When it comes to judging preseason games, I’ll defer to New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s advice to his linemen up at Buffalo last season. After an up-and-down start, the Pats started pulling away, prompting the coach to tell his charges, “Lookit, nothing’s ever, ever, ever as bad as it seems, okay, and – you know what? – it’s maybe not as good as it seems at the time.” (You can see that quote at the 24:25 mark of this “Sounds of the Game” video).
New England’s 27-23 loss at Houston puts the team at 0-2 for the preseason. We won’t really know until these two teams meet in one month whether or not this scrimmage had any impact, but, overall, we know that a team’s record in August means next to nothing. (Just ask the 1-3 pre-2004 squad who went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl, or the 3-1 pre-2002 group who went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.) What we need to inspect are the players and how they perform, both on an individual level and as part of the team.
Got it? Did I just blow your mind? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Herewith, some notes from last Saturday’s Texans tilt…
Well, After All, The Man’s Initials Are R. B.: Sparkling debut from running back Rex Burkhead, who finished the night with seven rushes (20 yards), and three receptions (50 yards, one touchdown). “Burkhead” may be and Old English word for “workhorse” (Note: It is not), as the 5-10, 210-pounder did a little of everything, and all of it with consistency. He made sharp cuts and shook off would-be tacklers for extra yardage. In one stretch at the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter, Burkhead touched the football on seven of eight plays. The lone exception came on a third-down conversion to Danny Amendola, for whom the “down and out” pattern could be renamed “Dan and out” (Thank you I’m here all weekend). Burkhead gained three tough yards up the middle, then toted a short pass in the right flat for 16 yards. Add three more runs and a 12-yard reception to the list, topped off by a 22-yard catch-and-run where defender Zach Cunningham lost him like Sylvester Stallone in a sea of French soccer fans. (You can watch a reel of all of Burkhead’s touches via Patriots Twitter.)
And, here’s the real kicker: Burkhead’s a potential backup. If healthy, Mike Gillislee looks like the team’s big back (at 5-11, 219, not that big, but there you go). Then there’s James White and Dion Lewis. Ponder that for a moment. Lewis, who rushed seven times for 34 yards (just under five yards per) and looked about as small and quick as an electron, might end up as a fourth-string back on this team. Brandon Bolden, a strong special-teamer and solid backup runner who averaged over four yards per carry on the night (eight for 33), may get edged out of a roster spot. D. J. Foster, who scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on a similar-looking pass to Burkhead’s, dusting rookie corner Bryce Jones like an antique bookshelf, probably won’t make this squad. Some tough calls for the coaches, and once things get going, even tougher calls for opposing defenses.
The Rivers Edge: So, who’s going to rush the passer? Rookie Derek Rivers looks done for the year with a knee injury, a terrible blow to a guy who was starting to show up in practice as he got more familiar with his new role as an edge defender. Rookie Deatrich Wise, who’s more of a defensive end type, has had to sit out due to a concussion. Meanwhile, newcomer Kony Ealy made more of an impression at Houston than he had vs. Jacksonville, but that impression still went about as deep as my daughter’s plaster handprint Christmas ornament. Adam Butler did some good things, but he may produce more as an interior pass-rushing lineman. Third-year pass-rusher/Super Bowl Hero for Life Trey Flowers has one spot nailed down, but the stand-up pass-rushing edge defender (aka the Who-Knew-We’d-Miss-Rob Ninkovich-Already?) position seems to be open for auditions.
Speaking of which…
Getting Into Bates: Strong overall tryout by edge defender Trevor Bates out of Maine (Go Black Bears and Blue Blazes!). He started on the kickoff team and stood out on defense for the right reasons. He managed decent quarterback pressure in the fourth quarter, then displayed strong fundamentals in bringing down a receiver in open space. After that play, the cameras picked up defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on the sideline yelling, “Great job, Bates!” That can’t hurt.
Rookie Harvey Langi looks like the frontrunner for playing time at the edge; still, what with Langi’s tendency to lose contain by running himself out of the play and/or to commit silly hands-to-the-face penalties (i.e., the kinds of mistakes most rookies are wont to do), Bates should get a few more shots this summer. Hey, at least there’s competition.
Oh, also? Geneo Grissom. Completely forgot about that dude. Thank you, Rich Hill of PatsPulpit.com!
1,2,3 Go: During both preseason matchups, each QB has seemed to solidify his status on the depth chart. At this point of the summer it seems perfectly acceptable to ignore Tom Brady and go right to his backups. (We all understand that Brady won’t just be fine; he’ll be gorgeous.) Jimmy Garoppolo submitted a more up-and-down performance than usual, completing 15 of 23 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown (hooray!) plus one fumble and one interception (boo!). The interception was the most troubling, as he seemed to rethink throwing the pass out of bounds, instead attempting to connect with tight end Jacob Hollister along the sideline. Garoppolo ended up looking like a junior league hoopster getting caught between choosing backboard or not on a fast break, sending a layup clanging off the back of the rim. Just ugly. Overall, though, Jimmy G. deserves credit for keeping his offense going after the exodus of starting skill players in the second half. Meanwhile, Jacoby Brissett nailed down the number three spot, connecting on some quick slants and flat passes to Devin Lucien and Foster to keep the final drive exciting, only to fumble-toss the ball through the back of the end zone for a touchback. Brisett seems to have a decent control of the offense, it’s just that he throws his passes with such velocity that, by comparison, Drew Bledsoe looked like he was tossing maple seed floaters.
A Little Out Of Thuney: I mean, if you’re going to line up vs. JJ. Watt, you’re going to have some problems. For this reason, the Patriots need to figure out how to protect the middle vs. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, the latter of whom created havoc at Gillette last January in the divisional playoffs. Left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews showcase solid fundamentals and execution; on the other hand, neither one is regarded as a mauler. With about 8:45 left in the first quarter, Watt sliced through the pair’s attempted double-team like a hot cleaver through a Jim Dandy, wrapping up Burkhead for a two-yard loss. (You can see the play on NFL.com.)
While it’s difficult to argue against the benefits of the Patriots returning with the same starting five from 2016, the middle of the line (including right guard Shaq Mason) has shown vulnerability to bigger, stronger defensive linemen penetrating gaps. Both Houston and New England know that, so watching how each team deals with those interior match-ups should provide some in-game entertainment in a few weeks.
It’s What’s Bruin: Does anyone else remember that tagline for the Boston Bruins broadcasts on TV38? Anyone who may have danced to “The Nutty?” No? Anyway, the Patriots have a new Bruin of their own in UCLA rookie tackle Conor McDermott, who has been doing a commendable job at right tackle. While I wasn’t all that impressed watching McDermott at the Senior Bowl, he has notable size at 6-8, 310 pounds, with good speed (5.18-second 40-yard dash) and great feet (his 7.52-second 3-cone tied for top three lineman at the NFL Combine). As a sixth-rounder, has shown promise thus far in the preseason and could become a reliable backup. With thin tackle depth in Detroit, McDermott should get more time to make himself a tough cut.
Can You Dig It? Not sure yet, Cyrus Jones. We may need more information. While his 14.5-yard punt return average against the Texans could get him back on the right track (nice piece by ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss here),his defense again looked inconsistent (solid tackle on a QB run, some mediocre plays in coverage). Also, as pointed out by Matt Chatham on the broadcast, Jones made an error in judgment at the end of the first half, catching a punt at his own 12 while running backward (the ball probably would have gone into the end zone).
Can Jones catch punts? Yes. Because he has addressed this pressing concern from last season, it’s not a huge leap to think he can improve on his decision-making. If he can become a real weapon in the kicking game and help flip field position once or twice a week, Jones will be worth keeping around.
Must Be Something He Eights: In the second quarter, Garoppolo’s first pass went to tight end James O’Shaughnessy for 15 yards. O’Shaughnessy, number 88 in your program, became a go-to among the backups, deking a defender for an extra three yards to gain six, and later gaining eleven yards on a catch where his hands looked as sticky as a tree frog’s. In his first preseason action, the third-year TE out of Illinois State led the team in receptions with five passes for 41 yards on the night. He moves pretty well for his size (6-4, 245) and could become a viable option as the third tight end.
Yeah, I’m still sticking with Matt Lengel (all 6-7, 265 pounds of him) at the number three TE behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, despite Lengel missing time. O’Shaughnessy can give himself a chance via special teams. Plus, if he can show the ability to get open against first-half defenses, I just might have to reconsider my Lengel love. Alert Christopher Price and all Northeastern alums immediately.
“Lengel Love,” by the way, was the working title of a 1970s hit by the Steve Miller Band. (Note: This is completely untrue.)
Draw The Line: After giving up 207 yards rushing on 37 carries to Jacksonville (5.6-yard avg.), the Patriots inserted much of their starting defensive line and held Houston to 82 yards on 29 carries (2.83 yard avg.). While Alan Branch and Malcom Brown seemed to take up where they left off last season (an encouraging sign given Branch’s incognito status through much of this summer), new Patriot Lawrence Guy made himself known on the Texans’ opening drive. Guy sacked QB Tom Savage at New England’s 19 on first down, then stopped running back Lamar Miller short on a fourth-down attempt. A 6-4, 300-pound free agent from Baltimore, Guy has the size, speed (4.98 40) and strength (28 bench reps) to potentially play anywhere along the line. Should be fun to watch where the coaching staff puts him from week to week.
Ghost Right-er: A comforting night from kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts from 38, 51, and 42 yards. The Polish Pointmaker also hit both of his PATs, splitting the uprights more evenly down the middle than a birthday cake for twins. This proved to be Gostkowski’s best night for a while, so fans must hope this hot streak evolves into the norm.
Another entertaining broadcast from Kraft Productions. I said this last week, so I’ll only mention it briefly here: while I like all the on-camera talent individually, I still question the need for Paul Perillo and Andy Hart in the studio during game action with Steve Burton as the designated Bill Belichick interviewer when they have Matt Chatham already offering color roaming the sideline. And that’s the last time I bring up the “bigger than the cast of ‘Game of Thrones'” observation.
Anyway, some comments on what we watched…
Houston, We Have A Prelim: Great opening with shots of former Patriots players/current Houston coaches Larry Izzo and Mike Vrabel, with a clip of the latter scoring a touchdown vs. Carolina in Super Bowl 38 (played in Houston, of course). My one request would have been to continue with this segment for a little longer, as the ensuing Dan Roche and Christian Fauria “players we’re watching for” segment got summarized concisely (and, in my opinion, more informatively) by Chatham’s comments. Maybe more highlights next time, a few words with the hosts, and a quick summary with Chatham? Just spitballing here.
Also loved the “leftover confetti” bit, showing the remnants of the Super Bowl celebration that had gotten lodged in a phone bank. Am I the only one who wants to adorn a vase with an SBLI confetti appliqué?
Oh, I am? Okay.
Foresight For Fauria: Great timing by Fauria pointing out the Malcolm Butler matchup with bigger receiver Jaelen Strong seconds before Strong leapt for a touchdown catch along the baseline of the end zone near the end of the first quarter.
Do The Matt: A couple of nice add-ons by Chatham. One, on a Garoppolo pass attempt to Brandon Bolden on third-and-three with just under 10 minutes left in the half, Chatham noted that the QB stared down his receiver, alerting safety Corey Moore and allowing him to rush over and break up the pass. Two, Chatham stepped in and outlined why, with 1:22 left in the half, Jones fielding that deep punt was a really bad idea, especially considering the momentum of the punt forced Jones backward (making him lose three yards on the tackle).
Hey, Wha’ Happened? Just before the two-minute warning of the half, pass interference was called on Houston (according to the referee), yet that got declined, forcing the Patriots into a third and 15. As Roche said, “Why would Bill Belichick decline that? It has to be on the Patriots.” Well, as it turns out, Roche was correct: the NFL.com play-by-play page listed the penalty as offensive pass interference on Austin Carr (number 84, not 94 as the official said live). Still, during the broadcast, we had no idea what happened, and no follow-up on the improper call occurred. Would have been a good get to figure out the issue before halftime, especially considering the Pats failed to convert that third down.
Deep Thoughts: I gave Burton a hard time with the “your thoughts?” question/non-question of Belichick last week, so I was disappointed to hear Roche ask the same thing of Garoppolo during their halftime interview segment. “Just your thoughts on being here at Greenbriar (West Virginia)…” Then, back live, Roche said to Fauria, “Christian, your thoughts of what we saw in the first half.”
I mean… it’s fine. Not a big deal. In fact, the following helped me reconsider my position on this:
Giving Him The Ron Around: This week, Burton made the effort to offer up some pointed questions of Belichick at Houston (re: Burkhead’s versatility and Gronk’s playing time) and got a lot less of a response. (Something along the lines of “We’ve got players and they’re playing and we’re watching them play.”) Sometimes Belichick’s about as soft and mushy as matzoh, and he puts reporters to the test. I won’t criticize Burton for his halftime interviews anymore.
And now, our weekly review of what we didn’t get to review: in other words, replays the broadcast seemed to miss. Only a couple this week.
• Houston QB Savage tried to force a short pass to his receiver with 11:35 remaining in the first, but Stephon Gilmore broke up the pass. This looked like a close play, as the referee actually removed the penalty flag from his pocket and drew it back, but the ref held it. A replay would have helped us dissect the official’s thinking, as well as get an idea of how Gilmore succeeded.
• With 6:09 left in the third quarter, Garoppolo failed to connect with O’Shaughnessy for a short pass on third and four. Not having a replay made it difficult to see if the tight end was open and the quarterback missed him, or if O’Shaughnessy was covered. It looked like an overthrow on my DVR, but the absence of a different angle made that tough to discern.
No comments on commercials last week. Three of note this week, I thought.
Everything Counts In Large Amounts: The Gatorade ad that features such bon mots as “Ain’t nobody gonna work harder,” wraps up with “This isn’t just a game of inches; this is a game of ounces, and the next ounce you give might just be the one the other guy doesn’t.” A game of ounces. Hunh. So, if I drink ten gallons of Gatorade, I win?
Listen, Watt was a 220-pound tight end recruit at Central Michigan. After putting on 25 pounds at CMU, he left, walked on at Wisconsin, gained an additional 50 pounds, and became one of the best defensive linemen of this century. I’m just not sure how much Gatorade had to do with that. So sugary!
How Does It Feel? My two issues with an overall enjoyable Bank of America commercial featuring two laid-back, corporate types who insist they have got to go see a concert in San Francisco? One, they show up late to the show; two, no one else is there. I mean, kudos for the use of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” but wouldn’t more people show up for this gig?
Also, the slogan “Time to roll” falls short, especially for a bank. It sounds like what a manager at a chain restaurant would tell his lunch crew just before opening. “Okay, guys, time to roll. And really hype up the pepperoni pirogies!”
Putnam Pats: That Putnam Investors ad drives me nuts because the couple goes to a Patriots game featuring actors in New England uniforms. No matter how many times I try to fast-forward through that ad, I see what looks like the Patriots, think the game is back on, and end up stopping to watch it … Oh …
Well played, Putnam. Well played, indeed.
Opponent Mascot Name Etymology: The Patriots travel to Detroit to take on the Lions at 7 pm ET Friday. The word “lion” comes from Greek leon. I really thought that would be more exciting (like, “hippopotamus” is Greek for “river horse,” you guys!) so I’ll add this: A group of lions can be called a pride, a troop, or a sault. The word “sault” can mean “waterfall” and stems from the Latin “saltus” for “leap.”
Opponent Site Name Etymology: The word “detroit” is French for “strait.” The city of Detroit sits on a strait that connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron. I guess that should set you strai – No. NO.
Mix Tape Song That’s May Or May Not Prove Relevant: Found a cache of cassettes from years ago and hope to reference them this season. Hadn’t heard “Vista” from Guadalcanal Diary in a long time, but it’s a reminder that we can enjoy what’s in front of us without really understanding what it means.
The NFL Preseason: Football, I Guess?
Let’s see who seems to get what’s going on Friday night. Enjoy a final preseason glimpse at the starters.
Chris Warner is a little too excited about coming across an old General Public cassette. He can be emailed at email@example.com or tweeted @cwarn89.