Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 10-3 exhibition win over the Panthers, a victory that wasn’t as clean or crisp as others this preseason, but featured an injury-free appearance from Tom Brady…
BRADY IN SYNC WITH DORSETT, BUT NOT MEYERS
As has been customary throughout the course of his career, Brady saw action in the Patriots’ third preseason game. He helmed New England’s first three series, attempting 12 passes and completing eight of them for a total of 75 yards. He also ran for three yards, briefly thrusting the region’s collective hearts into their throats as he dived for the marker to convert a third down. He looked calm, comfortable, and ready for the regular season.
There’s no reason for Brady to play in the fourth preseason game — unless the coaches identify a need for more game reps with his receivers, given how different the Pats’ personnel could be come opening night, and how out of sync he appeared to be with promising rookie Jakobi Meyers on Thursday.
Of Brady’s four incompletions, one was to tight end Benjamin Watson. The other three were thrown to Meyers, whose three targets made him really look like a rookie for the first time in this exhibition season. The first came on New England’s first third down try, when Brady lobbed a deep throw in Meyers’s direction, but the ball landed 15 yards too far because the receiver broke off his route rather than try to run by a safety.
Brady tried to go back to Meyers on the first play of the next series, but the pair wasn’t on the same page, so Brady’s throw was slightly behind its target and bounced off Meyers’ hands. Later, Meyers didn’t cut his route flat enough as he crossed toward the middle of the field, and the covering cornerback was able to reach in and knock it away.
Add to the mix a holding call that negated a nifty run from Sony Michel — who looked spectacular for much of his 10-carry cameo — and it wasn’t an encouraging night for those who’ve come to project Meyers as a big part of the Patriots’ passing game. By comparison, Phillip Dorsett caught all seven passes thrown his way, and the contrast makes apparent that at this point the quarterback trusts the guy who’s been around for a couple years considerably more than the guy looking to make the club for the first time.
Julian Edelman dressed against the Panthers and should be back soon. So might Josh Gordon, and possibly Demaryius Thomas. Dorsett’s seven grabs Thursday help his cause in terms of securing a roster spot. Based on what he’s shown in training camp, Meyers belongs, too — but before he’s ready to be relied upon, he and Brady seemingly have some more building to do.
GOSTKOWSKI MISSES, AGAIN, WITH BAILEY HOLDING
Jake Bailey’s booming kicks have been impressive enough to first earn him a fifth-round selection in April’s draft, then to supplant Super Bowl hero Ryan Allen as the Pats punter. But there’s a burgeoning concern about Bailey replacing the other role Allen has played for the Pats in recent seasons. That’d be the role of holder on Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal tries.
Gostkowski missed a 43-yard field goal try on Thursday, failing to convert a three-pointer for the third consecutive game. On the first, Allen was the holder — but Bailey has been the holder on the two since then. The latest should’ve been a virtual gimme, coming from the middle of the field on a night when weather wasn’t a factor, but Allen put the point of the ball down with the laces facing Gostkowski’s right foot. It doesn’t take a pet detective to recognize that was a mistake.
Bailey and Gostkowski redeemed themselves for a fourth-quarter chip shot that went off smoothly, and the pair also successfully executed an extra point in the first half. But it’s a situation worth monitoring — and perhaps one that could factor into other roster decisions.
After Stidham came in for Brady on Thursday, and played relatively well, there are questions about whether the Pats will keep two quarterbacks or three. It’s worth noting, and could perhaps work in his favor, that Brian Hoyer does have some limited experience as a holder, dating to his days in Cleveland. If the coaches don’t feel fully comfortable trusting rookies to hold on kicks or serve as the only quarterback behind Brady, maybe Hoyer sticks around to insure both areas.
LOADED ROTATIONS IN THE FRONT SEVEN
It wasn’t just Brady who saw action for the first time this preseason — and not only did seeing the first-team defense on the field put into focus how deep the front seven is, but Thursday night suggested the Pats may intend to fully utilize their depth to keep that talent fresh.
Belichick and his staff frequently and heavily rotated personnel along the defensive line and even at the linebacker level while the primary unit was on the field against the Panthers, shuffling both rookies and veterans in and out while shifting players around with regularity.
Rookie Chase Winovich started on the edge, while fellow first-year lineman Byron Cowart blew up a play on the opening series for a second straight week. At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Bennett made his Patriots debut and had a sack. Kyle Van Noy also crushed Cam Newton by burning his blocker around the corner, and Adam Butler made a statement by crashing the quarterback from up the middle.
At one juncture, on third and three, New England showed a four-man line in which Winovich and Bennett were the ends, with typical linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins standing up between them. Elandon Roberts, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Danny Shelton, and Deatrich Wise Jr. were all in the mix, as well.
Wise was still out there in the third quarter, as was Cowart and veteran nose tackle Mike Pennel. Signed away from the Jets this spring, it was the second game in a row that Pennel saw action with what appeared to be the Pats’ third-team defense, which may suggest he is fighting for a job. That may not be as much a slight against him as it a testament to the breadth of quality players around him.
CHUNG SITUATION IMPACTS BROOKS, MAYBE HARMON
It should be remembered that although the news of Patrick Chung being charged with cocaine possession in New Hampshire broke Thursday, his indictment for a June incident came on August 8. That means it had happened before the Patriots’ second preseason game, when Chung was in uniform, on the sideline, and seemingly acting almost as a player-coach.
Thus, at least while the legal process plays out, Chung’s situation doesn’t figure to affect football decisions as much as his physical condition might. (He’s been in a non-contact jersey of late, and hasn’t played in the preseason.) When the Pats’ first-team defense took the field Thursday night it was Terrence Brooks in what has traditionally been Chung’s in-the-box safety role, and trying to bring physicality from the secondary.
That bodes well for Brooks’s chances to make the team, and Chung’s evolving status may also erase some of the writing on the wall that has suggested Duron Harmon could be a surprise cut contender. Harmon was the odd-man out in the Pats’ Super Bowl gameplan last season, then started each of the first two preseason games this summer alongside mostly guys fighting for roster spots. New England could save more than $2 million in salary cap space if they opted to keep Duke Dawson or slide Jonathan Jones to safety and cut Harmon — though Harmon is a leader, a respected veteran, and if Chung eventually faces discipline he may be more valuable to the Pats than that money would be.
To his credit, Harmon also made a nice open-field stick to get New England’s defense off the field on the first series Thursday night.
INJURIES MOUNT, BUT SEEM SURVIVABLE
As the so-called dress rehearsal, the third preseason game can be the most nerve-wracking for fans because it represents the greatest risk for a team’s most impactful talent to be injured in an exhibition contest.
The Pats had escaped the first two preseason tilts relatively cleanly — that statement at least partially contingent on what becomes of first-round pick N’Keal Harry this season — but there were some scares in Game 3. Van Noy laid on the ground for a bit with an apparent leg ailment after sacking Newton in the first quarter, but he returned after jogging it off. Watson was the recipient of a late hit from Eric Reid, and was immediately in a condition that had Meyers beckoning help from the trainers, but flashed a thumbs-up to the crowd as he ambled toward the locker room under his own power. Rookie running back Damien Harris was pulled after receiving medical attention in the wake of his second carry.
The biggest blow appeared to be dealt to Brandon King, the special teams ace who was covering a punt when his leg gave out. He needed to be carted off the field after being met in the middle of the turf by a couple dozen teammates. King was likely to make the team, given Belichick’s adoration for special teamers, so if his injury is as serious as it initially appeared, it improves the chances of players like Nate Ebner or Brandon Bolden sticking come September.