Five takeaways from the Patriots’ preseason opener, a thorough, 31-3 thrashing of the Lions that suggests Bill Belichick’s team has made the most of its first two weeks of practice…
JAKOBI MEYERS SHINES
By most accounts, Patriots training camp has generally been an exercise dominated by the defense — but, still, undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers has managed to create a buzz among the receiving corps. And his performance in the Pats’ first exhibition should only enhance the excitement over what he’s done in practice.
The 6-foot-2 product of North Carolina State finished with six catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns, and as impressive as those numbers are for a pro debut, the nature of that production was arguably even more encouraging.
His first two catches were both nifty snags amid heavy traffic, the second coming in the end zone after he was held while coming out of his cut. Despite the contact, he fought through and extended his arms to reel in Brian Hoyer’s throw.
His other touchdown came from Jarrett Stidham on the next drive, when he shook his mark at the line, created space, then sprinted across the goal line and caught a short pass in stride. He showed quickness in tight space there, then before the end of the half he went over the middle of the field to make a catch down the field. After that, he opened the second half with a well-executed drag route that ended with the ball in his hands along the left sideline.
There was diversity in his routes and his receptions, and absolutely no evidence to corroborate the combine data suggesting he was the second-slowest receiver in this year’s draft. After that evaluation process, the league’s own tracking system rated him as a 50-50 shot to make an NFL roster.
After Thursday, the question doesn’t seem to be whether he belongs in the league — but rather if he wins a prominent role with the league’s reigning champs.
N’KEAL HARRY POPS, BUT LEAVES
While Meyers never heard his name called during the draft weekend, N’Keal Harry heard his on the opening night of the festivities, when the Patriots made him their first-round pick. To this point, Harry has reportedly looked like more of a project, but he flashed some enticing skills in his first preseason tilt — at least until he left with an apparent leg injury.
Hoyer first went Harry’s way with the Pats facing a third and 10, and the rookie executed perfectly. Working outside to the quarterback’s left, Harry went hard at the cornerback, broke off his route at 12 yards, used his arms to shed the coverage, then went horizontal with his hands extended to squeeze the bullet Hoyer had delivered. It was a crisp exhibition of his size and strength.
Harry was aligned to the left the next time Hoyer went to him, too. This time, the quarterback slung a pass to Harry’s back shoulder, and even with a defender all over him he was able to haul in the pass. Again, the strength of his hands was on display, as was his size, with his 6-foot-4 wingspan just too much for the defender.
He scooted with the ball for a bit after the catch, picking up 25 yards before being spun down. When he fell, there was no whistle initially — so Harry got up and ran a few yards farther, prompting a Detroit defender to tackle him again. When he got to his feet, it was with a slight limp, and although he rejoined the huddle he was pulled off the field before the next play and didn’t return.
He left under his own power, but what’s concerning is that Harry also exited one of this week’s joint practices with what seemed to be a similar problem. At the least, it’s something to monitor — though it could be something that costs the rookie valuable time getting up to speed with an offense that could use him.
WILL THERE BE A BATTLE FOR THE BACKUP JOB?
After a week in which so much time and words were spent talking about the future of the starting quarterback, Tom Brady’s backups got their chance behind center. And both were excellent.
The 33-year-old Hoyer looked a guy with varsity experience playing in the JV game, flexing his command of the offense to control the game and score on two of his three series while going 12-for-14 on his throws.
Hoyer’s job is presumed by most to be safe, but he played as though he had something to prove — and based on the way Stidham performed after subbing in, it may be reasonable for Hoyer to be feeling some pressure. Stidham finished 14-for-24, picking up 179 yards and a score, but the fourth-rounder looked even better than a 95.7 rating would suggest.
There were some missed throws that he’d like to have back, sure, but he looked comfortable from start to finish. Physically, he escaped when he needed to, he navigated the pocket, and he threw the ball extremely well, even when under pressure. On the mental side, he handled the two-minute drill efficiently before halftime, and he commanded the huddle so effectively that the play clock never appeared to be an issue, nor did he ever look lost while surveying the other side of scrimmage.
Of course, what Stidham saw from the Lions in Week 1 of the preseason is nothing like he would likely be seeing from a defense that had prepared and installed a gameplan designed to destroy them during a regular-season contest. Hoyer knows what that’s like, which is why his job as the Pats’ primary backup is likely secure. However, if this proves to truly be a starting point for Stidham, and he can build from here, it could at least make for some interesting conversation for the coaches when deciding who’ll be active on game day — if not leading up to roster cuts.
THE PATS’ FRONT SEVEN DOMINATES THE FIRST HALF
The Lions finished the game with 93 yards of offense, 51 of which came on their last legitimate series. During the first half they had a sequence of series that produced four, seven, five, negative-seven, and negative-13 yards, that ineptitude perhaps due in part to Detroit’s overall lack of urgency, but certainly spurred on to a significant extent by the dominance of New England’s defense front.
The Patriots finished with nine sacks — with the Lions only dropping back to pass 26 times, mind you — a telling quantification of just how much their defensive linemen and linebackers had their way. The tone was set early, when several players that project to be part of what the Pats do when the games count for real simply overpowered Detroit’s weak counter. Jamie Collins and Ja’Whaun Bentley registered sacks on back-to-back snaps. Danny Shelton ripped down Tom Savage after collapsing the pocket from the middle. John Simon got in the mix as a tackler, then made a terrific interception in a leaping play at the line. Adam Butler repeatedly got a push as part of the first-team, Derek Rivers had two sacks, and rookie Chase Winovich had 1.5.
It was a terrific first step for a rebuilt defensive coaching staff, including former linebacker Jerod Mayo — and a reminder that as talented as the secondary might be, the front seven of the Patriots’ defense can play, too.
WHO PLAYED, AND WHO DIDN’T
One thing that’s always interesting to see in the preseason is simply who played, who didn’t, and when certain players were deployed. Sometimes it can be telling of their roster status — but sometimes, such as with Jason McCourty a year ago, it proves to not matter much. That said, Nick Brossette carried the ball 22 times, and Brandon Bolden 12, but none of the Pats’ other running backs (including rookie Damien Harris) toted the rock.
At receiver, Maurice Harris made a fantastic, one-handed catch for a touchdown and played into the second half. Meanwhile, fellow veteran Dontrelle Inman wasn’t really visible until the second half, but after intermission he made a third-down catch, nearly scored a touchdown on a slant, and showed up as a blocker in the run game. Tight end Matt LaCosse also flashed in the passing game, however he hobbled off for the night before the end of the first half.
Along the offensive line, Dan Skipper started at left tackle, where he has lined up at times with Brady behind center during camp — though the rest of the presumed starters in that group didn’t see the field. Neither did Isaiah Wynn.
On the other side, Duron Harmon (whose role decreased as last year progressed) started at safety. JC Jackson also started in the secondary, manning one outside corner, while second-round pick Joejuan Williams was on the other side to start. Williams stuck his nose in to make a couple of tackles near the line, but also took a foolish late-hit penalty. Collins, Bentley, Butler, and Shelton were also among the more noteworthy starters.
In the kicking game, rookie Jake Bailey handled kickoffs and also got the first crack at punting. Ryan Allen took over in the second half, and maintained his role as the holder for Stephen Gostkowski (who missed one of his two field-goal tries). Braxton Berrios and Gunner Olszewski shared return duties on Detroit’s seven punts.