Forget the score. Preseason games are all about what you can learn about your team and this week there was just a few things we had our eyes on as the Patriots took on the Carolina Panthers.
The Patriots continued to mix up the combinations of offensive and defensive players with roster spots and playing time on the line. With the first cuts just days away (Aug. 26), that’s the main focus of our takeaways.
1. Has Patrick Chung taken the lead? — If you’re like me, and you were zoned in on the Patriots safeties, you know that the competition has not been one of the easiest to decipher. Whether it’s judging by snap counts or quality play — even 1s vs. 1s in the preseason— it’s been hard to get a gauge on who the Patriots want to play opposite of Devin McCourty. For Chung, who has made two starts in the team’s three preseason games, there may be an all-too-quick negative reaction to his abilities, particularly in pass coverage. There’s never been a knock on him for his physicality or his nose for the football. But Patriots fans have too many memories of missed tackles, poor angles, and deep passes on his watch in his first stint with the team. Despite all this, it appears that he has taken the lead at strong safety over Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson — but with a caveat. The Patriots showed us a wrinkle in Friday’s game against Carolina, which could help explain how the team views each player. Chung played in the base defense while Harmon came onto the field in sub defenses, usually the nickel, to help with pass coverage which is his strength. While minimizing Chung’s weakness in pass coverage, Bill Belichick and company appear to be utilizing Harmon’s strengths in what will likely be a safety-by-committee role. (Wilson was marginalized.) Could these specialized roles be the answer for the team? For right now, that would make the most sense. Of course, we’ll just wait till teams start targeting one or the other to see if they are forced to adapt.
2. Expect Jordan Devey and Josh Kline to make the team — We watched Jordan Devey play right guard and left tackle Friday night, and left guard earlier in the preseason, so we know he has the versatility that Belichick craves. The same for Kline, who we’ve seen at right and left guard, but has also subbed in as an eligible tight end to help in power packages. There’s an allure to both of these two, who may not be the most polished players, but are certainly cheap and useful. Once the Patriots decide which offensive linemen they’re going to keep, they can be moved around at will if any injury arises. There’s an attraction there that I don’t think the team will want to pass up.
3. In the 3-4, the Patriots pass rush has spice — Chandler Jones had two sacks and Rob Ninkovich had one as well Friday against the Panthers’ first-team offense. While both are very good players in their own right, it appears utilizing them as pass rushers from the 3-4 defense has allowed them to use their quickness a bit more in order to get to the quarterback. On the pursuit, Jones can be relentless and it showed when he chased down Cam Newton on a couple of occasions. Added with an improved secondary — including Malcolm Butler at cornerback — and the Patriots appear to have all the ingredients to improve upon the 48 sacks (5th overall) they had last season.
4. This is what the defense looks like without Brandon Browner — If you had to name a Patriots starting defense right now, it would most likely include Malcolm Butler given the four-game suspension to Brandon Browner. The standout corner from camp has continued to play solid and limit his mistakes. He didn’t have many opportunities Friday night against Carolina, but that’s because he was barely targeted. He had one solo tackle. While Alfonzo Dennard may have at once been considered the starter in Browner’s place, given his history in the position, Butler has somehow snatched it away from him while he has recovering from shoulder surgery. (It was Dennard’s first preseason action Friday.) The Patriots look like they’re comfortable with Dennard and Kyle Arrington as slot corners in the defense, which bolsters Butler’s role on the team.
5. The offense is peaking — The Patriots don’t need a fourth preseason game. After two games of 30-point performances (yes, even in exhibition games) you can tell that Tom Brady and the gang are ready to kick tail this fall. On Friday, they racked up 405 yards of offense, 22 first downs, and ran 67 plays while Brady continued to be his super efficient, almost deity like self, completing 17 of 21 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. It’s enough to make you wonder why must we suffer through a fourth practice game. Let’s be done with it. And if the NFL wants that week for another layer of playoffs, so be it.