Philadelphia vs. New England: Patriots Preseason Week 2 Preview
Preseason is a time for evaluation, as individual progress remains more critical than bottom-line results. After the vast majority of the projected starters sat against Washington, this week provides the first opportunity for the New England Patriots to evaluate the bulk of their 2014 core.
Unlike last season, when the Pats dominated joint practices against the Philadelphia Eagles, the reigning NFC East champions have provided significantly stiffer competition in 2014. That's not a surprise considering how the Eagles offense thrived under Chip Kelly in his first season, while also showing defensive strides in the second half of the year as it adjusted to Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme.
Thus, the Pats should only improve after three practices and a game against an uber-efficient organization. Tom Brady has stressed the importance of preseason reps, and Patriots fans are likely itching to see the starters after a slipshod showing from the reserves last week.
As always, the final score is typically the least important takeaway from preseason contests. But that does not mean the entire process is irrelevant. For Pats fans looking to glean something meaningful from Friday's contest, here's what to watch for.
Patriots Preseason Week 1 Recap
It's tough to derive many meaningful long-term takeaways from the Patriots' 23-6 loss last week, as most of the starters sat. With most of New England's expected first-string likely to receive playing time against the Eagles, last week's stars (and duds) could turn into afterthoughts.
That being said, there are a few players who will be under the spotlight. Quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo had vastly disparate debuts. Based on Pro Football Focus' grading system (subscription required), Mallett checked in as the 27th-highest graded quarterback of the week, while Garoppolo topped the entire league.
Mallett is still the likely backup to Tom Brady, and plugged-in reporters, such as ESPN's Adam Schefter, have shot down the persistent trade rumors surrounding the fourth-year quarterback. But if a similar pattern unfolds this week, the Pats might want to consider splitting the second-team reps to see how the rookie fares against stiffer competition.
Some of New England's top performers against Washington were long-shot roster hopefuls, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reps they receive. Wide receiver Brian Tyms impressed with his speed as a vertical threat; if he demonstrates the same perimeter prowess against press coverage, he could become a legitimate roster threat.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler also thrived, but his path to a roster spot is clearer given Brandon Browner's four-game suspension. If Butler continues to demonstrate man-to-man cover skills and stellar ball instincts, he could have the inside track on the Pats' fifth corner spot.
Conversely, we'll also watch to see if some more established names rebound from rough debuts. Left tackle Nate Solder was the Patriots' lowest-graded offensive player against Washington, per Pro Football Focus, and he'll receive a difficult followup test against Philly's Trent Cole.
Likewise, Logan Ryan has something to prove after Washington repeatedly abused him on slant routes and other inside-breaking concepts.
News and Notes
Rob Gronkowski's recovery from offseason surgery has gone much smoother in 2014 than in 2013, when multiple forearm infections wrecked his initial timetable. Despite that progress, however, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio recently relayed some ominous whisperings about Gronk's potential regular-season availability:
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Gronkowski’s anticipated Week One availability sits at 50-50, with perhaps a shade above the even-money proposition. It’s not a surprise; given the many surgeries and complications Gronkowski has endured in the past two years, there’s no reason to be reckless with his health.
Before Foxboro works itself into a tizzy, there have been no indications of a setback from the man himself. According to The Boston Globe's Ron Harms, Gronkowski insisted he has been "improving every week so far." While Schefter reported that the All-Pro tight end may miss the entire preseason, he also noted there remains "optimism" for the Pats' opener.
Ultimately, Gronkowski has reached the point where the Patriots cannot afford to take any unnecessary risks, especially at the beginning of the season. History indicates that players with Gronkowski's early career-injury history often do not make it through the 16-game slate.
While Gronk has been the victim of multiple unfortunate freak accidents, the Pats would do well to maximize his odds of staying upright at season's end.
Revis Getting "Toasted?"
By all indications, Darrelle Revis has been the brightest star at Patriots camp this summer. So when The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane suggested that the former All-Pro had gotten repeatedly "toasted" by Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, that certainly raised eyebrows among the Patriots faithful.
Part of Revis' struggles might stem from the fatigue that sets in during the dog days of training camp. Spinning the situation positively, ESPNBoston.com's Lee Schechter likened Revis' lethargic showing to that of Randy Moss, who would often play at half speed as a means of rest and self-preservation. Indeed, Pats reporters have suggested that rumors of Revis' struggles have been exaggerated:
@TomasKesete That's why I haven't given it much attention. Revis wasn't beat today on any live reps.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) August 13, 2014
A poor showing or two in practice does not nullify Revis' excellent offseason, especially against a worthy adversary like Maclin. Come game time, it will be interesting if Revis decides to shift into another gear to hush the critics.
Flux at Safety?
Though the Patriots defense is laden with talent at all three levels, the unit is not impregnable. One potential unknown could be strong safety, where second-year defensive back Duron Harmon has been penciled in as the starter since Steve Gregory's release.
However, after a shaky debut against Washington, it appears Harmon may have some competition. During the second day of joint practices, Reiss observed that the Patriots were rotating numerous players next to free safety Devin McCourty, including a pair of cornerbacks:
At one point, Patrick Chung assumed the role. Another time, it was Kyle Arrington. Then Logan Ryan.
Unlike some other positions on the roster -- where a player can be locked into a spot as a sure-fire starter -- the Patriots are taking a look at a variety of options at safety next to McCourty. Some of the personnel changes at the position during practice have been package-specific.
In reality, Harmon's size yet limited athleticism could force him into an early-down run-oriented role, at least early in the season. The Patriots have higher hopes for his future development—Harmon remains a heady player whose instincts could compensate for his physical tools, thus fostering the hybrid skill set seen among the top modern-day safeties.
But for now, a more palatable option may be rotating Logan Ryan in on passing downs, ensuring the Pats have maximum range and coverage ability on the back end.
Teams do not release injury reports during the preseason, so it's impossible to put accurate designations on who will or will not suit up. Instead, here are the players who have not practiced or who have practiced without pads in recent days, thus making them likely candidates to sit out on Friday.
*All injury statuses from NESN's Doug Kyed.
The table above is hardly a perfect measure of who will be unavailable, as it does not include players with limited workloads while they rehab from injuries (Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Dominique Easley, etc.). But it's not a bad framework for the numbers we can expect at each position.
We can see the Patriots are going to be thin at linebacker, defensive tackle and tight end. Consequently, players on the roster bubble, many of whom played extensively against Washington, could receive another opportunity to distinguish themselves from (or fall back into) the pack.
At linebacker, Darius Fleming and Steve Beauharnais are similar types of players—well-sized gap containers who fare better in the phone booth of the running game than the open expanses of zone coverage. Fleming significantly outperformed Beauharnais last week, as his Pro Football Focus plus-4.2 run defense grade topped all 3-4 outside linebackers.
Those two should receive the bulk of the reps in the second half, where Beauharnais has plenty of ground to make up.
New acquisitions Jerel Worthy and Ben Bass won't be available on such a quick turnaround, so this could mean extended reps for the likes of Marcus Forston and Joe Vellano. Both have been long shots to make the roster throughout camp, but injuries to Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga have opened the door. Unlike Forston, Vellano does not have remaining practice squad eligibility, so the stakes are higher on his end.
As for tight end, it's wholly unclear what the Pats plans are at that position. By process of elimination, it looks like recent signings Ben Hartsock and Steve Maneri could play huge snaps. One should not read too much into their showings, which could be shaky given their recent arrivals. Perhaps we see more of James Develin, who has intermittently lined up at tight end throughout the offseason.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Danny Amendola vs. Cary Williams
This actual matchup may change based on where the receivers and cornerbacks line up on each play, something bound to vary based on formation. But the point of framing it as Amendola vs. Williams is to place the spotlight on two of the most intriguing names in this contest.
Williams has made headlines for his outspoken distaste for the Patriots, evoking the 2007 "Spygate" scandal. That memory remains a sore spot for Pats fans, so expect plenty of hostility for the Eagles cornerback. While unlikely to affect New England's approach to the game, Williams' antics have injected interest into the typical drudgery of preseason preparation.
Meanwhile, Amendola remains a polarizing figure after a disappointing debut season in Foxboro. But after grinding through an wince-inducing groin injury, Amendola is now healthy and thriving in camp. It's a bit reminiscent of last season's positive preseason momentum, so if Amendola can stay healthy in 2014, he should deliver the type of year many expected when he arrived billed as Wes Welker's replacement.
Chandler Jones vs. Jason Peters
After accruing 11.5 sacks in 2013, Chandler Jones is tantalizingly close to reaching the upper echelon of NFL pass-rushers. I've touted Jones as a candidate for a huge breakthrough, and Friday night will represent the first opportunity to see if the third-year defensive end has added any new wrinkles to his pass-rushing arsenal.
It won't be an easy warm-up, however, as All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters will provide topnotch competition. Entering his 11th season, Peters remains the bedrock for one of the league's elite offensive lines. His Pro Football Focus plus-25.7 overall grade in 2013 was fourth-best among all tackles, as his long arms and body control allow him to seal off edges with ease.
On a larger scale, the Patriots need to rebound in the trenches after a poor showing against Washington in both the game and joint practices. With their starters likely to play, there is no excuse for being consistently out-leveraged at the point of attack again.
Offensive X-Factor: James White
Pinpointing an X-factor is a fruitless endeavor in a game that does not count, so we'll use this space to highlight an intriguing player. Rookie running back James White compiled just nine yards on four rushing attempts last week, while also failing to tally a reception. He should receive plenty of second-half reps, so if White is to contribute in 2014, he should excel against outmatched Eagles reserves.
Besides White's individual performance, keep an eye on how the Patriots deploy the Wisconsin product. Is he exclusively in shotgun formations on passing downs? Do the Pats split him out wide? Does he take the field as part of two-back sets with either Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen? Before we can genuinely evaluate White's importance in 2014, these questions must be answered.
Defensive X-Factor: Duron Harmon
Logan Ryan was not the only Rutgers defensive back to struggle last week. As alluded to earlier, second-year safety Duron Harmon also had problems against Washington's first-team offense, as there were multiple plays where he appeared late on his reads in coverage. On the game's first touchdown, Harmon was late in breaking downhill on a slant, taking out Ryan rather than making a play on the ball.
Harmon still has a firm grip on the starting job next to McCourty, though. The Patriots showed faith in him by cutting Gregory and failing to bring in meaningful competition for the position. Harmon would do well to reward that faith with a bounce-back performance.
An increase in available first-stringers should reduce the discombobulation that wreaked havoc on the Patriots last week. Even though the games do not count, Bill Belichick likely hammered his coaching points into the team this week. Based on its track record, New England will not respond with another dud of an effort.
Even as the game becomes more spread-oriented and space-obsessed, the narrow area of the trenches still remains paramount. A better showing from the offensive and defensive lines should catalyze better rhythm on both sides of the ball. Even without game-planning, a stronger base in the fundamentals will have a drastic impact on the Pats' form.
The Eagles represent the optimal preseason tuneup for a defense, as their option-based packaged plays require consistent assignment discipline from all 11 defenders. That's just the remedy the Patriots need after poor execution and questionable effort tarnished their defensive effort against Washington.
Offensively, do not expect a fine-tuned machine with Gronkowski and Dobson still out. But it will be interesting to see what the first-team offensive line is, since the Pats will not play their most valuable cargo without assurance they can protect him. The starters on Friday might provide an important hint as to how the competition is shaping up, particularly along the interior line.
Though the nature of this slide requires me to post a score, the final line is really an inconsequential shot in the dark. So instead, consider this a reflection of how the Patriots will rebound with much cleaner execution on Friday.
Prediction: Patriots 26, Eagles 22
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).