New England vs. Carolina: Report Card Grades for Each Patriots Unit
The New England Patriots are ready for the regular season. With a commanding 30-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers, the Pats outclassed the defending NFC South champs and exhibited the well-rounded form that should make them a Super Bowl threat.
The first-string defense shut out Carolina and was most impressive against the Panthers' vaunted rushing attack. Apart from a few in-breaking routes to Kelvin Benjamin, Cam Newton failed to establish a rhythm amid a constantly collapsing pocket. As we'll see, New England's front seven received high marks for their performance tonight.
Tom Brady and Co. also appeared in sync in the passing game. Brady had an efficient night filled with his usual assortment of quick-timing routes. The starting offensive line pass protected relatively well, affording Brady enough time to slice apart the middle of the Panthers defense, which was quite soft without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly after the first two drives.
Most encouragingly, the reserves showed more promise after poor performances against Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Pats led 20-0 at the half and continued to dictate to the Panthers in the second half, illustrating much more depth than they did in the first two preseason contests.
It wasn't all perfect—the offensive line had issues run blocking, while the safety logjam is no closer to a resolution. But there was very little to nitpick on Friday night, as the Patriots delivered an undeniably encouraging result headed into the regular season.
Read on for more detailed analysis and grades of each position unit's showing against Carolina.
Watching Tom Brady execute the offense this preseason illustrates how much the comfort level with his receivers has grown. Brady finished the night with an uber-efficient 17-for-21 line, with two touchdowns and a sterling 9.7 yards-per-attempt average.
Brady and the passing game still do not look particularly multidimensional, but that largely stems from the absences of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Dobson. His connection with Kenbrell Thompkins has stood out the past two weeks, however, as the second-year pro is clearly his most trusted perimeter target at the moment. No reason to expect anything but excellence from Brady when the games begin to count.
While Brady reinforced his dependability, Bill Belichick succeeded in thoroughly obfuscating the backup quarterback battle. Ryan Mallett came in for a series with the starters in the second quarter, simulating an emergency situation in the event of a Brady injury. Mallett's time with the starters would seemingly suggest his entrenchment as the top backup.
However, Jimmy Garoppolo subsequently took every snap after Brady's departure. Garoppolo continued to impress, posting a 9-for-12, 105-yard and one-touchdown line. In contrast, Mallett picked up just a single first down on his drive, and it came on an illegal contact penalty.
But Garoppolo's stats, which came against future street free agents, are not as important as his consistent poise under pressure. One of Garoppolo's purported weaknesses in the predraft process was his lack of pocket awareness and mechanical consistency under pressure.
Those concerns appeared fallacious based on tonight's showing. Based on merit, the rookie increasingly looks like a threat to be the No. 2 quarterback.
After establishing a physical downhill tone with plenty of heavy personnel against the Eagles last week, the Pats rerouted their ground game this week toward a more spread-oriented approach. Consequently, the running backs suffered, as the lack of push from the offensive line led to putrid results on the ground.
Stevan Ridley barely played and accrued just 28 yards on eight carries. That's a bit ominous after his second preseason game ended after he fumbled on his final carry. James White also did not receive much of a look after struggling the first two weeks and ended with 15 yards on only four carries.
But this unit still succeeded because of its prowess in the receiving game. Shane Vereen received a heavy workload tonight, often appearing in Pony/20 personnel. Friday night, the Pats used that formation more than they have all preseason, and given the strong results, it looks like a grouping that should reappear in the regular season.
Pairing Vereen with another dual threat like White or Roy Finch affords the Patriots deadly versatility. The three-receiver set forces the defense into sub-package personnel, a potential death knell against a two-back set.
Vereen illustrated how deadly this grouping could be, constantly outleveraging Carolina's linebackers en route to five receptions, 57 yards and two touchdowns, including a 40-yarder. If the fourth-year back stays healthy, a Sprolesian season should be the expectation.
This unit was far from perfect, and a deeper film study is necessary to determine how to dole out the blame between the backs and the interior offensive line. But the overall grade is still positive after factoring in contributions from Vereen and fullback Taylor McCuller (3 REC, 32 YDS, 1 TD) in the passing game.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
It was much of the same from the wide receivers, who continue to excel on slants, drive, flats and intermediate dig routes. The Patriots will hope to expand their corps' route tree eventually, but for now, the established rhythm with Brady is encouraging enough.
Julian Edelman in particular reached Welkerian levels in 2013 and appears set for a stellar encore this year. Edelman caught all eight of his targets for 99 yards, including a 35-yard seam route off a play-action pass.
That's a Patriots staple that Gronkowski typically runs, but Edelman often ran that route in Gronk's absence last season. Clearly, it remains a part of his arsenal, along with the customary in-breaking routes.
Kenbrell Thompkins has also emerged as the Patriots' best option at the split end (X receiver). His ability to win off the line was evidenced by a 21-yard out route on 3rd-and-19, while he also caught an assortment of slant routes in traffic. At this point, Thompkins has a considerable cushion over Dobson for a starting role.
Fortunately for Dobson, he should see the field whenever he returns to full contact, as Brandon LaFell is a bit out of sync with Brady. That's not surprising, as he's the only new addition to the Patriots' first-string receiving corps this season. But the timing was off on a pair of third-down routes, and it appears LaFell will be fifth on the depth chart whenever Dobson is healthy.
If New England keeps a sixth wide receiver (excluding special teamer Matthew Slater), Brian Tyms should probably win the job over Josh Boyce. Tyms' four-game suspension to start the season could give Boyce a temporary stay of execution, but the latter barely saw the field on offense.
Tyms had just a single catch, but his consistent reps with the second- and third-team offense indicate that he has pushed his way up the depth chart.
There wasn't really anything to speak of at tight end. James Develin saw less playing time as the Pats went spread-heavy, while Justin Jones' only notable contribution was a holding penalty. Steve Maneri did not register on the stat sheet.
It appears no one wants to win a job on the interior line. The Patriots consistently shuffled first-team personnel at center and right guard, with Ryan Wendell, Jordan Devey, Dan Connolly and Josh Kline all receiving looks.
Devey is the clear odd man out, as he appeared overwhelmed in getting manhandled by Star Lotulelei. But Devey is a versatile (he also plays left tackle) developmental prospect who could turn into a regular within another year.
At the present time, though, the interior might simply be a weakness. The running backs were constantly met in the backfield when the Patriots executed their gap-blocking scheme, though the zone-blocking plays produced better results. The Pats will always want to maintain rushing versatility, but their smaller personnel might be better suited for the latter blocking scheme.
Some of the reserves, most notably Devey, Braxston Cave and Cameron Fleming, struggled in pass protection as well. Poor Garoppolo was constantly on the scramble, and though it's good practice for him to get reps under pressure, Pats fans will not be so amused if one of these backups must protect Brady in the event of an injury.
On the bright side, starting tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon had a good night. Solder has rebounded well since a poor opening game against Washington, while Cannon subbed in for the inactive Sebastian Vollmer. The bookend should be a strength for the Patriots in 2014.
In shutting down the Panthers to a meager 2.9 yards per carry, the Pats illustrated the strength of their interior line. With New England appearing to convert to a more traditional two-gapping 3-4 base package, Vince Wilfork has become extraordinarily valuable in stopping the run (not that he wasn't before).
Wilfork continues to show no ill effects from his Achilles surgery, and he appeared more active on Friday night in seeking and tracking down the ball-carrier.
Will Smith, playing out of position as a 5-technique, showed up tonight with a few interior pressures. Smith executed stunts with Chandler Jones well, and although he may be off the roster due to scheme fit, he at least showed signs of life after a quiet camp.
On the downside, new acquisitions Jerel Worthy and Ben Bass showed very little, with Worthy playing with the third-stringers. Both look like long shots to make the final 53, but the revised practice-squad eligibility rules could see both or either stick around after final cuts.
Rob Ninkovich could technically be listed here since he lined up with his hand on the ground fairly regularly, but I'll save him for the next slide. The Patriots' amoeba fronts are giving headaches to more than just opposing defenses.
Carolina totaled just 97 total yards against New England's first-stringers, and this unit was arguably the primary reason. Chandler Jones was the Patriots' best player on Friday night, notching a pair of sacks and six tackles.
Jones is not new to the two-point stance, as he was often a linebacker at Syracuse, but it's still impressive to see him wreak constant havoc in both the passing and running game at a new position.
Ninkovich also fared well, earning the game's first sack and maintaining his stellar strong-side edge-setting in the run game. Ninkovich is one of the team's most durable consistent players, as he is truly someone the Patriots can bank on for 16 games.
Without Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, the middle linebackers took advantage of their opportunity to shine in extended reps. Jamie Collins has bulked up; that size manifested itself in the run game, where he was a powerful force at the point of attack. Between his run defense and his typical stellar man coverage on tight ends, Collins is a three-down force at this point.
Steve Beauharnais and James Anderson had their usual struggles in coverage, though the latter showed nice instincts in jumping a slant route for a red-zone interception. I initially believed that Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson had failed to identify Beauharnais, but it was simply a heady play that improved the second-year linebacker's roster chances.
Ja'Gared Davis and James Morris also showed up near the end of the game. Davis and Morris were active in patrolling the middle of the New England defense, tallying six combined tackles. Both have practice-squad eligibility, and they could be worth developing given their run defense and sound tackling.
Kelvin Benjamin had some success boxing out Darrelle Revis and Malcolm Butler, but the Panthers' passing game was largely moribund. That's a credit to the New England defense, which was suffocating in its man-to-man coverage, catalyzing multiple sacks as a result.
Butler continues to start at outside corner, as Friday night's contest was his third straight run with the first-teamers. He is still not perfect—for instance, he gave up a reception to Benjamin on a comeback route despite holding pre-snap outside leverage, a real no-no—but his on-ball tenacity is admirable.
Alfonzo Dennard is probably Butler's main competition for the outside corner role to start the year, but Dennard largely lined up in the slot. The Pats could simply be testing out his versatility, however, as Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington have been unimpressive this preseason.
Ryan's problems in particular are puzzling. He was beaten badly by Brenton Bersin multiple times and played deep into the game with the reserves. His roster spot is in no jeopardy, but one wonders if his development has been stunted while the Pats have experimented with him at numerous positions.
Meanwhile, Patrick Chung took his turn on the safety carousel, starting the game opposite Devin McCourty. Chung's coverage liabilities are painfully evident—Greg Olsen beat him on a deep seam route only to have Newton overthrow him—but his physicality against the run and special teams contributions could keep him on the roster.
There was also a Tavon Wilson sighting with the first team. Wilson and Chung appear redundant in their skill sets, so perhaps the Patriots were pitting the two for a single roster spot.
It's unusual that such a strong unit remains in flux headed into the regular season. But with a pair of blue-chip cornerstones in Revis and McCourty, this unit appears ready.
Special teams bounced back in spectacular fashion after a poor showing against the Eagles last week. Stephen Gostkowski allayed whatever concerns Pats fans had, nailing a 60-yard field goal to end the half. Gostkowski has not lost any distance, and his dependability on field goals and kickoffs will remain an important asset this season.
Ryan Allen also had an uneventful night after some shaky punts against Philadelphia. His first punt was a 50-yarder downed at the 19-yard line after a friendly roll. With Danny Aiken having won the long snapper competition, that renewed partnership should bear nice dividends once again.
The Patriots did not get an opportunity to practice their kickoff return with the lack of scoring from the Panthers. But Edelman continued to illustrate his immense value as a punt returner, accruing 51 yards on a pair of returns. Roy Finch also received a late punt return, which he took back 11 yards.
Belichick has his team in midseason form, as the Patriots were disciplined and executed well. The Pats have established themselves as a measuring stick because of their professionalism and consistency, traits that were on display Friday night.
The coaching staff's most impressive project has been the transition to the 3-4, which has gone relatively seamlessly thus far. The Pats are more multiple than ever, and with increased versatility, look for the New England defense to become one of the most amorphous and matchup-proof units in the league.
It's not really fair to complain about play-calling in the preseason, but some more zone runs would have been nice. The interior leads and draws that worked so well last week equated to banging one's head against a brick wall this week. Some of that was obviously execution-related, but Ridley was clearly frustrated by the lack of diversity in his opportunities.
But that's nitpicking with an extremely fine-tooth comb. The Patriots are as well-prepared as any team for the start of the regular season. With a relatively soft opening slate, New England should rack up plenty of wins before a daunting midseason stretch.
|Positional Unit||Overall Grade|
Not much to complain about here, as the Patriots were the better team from start to finish against a top NFC foe. New England has had its struggles in recent seasons against the superior conference, but with good health, this year's team should stack up against any in the league.
This is the final look we'll get at the Patriots' first-teamers as a whole unit, since most will likely sit next week against the New York Giants. There's no need to see anything more from the likes of Brady, Revis or Jones, so expect to see end-of-the-roster players fighting for their jobs next Thursday.
Patriots fans have come to expect an unfailing level of excellence from their team. There will come a day when that faith goes unrewarded, but 2014 will not be that time.
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