TAMPA — The NFL’s sausage factory is hard to look at.
That’s the way one general manager referred to preseason football in a conversation last week.
“We’re making the sausage,” he said. “It’s something you really shouldn’t see, because it ain’t pretty.”
It certainly wasn’t pretty on Friday night in the Patriots’ 30-28 loss to the Buccaneers that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Patriots’ starters trailed, 23-7, deep in the third quarter. Tom Brady was hit about as many times as he completed passes in the first half (9 of 14, 80 yards, one interception).
“It was tough to watch anything offensively,” coach Bill Belichick said after the game.
That it was, but there were things you could discern as the Patriots ramp up their preparation for the regular season.
Here are some of the things we know, and don’t know, about the Patriots heading into the final two weeks before the regular season:
■ They will have no problem defending the run.
That bodes well in the AFC East, where the quarterbacks may be lacking but the teams want to establish the run first to keep their passers out of long yardage. Good luck doing any of that against the Patriots. Belichick’s teams always have been tough against the run, but the Patriots appear to be even better this year. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love are formidable in the middle. Ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are much better at holding the edge than projected. And then there are the linebackers. In terms of stopping the run, it may be hard to find a unit better than Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower — save the 49ers and Texans. It’s promising that the Patriots are so good against the run, but this isn’t 2002. Teams now live and die by the pass. At least we know the Patriots will be forcing them to convert long yardages. That’s where you start.
■ We still don’t know about the secondary.
It is work in progress. If you had flashbacks to last year when Vincent Jackson shredded the Patriots, you weren’t alone. Jackson didn’t have much trouble catching three passes for 49 yards on the opening drive as the Buccaneers scored on eight plays to take the lead. To be fair, the Patriots played vanilla. But it was interesting to see the Patriots trying some nickel with Marquice Cole in the slot in place of Kyle Arrington, who stayed outside where Ras-I Dowling normally would be. Cole has been one of the surprises of camp and appears to be headed toward a roster spot with his special teams skills. With Patrick Chung out of the lineup because of injury, the safety play seemed spotty next to Steve Gregory. It’s a group that will have to evolve over the season.
■ It doesn’t look like Brady has instant chemistry with Brandon Lloyd.
From what we saw during practice, it looked like Brady and his newest receiver toy had been playing together for years. They routinely made big plays, and while it wasn’t exactly Randy Moss-like chemistry, it was promising. In two preseason games, the Brady-Lloyd connection is far from a finished product. Doesn’t matter. Aaron Hernandez has ascended to Brady’s No. 1 option, with Wes Welker next, and then Rob Gronkowski depending on matchups. Brady looks incomplete when Welker isn’t in the lineup, like Friday night.
■ The Patriots are more in love with the tight end.
With Daniel Fells on the field, we saw the Patriots use more three-tight-end sets than ever. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots don’t keep any fullbacks after Spencer Larsen got hurt against the Buccaneers. Put Fells/Hernandez out there between the 20s, use guard/center Ryan Wendell in short yardage, and be done with it.
■ We repeat: Don’t worry about the offensive line
Yes, Brady took a bunch of hits. That tends to happen in the regular season, as well. They’ll have the pieces in place at some point. Logan Mankins instantly made the line better. Sebastian Vollmer will have the same effect. And did you notice that Dan Connolly was back at center for the first time in weeks? Let the Brian Waters watch commence (we’re betting after the Giants game). Nate Solder was better. Franchise left tackles are not built in three weeks.
■ Ridley’s the running back — for now.
You combine Stevan Ridley’s 87 yards on 16 carries and Shane Vereen, again, hopping off the field with an injury, and any competition is over. But Ridley will have to be better at the little things, such as ball security (no small thing) and blitz pickup, to hold onto the job. And how about Jeff Demps? The guy doesn’t even know where he is and he exploded for 41 yards on three carries. Doesn’t even matter that it was during scrub time, the kid showed the instincts he needed to. Doesn’t look like he’s a natural pass catcher, and durability and ball security have been an issue for him. But on first impressions, the Patriots found themselves a dynamic toy.
■ Belichick doesn’t mind playing with fire.
Most fans would prefer Belichick just sit Brady behind a makeshift line, but that’s not going to happen. And how about Belichick trotting out Devin McCourty and Arrington to return kickoffs? It’s not like the Patriots grow starting cornerbacks on trees, and Arrington left with an injury.
■ They’re keeping both backup quarterbacks.
Stop dreaming about trading Brian Hoyer. He fits into the offense tailored to Brady and gives the Patriots the best chance to continue winning if the unthinkable occurs. As for Ryan Mallett, he has made progress but is not quite ready. When or if it’s his turn, the Patriots would have to change the offense to suit his skills.
The three games have not been pretty for the Patriots. But they aren’t meant to be. They are a means to an end.
“I just think it’s how the team responds from this,” Mankins said. “I think any time you have as many plays go the way that we had tonight that were disappointing, I think you just have to see how the team sees those plays and responds to those plays. If they continue to happen, we didn’t learn anything. If we get better from it, then we did.”
The Patriots will be good when it counts. They always are.