Wins and losses are rendered irrelevant during NFL preseason. Still, plenty can be gleaned from dissecting specific plays amid each game — especially the third game. Week 3 of preseason action offers our most accurate glimpse of what fans can expect when games take on added meaning in September.
On Friday evening, the New England Patriots fell to the Carolina Panthers, 25-14, at Bank of America Stadium. We took a look at three Patriots whose stock rose and three who suffered a drop in status Friday, singling out their most notable plays and what to make of them.
CB Stephon Gilmore
■ Best play: Carolina’s opening drive felt as if it lasted an eon. Gilmore made sure it didn’t result in 6 points, getting physical with Panthers receiver DJ Moore on third and goal from inside the 5 and batting at Moore’s left arm upon the ball’s arrival to record a pass breakup.
■ Others of note: Gilmore matched Torrey Smith step for step on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s first deep ball of the game. Smith initiated contact, but Gilmore’s canny positioning forced the incompletion. Gilmore did get beat on a seamless 28-yard back-shoulder completion from Newton to receiver Devin Funchess on the first play of Carolina’s second offensive drive.
■ Takeaway: Gilmore’s status as one of the best cover corners in the AFC isn’t in doubt, and no single preseason game could change that. Still, the cream generally rises in Week 3 when coaches allow their starters more rope, and such was the case with Gilmore on Friday.
DT Danny Shelton
■ Best play: If Charles Barkley earned the nickname “The Round Mound of Rebound,” Shelton should be referred to as “The Round Mound of Making Linemen Frown.” His power (Shelton stands 6 feet 2 inches, 345 pounds) was on full display with under two minutes remaining in the first half and Carolina in its own territory. Shelton bulldozed Panthers center Ryan Kalil deep into the pocket, forcing Newton to scramble and eventually toss the ball out of bounds.
■ Others of note: Shelton shed Carolina guard Greg Van Roten on a run to the left side in the first quarter, bringing down Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey after just a 2-yard gain. He also did a fantastic job occupying his blocker on another handoff later in the half, allowing linebacker Kyle Van Noy to shoot the A gap unfettered and bring McCaffrey down for a loss of a yard.
■ Takeaway: New England’s starting front seven toiled against the run, but Shelton was the burly bright spot. He came over from Cleveland in the offseason and will do much to determine how stingy the Patriots are against opposing backs.
WR Phillip Dorsett
■ Best play: Dorsett caught a pass from quarterback Tom Brady in the flat, then revved his engine to beat Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson down the left sideline for a 16-yard pickup.
■ Others of note: The speedster made an acrobatic 8-yard grab over the middle in traffic in the second quarter. Dorsett also converted a fourth-and-short situation later on in the drive, taking advantage of perplexingly soft coverage and gaining the necessary yardage on a simple pitch-and-catch with Brady.
■ Takeaway: Though a four-catch, 36-yard performance isn’t knocking anyone’s socks off, Dorsett continued to establish himself both in the slot and on the outside. After an arduous and frustrating first season in Foxborough last year, Dorsett is primed to shoulder more responsibility and a heavier workload in his second go-around.
OL LaAdrian Waddle
■ Worst play: The 27-year-old Waddle lost his cool following a Luke Kuechly red-zone stop and incurred an unnecessary roughness penalty for shoving Carolina’s Mike Adams after the whistle. Ceding 15 yards in the red zone is sure to infuriate New England coach Bill Belichick, who promptly benched Waddle.
■ Others of note: Waddle struggled prior to the whistle as well, getting trounced by Panthers defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. on a Mike Gillislee run late in the second half. Cox drove Waddle into the ground, forcing Gillislee to hop around the pair before being brought down for a loss.
■ Takeaway: Ulrick John got the nod following Waddle’s loss of temper. Both have an incredible opportunity to nab playing time this preseason with rookie lineman Isaiah Wynn out for the year. Whether Waddle’s benching drops him down a peg on New England’s depth chart remains to be seen.
DB Jason McCourty
■ Worst play: Lining up at safety despite spending most of his time during training camp at cornerback, McCourty was late over the top on a 31-yard crossing pattern by Carolina receiver Curtis Samuel.
■ Others of note: The cerebral veteran made up for his gaffe two plays latter, tracking down Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne with a solid tackle at the line of scrimmage on second and goal from the 3.
■ Takeaway: While McCourty was shuffled to safety, rookie corner J.C. Jackson flaunted his spry legs on numerous occasions, including blowing up a screen pass behind the line in the third quarter. Both are battling for spots on the 53-man roster, and though McCourty has the edge in experience, Jackson is making a case for playing time in New England’s nickel and dime packages.
OL Trent Brown
■ Worst play: On third and 4 during New England’s opening series, Brown got beat to the outside from his crouch at left tackle by Carolina defensive end Mario Addison. The pressure forced Brady to release the ball early on an out route to Dorsett, who was stopped a yard shy of the marker.
■ Others of note: It wasn’t all bad for the gargantuan lineman. Brown laid a mean block on Cox that helped spring Gillislee for 14 yards to open New England’s second offensive drive. Additionally, left guard Joe Thuney brilliantly sealed Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short to help pave the way for his back.
■ Takeaway: Brown struggled at times with his pass blocking assignments (namely Addison) and will have to improve or risk endangering Brady’s blind side.