The biggest weaknesses you should be concerned about, and other Patriots observations
FOXBOROUGH — The best part about the Patriots’ first exhibition game is that it’s out of the way.
Every year, the anticipation builds for the first action of the preseason only for the stark reality to set in that this faux football is a sorry substitute for the real thing. It resembles high-stakes regular-season football the way miniature golf resembles the Masters.
After knocking heads among themselves for two weeks, the Patriots finally got to gauge their progress against another team. As in their Club Med training camp, the Patriots eased into their first preseason game, taking it slow in the first half as they fell behind, 17-0, before scoring 26 unanswered points to win, 26-17. In the preseason, the final score is the least important takeaway.
Here are 10 thoughts and observations from the game.
1. It didn’t take long for one of the biggest positional question marks — linebacker — to get exposed. Starter Kyle Van Noy had Washington running back Byron Marshall in coverage and couldn’t keep up as a routine route out of the backfield became a 25-yard touchdown. In Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia running back Corey Clement had four catches for 100 yards and a (controversial) touchdown. Teams will continue to exploit the Patriots this way until they prove they have answers.
2. There was nothing that left you any less concerned about the wide receiving corps. With Tom Brady and his balky back on the sidelines, it was a tough night for backup Brian Hoyer and the passing game in the first half. Hoyer was 6 of 12 for 65 yards in the first half, and that was after he was 3 for 3 for 56 yards on the final drive, establishing a rapport with backup receiver Devin Lucien.
Chris Hogan, who looms large with Julian Edelman serving a PED suspension for the first four games, was targeted twice and gained little separation. Hogan was called for an offensive pass interference penalty that was declined and then dropped a slant route.
The good news is that the true measure of any Patriots wide receiver is whether he can bond with Brady.
3. It was obvious that the Patriots wanted to get Edelman and linebacker Dont’a Hightower reacclimated to game situations. Edelman, who missed last season with a torn ACL, played 16 snaps and was on the field into the second quarter.
“It’s been a long year,” Edelman said. “It was just fun. The nerves were juiced. I was just excited to go out there and get to play football.”
Hightower, whose 2017 season was truncated by a torn pectoral muscle in Week 7, is the focal point of the defense. He played 27 snaps and was on the field more than midway into the second quarter.
4. The most impressive part of Jeremy Hill’s game wasn’t the 11 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown or his eight special teams snaps. It was the 12-yard reception he had on third and 8 to extend the Patriots’ marathon touchdown drive to start the second half. Hill finished with two grabs for 14 yards.
In the past, one-dimensional bigger backs such as LeGarrette Blount were not capable of keeping defenses honest in the passing game. Hill’s ability to be a running and pass-catching threat could secure him a roster spot.
5. The Patriots played their best football in the second half, which isn’t ideal. In preseason, it’s the first half that is more telling because that’s usually when the better players play and the level of competition is higher. The Patriots were outgained in the first quarter, 138-7, and in the first half, 259-100. So, while the execution and urgency were significantly better in the second half, it’s hard to know how much of that is a reflection of their improvement and how much is a reflection of the level of competition.
6. The Patriots value safety Jordan Richards for his smarts, his work ethic, and his special teams ability, but his inability to tackle in space is maddening and makes him a liability in today’s NFL. On a 15-yard run by Washington’s Derrius Guice that was negated by a holding penalty, Guice easily spun off Richards’s tackle. Richards later missed a tackle on Cam Sims’s 57-yard reception after Keion Crossen misjudged the ball and Damarius Travis whiffed.
7. The Zach Sudfeld Experience taught us not to read too much into preseason games, but it was a good night for rookie running back Ralph Webb and rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Undrafted out of Vanderbilt, Webb definitely has some wiggle and shined with two touchdowns and a pair of 2-point conversions. Bentley drew praise from Bill Belichick for his ability to process the game mentally and tied for the team lead with six tackles. He also drew a holding penalty on Washington fullback Elijah Wellman that negated a 15-yard run.
8. After all the discussion and angst about the new helmet rule and the revised catch rule, it was a little disappointing that neither one of them came into play. The biggest hit of the night was a crushing legal blow to the ribs by Patriots corner Ryan Lewis on Washington wideout Trey Quinn.
With the helmet rule, changing behavior and technique in the name of safety is admirable. However, unless the NFL’s bottom-line, do-or-die coaching culture changes, it’s just boxing the players in, forcing them to choose between safety and their jobs.
Is there going to be a coach who praises a player for allowing an extra yard for a first down when the player says that he was trying to make sure he didn’t lead with his helmet? Doubtful.
9. Nothing screams preseason more than talking punting. But incumbent punter Ryan Allen figures to face a real challenge from rookie Corey Bojorquez and his howitzer left leg. Allen, one of the best directional punters in the NFL, responded with a strong night, booming three punts more than 50 yards and dropping his final one out of bounds at the 8-yard line.
10. The only ones more thrilled than eager fans to finally see the Patriots against another team were the players. They were excited to turn it loose, at least as much as you can in the preseason.
“It was great. It was great,” said Hill. “You know, OTAs, minicamp, and training camp, all that stuff, is great and builds camaraderie for us, but we play these games to play against other opponents. That’s kind of the first opportunity we had, so it’s good for us to go out there and compete.”