The New England Patriots second preseason game has come and gone with the team falling 27-23 against the Houston Texans and dropping to 0-2. Saturday marked the team's first return to NRG Stadium since December's impossible Super Bowl victory. So do we have reason to panic? Is the sky already falling? There are some concerns, but there are also many reasons to be optimistic and I'll explain why in the reading ahead.
The Patriots arrived in Houston for joint practices at the beginning of the week, and throughout we saw a number of guys get banged up. Most of the practice injuries were just bumps and bruises, but there was one unfortunate one. Rookie DE Derek Rivers, who was the team's first selection in April's draft, suffered a torn ACL and has been lost for the season. This was yet another injury and another blow to the pass rush which has seen Rob Ninkovich retire and Deatrich Wise Jr. (another selection in this year's draft) go down with a concussion in the preseason opener. In Game 2, it was important to see what the DE's could bring to the table, how the first units looked, and if Cyrus Jones would show any improvement on defense or as a return man. The first team offense and defense manned the field for the entirety of the first quarter and a little bit of the second quarter as well. Although the play calling on both sides was pretty vanilla as expected, the majority of the guys out there put forth a good effort. We got to see new additions like Cooks, Burkhead, Harris, and Gilmore take the field for the first time and they did not disappoint. Rob Gronkowski also saw preseason action for the first time since 2012, and while he didn't see any targets, it's good to see him healthy and giving us some impact blocking. As with every game, there were some clear studs, duds, and honorable mentions, so I will cover those below.
RB Rex Burkhead (RB1?): One of the Patriots more underrated offseason acquisitions is my first stud of the game. Burkhead stood out for a number of reasons including his ability to carry between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. Burkhead had 9 touches in the first 15 snaps of the first half, scoring on his 10th and finishing with 70 total yards, gaining 20 yards over seven carries and bringing in all three of his targets for 50 yards and a TD. He really shined as an instrumental part of the scoring drive and capped off his contributions with the aforementioned TD on a 22 yard connection with Tom Brady. It is great to see the versatility this guy brings to the field, and it is also worth mentioning that he looks to have already more-than-earned TB12's trust. With Blount's departure this offseason, the Patriots were left with a void at the power back position and they turned to the free agent market to steal Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee away from their respective teams. With Gillislee nursing a hamstring injury which has kept him off the practice field and out of game action, look for Burkhead to assume the starting spot until the former is healthy. It should be exciting to see a formidable power runner who is also a threat in the passing game, unlike Blount was. With his ability to contribute in multiple aspects on offense and his great value on special teams, Burkhead is a well welcome addition and someone we should be excited to watch. Thumbs up!
RB Dion Lewis (RB2?): Another running back? It seems to be getting a bit repetitive to praise this position, but it is so damn deep and talented that it would be a disservice not to. In last weeks matchup against Jacksonville, it appeared that an very healthy D-Lew was fighting for a spot on the crowded roster with a deep HB corps, but this week looked like the opposite. It appears that his spot is thankfully safe and his play and health is solidifying this notion. Plain and simple: it is hard to make a guy with Lewis' ability expandable. He is small and shifty, possesses incredible pure speed and versatility, is a capable pass catcher, and is as good at making cuts as any running back you will see. Throughout his time here, he's proven the ability to pick up early-down yards on the ground and through the air, and he did so against a solid Texans front, carrying the ball seven times for 34 yards and bringing in one reception for 9 yards. The depth at this position is causing a good issue to have. With Bolden and Foster putting forth good performances again, it's hard to say who goes. But there's one thing easy to say and that's that D-Lew will stay. I didn't realize that rhymed until after I typed it, though I like the sound. A set with two receiving backs in the backfield has proved deadly on third down, and with White, Lewis, Burkhead, and even Gillislee(!) we have a lot of potential guys to put on the field together. You can't cover everyone, so when you take into account the additional offensive depth, a speedster and player of Lewis' caliber is extremely valuable and a huge threat to opposing defenses. Add the return of the explosiveness that he exhibited in 2015 and you've got an easy roster lock. Good job, Dion. Welcome back and sorry I ever doubted you!
Defensive Free-Agent Signings: Offseason additions Stephon Gilmore, David Harris, and Lawrence Guy all made their Patriots debut seeing the field with the teams first unit and playing through the first quarter into the second. Kony Ealy, another guy who fits this list, played for the second straight game. I'll start with Gilmore who was a big-money addition that we signed away from our minor league affiliate (the Buffalo Bills) this offseason. He looked comfortable starting opposite of Malcolm Butler, performing well in press and off the line formation in man and zone coverage looks. He had a nice pass breakup where the ref right next to him reached for the yellow flag, ready to call a pass interference. Thankfully, he got the quick notion to resist the urge from the ref across from him and the nice (and legal) breakup stood. He isn't the highest paid free agent signing of the Belichick-era for no good reason, and while it's only preseason, he's off to a nice start. Thumbs up for #24. The next newbie who stood out with his play was David Harris, who looks a hell of a lot better in a Patriots uniform than he did with the Jets. Harris, who has been one of the better LB's in the league since entering the game in 2007, was involved in every play on the Texans first offensive drive pummeling receivers and running backs to the ground with solo and assisted tackles. He made his way through the line assisting for a great TFL and showed good burst when he was tasked with a blitz later on. Harris could ultimately be a Seau-like pickup, providing depth and valuable veteran experience on the defensive side of the ball as well as the locker room. With Elandon Roberts going down once again this game, his value as far as depth goes is already apparent. Thumbs up for #45. Kony Ealy saw more action than he did in the first preseason game, which could either be a result of more consistency in practice or injuries at the DE position. Trey Flowers, who is a lock to start at the position, did not play and that could be yet another reason for his start. Nonetheless, the depth at the position is not the deepest and Ealy had got off to a slow in camp start since coming over from Carolina for a 2nd round pick this offseason. While he did not show up not the stat sheet Saturday, he showed pretty good technique and applied some good pressure. With Rivers out for the season, all talk of Ealy being a surprise cut should be over. He may not be a speed threat on the edge, but he can be used to bust the pocket and generate pressure inside the gap. Lastly, another guy new to town who saw his first action in a Pats uniform was Lawrence Guy. As they mentioned on the broadcast, it's funny to think that this guy (pun intended) has played for five teams since 2011 (GB, IND, SD, BAL), when he was a 7th round pick for the Packers. Guy provides great size, additional depth, and was an especially solid role-player for Baltimore this past season. He only has 6.5 sacks over his career, but he picked one up on Tom Savage and looks to be a solid role-player for the Patriots. He fits the bill as a good fit in this scheme and was a part of providing interior pressure and run stuffing against Houston on Saturday night. Thumbs up Guy. Welcome to town, fellas.
K Stephen Gostkowski (K, KOS): Stephen Gostkowski has been only one of two players to man kicking duties during Belichick's time with the Patriots. He is a two time First Team All-Pro (2007, 2015), holds the NFL record for most consecutive PAT makes (his streak ended at 479 in Week 6, 2016), and is the Patriots all-time leading scorer. However, in the last two years, the great Gostkowski has shown an alarming inconsistency in PAT's. He was one of the main reasons that we did not take the lead with our TD in the final seconds of the 2015 AFCCG, and because of his PAT miss early on we were forced to go for 2 and did not convert, ultimately costing us a trip to San Francisco for Super Bowl L. Then, on the quest to complete the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all-time in Super Bowl LI, he missed wide right on a critical PAT and nearly whiffed wide right on a FG later, which he luckily made. Because of this, we were forced to go for 2 twice; we converted both times and the rest is history. Gostkowski has not seen any competition this offseason and is likely a lock, but he missed once again on a terrible FG attempt in the first preseason game against the Jaguars. He was back in form on Saturday, hitting two of two PAT's and going three for three on FG's of 38, 42, and 51 yards. It was awesome to see Belichick decline a defensive penalty which would've given us easy yards and opt for a third-down pass just short leading to a FG opportunity for #3. Good job, Gostkowski. I'm not ready to welcome you back, but Saturday was a good effort.
CB Malcolm Butler (CB1): Malcolm Butler was a big topic the offseason with reports that he wanted out of New England, frustrated that the team signed Gilmore to a contract more lucrative than the one which they offered to him. At one point, it looked like he was almost certainly on his way out after meeting with the New Orleans Saints where it appeared he might get the long-term contract he was looking for. Thankfully, he accepted his option as he was a restricted free agent and remains a Patriot for this year at least. However, I hope the whole situation with the team does not have a negative impact on his play this season. He was a big dud in his first preseason action of the season, allowing five catches on five targets for a total of 71 yards and a TD. He was in pretty good coverage when he allowed a 37-yard catch in the first quarter, but he failed to make a play on the ball and let it drop in, so that's on him. His coverage was then pretty bad on the 2-yard TD he allowed to Jaelen Strong and that solidified this as a rare weak-effort from Butler, who usually serves as a lockdown CB against opposing teams' number-one receivers like OBJ and Antonio Brown. While he used the preseason to earn a spot on this team in 2014, and later earned a starting role with his game winning INT in Super Bowl 49 and a stellar offseason camp performance, he has still not received an extension. For a player who has earned every opportunity he's gotten with his play on the field, I question why he hasn't been locked up. While he didn't show up this game, I don't think we have any reason to worry nor should we legitimately associate any offseason issues with his performance until it is the regular season. This is only the preseason, and it is okay to see a down game from a player of his caliber that plays with a great level of consistency. Playing on a one-year tender with a cap hit of $3.91 million (12th highest on the team), he will have a solid chance to earn the big money he wants with the Patriots or another team. All in all, don't expect this play on a regular basis from Butler, who led the team in INT's last season (4) to go along with 74 takedowns, a sack, a FF, and two fumble recoveries. He also played 96.7% of regular season snaps, which was the second most on the team, and 98.9% in the postseason.
Backup QB (QB2, QB3): We'll start with Jimmy Garoppolo, who's stat line was not nearly as bad as you'd expect for a dud. He finished 13 of 23 with 145 yards and one touchdown if you exclude his two turnovers. And that's where the issue lies. Decision making has not been a huge issue for Garoppolo and in a game and-a-half as our starting QB last season he did not turn the ball over once. He's struggled a bit in training camp this offseason, and while it didn't seem to translate to the field last week, it did on Saturday. Both his INT and fumble led to 10 points for the Texans. Turnovers equal points more often than not and they can't be at a premium. It's also worth noting that Brady was nearly picked off in the first quarter, though. Jimmy was good, but not great. His decision making has to be better, but he's still a lock at the first backup spot behind Tom Brady. Jacoby Brissett, the backup to the backup and 3rd round pick in last year's draft, has found himself in the same position for two straight games. He's had two chances to give his team a win, leading his team downfield on potential go-ahead drives against Jacksonville and Houston, but he has faltered in the red-zone. He nearly connected for a TD with TE Cody Hollister (not his twin, Jacob), but followed up that miss with a fumble into the end zone for a touchback. In a key situation like such, he needs to show more pocket awareness and hold onto the football. Some of the blame can go to the offensive line's second units for the woes of both Garoppolo and Brissett, and even though I believe each will make the roster as QB depth is extremely important, they have to put a premium on limiting the turnovers. Take away Jimmy's INT and fumble, and we may have 10 less points to worry about.
TE Jacob Hollister (UDFA, Wyoming): A Stud last week, undrafted free agent Jacob Hollister put up a great performance in his preseason debut and appeared to be in line for a potential spot on the roster. Now that offseason trade acquisition James O'Shaugnessy (from KC) is healthy, Hollister has fallen back on the depth chart. It's beginning to look as though he is more likely to be a practice squad player rather than TE depth on the 53. I personally would opt for James O'Shaughnessy as well due to the value he provides as a blocker as well as a special teams player. He earned the Stud status against the Jags, but I noted that he needed to perform at a high level consistently to have a legitimate shot at cracking the 53-man roster. He contributed a nice downfield block on a fourth quarter score, but he was not enough of an individual impact on the stat sheet in the passing game and I believe that is the only way he'll secure a spot. After Saturday, his chances appear lower.
Offensive Line (*Second Unit*): While Garoppolo and Brissett certainly held some responsibility for their turnovers, the second unit OL was not very impressive. They got pushed back pretty consistently and didn't appear to have much leverage against a strong second unit defensive front for Houston. Their strongest drive was the final drive of the game, but their performance was negated there by allowing the defensive front to burst in from the edge and hit Brissett from behind, forcing a game winning fumble that resulted in a touchback. Notice that I made sure to note that this was the second unit offensive line which did not impress. The first unit wasn't spectacular and allowed noticeable pressure to Brady on two plays, but they were far better than the second unit.
QB Tom Brady (QB1, Five-Time Super Bowl Champion, Undisputed GOAT): The GOAT showed up and played for the first quarter into the second. He looked like Tom Brady, also known as TB12. I saw what I expected, so did you. Good plays on vanilla play calling. He doesn't need to be a Stud to be a Stud.
CB Justin Coleman (3rd yr. player - UDFA, Tennessee): Good enough on defense to be mentioned, Coleman was impressive in pass coverage with a few breakups that showcased good technique and focus. His bluff on the punt return in the third quarter didn't do him any favors in earning a spot on the 53. If he really wants to do so, he has to show more special teams awareness. Coleman was the team's CB3 in 2015 behind Butler and Logan Ryan, but this years CB units is far better. He is still promising enough in pass coverage that he could prove to be a nice depth option, but he will have to beat out second year player Jonathan Jones who is quicker (recording a 4.33 40-yard dash), is the superior special teamer and has showed more during camp. Coleman may be in the same boat as DJ Foster...
WR Austin Carr (UDFA, Northwestern): Last week, Austin Carr was a Stud on my list and everybody else's. He showed up big last week against Jacksonville, and while he was not as flashy against Houston, he still managed to put up a solid performance. He looks to be a favorite target of Garoppolo's and the two continue to connect at a high level. His route running is a great asset and he also contributed a great downfield block on a DJ Foster TD in the beginning of the fourth quarter. The odds are stacked against him to make the roster, but he's keeping up a solid level of performance. If there is a way to fit him in, hopefully they can do it. If Slater is healthy come Week 1 and there is no logical spot available, I can't see him making it to the practice squad without getting signed away. He might not fit as well in other offenses, but his intangibles help his case.
RB DJ Foster (2nd yr. player - UDFA, Arizona State): It is a bit unfortunate how incredibly deep the running backs unit is for a guy like DJ Foster. He has exceptional tackle breaking ability, exceptional burst, and is great in the passing game, all go which made him am exceptional WR at Arizona State in college. He has now scored in both preseason games thus far, with a rushing TD and receiving TD, each showcasing his elusiveness and speed. He was able to crack the roster during final cuts last season, released to the practice squad in November, then resigned to the active roster in December. This season, the team's pass catching depth at WR and RB appears to be far too great for Foster to snag a spot as a receiving back or in the slot. Lucky for him, he's displayed enough so far that he should be able to earn a spot with a team that has less depth at HB. I wish Foster luck wherever he ends up, as he has proven to be a great playmaker this preseason.
CB Cyrus Jones: My final honorable mention is Cyrus Jones. In his rookie year, he was haunted by terrible handling on receiving punts, and he didn't't do himself many favors on defense either. He was ejected from the game against the Browns in Week 5, and nearly cost us a win against the Ravens in Week 14. Although his early performance in camp was encouraging, his struggles in coverage appeared to carry over to last weeks game in which he allowed a 97-yard TD pass to Jags backup QB Chad Henne, displaying an inability to put together technique. He was better in pass coverage against the Texans and explosive enough as a return man to earn a spot on this list. With returns of 32-yards and 15-yards (below) he showed great agility and tackle-breaking ability. If he can continue to make guys miss and improve his defense, he could be a sneaky asset. He needed an INT or PR TD to crack my Studs list, but he deserves some recognition for his good display of playmaking ability. Now he just has to put it together consistently. Definitely a guy to watch.
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