performance looks impressive enough, but as Reiss points out, his ability to gain separation through precise route-running was most encouraging.
In particular, a 37-yard reception showed Thompkins using a nice stutter step to immediately gain outside leverage on Lions corner Darius Slay.
No. 85 has seen some turbulence in recent seasons, bearing disappointing stints from Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Lloyd, as well as being Aaron Hernandez's number his rookie season. It's early, but thus far, Thompkins looks poised to break that mold.
Right Cornerback May Be an Issue
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I wrote about this in greater detail last week, and the issues are still largely the same. Logan Ryan was actually quite competitive in 19 first-half snaps against the Lions, as he looks to have an early-season nickel corner role locked down.
Nevertheless, it's hard to expect much from Ryan as a rookie, where he would be the glaring target for opposing quarterbacks.
Last week, against the Bucs, epitomized what the Patriots would experience with Ryan as a starting corner—on one hand, he made a marvelous read of an out route and jumped the throw for an easy pick-six. But later in the game, Ryan had a breakdown in communication with Marquice Cole, leading to a wide-open Kevin Ogletree touchdown.
Of course, Ryan might only be a temporary stopgap for a potential Alfonzo Dennard suspension. But when Dennard comes back, he will be jumping into the fray with almost no reps after injuring his leg August 8.
According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, Dennard was a decidedly average corner, ranking 109th out of 177 corners in Win Probability Added (WPA+). For those expecting a huge breakout sophomore campaign, it might be difficult for Dennard to fulfill those expectations.
The concern is not so much the ability of a single corner, but the lack of overall depth. The Patriots appear to have three somewhat dependable corners in Dennard, Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, and free safety Devin McCourty can shift over if needed.
But if one or more of those players suffers injury, that would put a tremendous amount of pressure on the pass rush to prevent opposing quarterbacks from shredding the defense through the air.
The Patriots Will Still Run 2 Tight End Sets...
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With Aaron Hernandez in jail and Rob Gronkowski unlikely to start the season, many might believe the Pats will move away from their two-tight end sets that have terrorized the league since 2010. However, if the preseason is any indication, it appears the Patriots will still utilize the set with some frequency in 2013, especially in running downs.
Against the Eagles and Lions, the Patriots opened the game with Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld, demonstrating a desire for compact formations in the running game. The plays ended with very different results (Stevan Ridley opened with a 62-yard gain in Philly and no gain in Detroit), but they underscore the variety of skill sets of the current New England tight end corps.
Ballard and Sudfeld look like roster locks, given their presence on the first-team offense. They could not be more different in style, though, as Ballard is the prototypical blocking Y-tight end, whereas Sudfeld is a receiver-like "F" tight end.
The latter looks like a better complement to Gronkowski when the Pats' star tight end does return.
Sudfeld has looked a bit shaky blocking, thus far (particularly against the Lions), but his 6'7", 260-pound frame suggests he could be a serviceable blocker with improved technique. But even with just one dimension, the undrafted rookie has been a godsend after offseason turmoil rocked the Patriots' previously impermeable tight end depth chart.
...But Expect to See More Formation Variation
On the other hand, it's also clear Josh McDaniels is experimenting with some different formations this preseason. In particular, two-back sets might be making a comeback in Foxboro, something that would seemingly play to the strengths of New England's personnel.
Against Tampa, the Pats opened in "Houston" personnel (3 WR, 2 RB), with Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden in the backfield. While we have not seen a Ridley-Vereen backfield yet, that duo could be a dynamic headache for opposing defenses.
In passing situations, a five-man combination of Amendola, Thompkins, Ridley, Vereen and Gronkowski (when healthy) would put all of the Patriots' best playmakers on the field at the same time.
But the two-back set is not just relevant in the passing game, as it appears the Patriots are trying more power personnel in the running game. Fullback James Develin has gotten quite a bit of run the last two weeks, and he played nine snaps with the first-team offense in Detroit.
The Patriots have not kept a true fullback on the roster since Heath Evans left after the 2008 season, though tight end Michael Hoomanawanui occasionally filled in as an H-back last season. Coincidentally, the Pats racked up their highest yards-per-carry average under Bill Belichick that season, though they haven't fared too poorly since without a fullback.
Regardless, the Patriots look like an offense that will try more formation variation. The "12" package was a powerful weapon the past few seasons, but its predictability allowed elite defenses to hone in underneath and down the seams. More diversity will permit greater adjustment in the rare instances when New England's Plan A fails.
Jamie Collins May Not Have a Huge Role on Defense
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For someone who was the Patriots' first draft choice this spring, the paucity of attention surrounding Jamie Collins has been a bit surprising. Some of that stems from the fact that the Pats did not make a selection until pick 52, but Collins may also not have as large a role as most first picks typically do.
Many observers noticed Collins' playmaking ability in space and deduced he could be a viable sub-package linebacker early on. While that assessment certainly makes sense, Collins has mostly been a strong-side linebacker thus far. That typically entails more responsibilities in the run game and requires the ability to engage and shed blockers, neither of which necessarily plays to Collins' strengths.
Indeed, while the rookie has shown impressive coverage ability on tight ends, he may not yet be ready to anchor the edge against the run game. Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo had a detailed breakdown of Collins' performance against Tampa and noted similar shortcomings in his game:
Despite the strong day in coverage, Collins had some issues in the running game. He was bull rushed right out of the play by Danny Noble at the 12:59 mark of the third quarter and later overshot his gap on a run near the end of the quarter.
He still provided a highlight play that saw him fill the gap and make a tackle for loss that ended in a WWE-esque German suplex, but it appears there’s still some work to do with mastering run fits and getting stronger at the point of attack.
Collins is a rare athlete, but clearly one who will need some development. His athleticism will still almost surely factor in when the Pats play sub-packages, but it is unlikely Collins will be a three-down player right away.
Youth Equals Upside and Growing Pains
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As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the Patriots' youth makes their preseason results a little more relevant than a typical team, especially on offense. Perhaps as expected, this preseason has illustrated the roller-coaster ride that comes with a talented, yet fairly young, squad.
In a vacuum, the Patriots moved the ball almost as well in Detroit as they did a week earlier in Tampa. According to Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus, Brady completed 16 of 21 aimed passes, good for an overall +2.3 grade. And despite garnering just three points, the Patriots entered Lions territory three times in the first half.
Of course, as most Pats fans know, the offense was done in by four costly turnovers. Zach Sudfeld's fumble was emblematic of the night—though the offense perfectly executed a play action that resulted in wide-open space up the right seam, careless ball-handling nullified perfect schematic execution.
Those are the kind of mistakes Pats fans are unaccustomed to, but will likely have to live with in 2013. Even Brady himself seems resigned to the fact that the offense's heavy reliance on new youth will run the unit into ruts at times.
But the upside of the offense is undeniable. The new receivers bring more explosiveness and diversity than the Patriots have had since the heyday of Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007. Patience is a sorely lacking virtue among most fans nowadays, but it is the operative word around the team early on.
Do not be surprised if the Patriots suffer an uncharacteristically sloppy loss early on (the road trip to Atlanta in Week 4 looks especially daunting). But with enough reps and development, the rebuilding of the Pats offensive core will, once again, yield elite results.