The Red Sox are out of sight, out of mind out West as they continue their seemingly inexorable march to October irrelevance. The Patriots are less than two weeks away from the unveiling of their sixth Super Bowl banner and the unveiling of their 2019 team against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. Football has moved to the forefront of the Boston sports consciousness.
With that in mind, I’m dusting off a few Patriots thoughts and dot-dot-dots (yeah, I know they’re called ellipses) as the season fast approaches.
1. We’ve seen the last of Tom Brady until the season opener Sept. 8 unless Bill Belichick is feeling, in the words of Baker Mayfield, “dangerous.” Brady played in only the third preseason game, last Thursday against Carolina, and finished with three drives, 12 pass attempts, and eight completions. Tommy Legend doesn’t need the work. We know that. But some of the newbies could’ve used more work with him.
The reality of the Patriots offense for pass catchers is that it doesn’t matter how hard you study or how much you memorize the playbook. You must see what Brady sees in real time at game speed to carve out a role. The only playbook that matters is the one in Brady’s brain. The passing game bends to his will and his Circle of Trust. It wasn’t a coincidence that he was 0 for 3 targeting undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers against Carolina.
2. One of the justifications for fewer reps for the starters this preseason is the work that’s done in joint practices. Belichick is a pioneer of the practice of joint practices, which have become more prevalent with the current collective bargaining agreement eliminating traditional two-a-days.
This preseason, the Patriots enjoyed productive sessions with the Detroit Lions and the Tennessee Titans. There is some talk that joint practices could replace preseason games. Good luck with that. Joint practices are a supplement to, not a replacement for, preseason games.
Not to go all Allen Iverson on you, but we’re still talking about practice . . . practice. It’s not the same as a game, and it never will be.
You hear that coaches enjoy the joint practice because it’s a controlled environment, and the sessions are scripted to maximize the time. Well, games aren’t controlled or scripted. They’re competitive chaos. In that crucible, what works in practice doesn’t always translate to the games when the players play faster and try harder. Preseason-game injuries are the worst. But preseason games remain a necessary evil to prepare for the real games.
3. Fear not, the Patriots defensive coaching staff is going to be just fine, despite the offseason defections. One of the primary questions facing the Patriots is how their rebuilt coaching staff responds following a brain drain. New England lost quality coaches, chief among them de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores. Former Patriots linebacker and neophyte inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo looks like a natural with a headset. He also seems to have a good rapport with Patriots secondary/safeties coach Steve Belichick, son of Bill.
Fortunately, the creativity and aggressiveness in the defense didn’t depart with Flores. On the sack that injured Cam Newton’s foot, Adam Butler was the only player with his hand down at the snap of the ball as the Patriots aligned with seven defensive backs. They sent six rushers, blitzing linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive backs Jason McCourty and Terrence Brooks.
Kyle Van Noy’s sack on Carolina’s second possession also was well schemed. Coach Mayo presented a six-man front with safety Devin McCourty on the line of scrimmage. McCourty stayed home and the confused Panthers double-teamed rookie Byron Cowart with center Matt Paradis. That got Van Noy a one-on-one matchup on the edge with tight end Chris Manhertz. Game over.
4. Sorry, but I’m not as bullish on the wide receiving corps as some, even with Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, and Demaryius Thomas now all active and practicing. There are still caveats attached to this corps outside of Edelman, whose odometer is creeping up. We all know the history of rookie wide receivers with Brady (Deion Branch is the only rookie to record 40 or more catches), and first-round pick N’Keal Harry has missed two-plus weeks nursing a hamstring injury.
The veteran guys all have mileage, injury, or availability concerns. Thomas has earned rave reviews, but he’s 31 and has torn both Achilles’ tendons, including the left one last December. Gordon is a brilliant talent, but his addiction issues have proven much tougher to shake than opposing defenders.
The Patriots are going to throw a lot of wide receivers against the wall and see who sticks. It’s doubtful all these guys hit or survive the season.
5. Speaking of receivers, it was notable that Brady openly politicked for Phillip Dorsett following the third preseason game, saying he has a lot of trust in the wide receiver and ticking off all of his coachable qualities. “I love playing with Phil,” Brady said. It was a not-so-subtle message as the roster reductions approach Saturday.
It was also reminiscent of last season when following a loss to the Lions, Brady campaigned for more James White in the offense at a time when the Patriots were trying to force-feed Sony Michel into the mix as a true dual-threat back. Michel was a nonfactor in the passing game the rest of the way.
It’s not often that Brady speaks his mind so bluntly, but when he does, there’s a motive and a message behind it.
6. It feels like the Patriots are all in on rookie quarterback Jarrett Stidham as Brady’s backup. In the second preseason game, Belichick made sure to put him in an adverse situation by inserting him into the game when the Patriots had the ball at their own 2-yard line. Then he got all the post-Brady snaps against Carolina.
The rookie looks the part with his physique and “first-round-arm talent,” as Raiders GM Mike Mayock would say. But he has been fortunate to have only one turnover this preseason (a fumble). Plus, he possesses a tendency to be a tad tardy and throw some hospital balls that could get receivers hurt.
That being said, with the surfeit of talent in the secondary, a dearth of depth at offensive tackle and tight end, and the need for redundancy at receiver, Stidham has shown enough to roll the dice. The Patriots can sever ties with veteran backup Brian Hoyer and redistribute a roster spot.
Extra points: Don’t panic because it’s only preseason, but the Patriots need to tighten it up when it comes to penalties. They forfeited a few chunk plays, including a 30-yard run by Michel, because of flags last Thursday. In three preseason games, they’ve been whistled for 34 penalties for 314 yards. Last year, they were the fourth-least penalized team in the league with 93 penalties for 744 yards, the second-fewest penalty yards in the league . . . Stidham has thrown for the third-most yards in the NFL during the preseason (506) . . . In his preseason debut, Michel looked more like the big-play back he was at Georgia, instead of the guy who ran like a thoroughbred with blinders on last season . . . It’s going to be fun to watch Michael Bennett practice his craft. Bennett’s sack against Paradis was a pass-rushing piece of art.