Is it too early to call it adversity? Of course it is. It’s Week 3 of the preseason and the Patriots, while faltering with starters against starters against the Detroit Lions in a 34-10 loss, are bound to rebound and rebound huge. There is no doubting that. But there are lessons to be learned from Saturday’s loss, most notably how well the team’s offense can function when Tom Brady is stressed.
1. I would go so far as to say that the Patriots’ offensive line is filled with a bunch of decorated heroes. After last season, in which the team allowed only 25 sacks and 52 hits on the quarterback, they deserved all the acclaim you could throw at them. They were a large part of Brady’s success at quarterback in his MVP season while he tallied 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Brady’s protection is a source of pride. And not just last year but in the last decade the offensive line unit has remained a top notch group. This year, they return largely intact minus the retired Stephen Neal and with the addition of rookie Nate Solder. They’re obviously still revered among NFL corners. However, last night – as starters played starters through the first half – the Lions seemed to shred any sense of their aura of respectability. Mano y mano, the Patriots lost battles they normally won. Seven hurries, two sacks and five knockdowns on Brady later, that facade of invincibility was shaken. Can we assume that this is the Patriots’ worst hour? No. It’s still just a preseason game. Keep that in mind as corrections are made for the upcoming week and the season going forward. But do keep this performance in mind as it could be a harbinger for what kind of effort there is to be expected from the better defensive lines of the league. The Lions are good, and so are the Jets, Eagles, Steelers and Giants. Lastly, while porous in terms of this group's outing, the hurries and hits provided Brady with some real practice, something he's been looking for.
2. It’s way too early to start doubting Tom Brady’s prowess at quarterback. Don’t do it. Don’t even think it. It’s blasphemous in these parts. And it’s obvious there were throws that the defending MVP would like to take back. He underthrew Wes Welker twice – once over the middle and another time in the flat. He was intercepted after throwing into a Cover-2 pocket – a throw he was rushed into. But as the game wore on, Brady’s decisions came quicker and more forcefully. All last week he talked about getting game ready and preparing for the season under the duress of live action, game tempo. Against the Lions, he was hurried repeatedly giving him a taste of NFL tempo at its highest level. I think this effort will do a greater good in getting Brady back into midseason form, moreso than anything the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could’ve done for him. We saw the development of his preparation through the progression of this game. It was in tune with what he has been telling us.
3. Wes Welker’s injury, however significant or insignificant, could impact the roster decisions the Patriots make toward their final 53. On a team that is widely considered to keep six receivers (not including the hybrid receiver / tight end Aaron Hernandez), Welker’s status throws the competition for another loop. Brandon Tate, who made his debut effort with three catches for 41 yards, is likely safe from scrutiny if Welker is expected to miss time. The same can be said for Matthew Slater, who was competing for a place on the team. With seven receivers, that could affect numbers from any number of positions on the team. But pay close attention to the 18 defensive linemen, the linebacker group and the offensive linemen. Dan Connolly happened to suffer an ankle injury last night as well, putting that group front and center too.
4. No huddle offenses – How much of a problem are they for the Patriots? In a year in which we expect versatility with the Patriots defense (pick your poison with a 4-3 or 3-4), the Lions’ no-huddle approach to start the game seemed to neutralize what is the Patriots’ greatest strength. Belichick is a master of adjustments. It’ll be interesting to see how the team responds with its packaging in similar situations going forward. Otherwise, you might see more pass-savvy teams try to exploit what looks like a weakness. It’s too early to tell if that will become a problem, given the nature of Belichick’s preparedness.
5. Notably missing in action were Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Ras-I Dowling, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. I think we all can agree that these preseason games are significantly more important for rookies Dowling and Vereen than it is for veteran defensive linemen Haynesworth and Ellis and even Ridley, who we watched prolifically in the first two preseason games. Dowling and Vereen have each missed quite a bit of time due to injury and their roles on the team seem more uncertain than others. They’ll have one final opportunity to show what they can do against the New York Giants for the public, but it’s likely that Belichick has them figured into the grand scheme of things already despite their absence from outside review. I expect them to play prominently in the final preseason game but I doubt that their actions therein will shift their duties come Week 1, barring injury.
Throwaways: Kyle Arrington was beat pretty badly while covering Lions TE Tony Scheffler in the slot for a 22-yard touchdown, failing to get a jam on him on the play. He also got beat by Nate Burleson for a 9-yard TD while in the slot on a play he really had no chance to defend. The possibility that Leigh Bodden plays the “star” position, the nickel corner spot responsible for the slot receiver, is more and more likely after this performance ... Matthew Stafford, who has missed significant time with shoulder injuries, looks like a prime time gamer. He completed 12 of 14 passes for 200 yards and two scores, giving him a QB rating of 158.3 ... Chad Ochocinco had a tough outing. He was dinged for a penalty after getting walloped in the first quarter, dropped a pass and recorded no catches while being targeted four times. There’s no question there’s still some work for him to do.
A special note: Last week, when writing my “5 takeaways from the Patriots-Bucs” game, I wrote that rookie running back Shane Vereen is a “cut worthy candidate.” Bill Belichick is not known to cut rookies taken in early rounds and at the time, Vereen seemed more likely for injured reserve than anywhere else. Today, that all seems silly now. But it most certainly wasn’t clear then.