Five rookie-centric takeaways from the Patriots’ come-from-behind, 22-17 preseason win over the Titans, as New England’s depth shone for a second straight triumph without Tom Brady and most of his fellow starters…
JOEJUAN WILLIAMS LOOKS READY
In the Titans’ win over the Patriots last season, Tennessee receiver Corey Davis toasted New England for seven catches, 161 yards, and a touchdown. Stephon Gilmore had difficulty handling the 6-foot-3 receiver who was the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft, just as Malcolm Butler did during the postseason prior, when Davis scored twice against the Pats.
The circumstances were far different and less desperate Saturday night, but given the trouble they’ve had defending Davis in the recent past, it was worth noting that the Patriots assigned coverage of him to rookie Joejuan Williams early in the second exhibition game. And his ability to handle that assignment was downright encouraging.
Twice in the first quarter, Marcus Mariota targeted Davis — so the Titans’ starting quarterback and their best receiver — and twice Williams effectively completed blanket coverage by getting his hand around to knock the ball away. The latter came on a dive, while the first was tight enough that Mike Vrabel opted to challenge the call with hopes it would be ruled pass interference.
It was the second time in two weeks an opposing coach tossed the red flag in hopes an infraction on Williams would result. And it was the second time in two weeks that the referees stuck with their determination that it was simply good defense. That bodes well for Williams, and speaks to the physical nature with which he plies his 6-foot-4 frame in pass coverage — as well as potentially his readiness to handle bigger-bodied receivers like Davis.
ISAIAH WYNN SEES THE FIELD
So, he’s not technically a rookie, but 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn saw game action for the first time since last season’s second preseason game — and acquitted himself relatively well in three series of action.
He started at left tackle, where he has been projected to play throughout the offseason even while gradually working back from the torn Achilles that cost him his rookie season, and he looked capable. He’s shorter than his predecessors at the position (particularly Trent Brown and Nate Solder), but his quickness and footwork were evident against the Titans in both the run game and in the way he helped protect Brian Hoyer. As a whole, an offensive line built mostly of backups had its issues in pass protection early, but the problems appeared to be up the middle or the result of stunts and blitzes more so than the fault of Wynn.
In the running game, facing first and goal from the 1 to start the second quarter, the Pats initially tried to jam it in by going right up the gut. That was thwarted, so on the next snap Josh McDaniels had Brandon Bolden run wide to the left, which required Wynn to quickly get out ahead of the back. Tennessee’s defense was so behind the play, Wynn didn’t actually need to lay a block, but he still flexed his athleticism to get himself in a position where nobody would’ve been allowed to reach Bolden.
It remains to be seen how he holds up, if he can sustain his play for a full game (or full season), and how he works with the rest of the starters along the line, but getting on the field was a necessary first step for a potentially important player with sizable expectations.
JARRETT STIDHAM CONTINUES TO IMPRESS
After posting a 150 rating in the first game, Hoyer was again largely effective. He was picked off by old friend Logan Ryan on an underthrown lollipop on his second throw of the night, after airmailing Dontrelle Inman with his first, but he hit on six straight tosses from there.
Nevertheless, that late run won’t be enough to quiet the talk from those who think the Patriots’ backup quarterbacking job is up for grabs because of what Stidham was again able to do. The fourth-round rookie who followed up a strong opener by completing 14 of 19 passes for 193 yards and a score. In two games, he’s now 28 of 43 (65 percent) for 372 yards and two TDs. That he hasn’t yet thrown an interception is something of a gift, as he got away with a bad throw near the goal line that should’ve been picked, but he didn’t let it shake him. Nor was he rattled when his first snap of the night resulted in a safety because tight end Lance Kendricks was called for holding in the end zone.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, Stidham again took possession deep in Patriots’ territory — this time at their 1 yard line — and on the second play he made a 10-yard hookup with Jakobi Meyers after receiving the snap from the New England 5. The possession would last 11 plays and go all 99 yards, capped by a pretty back-shoulder throw to Damoun Patterson for a 23-yard strike along the left sideline. That came on third and 12, a series after Stidham used his legs and escapability to continue a drive by running for 11 yards on third and 10.
Again, it was all in a lower-stakes setting against backup-level players he’d been practicing against for a few days. But, again, Stidham played well enough to keep the heat on Hoyer.
DAMIEN HARRIS COULD SHAKE UP THE BACKFIELD
In an offensive backfield where Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead are all returning off productive postseasons, it’s not easily evident where Damien Harris will get his opportunities to contribute. But Saturday night, the third-round pick looked better than merely an insurance policy.
Instead, he looked like a multi-purpose threat who can handle a little bit of everything. He ran hard between the tackles, grinding out yards on first down. He showed a combination of good vision and a suitable burst in cutting back against the grain to gain 20 yards on the final play of the first quarter. And he made four catches on four targets, the first coming when he split wide in motion before making a diving grab near the sideline.
In total, with 80 runs on 14 carries and 23 yards on those four catches, he racked up 103 yards on 18 touches. That per-try production is in line with what he exported throughout his college career at Alabama, and if he truly asserts himself as a pass-catching option out of the backfield, it’s not out of the realm that he could eventually supplant the oft-injured Burkhead as the top dual-threat option among New England’s backs.
CHASE WINOVICH IS SLIPPERY
The Patriots’ defensive front wasn’t as dominant as it was in Detroit, when it racked up nine sacks on 26 drop backs and limited the Lions to less than 50 yards of offense until deep in the fourth quarter. Calvin Munson looked good in his chance to make plays from middle linebacker, but the player who most effectively carried things over from a week ago, and stood out again, was rookie Chase Winovich.
The third-round pick from Michigan was credited with five tackles, two of which were for losses. He was also credited with a sack and two hits on the quarterback, and while most of his work thus far has come against players fighting for spots on the fringe of opposing rosters, Winovich has repeatedly demonstrated the relentless motor that was touted on draft day, and he’s paired that with a knack for getting off of blocks. He’s quick, he’s skilled, and he’s slippery when he needs to be. His draft status alone means that barring injury — or, perhaps, “injury” — he’s assured of a roster spot, and given how deep the Pats appear to be at that edge position, New England needs him to play at a level that warrants their commitment to him. It also needs him to show he can contribute on special teams. So far, so good.
(On the topics of rookies and special teams, Stephen Gostkowski’s 40-yard field goal miss came with rookie punter Jake Bailey doing the holding duties. Veteran Ryan Allen is usually the holder, and he opened Saturday’s game as the punter, but Bailey redeemed himself with a 54-yard boomer and a mile-high free kick following the safety. The punter competition remains one to monitor.)