FOXBOROUGH — Sunday’s 51-17 romp over Jacksonville was about feel-good vibes for the Patriots, of course. The day was about Tom Brady becoming the fourth quarterback to join the 400-touchdown club, Stephen Gostkowski setting the NFL record for consecutive extra points made (425 and counting), about LeGarrette Blount getting his first three touchdowns of the season, and about going into the bye week with a 3-0 record.
What the Patriots are doing to start the season is pretty incredible. Their 119 points through three games is a team record. Brady has nine touchdowns, no interceptions and is averaging 370 passing yards per game. Walloping a team 51-17 always is an impressive feat in the NFL, where parity reigns in every part of the country not named New England.
But the subtext to Sunday’s victory was more important in the big picture than drubbing the lowly Jaguars. Really, this was a preseason game, with Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis removed in the third quarter to prevent injuries. And like all preseason games, the Patriots were able to empty their bench and get plenty of valuable playing time to youngsters and backups.
As much as Sunday’s game was about Brady, Gronk and Devin McCourty, it was also about Jordan Richards, James White, Justin Coleman, and Keshawn Martin.
Exactly. They’re not names right now, but these are the players the Patriots need to develop to make another Super Bowl run.
“A lot of players played today — a lot of guys in the secondary, linebackers, the guys in the front, the backs, the receivers, all the tight ends,” Bill Belichick said. “So we had a lot of people contribute, a lot of people played, so it was good to get those contributions from everyone.”
Malcolm Butler wasn’t a starter at this time last year. But injuries are inevitable in the NFL, and the Patriots will lose at least a key player or two during the course of the season. When the Patriots are in the playoffs, they can’t afford to have a young backup have that deer-in-the-headlights look. They need him to be in the moment and do his job, like Butler did at the end of the Super Bowl. Who knows if Butler would have played so well in that fourth quarter if he didn’t get his 10-15 snaps per week during the regular season.
This is why Sunday’s game was important for the Patriots as they wreak havoc on the NFL. It’s one thing to give young guys some snaps in the preseason or reps during practice. Getting game reps during an actual NFL game is invaluable.
“Anytime you get to get reps — especially game reps — it always helps,” said backup linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who played a handful of snaps at middle linebacker in Jerod Mayo’s place. “You get to see things at game speed and work on your craft. It always helps.”
Through three games, the Patriots have done a great job of getting significant snaps for seven offensive linemen. Undrafted rookie center David Andrews was a long shot to make the team and wasn’t supposed to see the field much, but he has taken advantage of injuries to Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell and is the only offensive player to play every snap this season. Fourth-round picks Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson rotate at both guard spots, along with third-year youngster Josh Kline. Marcus Cannon rotates at both tackle spots, as well.
White, the second-year running back, got six valuable touches for 34 yards in the second half. Martin, acquired in a trade from the Texans on Sept. 17, caught three passes for 33 yards and a touchdown.
And Sunday’s game was probably the most beneficial to the secondary, which is still finding an identity following the offseason departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
Second-round pick Jordan Richards didn’t play a defensive snap in the first two weeks, but played almost the entire game Sunday as a deep safety alongside McCourty. Richards helped take away the Jaguars’ big-strike capability, and made a heads-up play by shoving the Jaguars’ Allen Robinson out of bounds on what could have been a gorgeous 35-yard pass play near the goal line had Robinson been able to get his feet in bounds.
“He’s a guy that works extremely hard, he focuses on everything going on in our safety room,” McCourty said of Richards. “It’s good to see him get opportunities and take advantage of them.”
And the game was especially helpful for Coleman, who is this year’s Malcolm Butler. An undrafted cornerback from Tennessee, Coleman has zig-zagged the country the past month searching for his opportunity. He was cut by the Vikings on Aug. 30, signed with the Patriots on Sept. 4 and released Sept. 5, signed with the Seahawks’ practice squad on Sept. 8, and was signed again by the Patriots on Sept. 9.
Sunday was the first time he suited up for an NFL game, and the Patriots used him as the No. 3 cornerback, ahead of veterans Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher. He finished with three tackles and helped keep the Jaguars in check.
“I had to get the nervousness off before the game,” Coleman said. “I was just too ready to go, because I’ve been practicing for a long time, and haven’t gotten into the game situation. But I feel like I did OK out there.”
That’s what the Patriots need — their backups to feel comfortable and get real NFL experience so they’re ready for January. Sunday’s blowout win over the Jaguars was the perfect opportunity to do it.