FOXBORO — Laurence Maroney has been healthy all camp — he hasn’t missed a single practice. In drills, he’s appeared to run hard and do all the right things. He’s been pleasant and accommodating with the media, joking with reporters on several occasions. And Patriots coach Bill Belichick was complimentary of his effort earlier this week, saying, “I think Laurence has worked hard. He’s been out there every day and he’s taking his reps. I think he’s ready to go.”
So where is he?
For the second consecutive preseason game, Maroney dressed but did not play, failing to leave the sidelines in Thursday’s 36-35 preseason loss to the Rams at Gillette Stadium (click here for the full recap). On the heels of his (presumed) DNP-CD against the Falcons last week, he spent most of the night holding his helmet, chatting and joking with teammates on the sidelines as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk got carries. He did not speak with reporters after the game.
Belichick said that because New England’s offense struggled to find a rhythm early on — of its first four drives, three ended up going three-and-out — they were unable to get the ball to Maroney.
“Yeah, we never had the ball,” Belichick said when asked specifically about Maroney. “We never had the ball. We didn’t run any plays on offense.”
So, the plan was to play Maroney if the offense had the ball?
“We would have played everybody,” Belichick said.
It has been a unique preseason for the running backs. For the most part, the Patriots have chosen to go with one back a half in an attempt to test his stamina and see if he can build a rhythm. And while Sammy Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Fred Taylor and even Chris Taylor have gotten a chance to stretch their legs in extended action, Maroney has been limited to eight carries in the preseason opener against the Saints, and has played just 12 snaps through three preseason games.
“We have a lot of backs,” said Morris after Thursday’s game. “We’re trying to get everybody some work. It’s preseason. It’s tough.”
There could be something at play we are not aware of: Maroney may be injured. Perhaps the coaching staff is already sure of what they have in the running back, and believe they only need to see a few preseason snaps to make sure he’s ready for the regular season. And to be fair, Taylor did not receive any carries against the Rams either.
But given the fact that he doesn’t appear to be injured, for last year’s stat leader at the position (194 carries, 757 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) to have so little work at this stage of the preseason — and have zero snaps in what is acknowledged to be the biggest preseason game of the year — is certainly puzzling. It brings into question New England’s plans for Maroney (who is in a contract year) this season and beyond.
Maroney acknowledged his critics earlier this week, saying, “I have a lot of critics out here, still, and I laugh at it and I just go out there and just work hard and go out there and prove to everybody why they took me first round.” But after Thursday night, one has to wonder if Maroney’s critics will get the last laugh sooner rather than later.
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night:
After a solid start to his preseason, Devin McCourty stumbled a bit on Thursday
The rookie cornerback out of Rutgers played well over the first two preseason games (especially last week against the Falcons and Roddy White). And with Leigh Bodden returning by a nagging injury, he got a lot of run with the starters this week in practice. It said a lot about his overall development that he was able to get the start in the third preseason game of the year, a contest that (at least for the first half) is the exclusive domain of the starters.
But he gave up a few bad plays on the night, and at one point relatively late in the first half, it briefly appeared that the Rams were specifically targeting him. There was a early 32-yarder to Donnie Avery where he bit on a stop and go move that yielded the biggest gain of the evening for Avery. There was another catch from Avery at the end of the first quarter that came at the expense of McCourty, a 16-yarder that kept the chains moving. In addition, there was a play where he was badly beaten right before the end of the first half by Laurent Robinson, where only a bad throw from Sam Bradford prevented a 27-yard touchdown.
In fact, all in all, it wasn’t a great night for the upper echelon members of the New England secondary, especially McCourty’s fellow corner Darius Butler. He was the victim of a 20-yard touchdown strike from St. Louis backup quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to Brandon Gibson where Butler swung and missed on a tackle attempt that allowed Gibson to stroll into the end zone for a touchdown. On that same drive, Butler committed an illegal contact penalty on a third-and-nine that kept the Rams’ drive alive.
“I know we’ve got to get better,” said Butler. “I know I’ve got to get better personally. I’ve got to make better plays out there. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
(Apparently, that was only the starting point for Butler. He was far harder on himself once he left Gillette Stadium.)
Wes Welker continues his march toward an opening day start against the Bengals
Welker finished his night with two catches for 41 yards, including a 39-yarder that gave the Patriots’ offense a jolt in the second quarter. It was a classic Welker reception, picking up short yardage after the catch and stretching it for a big gain. A week after playing six snaps against the Falcons in his first preseason action, the veteran receiver was on the field (unofficially) for 15 snaps as the Patriots continue to increase his workload with an eye toward having him ready for Week 1 of the regular season against the Bengals.
Welker’s return has gone so well it’s sometimes hard to remember the sight of the wide receiver hobbling to the sideline in Houston and being taken away in a cart to the Reliant Stadium locker room last January. The receiver got a reminder when Avery went down with what appeared to be a serious right knee injury in the second quarter. (Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo later said Avery “probably has a significant knee injury.”) After Avery suffered the injury along the New England sidelines, Welker could be seen by several reporters going over to talk to him as he was being taken off on a cart.
There’s more than one rookie pass-catching tight end on the roster
Without Aaron Hernandez in the lineup, it was Gronkowski’s night, and he certainly made the most of his opportunity. The rookie tight end out of Arizona had three catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns were unique, and flashed different aspects of Gronkowski’s skill set.
On the first, which came with 1:55 left in the first half, the big rookie caught a soft pass from Brady at the St. Louis seven-yard line, and Rams’ linebacker James Laurinaitis holding onto his heels, dragged the defender to the goal line. The second came with 13:59 left in the fourth when Gronkowski leapt high to snag a laser from Brady and came down with the ball. Two impressive receptions, two impressive scores.
While the second one was probably more aesthetically pleasing, it was the first one that was a classic rumbling-stumbling-bumbling play you’d expect out of the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder.
“I’m about giving it 100 percent on each play,” Gronkowski said when he was asked about the first touchdown. “So just when I catch the ball, I just have to make sure I get up the field and tuck the ball away and get up the field and get as much yards as I can. That was just the end zone right there, and it was a touchdown.”
While Hernandez has gotten the bulk of the attention over the first two weeks of preseason, Gronkowski had an impressive week as he continues to build a chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.
“I’m going out there every practice and working hard, running my routes and he’s throwing passes to me,” said the rookie, who was sporting a new Mohawk courtesy of the veterans. “I’m just working hard out there, getting a connection going hopefully, and basically practice hard, and everything will work out.”
Stats can be deceiving … sometimes, very deceiving
A quick look at the box score reveals at out-of-this world night for quarterback Tom Brady: 18-for-22 for 273 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 158.0 passing rating.
While Brady did put up an impressive display, those numbers were a bit inflated because a sizable chunk of those passing yards came after the starting St. Louis defense had checked out for the night. The quarterback was 8-for-10 for 103 yards and one touchdown in the first half. Good accuracy, but when you remove one 39-yarder to Welker, the numbers are pretty pedestrian. In addition, the New England offense was unable to move the chains until late in the first half — their second first down of the night came with 3:26 left in the first half on the previously mentioned 39-yarder.
In the second half, Brady and the New England starters were able to knock around the Rams’ No. 2 defense a little — Brady hit Moss on a 65-yard touchdown strike and Gronkowski on a 20-yard scoring pass — which contributed to Brady’s inflated numbers.
It was a long night of work for Brady and the starting offense, which was out there in the third quarter when St. Louis rookie quarterback Sam Bradford was relaxing on the sideline after an impressive night of his own (15-for-22, 189 yards, two touchdowns in his first-ever preseason start).
“We just have to execute better. I think that’s what it comes down to,” said Brady, who took 29 snaps on the night, a preseason high. “It gets old pretty quick when you keep going to the bench after three or four plays. We just had to get a bit of a rhythm out there. We fond it a little but there at the end of the first half and at the beginning of the second, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.”
The Patriots may have found their kick returner
The unquestioned highlight of the night for the Patriots came on the first play of the evening, when Brandon Tate returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. It was a masterfully put-together return — Tate received some great blocking, he hit a huge hole perfectly and wasn’t touched on his way to the end zone.
“My teammates were the ones blocking, so without them, it wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘I’m ready … this is going to be the one,’ so all the credit has to go to my teammate.”
After trading away Ellis Hobbs before the start of the 2009 season, the Patriots spent much of last season struggling to find an answer in the return game. They tried a variety of people, but to no avail — New England was 15th in the league in kick return average with 22.7 yards per return, and was one of only a handful of teams in the league last year not to run a kick back for a touchdown.
But this preseason, they’ve gotten strong performances in the return game from both Tate (who nearly broke a second one last night and finished with three returns which averaged 54.7 yards per attempt) and McCourty, who had kick returns of 50 and 52 yards in the preseason opener against the Saints.
It is particularly sweet for Tate, who has missed the bulk of two seasons (his senior season at UNC and last year with the Patriots) because of knee problems. On Thursday, he also had two catches for 17 yards, and is making a real case for some serious playing time once the regular season rolls around.
“Every time I get to go out there and play, I try to put my best foot out there,” Tate said. “I got out there and compete every play and just play hard.”
“He’s got very good quickness, as you can see,” Brady said. “He’s vey good [running] after the catch, which you saw on the kickoff return. He’s got very good hands, which you saw in the first game with the Saints when he caught the ball on the sideline. He’s a very mature kid, even though he’s young, and he just continues to get better. I think that’s a great thing for all of us.”
If Thursday was a regular-season game, the Patriots would have done a lot of things very differently
And that doesn’t only go for the personnel packages and substitutions and the rest of the stuff that goes along with a typical preseason affair. After the game, several players confessed that things were probably a little more vanilla than what they would have used if it was a regular-season contest.
The Patriots did present a few unique looks — including a scheme that included three safeties (Pat Chung, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather) in the first half. But for the most part, New England stuck with simplicity from start to finish in this one, choosing instead to focus on their own game plan as opposed to thinking about attacking an opponent.
“You know, preseason, you don’t want to show your hand for your first regular-season opponent,” said inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. “But at the end of the day, no matter what the call is, what the coach gives us to execute, you have to go out and get it done. And we didn’t do that today.”
When it comes to guys on the bubble, Sam Aiken may have done the most to help his cause
Last year’s special teams’ captain, Aiken isn’t really exceptional at anything, but is above average in a number of areas and will clearly do whatever it takes to land a roster spot. On Thursday night, he was also a part of the kick coverage unit that did such a great job blocking for Brandon Tate on his first-quarter touchdown return. He also had four catches (tied for tops on the team) for 22 yards, and was in the game well into the second half. While that final receiver position is still up in the air (it’s likely tied to how many running backs the Patriots decide to keep), Aiken is doing everything he can to make sure he gets it.
It came against the St. Louis backups, but the 65-yarder from Brady to Moss might have been the Patriots’ sweetest play of the preseason
The connection came with 5:01 left in the third quarter, and was possible because Moss got behind backup safety Kevin Payne. It was the unquestioned offensive high point of the evening for the Patriots, who got a nice jolt from the play that cut the St. Louis lead to 27-21.
For Moss — who finished with three catches for 74 yards — the play is a punctuation mark on an impressive preseason. (It’s unlikely he will play in next week’s preseason finale against the Giants — few starters do.) The 33-year-old, who enters the final year of his contract with the Patriots, appears primed to have an impressive season.
“We missed one last week, so you’ve got to sit with that for a week,” said Brady, who just missed on a deep ball last week against the Falcons. “Randy is tough. When he gets behind those guys, there are not many people that are catching him. It’s amazing to me how he catches the ball like he does. It’s so hard to do, obviously.
“To run full speed like he does, as fast he does, your head is bobbing up and down and it looks like there are three balls up there, and he just puts his hands out there like they’re baseball mitts, and the ball never bobbles or anything like that. He’s an incredible player and athlete, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Questions about the Patriots’ pass rush remain
For a team that has struggled to get after the quarterback over the last year, it was thought that Thursday’s game would be a confidence-builder. The Rams, who allowed 44 sacks last year (tied for seventh-most in the league) have a young offensive line, many of them holdovers from last season, as well as a rookie quarterback who was making his first NFL start. And for the first time in the preseason, the Patriots would have their two starting outside linebackers — Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain — in the lineup together for the first time.
But New England had just one sack on the night, a seven-yard sack in the second quarter for Ron Brace, and was unable to get any real sustained pressure on St. Louis rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.
“I felt our offensive line did a great job in protection tonight with some of the looks they gave us,” Bradford said after the game. “I thought those guys did a great job in getting to the right places, making sure everything was picked up. At the same time I think I was smart with the ball when they did decide to pressure us and I felt like I got the ball where it needed to be.”
On top of that, Banta-Cain was flagged for roughing-the-passer and offsides penalties, making it a bad night all around for the Patriots’ pass rush. (In all, New England was flagged for roughing the passer three times: Banta-Cain, Murrell and Brandon Spikes. And the Patriots took seven penalties — two were declined — a preseason-high through three games.)
If you need one defensive positive to take with you out of this game, it could very likely be the play of Brace, who had seven tackles to go along with his first-half sack and generally looked aggressive while rotating in on the defensive starters in the early going. A healthy and active Brace could go a long way toward creating some stability along the New England defensive line.