FOXBOROUGH The Patriots have moved Chandler Jones around in the defensive front since he arrived in New England. That much doesn't appear to change.
As the Patriots have transitioned back to the 3-4 defense, though, it's meant some changes in the norm for Jones.
The first, and most fundamental, is how he is lining up. As a traditional defensive lineman, he was putting his hand in the dirt, pinning his ears back and getting into the backfield. As an outside linebacker, though, he is starting off standing upright in a two-point stance.
Jones is growing more comfortable with the new position. He has played upright before, but admits he's doing it "a lot more" this year than he's done it in the past. That being said, the coaching staff clearly has confidence in his ability to handle anything they throw his way.
"Last year, he also played some inside over the guard. He's played outside over the tackle or the tight end, up, down," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "He's a versatile player and he's very conscientious to try to do whatever we ask him to do and playing in all those different spots. He's a very athletic player with good length, good playing strength so he has a lot of versatility athletically, he has a lot of versatility mentally. He's tried to work on the techniques at those positions and that just gives our defense more flexibility."
If he keeps having nights like he had on Friday registering two sacks, one hit, and three tackles for loss he could be the outside linebacker the Patriots were missing in the years following the departure of Willie McGinest, when they were trying (unsuccessfully) to run the 3-4 defense.
One area he still has to improve, however, is in coverage. He had coverage on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on one play, and while he won't be asked to man up on receivers with regularity, there will be a learning curve involved.
"It was something I worked on in camp. Kelvin Benjamin, he's a legit player," Jones said. "We kind of joked at the end of the play, like, 'Oh, that was a close one.' He was calling for the ball, so it was a good play."
He has some athleticism to operate in space, but doesn't look completely comfortable doing it just yet. Jones would be at his best to serve primarily as a pass-rusher and edge-setter for the time being, but as he hones his craft in coverage, the Patriots defense could become even more versatile.
Here are some more notes from Friday night's game:
Attendance: WR Aaron Dobson, RB Tyler Gaffney, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Cameron Gordon, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, C Bryan Stork, OL Chris Martin, DL Dominique Easley, OT Sebastian Vollmer, TE Rob Gronkowski, DT Chris Jones, and DT Sealver Siliga were not suited up for the game. RB Brandon Bolden, DB Daxton Swanson, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Dont'a Hightower, and OL Chris Barker were suited up but did not play.
Starting offense: QB Tom Brady, RB Shane Vereen, TE Steve Maneri, WR Julian Edelman, WR Danny Amendola, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Jordan Devey, RT Marcus Cannon
Starting defense: LE Tommy Kelly, NT Vince Wilfork, RE Joe Vellano, LOLB Rob Ninkovich, ILB Steve Beauharnais, ILB Jamie Collins, ROLB Chandler Jones, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Malcolm Butler, FS Devin McCourty, SS Patrick Chung
The second inside linebacker spot would likely be occupied by Jerod Mayo or Dont'a Hightower if either had been participating on Friday night. On the first drive, Alfonzo Dennard was the slot cornerback in the team's nickel package, replacing Beauharnais.
Notice Bolden's name on the list of players who suited up but didn't play? It's still possible that the Patriots coaching staff simply wanted to get a closer look at younger guys, but Bolden's prospects for the roster are looking slimmer and slimmer with each week that his role is either menial or nonexistent.
Edelman, Amendola, Thompkins, and Brandon LaFell all got opportunities to work with Brady and the first-team offense. Brady completed all but three of his 17 pass attempts to those four receivers, but one incomplete pass was a drop byThompkins and another was a bad route by LaFell, who slipped coming out of his break. The offense was razor sharp in their first extended playing time of the preseason, and did most of their handy work against the first-team Panthers defense.
Press box discussion between colleague Zuri Berry and me: Patrick Chung seemed to play more often in running situations and on first and second down, while Duron Harmon came in on third down. This makes perfect sense, given that Chung's strength is in run defense while Harmon's strength is as a read-and-react defender against the pass. Harmon is much better at defending deep passes, with better first-step quickness and closing speed than Chung, while Chung is a better run defender and always seems to be a step behind in coverage.
One thing that stands out about undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler is that even when he allows a reception, he is consistently in the right place to make a play on the ball. Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin had a nice 12-yard reception near the sideline in the first quarter, but it wasn't for poor play by Butler; Benjamin caught the ball, tip-toed in-bounds, and caught the pass away from his frame while absorbing some contact from Butler.
Worth mentioning that the 60-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski would register as the longest of his career, if such things counted in the preseason. His career long in the regular season is 54 yards. There was little to no wind at his back, but it was into the closed end of the stadium, where he has been a bit better than into the open end.
Is it okay if I continue to be amazed at Edelman's quickness? The "squirrel" was doing his usual thing, moving back and forth, weaving his way through the Panthers defense on punt returns and with yards after the catch. On his first punt return, he fielded the kick at the three-yard line and opted to forgo the fair catch. It proved to be the prudent choice, as Edelman deked out several Panthers defenders on his way to the 24-yard line. He also had a bobbled reception before the end of the first half, and was able to take it for an eight-yard gain that set up Gostkowski's 60-yarder. Edelman could pull in 100 catches again, and even if he doesn't, he will still be an open-field, YAC machine.
Saw an interesting defensive trend on a few plays, where the safety would come down to the line of scrimmage and the cornerback on that side would rotate to the deep part of the field. This happened in the first half (with Chung coming down and Butler going deep) and again in the second half (with Tavon Wilson coming down and Darrelle Revis shifting deep). This seemed to happen more on running situations than passing ones.
Jamie Collins earned praise from Belichick for his handling of the role as the defensive signal-caller, but from the press box, it was his athleticism that once again stood out. He made several plays in the open field, including a tackle of quarterback Cam Newton while in spy duty and a tackle of tight end Greg Olsen on a screen pass in the first quarter.
One play that stood out to me was Thompkins' 14-yard reception on 2nd-and-10 in the second quarter, for two reasons. First: Brady's pass was a rifle that got into that spot right when Thompkins did, and before a linebacker could get there. Second: Thompkins saw the linebacker coming, and adjusted his route accordingly, stopping short instead of catching it in stride. That allowed him to make the catch, and still turn up field and get extra yards.
DT Jerel Worthy didn't get much playing time until the second half, but showed off some good anchor as both an interior and end-of-the-line defender in various packages. He finished the game with one tackle, but seemed to do a good job of holding his own at the line of scrimmage when he was on the field. There were some questions about his health when he was with the Green Bay Packers, as he was dealing with a back injury, but he claimed to be "100 percent healthy" after the game.