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After an intense couple of joint practices this week, the Philadelphia Eagles largely rested their starters against the Patriots for Thursday night’s preseason game. That adds something of a caveat to the game’s 35-0 final score and the evaluations you can glean from the game.
But as Bill Belichick said earlier this week, it ultimately doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. You still have to perform.
On that note, quite a few Patriots did their jobs and did them well Thursday.
The team got very good play from both of its quarterbacks — something that carried over from Tuesday’s joint practice in Philadelphia. The offense got some very valuable work in on the ground and saw all of its running backs have stellar moments.
Plus, the defense harassed the Eagle’s offensive attack in every phase, with a few young defensive players making big plays.
Regardless of who he did it against, Newton looked like a No. 1 quarterback Thursday night.
The stats were nice, of course (8-of-9 for 103 yards and a touchdown). But what was even more impressive was how he went about putting up those numbers.
After weeks of holding onto the ball entirely too long in practice, Newton was swift in his decision-making against the Eagles. His throws were decisive and had good velocity, again putting aside concerns about how much juice he has left in his arm.
Aside from one throw on the move to James White that was high but still caught, all of Newton’s throws were accurate. He especially exploited the Eagles between the numbers, hitting Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne in stride on in-breaking routes and crossers to allow big plays after the catch (including Meyers’s touchdown).
The former MVP also showed some hints of veteran savvy, maneuvering the pocket smoothly to escape pressure from his blindside and find receivers down the field.
At least for one game, Newton looked like a New England Patriots quarterback — something he didn’t remotely resemble in 2020. This version of Newton is a solid starter and a guy you can trust to lead the offense while Mac Jones incubates.
What’s more, we haven’t seen the dual-threat quarterback in full effect yet; he’s largely tethered himself to the pocket in camp.
Performances like this won’t close the book on the Patriots quarterback competition for good. Jones is still the future, and the future is approaching quickly.
But Newton couldn’t have done much more in making his case to start Week 1 against Miami.
Though Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels couldn’t have loved being backed up to their own 9-yard line after a holding penalty, they got to see how their young quarterback responded to being backed up in the shadow of his own end zone.
Jones’s first throw of the drive wasn’t pretty; he nearly threw an interception to linebacker T.J. Edwards as he tried to force an in-breaking route into a tight window.
After that, you couldn’t ask for much better from the first-round draft pick.
The hopeful franchise quarterback responded with a cold-blooded throw to N’Keal Harry on a deep dig to move the chains on 3rd-and-13. Then, he oversaw a methodical 91-yard drive capped off by a Rhamondre Stevenson touchdown run. It wasn’t spectacular, but he made the right decisions and kept the ball moving down the field with quick throws on screens and check-downs.
His next two drives saw some of the stuff that gets people excited.
With about 40 seconds left in the first half, Jones uncorked another beautiful deep ball that unfortunately fell incomplete for the second week in a row. The throw had Harry in stride, but the receiver couldn’t hang on (more on him later).
On his second-half possessions, the rookie quarterback was fully in rhythm, surgically dissecting zone coverage like a seasoned passer. Arguably his most impressive toss came as he absorbed contact in the pocket, reset his feet, and fired a missile between two defenders to Gunner Olszewski for a first down.
Jones still doesn’t have a touchdown pass to his credit, though that’s not on him: Devin Asiasi dropped what would have been a touchdown on a short out route in the third quarter.
But he led three touchdown drives and finished 13-of-19 with 146 yards, once again displaying the accuracy and poise that should make him a very solid pro in this offense once his time comes.
Last year, you might not have had much faith that the Patriots defense would find a way to stop the run on 3rd-and-short.
The 2021 defense has Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon, though.
Van Noy gave a glimpse of how different things can be this season when he blasted through a block from Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert to stop Miles Sanders short of a first down on the Patriots’ second defensive possession. That comes a week after his running mate Judon made a similar stuff against Washington.
Later, New England’s defense had a chance to face a 4th-and-3 inside the 10-yard line early in the second quarter after a bad roughing-the-passer penalty from Chase Winovich extended the drive.
But again, the unit held firm and kept the Eagles off the scoreboard thanks to a pass breakup from Kyle Dugger.
Obviously, the Patriots will have to do this against much better offenses than the mish-mash of starters and backups the Eagles trotted out at this point in the game Thursday.
But one thing at least feels certain: this defense has playmakers on it.
Judon in particular was an absolute menace for the second straight week, forcing the ball out of Flacco’s hands as the quarterback tried to recover an aborted snap for a turnover and bulling the Eagles in the run game as well.
“Matt’s a good football player,” Belichick said of his prized free agent after the game. “He does a lot of things well. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
So is everyone else.
He and Van Noy are putting the “edge” back in the edge rusher position group.
Another notable development: rookie Christian Barmore got work with the top-line defense and helped Van Noy blow up that 3rd-and-short, playing well in his first NFL action.
Even when Stephon Gilmore returns, it’s hard to say yet if this defense will be anywhere near the elite level of 2019. But this unit is definitely not going to be a pushover.
No matter who plays quarterback, the Patriots running game will figure heavily into everything the team does offensively this year.
The playcalling reflected that on Thursday from the get-go, and the offense executed the plan with relish.
The blocking on Damien Harris’s opening drive touchdown was masterful, from Trent Brown turning linebacker Alex Singleton into a chalk outline to fullback Jakob Johnson’s alert kick-out block to Nelson Agholor blocking at the second level.
Harris wasn’t the only back who benefited, though, as the running backs churned out 207 yards on 40 carries as a whole.
Sony Michel took over for Harris and demonstrated his continued improvement as an all-around back, gaining 71 total yards and showing off more elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability than he has in his first few seasons.
Also, Rhamondre Stevenson, ladies and gentlemen.
The fourth-round pick draws a lot of comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, but a more accurate comparison might be a baby Marshawn Lynch. It’s not just about the broken tackles and brute force he runs with when he gets downhill — Stevenson also has some sweet feet, making a nice jump cut to score his first touchdown and slaloming through people on a big run later in the game.
He just needs to avoid rookie mistakes like fumbling the football, which will only increase suspicion that he’ll be headed for a redshirt season if the Patriots can manage it.
Even J.J. Taylor got in on the action, snapping ankles with a nasty spin move in the red zone and running hard between the tackles for a man his size.
The Patriots got production from every player they handed the ball to Thursday night, which is a testament both to the offensive line and the talent they have in the backfield.
Well, the Quinn Nordin experiment was fun while it lasted.
The rocket-legged kicker’s accuracy failed him badly Thursday after he connected on his first extra point of the day. He’d go on to miss three straight kicks after that — one 36-yard field goal and two extra points.
To his credit, he did rebound to hit his final extra point attempt and added a 24-yard field goal at the end of the game. So he’ll get to end the night on a high note and show he can shake off mistakes.
But the Patriots don’t have time for uncertainty in their kicking game.
Assuming Folk is healthy enough to return to practice soon and start the season, the veteran will remain the starting kicker and Nordin won’t make the final cut. That doesn’t mean the undrafted free agent is finished in Foxborough, of course. One suspects he could be a practice squad addition after the largely positive camp he’s had.
But the glass slipper — or cleat — isn’t fitting the way it used to anymore.
Harry and Asiasi each had one big chance Thursday to give everyone a taste of why the Patriots were so high on both players coming out of college.
Both let the opportunities slip through their fingers, figuratively and literally.
Harry simply has to catch that deep throw from Jones. It’s a play he’s made several times in camp in 1-on-1 drills or team segments, but again, you have to see it in a game.
To add insult to injury, the first-round pick landed hard on his shoulder as he tried to make the grab and had to leave the game. This is the worst-case scenario for Harry, who has had a solid camp despite demanding a trade this summer but now might miss time.
Asiasi, meanwhile, was the only tight end available Thursday but couldn’t distinguish himself in the passing game, dropping his lone target. It was a well-thrown route on the goal line, but last year’s third-round pick couldn’t snare it.
At this point, neither Harry nor Asiasi looks like they can be counted on to produce much in the Patriots offense. Though New England now has plenty of other weapons to turn to at both receiver and tight end, it still doesn’t speak well of the team’s drafting that neither player can consistently take advantage of the opportunities they’re given.
–Chase Winovich has waited quite a long time to get a good shot in on a quarterback after spending offseason workouts and much of camp on the PUP list. But his roughing the passer penalty on Joe Flacco that wiped out a third-down stop was…not what anyone had in mind.
No matter, though.
The third-year edge rusher rebounded with two sacks — one of Flacco and one later of Nick Mullens — to get his name called for better reasons. The penalty won’t be a pretty recollection in the film room later, but last year’s leading sack man did at least remind everyone what he can do.
–Joejuan Williams might just be playing his way onto the roster after all.
The reserve cornerback got himself onto the stat sheet immediately by recording a tackle on the opening kickoff, which looks great when you’re a backup at any position.
Then, he appeared to get the start opposite J.C. Jackson at outside cornerback, with Jalen Mills handling slot corner duties in Jonathan Jones’s and Myles Bryant’s absences. He saw one notable target against DeVonta Smith on a back-shoulder fade. Though he didn’t make a play on the ball, he had good position on the play, and his mere size and presence in the area tightened the window for Smith to catch the ball.
Williams came into last week desperate for a spark and ended up with an interception and a key pass breakup late against Washington. The Patriots seem to be rewarding him with more opportunities as a result. So far, he’s appearing to take advantage.
–Dugger’s defense on that fourth-down play in the red zone highlighted his potential as a cover man when he’s in a comfortable position.
As we’ve seen, man coverage against tight ends and receivers doesn’t suit him terribly well at this point in his career. If you’re isolating him with one of your best pass-catchers, the advantage definitely goes toward the offense.
But when you allow Dugger to keep the football in front of him and drive downhill on throws, you see a different player.
On the play in question, he was the deep safety in Cover 1 as the Patriots sent a blitz and manned up across the board elsewhere. Eagles receiver Quez Watkins made a nice move to shake Mills on a slot fade, but that’s exactly what Dugger is there for.
He’ll be mad at himself for not coming down the ball, but he made a perfect read and a good play to deny what could have been a touchdown pass there.
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