New England vs. Carolina: Patriots Preseason Week 3 Preview
Though veteran preseason performance is typically irrelevant, the third game provides a semi-meaningful look at how a team's core has gelled over the course of the offseason. There is still no game-planning, but while the score may be meaningless, the rhythm and coordination of each unit is worth watching.
Given their track record, the New England Patriots do not necessarily need to excel in Friday's night's contest against the Carolina Panthers. The Pats were trounced decisively by the Detroit Lions in 2013 and 2011 but made deep playoff runs in each season. With a veteran core, the third game is more about reassurance than anything else.
But the starting lineups should provide a fairly decisive view on where the depth chart stands, perhaps the most important takeaway we should focus upon. The Pats had a few surprise starters against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. If those players remain with the first string against Carolina, that is likely a safe indication of their regular-season role.
Coaches have largely constructed their rosters by now, so player stocks are unlikely to shift too drastically before the season starts. But there are still a few areas of uncertainty, and with that in mind, keep an eye on these players and matchups as the 53-man hierarchy becomes increasingly ingrained.
Patriots Preseason Week 2 Recap
After a woeful showing against Washington, the Pats delivered a much stronger effort against the Eagles last week, particularly on offense. That's no surprise when considering that the vast majority of the starters returned, including Tom Brady and most of his receiving corps.
With Rob Gronkowski still unavailable for game action, these two weeks are an opportunity to see how the Pats offense might handle another absence from their All-Pro tight end, something they appeared unprepared for in 2013. New England alternated between Tank/22 and Ace/12 personnel to power the running game and up-tempo empty shotgun sets when they wanted to refine Brady's rhythm with his receivers.
We already know that the Patriots are a versatile formational team with Gronk, but it was interesting to see them lean upon something besides Posse/11 personnel without him. Carolina's tremendous front seven presents a stiffer challenge than Philly, both in terms of gap run blocking and pass protection, so a similarly stellar and versatile showing from the starters would be extremely encouraging.
Defensively, the Pats' first string held up well before the reserves delivered a brutal second half. The Eagles averaged 7.4 yards per play en route to 35 points (28 on offense), with the Patriot linebackers looking particularly helpless to cover the tight end seam routes. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pats linebackers accrued a cumulative minus-11.4 coverage grade on the night.
Philly's option attack requires discipline and speed that even the best defenses have difficulty handling, but it is still concerning to see so many ostensibly deficient areas. If the Patriots are truly going to have an elite defense this season, several players beyond the excellent starting 11 must emerge.
So while this game is typically a showcase for the starters, it is also an important opportunity for backups like Darius Fleming, Michael Buchanan, Jordan Devey and Josh Boyce, among numerous others, to prove that the Pats could bank upon them if needed during the season.
News and Notes
Easley Making Waves
It's tough for a rookie to make any immediate impact after missing most of the offseason program. But in the week since he has returned to practice, first-rounder Dominique Easley has flashed the quickness that made him such an intriguing high-upside pick:
Easley's 1st rush blazed by C Ryan Wendell's inside shoulder; 2nd rush beats G Dan Connolly to outside; 3rd rush a dynamic sudden spin move.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 18, 2014
With substitute edge-rushers Michael Buchanan and Will Smith floundering thus far, the Patriots' pass rush is beginning to look dangerously thin once again. Even with the steadiness of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, New England needs depth to relieve pressure and provide invaluable rest for their bookend duo.
Easley is beginning to look like the most viable candidate. That's a lot of responsibility for a rookie still assimilating himself into the system, but as a pure sub-package specialist early on, there is reason to believe that Easley could make an important impact early in the season.
Pats fans have come to expect the worst in regards to Rob Gronkowski's health, but this summer has provided only good news. As Erik Frenz of Boston.com relays, Gronk took another step forward in his rehab this week, returning to 11-on-11 team drills:
Gronkowski still hasn't participating as a blocker in team drills — he says that would be another step forward for him — but he has been getting up to speed as a receiver, and his participation in team drills suggests he is on a good trajectory in that regard.
Throughout training camp, the All-Pro tight end has worked with Brady on one-on-ones against Darrelle Revis. While it's clear that Gronkowski and Brady have irrepressible on-field chemistry, reinforcing that rhythm this summer should allow Gronk to seamlessly reinsert himself into the offense whenever he does begin practicing with full contact.
Unlike last season, when a plethora of setbacks disrupted Gronkowski's rehab, he has hit every benchmark set for him thus far. That does not necessarily guarantee a healthy end to the year, but at the very least, Gronkowski should begin the season with far fewer doubts than he harbored in 2013.
LaFell's Role Growing
Despite a three-year contract that portended some measure of roster security, Brandon LaFell seemed like a bit player headed into training camp. With Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola entrenched alongside a trio of second-year receivers, it was hard to imagine LaFell as a meaningful contributor this season.
But the 6'3" veteran offers the threat of a perimeter and red-zone target, something the Pats lacked last season in Rob Gronkowski's absence. LaFell's assimilation into the offense has gone smoothly; with a skill set that stands out among New England's receivers, Bill Belichick suggested that the 27-year-old could emerge as an underrated contributor to the offense, per NESN's Doug Kyed:
He’s gotten better at the routes that we run. Kinda — the deep out route that he ran in the game was good. He created a lot of separation on that. He’s got a good skill set — little different than some of our other guys.He’s finding different ways to contribute, whether it’s blocking, receiving, special teams. He’s done whatever we’ve asked him to do, he’s done it well, he’s gotten better at it. I think he’ll be able to carve out a role for himself here — might be a big one. I don’t know. We’ll see.
It's worth noting that LaFell was not particularly prolific as a deep receiver last season, with a deep-ball catch rate of 25 percent that ranked 61st among receivers. But in 2012, he doubled that mark with a 50 percent mark that ranked ninth in the league. LaFell may not be Randy Moss circa 2007, but expect to see plenty of seam and fade routes from him this year.
As was the case last week, it is hard to accurately determine who will suit up against the Panthers, since the Pats are not required to release a formal injury report. However, these players have missed practice or worked separately from the team this week, making them unlikely to play on Friday night:
*All injury information via Boston.com's Erik Frenz.
There aren't any real surprises on that list, as the vast majority of those players have been missing for weeks. Vollmer is the new absence this week, but it appears that the hulking right tackle is merely dealing with a short-term malady:
league source says Sebastian Vollmer has a foot injury but it is not considered serious #patriots— shalise manza young (@shalisemyoung) August 20, 2014
Vollmer's absence will provide Marcus Cannon first-team reps at right tackle, where he filled in ably during the second half of the season. Jordan Devey and Cameron Fleming will also receive extensive time at tackle with the second team; the former may even play wire-to-wire if he remains the first-team right guard.
New acquisitions Jerel Worthy and Ben Bass also figure to see their first game action this week. Neither are locks to make the roster after arriving so late, but both are practice squad eligible under the new bylines. The former second-rounder Worthy is especially worth keeping an eye on, as he holds potential as an interior pass-rusher.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Jamie Collins vs. Greg Olsen
While most eyes will be on Darrelle Revis against first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin, that's not necessarily the most important matchup. In truth, it would be shocking if Revis did not win that matchup against the immensely talented yet raw rookie.
Instead, Collins vs. Olsen is a matchup that could have more important long-term ramifications. Collins has the potential to be a disruptive chess piece, one capable of blitzing effectively as well as covering tight ends. Collins has played just 18 snaps in the preseason (all against the Eagles), so Friday will be his only extended live opportunity to show how his coverage has progressed.
Olsen remains a difficult matchup and perhaps the top target in the Panthers passing game this season. Last season, the 29-year-old had a career-high 73 receptions, including five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots last season. Safety Duron Harmon generally drew the Olsen assignment in 2013, but considering his success against the likes of Coby Fleener and Dennis Pitta, look for Collins to draw these tough assignments more frequently in 2014.
Nate Solder vs. Greg Hardy
After prolonged struggles against Washington, Solder bounced back against the Eagles, highlighted by a plus-1.2 pass protection grade. Going against one of the league's premier pass-rushers, a repeat performance from Solder could extinguish whatever lingering concerns may remain.
One of Solder's worst games in 2013 came against Carolina, as his minus-2.1 overall grade was his second-lowest mark of the season. Most of those troubles came on the ground, but he did concede two hurries and a sack.
It's unclear when or how long Hardy will play, as he faces a looming suspension for his domestic abuse charges. The All-Pro's absence could be lengthy considering the public backlash to Ray Rice's suspension, so perhaps Carolina would consider preparing someone like Kony Ealy or Mario Addison for an increased role at the start of the year. That wouldn't benefit Solder, so he and the Pats surely hope to see plenty of Hardy.
Offensive X-Factor: Danny Amendola
Carolina's front seven will create problems, so it is imperative that the Patriots wide receivers win quickly off the line to ensure that Brady does not take a preseason beating. Amendola, who has lined up exclusively in the slot this summer, figures to have the biggest advantage against either Charles Godfrey or rookie Bene Benwikere.
The 28-year-old Godfrey is a converted safety coming off a torn Achilles that ended his 2013 campaign after just two games. The transition has been tough so far, as his minus-2.0 coverage grade through two games is the worst on the Panthers roster. Benwikere has held his own, but the fifth-rounder is still adjusting to the tougher competition after playing collegiately at San Jose State.
Amendola had just a single reception against the Eagles, but throughout training camp, he has demonstrated the same rapport with Brady that he flashed last summer. The slot receiver has always provided Brady a safety blanket under pressure, so look for Amendola to have a big game against overmatched corners.
Defensive X-Factor: Vince Wilfork
In a league dominated by timing-oriented spread passing concepts, the Panthers offense is an anachronism. On a per-play basis, only four teams ran the ball more frequently than the Panthers last season. Eschewing multi-receiver base sets, the Panthers will often come out with a power back like DeAngelo Williams, a fullback in Mike Tolbert and a pair of solid blocking tight ends in Olsen and Ed Dickson.
Thus, Wilfork will be critical towards preserving interior stability. The 32-year-old has appeared pleasantly spry in his return from Achilles surgery, playing 28 snaps over the first two games. While Wilfork's days as the rare three-down nose tackle are likely over, he is still vital for opponents like the Panthers.
For Wilfork, this final tune-up holds more urgency than one might assume. Within the first five weeks, the Pats will face four run-oriented, under-center offenses in Minnesota, Oakland, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Wilfork will be critical in all of those contests, so it is important that he knocks off the rust before the Pats need him.
With Carolina having just played its starters extensively on Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots' first-teamers could end up playing several series against the Panthers reserves. Thus, it would be disappointing if the final score did not reflect that likelihood.
Again, though, the Patriots can already enter the season feeling comfortable about 30 to 35 of their players. That's a good start, but it will not be enough once attrition kicks in. The final two preseason games provide an invaluable opportunity for players to prove that the bottom 20 is strong enough to keep the Patriots viable when key contributors go down.
If the starters play as long as expected, look for a few players to rotate in with the first teams. Unknowns like Devey and Josh Kline are competing for a starting role, while others like Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon clearly need the reps before the results begin to matter.
Much like last week, the final score is meaningless in the larger scope of roster construction. Still, considering how effective the first-teamers looked against the Eagles, look for the Patriots to win the rematch of last year's Monday night classic.
Patriots 33, Panthers 25
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).