New England vs. Philadelphia: Report Card Grades for Each Patriots Unit
The New England Patriots rebounded from a listless preseason opener and held on to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in a 42-35 barnburner. The two sides combined for over 850 yards of total offense, with the reserve defenses in particular getting exploited.
The Patriots first-team offense controlled the entire first quarter, with the Eagles running just a single offensive play in the opening frame. Consequently, we ended up seeing roughly 30 snaps of both the first-string offense and defense, with both units playing well into the second quarter.
In terms of big-picture trends, it's clear a few depth-chart shakeups are coming. We'll get into position-specific battles later on, but wide receiver, interior offensive line and safety look like areas where several reserves deserve more reps against stiffer competition.
Unfortunately, penalties dominated the pace and discourse surrounding the game, an all too common trend throughout this year's preseason. The two teams combined for 21 penalties; last week, the Pats and Washington had 19 together. While many appeared borderline at best, it's clear the Patriots need to make significant adjustments, provided the officials don't loosen up too much when the games start to count.
In spite of some ugly numbers on defense and special teams, Pats fans will surely be happy with their team's bounce-back effort. The first-stringers outclassed the Eagles, providing a much-needed reprieve from last week's debacle. While depth remains an issue at multiple positions, the established starters showed encouraging signs against a playoff-caliber opponent.
Going position by position, let's take a deeper dive into New England's first victory of the exhibition slate.
There aren't many signs of tread on the tires of 37-year-old Tom Brady. Despite an inauspicious pick-six on the first drive, Brady largely controlled the tempo of the game, stretching the Eagles defense horizontally with short-stick and flat routes.
That eventually opened up the vertical outside, where Brady hit Kenbrell Thompkins for a well-executed back-shoulder-fade touchdown. For the night, Brady finished 8-of-10 for 81 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
But it was after Brady's exit that real interest was stirred. After clearly outplaying Ryan Mallett in the Washington game, Jimmy Garoppolo entered with the second team and finished the first half. The rookie continued to build momentum, throwing two touchdown passes and demonstrating a clear rapport with Brandon LaFell.
In fairness, Mallett played well in the second half. Mallett completed seven of his 11 passes for 92 yards, an 8.4 yards-per-attempt average that led all Pats quarterbacks on the night. He fared well amid frequently collapsing pockets, though the Eagles edge-rushers appeared to lack gap discipline and thus provided room for Mallett to step up into.
Garoppolo deserved the opportunity to play with the second team after his performance last week. Mallett may have rebounded, but with the arrow pointing up on the rookie, his roster spot is no longer a guarantee.
A week after failing to generate any meaningful traction on the ground, the Patriots racked up 213 rushing yards on 5.5 yards per carry. With six offensive linemen and heavy two-tight end sets used liberally, New England evoked some of the downhill power-running game that came to define its offense at the end of 2013.
The game's best rusher was the running back who may be at the bottom of the depth chart. Jonas Gray has been relatively quiet this summer, but after showing decisive cuts in compiling 98 yards on just 12 carries, he may have earned himself a longer look. His success came against the Eagles third- and fourth-stringers, but he at least has some positive film for his future.
Stevan Ridley also rebounded from a quiet debut to post 45 yards on nine carries, though he did have a fumble that James Develin recovered. Conversely, rookie James White struggled to find holes on inside runs, often fruitlessly bouncing his carries outside. The fourth-rounder finished with a paltry 27 yards on 10 carries.
The final numbers look pretty, but it was a bizarrely inconsistent rushing game overall. It was often feast-or-famine, with plenty of double-digit-yard runs coupled with plays that failed to reach the line of scrimmage. Still, the Patriots will happily take Friday night's showing over their first preseason performance.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
After using heavy personnel for much of their first drive, the Patriots' second drive exhibited plenty of spread uptempo concepts that allowed their passing game to shine. Unlike last season, when a lack of chemistry wreaked havoc on New Engalnd's offense early in the year, Brady is clearly in sync with his top targets.
At the moment, the triumvirate of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins has clearly separated itself from the pack. The trio combined for six catches, 60 yards and a touchdown while playing with Brady. Thompkins' back-shoulder touchdown exhibited the precise receiver-quarterback timing that simply was not there in 2013, surely an encouraging sign for the offense.
Brian Tyms was not nearly as explosive in his followup, but he did compile three catches for 29 yards, including a beautiful fade-route touchdown in the corner of the end zone that exhibited his leaping ability and body control. Tyms' four-game suspension to start the year means he would not count against the 53-man roster limit, so perhaps the Pats would consider stashing him if he continues to flash.
Two players trending in opposite directions are tight ends Steve Maneri and James Develin. Develin's versatility as a blocker and receiver on flat and wheel routes makes him a worthy third tight end/H-back hybrid. Conversely, Maneri's failure to turn around on a quick stick led to Cary Williams' pick-six on the first drive.
New England's favorite receiver on the night was essentially the man lined up opposite Eagles corner Curtis Marsh. While that may have skewed the final numbers a bit, the first team's impressive performance makes tonight a success for this unit.
The starters had an up-and-down first half. The Pats often came out in "12" or "21" personnel, indicating a commitment to the power-running game. While the offensive line occasionally rewarded that commitment by opening up a few big holes on gap blocks, the penalties outweighed the bright spots at times.
New England had three hands-to-the-face calls in the first 30 minutes alone, with its penultimate drive of the half stalled by an egregious four-penalty sequence. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey struggled in particular, with the latter noticeably driven backward at the point of attack.
The reserves were also painfully inconsistent in pass protection, allowing the Eagles to flush Garoppolo and Mallett out of the pocket on numerous occasions. Chris Barker and Braxston Cave were on the roster last season, but neither has helped his chances of sticking around in 2014.
On a positive note, Nate Solder had a relatively quiet night after floundering against Washington. As they have in the past, the Pats often lined Solder up as an eligible tight end to create a six-linemen look. Allowed to pile-drive more frequently in the running game, Solder had a nice bounce back.
Ultimately, despite the gaudy offensive numbers, the penalties and inconsistencies from the reserves did not inspire much confidence. This could become a problematic unit in the regular season, especially if injuries strike.
It's hard to define what a defensive lineman is now that the Pats have gone full-on amoeba with their fronts. For the purposes of clarity, we'll stick with edge-rushers (i.e., last year's 4-3 defensive ends) and the defensive tackles.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were noticeably more explosive off the snap. The latter had a nice sequence in which he stuffed LeSean McCoy in the backfield, then sacked Nick Foles on third down. If the Pats can find a suitable third edge-rusher to give Jones and Ninkovich an occasional breather this season, their production could skyrocket.
Unfortunately, that elusive quest has yielded nothing encouraging so far. Michael Buchanan and Will Smith remained largely invisible, continuing their ominous silence from camp thus far. Zach Moore had some nice rushes, but the Pats are likely not counting on anything from their raw sixth-rounder this season.
The increase in 3-4 fronts has brought a noticeably unwelcome increase in outside linebackers dropping into coverage. Considering these players were 4-3 defensive ends who purely rushed the passer last year, that's a suboptimal development. One sequence saw Jake Bequette in man coverage on Darren Sproles, which predictably ended poorly for the Patriots.
Defensive tackle was more encouraging. Vince Wilfork continued to play without any limitations on the first team, while Marcus Forston had some nice pressures in collapsing the pocket throughout the second half.
But on the edge, there's not much to indicate that it will not be more of the same in 2014. Jones and Ninkovich look as dependable as ever, but the Pats still lack viable depth behind their bookend workhorses.
Even with Jerod Mayo out, the duo of Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins impressed in the first half. On the Eagles' first offensive play, Hightower forced a fumble that he recovered himself to set the Patriots up with premium field position. We also saw him utilized in blitzes at times, something he has openly pined for this offseason.
Alas, the reserve linebackers continue to show their inexperience. The Eagles' option attack is death against inexperienced units who tackle poorly. So it was not surprising to see Henry Josey gash the Patriots' reserves for 56 yards on just eight carries.
Not all of that is on the linebackers, of course, but the tackling was often sloppy at the second level (most noticeably on Josey's 27-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception).
The linebackers' pass coverage was arguably the Pats' biggest black eye on Friday night. Steve Beauharnais and Chris White looked painfully stiff moving backward, as the Patriots were constantly out-leveraged to the flat by running backs.
Philly's tight ends also had a field day against the soft coverage, abusing the seams en route to 104 yards from the quartet of Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton and James Casey.
Much like defensive end, the depth at linebacker is tenuous. James Anderson did not play tonight, and none of the young linebackers separated themselves as especially capable reserves in his stead. This is an area where the Pats might want to scour the waiver wire after final cuts.
The Patriots continue to look rock solid at cornerback. Darrelle Revis was not targeted in his debut, and the illegal contact and holding penalties were down from last week. Most auspiciously, Malcolm Butler built off his strong debut in forcing a fumble in the third quarter. Though his coverage technique is not perfect, the undrafted rookie is a true ball hawk who is rapidly playing his way onto the roster.
Safety presented a more muddled picture. Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan received the majority of the reps next to starter Devin McCourty. Neither distinguished himself, with Ryan in particular taking a poor angle on a first-down completion. Both also spent time in the slot, so perhaps Bill Belichick is simply experimenting with a pair of versatile defensive backs.
However, Duron Harmon managed to boost his stock with an interception on the Eagles' opening drive of the second half. Harmon's greatest strengths, his intelligence and instincts, were on display, as he gained proper depth and drove downhill on the route. The second-year player is unlikely to become a consistently disruptive force, but he should be a steady cog on an otherwise premier unit.
Jordan Matthews did have a big game with 104 yards on nine catches, but much of that came against reserve slot cornerbacks. Overall, this was New England's best defensive unit on the night.
New England's typically stellar special teams unit was uncharacteristically sloppy. A blocked punt from Ryan Allen and a missed 43-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski highlighted a rather poor showing.
On the blocked punt, a miscommunication between Darius Fleming and Tyler Ott allowed unblocked pressure up the middle, dooming the play immediately. For Ott, a rookie undrafted long snapper, the miscue may have derailed whatever hopes he had of unseating incumbent veteran Danny Aiken.
There were also a couple near-disasters in the kicking game, notably a mishandled punt from Allen and an extra point that hit the upright but stayed in for Gostkowski. The latter missed a field goal last week as well (albeit from 54 yards out). It's not time to fret over the steady veteran kicker yet, but it would be reassuring to see his next attempt go well.
Roy Finch and Josh Boyce look like the leaders in the kick return competition. The two had returns of 31 and 25 yards, respectively, and the former especially has the speed to exploit cutback lanes. Julian Edelman returned his only punt for eight yards.
With no game-planning, it's hard to really evaluate coaching staffs and their play-calling. But Belichick deserves props for getting his team to rebound with a much more lively effort against a tough opponent after last week's slapdash effort.
As always, he showed he is not afraid to shake up the depth chart. The likes of Garoppolo and Tyms earned reps against better competition, and they received that reward. This week, it will be interesting to see if the likes of Harmon and Butler receive reps over underachievers like Arrington and Ryan.
But it's not perfect, though that standard is unrealistic at this time of the season. The interior offensive line still needs a solution, and the Pats would do well to reinforce tackling technique this week. Still, the energy was there on Friday night; consequently, the execution was much more crisp.
|Positional Unit||Overall Grade|
A penalty-laden track meet is not the type of game the under-control Patriots like to play. But while the grades from unit to unit were rather scattershot, the bottom line is much more palatable than last week's atrocity.
The starters figure to receive plenty of time in the third preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, which should bump the overall grade up higher. The Pats are thinner than desired at a few positions, and that has manifested itself in some ugly second-half play this preseason.
But if progress and health are the most important takeaways from August football, then the Pats fulfilled those tenants this week. Gearing up for a Super Bowl run is a slow process, so patience is important as New England pieces together a championship-caliber squad.