In the “dress rehearsal” game for both the Patriots and Panthers, we saw encouraging signs of another strong season from the Patriots. While they did win the game 19-17, the performances on both sides of the ball for New England was the bigger story.
All eyes were on Jimmy Garoppolo as he started this game against the reigning NFC Champions, the Panthers. Garoppolo didn’t have the best game he could’ve had, completing nine of his 15 pass attempts while only accumulating 57 yards through the air. He didn’t have any touchdowns or interceptions but struggled with some bad decision-making and inability to make any big plays happen.
It was not the type of game that Patriots fans hoped for, but it certainly could’ve been worse. In light of the recent offensive line changes, this being Julian Edelman’s first game back and still no Rob Gronkowski, there is still hope that Garoppolo can improve on this performance.
As for the “back-up” quarterback, Tom Brady, he made some flashy plays but did look a tad rusty out there. He completed three of nine passes but had a beautiful 33 yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xh9pAkWEuoo) that was executed perfectly by both players. It is unclear as of right now if we will see Brady play in the preseason finale next week against the New York Giants before he serves his four game regular season suspension.
The running game consisting of mostly LeGarrette Blount (five attempts, 26 yards) and Tyler Gaffney (nine attempts, 35 yards) did pretty well considering they went up against a Panthers defense who gave up the 2nd fewest rushing yards in 2015. Both had their moments where they shined and it’s evident that both (if they stay healthy) will make the 53 man roster as the two primary “big-back/two-down” running backs for the Patriots. D.J. Foster made his NFL debut and had a solid game against the Panthers after he came in the game during the second half with two rushing attempts for nine yards along with three receptions for 33 yards. He is fighting for a roster spot right now that may have opened up with Dion Lewis needing a second knee operation. Foster will likely see a more expanded role next week against the Giants to stake his case.
With Lewis’ knee surgery news, James White is believed to be the player who takes his role as he did last season when Lewis originally went down with injury. He had a rough night as he had three rushing attempts for two yards and one reception for zero yards. Hopefully he will rebound next week in the preseason finale. Going into the receivers, Hogan had a big game with five receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown and seemed to be a favorite target of both Garoppolo and Brady as he finished with the most targets of any receiver with six.
In Julian Edelman’s first game action of 2016, he looked a little rusty as he saw three targets but only had one reception for six yards. While it may not be the ideal stat-line for the Patriots number one wide receiver, he is only expected to do better from here on out with more live action. Aaron Dobson saw three targets in the game and while he had a nice 37 yard reception on Brady’s first passing attempt, he also had a bad drop as well. This is nothing we haven’t seen before from Dobson and he still has the inside shot at one of the last wide receiver positions on the 53 man roster.
Martellus Bennett saw four targets but didn’t have any receptions from them, Blount actually had three receptions for 16 yards but fumbled on one of them and A.J. Derby had one reception for 20 yards on three targets. Overall, it wasn’t that bad of a showing from the Patriots against one of the best teams in the NFL. With Rob Gronkowski still on the sidelines, the Patriots are obviously still not at “full strength” on the field yet.
The starting offensive line included Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline and Marcus Cannon. Combined, this unit gave up a half of a sack (Solder and Ted Karras combined to give one up) and four hurries (three from Solder, one from Thuney). Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras and LaAdrian Waddle, and James White also combined for one and a half sacks (White gave up one and Karras gave up a half), four hurries (Karras and Waddle both have two apiece) and two QB hits (Fleming and White gave up one apiece). Overall, against a strong front seven like the Panthers, the Patriots did decent. They are still trying to figure out their best starting five after losing Bryan Stork, Sebastian Vollmer and Shaq Mason.
Moving onto the defense, they held up very well against one of the more dangerous offenses including the reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton. The Patriots only gave up 17 points while adding three interceptions by Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. Speaking of Ryan, he was thrown to five times but gave up only one reception for nine yards and have a terrific game overall. Malcolm Butler, the other starting cornerback, gave up two receptions on three targets for only 15 yards.
The two main competitors for the fifth cornerback spot on the Patriots are Jonathan Jones and Cre’Von LeBlanc. Jones gave up one reception on four targets for 12 yards and a pass break-up. LeBlanc was targeted 11 times and gave up four receptions for 51 yards but did have a pass break-up as well. This is a battle that will most likely not be decided until after next week’s preseason finale as both have looked impressive throughout training camp and the preseason. The secondary did a terrific job overall as Cam Newton took a long time to throw on several attempts because of the impressive coverage the Patriots had.
As for the pass rush, Geneo Grissom led the team with two QB hits and had three hurries as well. He may have looked over-zealous at points and even came off a tad strong sometimes as he had a sack opportunity but couldn’t complete it. With the addition of Barkevious Mingo, Grissom may be feeling some pressure as his roster spot may not be 100% secure now. Fellow second year pass rusher Trey Flowers had another strong game as he added another sack to his impressive preseason.
After coming out of nowhere last week, Anthony Johnson had another solid game with three hurries, which is impressive for an interior defensive lineman. The bigger story may be Terrance Knighton, who was healthy and active for the game but saw ZERO snaps. It’s clear the Patriots are not happy with Knighton’s performance thus far and he is clearly on the roster bubble. Vincent Valentine got the starting nod opposite Malcom Brown and had one hurry of his own. He is a player that needs a lot of development but has a very high ceiling. Chris Long had a heck of a game with four hurries and a deflected pass as well. He has done very well this preseason and appears to have plenty of football left in him after coming off a bad 2015 with the Rams.
Overall, this was a terrific showing for the defense of the Patriots and the offense had some good flashes as well against the Panthers. Even with Tom Brady’s suspension for the first four games and multiple injuries to the offensive line already, the Patriots look ready for the regular season to prove they are still a Super Bowl contender.