Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 25-14 preseason loss to the Panthers, which featured appearances from Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, New England’s projected defensive starters – and yet struggles on both sides of the ball:
Primary receivers look adequate
Danny Amendola is in Miami. Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews, and Kenny Britt have all been released since the start of training camp. Julian Edelman will soon be banned from the Foxborough facility until after the Patriots’ fourth game of the regular season. And, thus, many consider the quality of New England’s receiving corps a chief concern.
Friday night, however, lent some support to the idea that while the unit may lack both elite talent as well as depth, the Pats’ primary group of receivers is more adequate than it’s given credit for being.
Edelman let a couple of balls slip through his fingers, but coming off ACL reconstruction his footwork has looked quick and sharp enough to expect that upon return from suspension he’ll be able to execute the short, go-to routes that were his bread and butter before being injured. Chris Hogan should remain a reliable threat, especially in the red zone.
And, in Carolina, Phillip Dorsett made a case for himself as a capable starter, too. Brady looked his way four times, and the former first-round pick caught all four, including a six-yard snag on fourth down, and a swing pass that put Dorsett in space as he turned it into a 16-yard pickup. The game plan appeared to give him an opportunity, and he took advantage with a performance that was unspectacular but befitting the third receiver role in the Pats’ attack.
Cordarrelle Patterson also got an opportunity to play with Brady, and to run with the ball after hauling in a pass as he broke across the middle of the field at full speed. He made a shifty move to create space, reached for the marker, and turned it into a first down.
Given the presence of Rob Gronkowski and how much the Pats use their running backs as part of their passing game, New England doesn’t necessarily need more than four receivers – even with Edelman suspended for the first four weeks. (Case in point: Dorsett was the Pats’ fourth-most productive receiver last year with 12 catches for 194 yards; the year before it was Amendola with 23 catches for 243 yards.)
The rest of the group has left a lot to be desired this preseason, with nobody among Eric Decker, Riley McCarron, Devin Lucien, and Braxton Berrios having shown enough to think they will be legitimate factors as receivers. But that’s overblown in terms of importance. The group Brady will trust may not be great, but it might be good enough.
Gronk gets on the field
Gronkowski made a rare – albeit brief – preseason appearance that was seemingly designed to get him reps under game conditions while doing so with minimal risk.
He was targeted once, on a short pass with the Pats facing second and four in the first quarter. He finished that series and one other, though Brady didn’t look his way again, even in the type of scenario where the quarterback would likely have been locked in on his tight end if the game really mattered. The Patriots were on the Panthers’ 8-yard line at the end of an impressive drive, facing a third down, and Gronkowski muscled his receiver at the goal line before coming wide open in the shallow part of the end zone. Brady wasn’t looking at him, though, so he forced a throw to fullback James Develin that would not have resulted in a touchdown even had he held on to it.
It suggested that Brady and the Patriots were working under the instruction to not put their injury-prone star in position to take a big hit, or lead him into traffic. They didn’t avoid contact entirely, as he was asked to block both in-line in the running game and out front on a bubble screen, but the Patriots appeared to prefer that Gronkowski was the one initiating the collisions he partook in as they ramp him up toward the regular season.
If so, it worked. After his two series he exited without apparent injury, and with the presumption that he won’t play against the Giants he should now be ready to go for the opener on Sept. 9.
No apparent injuries
As a so-called dress rehearsal for the real thing, the third preseason game is typically the exhibition in which a team most exposes its key assets to injury risk. Last year, in fact, that was the occasion on which Edelman tore up his knee.
This year the Patriots appeared to escape unscathed, with no obvious, season-altering incidents arising in the course of play. The closest thing was incurred by Jeremy Hill, the veteran running back on the roster bubble who was dragged down by a horse-collar tackle in the fourth quarter, and looked to get his ankle caught under him in the process.
Ankle surgery unceremoniously ended Hill’s 2017 season, and his four-year run with the Bengals, so the play became increasingly concerning when he pounded the turf in apparent frustration as trainers closed in. He eventually got to his feet, however, then hobbled off. Minutes later he was jogging on the sideline, and had his helmet on as he stood there during New England’s final offensive series.
At that point it looked as though he and the team had dodged a bullet – not only for the running back’s sake, but for a team that can much more afford to lose a preseason game than a player.
First-team defense shaky
The Patriots’ starting defense seemed to take a step forward in its second exhibition, against the Eagles – but the visit to Carolina soured some of that progress, with the Panthers moving the ball as effectively as the Redskins did against New England’s first unit a couple of weeks earlier.
The Pats’ primary group played the whole first half. And by the midway break it had yielded just nine points. But the scoreboard didn’t tell the story. The Panthers opened action with a 16-play march that absorbed a tick less than 10 minutes, and had advanced to New England’s 2 before a false start precipitated Carolina settling for a field goal.
The home team ran the ball successfully on that first series, especially against the nickel package that is effectively the Pats’ base defense, then on the second series they came out throwing and in two plays picked up 56 yards by toasting cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
That drive stunted, but still produced a field goal. And then just when a three-and-out seemed like the Patriots had figured things out, Carolina took possession with 1:49 and one timeout, and way-too-easily stomped 59 yards in nine plays to produce a chip-shot field goal before the halftime buzzer.
So while Carolina had just nine points to show for it, the Panthers piled up 203 yards by intermission, on 31 snaps. To the Patriots’ credit, they did hold their ground in the red zone, with Gilmore breaking up a pass to snuff the first series, and with that series being extended at one point by a questionable pass interference call against Devin McCourty.
But after showing a ferocity against the Eagles, failing to keep moving forward was a disappointment.
What does the fourth quarter say?
There were a few early personnel choices that brought about questions for the Patriots. McCarron saw time with Brady and the first-team offense, but Decker did not – so what does that say about the rankings on the receiver depth chart? The Pats attempted a deep third-down pass, out of a timeout, with Brady still at quarterback, to Will Tye – not Dwayne Allen, so is the third tight end job up for battle? Mike Gillislee had five carries before halftime, despite James White starting and Hill having seemingly played his way into a role with this team – so what does that say about the injury status of Rex Burkhead, who hasn’t played yet in the postseason?
Just as intriguing, though, were the personnel choices in the fourth quarter. In the preseason that’s traditionally a time when prove-it-to-me players are trying to salvage their jobs, or do something to stand out, or auditioning for another team. That’s even truer now, with the cutdown from 90 players to 53 occurring all at once instead of first trimming the roster to 75.
So, then, what can be gleaned from the fact Decker saw his heaviest action in that final quarter – and still didn’t impress? Tye was out there at that point, too, as were Patterson and Hill, a couple of credentialed veterans whose spots appear almost secure. After leading the team in rushing during the first half, Gillislee scored New England’s touchdown and its two-point conversion with less than three minutes to go in regulation.
Former second-round pick Cyrus Jones spent the second half both returning kicks and playing cornerback as he works back from a knee tear.
Particularly with no joint practices, every repetition matters, and represents a chance to show something to the coaches. Friday night, however, the players who remained on the field suggest there are a few intriguing commodities that Bill Belichick’s staff believes still has work to do.