What was interesting about rewatching the Patriots-Panthers exhibition from Friday night was that, despite Bill Belichick’s attempts to downplay the significance of the third preseason game, the scheming really was a good approximation of a regular-season game.
Most notably, both teams were pretty creative with their blitz schemes, and the 19-17 Patriots win was a good test for the quarterbacks and offensive lines on both sides in terms of communication, assignments, and adjustments.
In the Patriots’ first two preseason games, we saw basic four-man pass rushes and a majority of man-to-man coverage. It’s a lot easier for the coaching staff to evaluate players when they’re running basic schemes and going 1-on-1 against an opponent.
But Friday, the Patriots displayed some creativity and versatility on defense. They sent five pass rushers more than in the previous two games combined, and disguised their pass rush well, blitzing linebackers frequently up the middle and dropping defensive ends into coverage.
We saw Chris Long, a 270-pound defensive end, dropping off into coverage, getting his hand on a Cam Newton pass, and deflecting the ball to Devin McCourty for the interception.
Geneo Grissom also dropped off in pass coverage, covering a zone 15 yards down the field on one snap.
The Panthers’ defense also provided a tough challenge for Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots’ offensive line, particularly with cornerback blitzes. No one picked up Bene Benwikere, giving him a free shot on Garoppolo.
Tre Boston also went in unblocked for the sack, but it was negated by a teammate lining up offside. And the Panthers further confused the Patriots’ offensive line by “sugaring” the “A” gaps with a big blitz look before the snap, but then dropping off and sending only three pass rushers.
The Patriots will see a heavy dose of blitzing defenses early in the season with the Cardinals and Bills, and Friday night’s game was good preparation.
Other notes from rewatching the game:
■ Garoppolo had some of the same issues that he did in the first exhibition game against the Saints — namely, that he didn’t always have a good sense of the pressure and was late on some of his checkdowns.
His best pass of the night was his first, a 17-yard dart to Chris Hogan. After that, Garoppolo was just 8 of 14 for 40 yards for a paltry 2.7 yards per attempt. To be fair, the Panthers’ starting defense is very, very good. Luke Kuechly was everywhere and virtually unblockable.
On one third-and-4, the Panthers sent only four rushers, but Garoppolo bailed on the pocket early, scrambled like a chicken with his head cut off, and missed Julian Edelman for the first down.
Another time, Garoppolo stood too long in the pocket and took a big shot from Thomas Davis, while throwing instead of rolling out to his left, where he had plenty of space. And after missing LeGarrette Blount on the checkdown, Garoppolo broke a cardinal rule of avoiding the pass rush by retreating 15 yards from the line of scrimmage and firing a duck to nobody for intentional grounding.
■ The near-interception by Kuechly inside the red zone may not have been Garoppolo’s fault, however. He had a miscommunication with Edelman on the play, and we don’t know if Edelman was supposed to stop his route short. I was surprised to see Edelman play 17 snaps given his foot situation, and he looked a little rusty with his route-running.
■ Wow, did Jacoby Brissett look good.
He went 9 of 9 for 85 yards and a touchdown, showing really good pocket presence, an ability to avoid the rush, and some toughness when he hung in the pocket and delivered a screen pass to D.J. Foster before taking a big shot. Brissett converted only 1 of 3 third downs, but his one conversion was a dart to DeAndre Carter for a 12-yard touchdown. The only thing about Brissett’s performance was that half the defenders he faced will probably be selling insurance next week. But he looked very poised in his one quarter of action.
■ What the heck has gotten into Blount this training camp?
He ran the ball extremely well on Friday, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and showing great athleticism in avoiding and jumping over defenders. Blount also showed off a new part of his game, catching three passes in a row for 16 yards and even lining up in the slot.
Foster, an undrafted rookie, also displayed some great yards-after-catch ability in his first work of the preseason, catching three passes for 33 yards and adding two carries for 9 yards.
Tyler Gaffney has run hard all preseason and displayed good blitz pickup, while James White is probably their best receiving back and Brandon Bolden their best special teams player. Someone’s going to be the odd man out, and it’s not an easy decision for Belichick and his staff.
■ Pretty much everyone on the offensive line had an up-and-down day except for two players — right tackle Marcus Cannon was excellent, and rookie guard Joe Thuney got pushed around pretty well by Kuechly and the Panthers’ excellent defensive tackles.
Cannon was so good with his pass protection on Charles Johnson that I used exclamation points in several of my notes. Thuney, meanwhile, seemed like he spent the entire game on the ground. Thuney got thrown to the ground by Shaq Thompson on a stuffed third-and-3 run, and dominated by Kuechly on a stuffed fourth-and-1. Thuney also looked lost on a screen pass, didn’t know whom to block, and Hogan got dragged down for little gain.
Nate Solder had an excellent chip block on a blitzing linebacker to save Garoppolo, but also got beaten around the edge by Mario Addison for a sack. Guard Chris Barker played 23 snaps with the starting offense and had several excellent run blocks, but also whiffed on A.J. Klein, who got the initial pressure on the stuffed fourth-and-1. Solder, Barker, and David Andrews had great blocks on a 14-yard run by Gaffney, and tight end Clay Harbor had a couple of nice “wham” blocks, displaying a side of his game that we hadn’t seen much.
■ Color me not impressed with the pass rush Friday night, especially when the Patriots didn’t blitz and rushed just the four guys up front.
Long, Trey Flowers, Vincent Valentine, Markus Kuhn, and Anthony Johnson weren’t winning any of their 1-on-1 battles, and Newton had all day in the pocket to find his receivers — several snaps with at least five seconds in the pocket. It only goes to show how well the Patriots’ secondary played against the receiving trio of Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn, and Devin Funchess. We count Flowers’s sack as a coverage sack.
Johnson did have good pressure on a fourth-down stuff, and Valentine had a couple of nice shed-and-stuffs, but neither was consistent on a down-by-down basis.
■ The Patriots’ backup pass rushers need to learn to go low and wrap up when chasing down a bigger quarterback such as Newton. Grissom whiffed on an easy sack when he tried to tackle Newton up high, and Rufus Johnson twice let Newton slip from his grasp.
■ Logan Ryan, seeing his first action of the preseason, continued his strong play from last year against bigger receivers and did a nice job against Benjamin, listed at 6 feet 5 inches and 245 pounds.
And Cre’von LeBlanc was once again very impressive, playing a team-high 59 snaps. He allows some catches, but is extremely competitive, makes the receiver fight for everything, and he very rarely gives up yards after the catch. Add in his solid support in the run game and above-average ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, and LeBlanc seems like the odds-on favorite to land the fifth cornerback job.
■ It was very impressive to see the Patriots’ second-string back seven — which included LeBlanc, Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Vinnie Sunseri, Jordan Richards, and Duron Harmon — go toe-to-toe with Newton and the Panthers’ first-string receivers. The Patriots have a lot of depth back there.
■ Belichick used the game to evaluate several youngsters who have not played much this preseason.
Sixth-round linebacker Elandon Roberts got the start and had a couple of nice gap-fills and run-stuffs. And undrafted rookie cornerback Jonathan Jones had a great tackle for loss in the run game, and showed up as a starting flanker on the punt return team.
■ The snap and hold didn’t look 100 percent clean on Stephen Gostkowski’s missed 30-yard field goal, but the 52-yarder he just hooked to the left. Gostkowski also allowed only one kickoff return on five kicks.
■ Brandon King had a dumb running-into-the-kicker penalty, and we wonder if it will cost him at roster-cutdown time. But King did have a great block to help spring Cyrus Jones on his 60-yard punt return. And Jonathan Jones showed up well in punt coverage, making a great tackle for a return of zero yards.