Even though Aaron Hernandez only has two preseason games on his professional resume, it’s clear the Patriots have never had a pass-catcher this unique.
Thus far, the Florida product has displayed a preternatural ability in New England’s passing game. The rookie tight end, who had four catches for a team-high 46 yards and a touchdown in Thursday’s 28-10 preseason victory over the Falcons in Atlanta (click here for the complete recap), continues to flash an amazingly versatile skill set. On Thursday against the Falcons, he was lined up in no fewer than four different spots — fullback, split wide, in the slot and flush against the tackles — on the field, and ended up playing 42 snaps.
The highlight of the evening for the 6-foot-2, 245-pound tight end (who will cause all sorts of matchup problems this year for opposing defenses with his size, speed, soft hands and versatility) came when he caught his first touchdown pass as a Patriot late in the second quarter. On a third-down situation in the Atlanta red zone (New England was on the Falcons’ 4), Brady found him in the back of the end zone with a laser. Atlanta linebacker Sean Witherspoon looked foolish trying to keep up with Hernandez, who not only turned him inside out but had the presence of mind to tip-toe along the back of the end zone and hold on to the football. The touchdown gave the Patriots a 14-3 lead, and was the final ball Tom Brady would throw all evening.
For a team that, A) struggled to find the tight end in the passing game all last year, and, B) struggled offensively in the red zone all last year, it was a sight for sore eyes for New England football fans.
It was also part of another impressive night for New England’s tight ends. Rob Gronkowski added a touchdown of his own, a 24-yard catch from Brian Hoyer in the second half. (Early on, Gronkowski did appear to be the one who missed a block that almost got Fred Taylor smooshed, but other than that, he had a fine night, finishing with four catches for 38 yards.) And Alge Crumpler had a terrific block on Taylor’s first-half touchdown run that helped the running back cut loose for a 28-yarder to the end zone.
“Alge’s clearly the most experienced,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Rob and Aaron both have shown flashes of good things. They’ve got a ways to go, but I think they’re working hard and making progress.”
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night:
It is hard not to be amazed at what Wes Welker has accomplished
Almost eight months after tearing up his left knee in Houston, Welker didn’t get the start in his first game back (the Patriots opened in a three tight-end set for the second straight preseason game), but was heavily involved in the first drive of the night, a 12-play 80-yard sequence that ended with a New England touchdown. He was in for six snaps, and ended the night with two catches for 20 yards.
When it came to contact, he was able to absorb a nasty hit on a screen that was blown up Atlanta defensive back Christopher Owens. Owens neatly avoided a block from Randy Moss and really crunched Welker. But the receiver popped up after the hit, looking no worse for wear.
“The big thing was to get him in there, let him play a little bit. We talked about it this week and it was kind of the next step him for and he felt good about it so we put him in there,” Belichick said of Welker. “Nobody works harder than Wes. He's as competitive and as hard working a player as we've had, and we've had a lot of them. But I'd put him right up there with all of them.”
For Welker, the milestone of returning game action was significant, but he was quick to remind people that there is still work that needs to be done.
“I mean, it’s a step forward,” Welker told reporters after the game. “I don’t know if we’re all there yet or anything like that, but it’s a step forward and we got some plays out there and got some contact, which I haven’t had before. And it was good to have out there.”
After two preseason games, Tom Brady is about where you would expect him to be
On the heels of a 17-snap performance in the preseason opener against the Saints in which he went 5-for-8 for 67 yards, Brady was able to build on that with another good outing against the Falcons. On Thursday, he was 10-for-12 for 85 yards a touchdown and a shining 124 quarterback rating. (His only two incompletions came on the Welker screen and a deep ball to Moss that might have been a missed pass interference call.) He took 24 snaps and helped engineer a pair of scoring drives, one that ended with a rushing touchdown and another and another that culminated in a 4-yard scoring strike to Hernandez in the second quarter.
Brady spread the ball around nicely, targeting seven different receivers over the first quarter-plus of action and hitting with Welker, Hernandez and Randy Moss for two receptions each. (Kevin Faulk, Julian Edelman, Sammy Morris and Gronkowski caught one ball each from Brady). But it was his early connections with No. 83 that set the tone. The quarterback allowed the returning receiver to get his feet wet (Welker’s two catches were on his first two snaps of the game) while developing a nice rhythm for the rest of the offense.
There was one black mark on his evening — midway through the second quarter and with the Patriots in the middle of an 11-play, 63-yard drive that would end with the touchdown pass to Hernandez, Brady was introduced to Falcons third-year defensive lineman Kroy Biermann, who sacked him on third-and-4. Brady pump-faked after seeing Welker was covered over the middle, and before he could get another chance, both he and the ball were on the ground. While teammate Stephen Neal recovered the fumble (and the Patriots were able to eventually score), it was the only thing that marred an otherwise impressive night for the quarterback. As for next week against St. Louis, look for another 10-15 snaps from Brady in what will almost certainly be his final appearance before Week 1 of the regular season.
It was a very impressive night for the New England offense in general: Under Brady's control, the Pats were efficient and balanced — of New England’s first 26 offensive plays, there were 13 runs and 13 passes. The offense had the ball for nine series and finished with four touchdowns. And even when the Patriots weren’t scoring, they were taking time off the clock — four of the drives went nine plays or more. They were 11-for-17 for 65 percent on third-down conversions, and finished with 299 total net yards.
Dan Connolly is now officially The Man at left guard
Not that there was any question heading into Thursday night, but the Patriots offensive line now appears to be locked in, with Dan Connolly settling into Logan Mankins’ left guard spot. (Anything is possible, of course — Mankins and the Patriots could reach an agreement. But let’s just say no one is holding their breath.) Filling out the rest of the line is Matt Light (left tackle), Dan Koppen (center), Stephen Neal (right guard) and Sebastian Vollmer (right tackle).
As for Connolly, he had a solid night, running with the starting offense for the second straight preseason game at left guard (he even took a snap at fullback for good measure) and coming out of the game late in the first half with the rest of the starters. In the end, Connolly wasn’t Mankins, but he more than held his own against Atlanta’s No. 1 defense, with perhaps his finest moment coming when he led the way on a Kevin Faulk first-down carry in the first quarter. And he was part of an offensive line that imposed its will on the Falcons with a powerful running game, as the Patriots rolled up 120 rushing yards on the evening.
As a group, there were a few miscommunications along the offensive line, but in all, the linemen allowed the offense to do its job. And as for Connolly, there will be another test for him next week against the Rams. It remains to be seen how he could hold up over a 16-game season against some of the more physical AFC teams on New England’s schedule (Steelers, Ravens and Jets), but so far, he’s done well.
When it comes to the Patriots’ use of running backs this preseason, a pattern is emerging
In the wake of the Week 1 victory over the Saints — when BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the call and played most of the evening — no one was quite sure what to make of the running back depth chart. But now, two weeks in, it appears a clear pattern is starting to emerge. New England is giving each running back a sizable chunk of playing time, using them as a de facto feature back for about a half or so in an attempt to get them as much run as possible.
On Thursday, it was Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris who got the bulk of the work. Taylor got the start and carried the ball 11 times for 54 yards in the first half. Morris was the man in the second half, rumbling for 52 yards on just six carries. (Morris finished with an eye-popping 8.7 yards per carry. It came mostly against Atlanta’s No. 2 defense, but it was still a very impressive performance nonetheless.) In all, the running backs accounted for 4.8 yards per carry.
“I think all the backs ran pretty well tonight,” Belichick told reporters after the game. “Fred, when he hit that draw, bounced through there. All the backs had long runs I think at one point or another, so that's good to see. … Fred's had a good camp. He's been out there every day, and he's worked hard. I think he's in good condition and it looks like he can still run the ball.”
Both ended with touchdowns. Taylor’s score was impressive on a number of levels — there was a crushing block delivered by Alge Crumpler, Taylor beat his man to the corner and almost walked into the end zone, a 28-yard run that put New England on top, 7-3 midway through the first quarter. Morris had a 20-yard touchdown run midway through the third when he went straight up the middle on a draw play and dashed untouched into the end zone. A really nice way to end the night for a pair of veteran backs.
On paper, this would seem to suggest that Laurence Maroney — who really hasn’t gotten much of a chance thus far (eight carries through two games, all in Week 1 against the Saints) — is next in line for his chance next week against the Rams.
Brandon Spikes is starting to seize command of the inside linebacker spot opposite Jerod Mayo
After the first week of preseason, there was some question as to whether or not Spikes’ workload at inside linebacker next to Jerod Mayo was the result of the coaches’ desire to see more of Spikes in action or a commentary on what they thought of Tyrone McKenzie. But after another week where there was plenty of Spikes (our unscientific count had him at 27 snaps in the first half — as was the case against the Saints, he left the field on third-and-long situations), it’s clear the Florida product is making his case to be the starter next to Mayo when Week 1 rolls around.
McKenzie did see time in the second half, and showed a knack for getting after the ball when Ron Brace forced a fumble and McKenzie scooped it up. But it’s clear that the positional battle between Spikes, McKenzie and Guyton (who is still sidelined with a knee injury) for the inside linebacker spot opposite Mayo is turning into no contest, at least at this point of the preseason.
Against the Falcons, Spikes had three tackles and showed a good ability to read and react to the action in front of him. He and Mayo seemed to be dropping into coverage — the Patriots were giving Atlanta a large area of real estate about 10-12 yards from the line of scrimmage just over the middle. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that was specific to this week’s game plan and if that’s a statement on their abilities to go back on the ball. Just something that bears watching.
Ron Brace and Derrick Burgess started well but are still going to need to play catch-up
The two defenders who weren’t in the mix at this time last week were got their first taste of preseason action against the Falcons. Burgess started at his old outside linebacker/defensive end position, while Brace rotated into the game in the second half as part of the defensive line. Burgess had no tackles in limited action.
“I think Derrick’s got a lot of experience, but I think it was good to get him back in the action. He had a good week, but he's got a long way to go,” Belichick said. “He's got a lot of ground to make up. He made up some of it this week, hopefully he can make up some more next week. I know he's working hard at it and I'm not worried about that. It’s just [that] there's no substitute for snaps and reps in practices and games. He'll get more of them, and I think he still needs them.”
As for Brace, he had three tackles, with his finest moment coming late in the third quarter when he delivered a hit on Atlanta’s Dimitri Nance that knocked the ball loose. Tyrone McKenzie scooped up the loose ball, the second turnover of the game for the Falcons. (Five plays later, the Patriots cashed in when Brian Hoyer found Gronkowski on a 24-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-3.)
As things stand, even with their relatively late starts, both Burgess and Brace will almost certainly get big opportunities to contribute this season. It remains to be seen what they do with the chances.
It’s hard to get a read on just where the pass-rushing capabilities of this team are right now
In Burgess’ first game back, there were times where he looked a bit overwhelmed, and New England had just one sack on the night. With Tully Banta-Cain not making the trip, the fact remains that the best pass rushers on this team still have to get some more game reps as a group before you can assess whether or not they are better than last year’s collection. And that includes rookie Jermaine Cunningham, who missed his second consecutive preseason game on Thursday with an undisclosed injury.
On Thursday, the Patriots had three quarterback hurries and a sack, with backup outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich being the only Patriot to get to an Atlanta quarterback — he hit Falcons backup quarterback John Parker Wilson midway through the fourth quarter for a 6-yard loss. Some surprising names have come through here and there (Marques Murrell in Week 1 against the Saints, Myron Pryor had a nice pressure on Thursday against the Falcons). But until that unit is out there as a group consistently, there will still be questions about what sort of impact they will have in 2010.
The coverage units — the only really subpar part of New England’s special teams in Week 1 against the Saints — improved over the week
The only bad thing about New England’s special teams performance in the season-opener was a 97-yard kickoff return from New Orleans’ Larry Beavers. Other than that, it was a very good evening across the board. On Thursday against the Falcons, whatever coverage problems the Patriots had were rectified, as New England did not allow a big play on special teams, limiting Atlanta’s average starting field position to its own 21-yard line.
Unlike Week 1, when Devin McCourty had a pair of kick returns go for at least 50 yards and Julian Edelman had a 40-yard punt return, there were no big-time returns for the Patriots. However, punter Zoltan Mesko continues to impress, dropping two of his four punts on the night inside the 20-yard line (of his nine punts in two preseason games, five have landed inside the 20) and finishing with an average of 42.8 yards per punt. (Atlanta could only return one punt for minus-7 yards.) And against the Falcons, Stephen Gostkowski was 4-for-4 on extra points and delivered three touchbacks.
Other than Atlanta kicker Michael Koenen, whose three kickoffs all went into the end zone for touchbacks, New England’s special teams performance stood in marked contrast to the Falcons, who made some bad mistakes at bad times with the game still in doubt. Early in the second quarter, Atlanta’s Matt Bryant missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. And Gostkowski missed a 41-yard field goal attempt midway through the second, but Atlanta’s Chevis Jackson was called for roughing the kicker. Given new life, the Patriots punched it in for a touchdown three plays later.
Look for more joint practices in the future
The series of joint practices the Patriots have held over the last two weeks have been immensely beneficial to the team for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s provided a break from the traditional dog days of camp. It’s shaken things up, the team has had the chance to break from its normal routine and the coaching staff and front office has had a chance to pick the brains of other teams.
Of course, it helps that the Patriots won both games, but in the long run, the chance to just be on the field with another team at this time of year can be a tremendous teaching tool for the players and coaches.
“Just being on the field with the Saints last week was interesting, just watching their guys work, their coaches, their drills, their operation,” Belichick said prior to the game. “It’s something we haven’t done in a while and it is interesting to see what another team does, just even simple things.”