Five takeaways from the Patriots’ preseason opener, which saw Bill Belichick’s team score 26 unanswered points and post a 26-17 victory in spite of neither Tom Brady nor Rob Gronkowski taking the field…
HOYER STRUGGLES EARLY
With Brady’s preseason debut limited to leading the team out of the tunnel prior at the start of the night, the duties behind center were tasked to Brian Hoyer. And after an offseason in which so much time was spent discussing the Patriots’ decisions and future related to the quarterback position, Hoyer’s early performance was not particularly reassuring.
While Washington took the field without much of its starting defense, Hoyer was joined by a unit mostly representative of New England’s first team. He played behind what could well be the Pats’ starting offensive line, with Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and La’Adrian Waddle from left to right. He didn’t have Rob Gronkowski, but did have veteran Dwayne Allen. His receivers included Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett, the top three of the team’s depth chart at that position.
That group played together deep into the second quarter, with others rotated in periodically. Yet against the Redskins’ second string, the Patriots couldn’t get anything going. Their first five drives ended in punts, with the longest series lasting five plays and gaining 20 yards, and three of those possessions enduring only three plays.
Hoyer’s greatest asset is his experience, which includes 37 career starts and parts of four previous seasons within the Patriots’ system. But he didn’t look like a 10-year veteran. Nothing appeared smooth, or clean, and with three minutes to go in the second quarter he was 3-for-9, and had thrown for a total of nine yards.
From there, things got better. The Pats rallied for a field goal before halftime, then opened the second half with marches of 19 plays for 84 yards and 16 plays for 90 yards. Hoyer hit on 10 of his 11 throws after intermission, and ultimately finished 17-of-25 for 147 yards — but by then the Redskins were even deeper into their roster defensively, and cause for concern about the backup quarterback had been affirmed.
HILL MAKES HIS CASE
An ongoing theme of this preseason should be the fight for roster spots at running back, and the winner of that competition in the first contest was Jeremy Hill. Ralph Webb scored two touchdowns (with a couple of two-point conversions), and Mike Gillislee looked powerful in picking up a couple of fourth-and-shorts, but Hill’s consistency stood out.
He totaled 51 yards on 11 carries, good for 4.6 per attempt. He caught both of his targets out of the backfield, showing a skill that was downplayed during his days in Cincinnati. He showed a nose for the goal line in barreling backward into the end zone. And he did a good job in pass protection.
Hill was cast off after an ankle injury truncated his season seven games into 2017. But in each of the three previous seasons he had at least 222 carries and nine touchdowns for the Bengals. And he’s still only 25 years old. If Hill can use a 6-foot, 1-inch, 230-pound frame to run the ball with power, and shows enough in the passing game to validate his versatility, he could have a chance to not only win a roster spot but a legitimate role in New England’s offense.
Last preseason, much was made about the way the Patriots were using Dion Lewis, with some speculating that his job could’ve been in jeopardy because he was staying on the field later than expected in exhibition games. In the end, it was likely a result of the coaching deciding that a player who’d missed significant time with injuries needed the game-speed reps.
That came to mind when Dont’a Hightower was still on the field as halftime approached Thursday night. He played only five games last season before a torn pectoral put him on injured reserve, and not only did the preseason opener mark his return to the field, it also presented the Pats with the first opportunity for their defensive centerpiece to work with de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores. Communication between the two will be critical, and with no joint practices and limited scrimmage time in workouts, game time is precious.
Within the defense, Hightower took his spot on the edge, while Elandon Roberts got a lot of work in a more traditional middle linebacker role. Hightower didn’t make any big plays, but he took on contact and his coaches kept putting him out there with seemingly little concern for injury risk.
Both of those are positive signs for the heart of the Patriots’ defense.
STARTING DEFENSE HAD DIFFICULTIES
With so much made of the low-tempo approach the Pats have taken to training camp, and how little time has been spent hitting, the Patriots’ defense came out looking sharp. They ended the first series with three in-their-tracks tackles, from Eric Rowe, then Roberts, then Patrick Chung. Rowe and
Kyle Van Noy then blew up a run at the line of scrimmage at the start of the next series.
From there, though, it got ugly. The Redskins were able to crack some holes, and their second-tier receivers beat Patriots starters in one-on-one matchups — with Stephon Gilmore and Van Noy each getting toasted for big plays on crossing routes. After the initial punt, Washington netted better than seven yards per play on its next four possessions, eventually opening up a 17-0 lead built in part on poor tackling and lacking coverage from players expected to contribute for New England this season.
Of course, there’s little gameplanning for the preseason opener. Adjustments aren’t necessarily made with the opponent in mind. The true test for Flores’s group will come when things kick off for real on Sept. 9 — but for now there appears plenty of work to be done.
INDIVIDUALS MAKING STATEMENTS
Among those seizing the opportunity to prove themselves on the season’s first night against another team were Derek Rivers and Julian Edelman, both of whom are coming off ACL reconstructions. Rivers was a presence as a pass rusher, while Edelman got his legs underneath him without being targeted with a pass.
Also of note: rookie Riley McCarron got the first opportunities as a returner, fielding both kickoffs and punts, the latter role up for grabs after Danny Amendola went to Miami and Edelman was suspended for the first four regular-season games; Cordarelle Patterson had a couple of nice catches, after what has reportedly been a strong camp, but he wasn’t on the field until the late stages of the second quarter; Eric Decker got his feet wet, too, but Devin Lucien (four catches, 71 yards) outshined both Patterson and Decker; rookie tight end Ryan Izzo had three catches for 15 yards, but his biggest highlight might’ve been the block that sealed Webb’s first touchdown run; punter Ryan Allen, who has competition in camp, had an impressive night with an average of 50.7 yards per boot; rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley had a solid night at linebacker, ranking second on the team with six tackles, including two for loss, and he also hit the quarterback once.
They’ll all get a chance to make their mark again next Thursday, when the Patriots host the Eagles.