Even when Patriots coach Bill Belichick said it Thursday afternoon — and it was broadcast to the greater New York area — the announcement was still met with skepticism.
The starters? Really? In the fourth preseason game?
But as the preseason finale began Thursday night in the New Meadowlands Stadium, there they were — Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and rest of New England’s starting defense, ready for the opening drive against the Giants. And when the Patriots took possession and quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the starting offense took the field, it became evident just how upset Belichick was with last week’s performance against the Rams.
In the end, everyone got what they wanted — a relatively uneventful evening for both sides. Playing in his first preseason finale since 2003, Brady went 4-for-8 for 51 yards, with one touchdown (to Rob Gronkowski) and one interception (on an underthrown ball to Randy Moss). New England’s starting defense struggled, but much of it culd be attributed to scheme — the Patriots stuck mostly with a relatively vanilla scheme for much of the evening. And after the starters were lifted following the first two series, a whole collection of players on the fringes of the roster made their case to survive the final series of cuts, which will come on Saturday.
While the 20-17 loss to the Giants (click here for a complete recap) wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing contest, the best news to come out of the game for the Patriots was that no one was injured. A quick look around the league reveals that not everyone else was as lucky on Thursday: Denver tackle Ryan Harris injured his ankle. Cleveland’s Montario Hardesty left the game with a left knee injury. Pittsburgh quarterback Byron Leftwich hurt his knee and reportedly was forced to undergo an MRI. And Miami left tackle Jake Long limped off the field and had trainers looking at his left knee.
Now, with another preseason in the rearview mirror and the 2010 regular season looming a little more than a week away, Belichick believes his team has “worked hard” over the course of the preseason, and will be “ready to go” when the Bengals come calling at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 12.
“You know, I thought that overall, taking practices and the games and all of that into account, we had our ups and downs, but I think the team worked hard,” Belichick told reporters after the game. “I think they are in good condition. I think they’ll be ready to go. We’ve competed well for he most part on a day in, day out basis, so hopefully we can carry that into Sundays.”
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night:
The Giants were able to pinpoint some of the softer aspects of the New England pass defense, but the cornerbacks had themselves a good night
The duo of Darius Butler and Devin McCourty got the start at corner and played the first two series with the rest of the defensive starters. Early on, a lot of the things the Giants did to exploit the New England pass defense came at the expense of the linebackers, not the defensive backs. Eli Manning and the rest of the Giants’ passing game was about breaking off relatively small chunks of yardage underneath — their first five completions went for 22, 2, 12, 17 and 13 yards. Nothing whopping, and nothing really against the defensive backs.
McCourty, who was coming off a subpar outing last week against the Rams, bounced back nicely. In two series, he finished with three tackles and a pass defensed. On New York’s first series, McCourty broke up a pass meant for Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. On the next play, New York went back to Nicks, and McCourty made a nice open-field tackle on the receiver, stopping him for a two-yard gain.
He was also involved in what was a great display of team defense on a third-and-8 with just over three minutes to go in the first quarter. The Patriots, and Mike Wright in particular, did a good job pressuring Manning, making him throw the ball before he was ready. While Manning got the pass off, McCourty did another nice job in coverage on Nicks, and the ball went incomplete.
McCourty finished his first NFL preseason with 14 total tackles. At his best, the 5-foot-10, 193-pounder has been a real physical presence with opposing wide receivers, unafraid to jam them at the line and showing a short memory when it comes to forgetting about a bad night. It’s early — and he’ll face a tall challenge in the season opener as he and Butler will face Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco — but so far, he’s done well.
Several of the players on the back end of the roster made a good case to be included on the practice squad
Lost in all the talk about the tight ends this summer has been the steady play of Rob Myers. The youngster, who was signed to the Patriots’ practice squad last November and managed to stick around through the offseason, made a nice case to be included when the practice squad is assembled this weekend. He had two catches for 38 yards, one of which was one of the best connections of the night — with just under seven minutes left in the second quarter and the Patriots facing a third and 18, Myers found a seam in the defense and hauled in a 26-yard dart from Brian Hoyer. It was a really nice throw (Hoyer had a small window and zipped it in there perfectly) and a clean route by Myers.
Another pass-catcher who could end up sticking around after a solid game against the Giants is wide receiver Darnell Jenkins. The Miami product, who was signed to New England’s practice squad last season and is on his fourth organization in two years, was targeted six times and had a game-high five catches for 93 yards. His finest moment came on a screen pass from Hoyer with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter — split wide right, Hoyer immediately went to Jenkins, and the fleet receiver got nice blocks from Carson Butler and Quinn Ojinnaka that allowed him to get into the open field. Jenkins’ speed took it from there, as he raced to the end zone for his first touchdown of the preseason.
“He’s had an exciting preseason,” Belichick said of Jenkins. “He’s competitive with the ball in his hands. He made some big plays.”
“This was the last game for guys to be evaluated,” Jenkins told reporters after the game. “I did all that I could do. The decision is with the organization. This game was a plus, but it is what it is.”
Wide receiver Rod Owens also had himself a solid evening — he was targeted three times and caught two passes for 73 yards. Like Jenkins, he was able to take a relatively short pass and break off some nice YAC on a reception with roughly three minutes to go in the third quarter. Owens had the presence of mind to make a nice catch in traffic on a quick pass from Hoyer, bounce off a couple of would-be tacklers and race into Giants' territory. The play would go into the books as a 67-yard completion, the longest play of the preseason for the Patriots.
In addition, other players who are practice squad eligible did plenty to show up on the radar, including Buddy Farnham, who started this summer as a wide receiver with the Patriots, was in the game for an extended stretch as a defensive back (he had four tackles and two pass breakups, but took a bad route while trying to stop New York wide receiver Duke Calhoun on what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdown.
Other youngsters who made the most of their opportunity on Thursday against the Giants included rookie Kyle Love, who had a fourth-quarter sack. Defensive back DeAngelo Willingham had a nice fourth-quarter pick of New York quarterback Rhett Bomar that set up New England’s go-ahead fourth-quarter score. Running back Thomas Clayton had seven carries for 26 yards, as well as a 55-yard kick return in the first quarter. And Sergio Brown had a nice open-field tackle on the opening kickoff, and was the first one downfield to cover a Zoltan Mesko punt that dropped inside the 10.
If the Patriots are forced to go to their backup offensive linemen at any point in the season, they could be in trouble
It was a tough night for New England’s backup offensive line. They couldn’t provide much protection for Hoyer, who was on the run for much of the evening. In the end, he was sacked twice and bloodied by New York’s backup defensive line.
And then, there were the penalties: Offensive lineman Mark LeVoir was whistled for holding in the second quarter (which was eventually declined) and rookie lineman Ted Larsen was flagged for a false start soon after that (negating a seven-yard gain for Maroney). In addition, tight end Carson Butler was hit with a false start call of his own in the third quarter, and offensive lineman George Bussey was called for holding in the fourth quarter (negating an eight-yard gain).
But the low point came at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, when New England had a first-and-goal on the Giants’ three. Three consecutive running plays — three handoffs to Thomas Clayton, who had offensive lineman Ryan Wendell working as a fullback to try and clear the way — could only get them to the one. On fourth-and-one, the Patriots went to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, with Wendell again lined up at fullback. While Wendell was able to deliver a nice block to clear some daylight, it appeared that Green-Ellis wasn’t fast enough to sneak through the hole and was brought down before the goal line.
Under the circumstances, it was one of the finest performances of Hoyer’s career
The quarterback, who entered the game in the second quarter and played most of the rest of the way, finished 15-for-26 for 266 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He had two touchdown connections of 60-plus yards (the 67-yard pass reception to Owens in the third quarter and the 66-yarder to Jenkins in the fourth quarter), with both coming after receivers picked up most of the yardage after the catch.
“[I was] just excited about the opportunity to go out and play and just try to take advantage of those opportunities,” Hoyer told reporters after the game. “For me, it was just really the last guaranteed opportunity that I would have extended playtime. I just wanted to go out there and execute, execute the offense well, and be a leader out there.”
Hoyer is the acknowledged leader of the preseason finale. Last year, his performance in the fourth preseason game (18-of-25 passes for 242 yards with a touchdown) was the deciding factor in the Patriots choosing to go with the undrafted free agent out of Michigan State ahead of a veteran like Andrew Walter as Brady’s No. 1 backup. (It was a memorable summer for Hoyer, who also beat out the likes of Kevin O’Connell and Matt Gutierrez for the job.)
Fast-forward a year, and Hoyer now appears comfortably ensconced in the role of backup behind Brady for another season.
“There were some good things and there were some bad things,” he added when asked about Thursday’s performance. “You just have to watch the film and learn what you can from it, move on, and get ready for the regular season.”
While the Patriots failure to punch the ball in from the one is troubling, their overall work in the red zone this preseason has been sharp
In marked contrast to where they were last season, the Patriots were able to convert the bulk of their red-zone scoring opportunities over the course of the preseason. (On Thursday, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with a five-yard scoring strike over the middle that gave the New England starting offense its’ first and only touchdown of the night.) Overall, the Patriots were 1-for-2 in red-zone scoring efficiency against the Giants, but in the four preseason games, they ended up 8-for-11 for 73 percent.
Much of that can be attributed to the play of the tight ends. Gronkowski nabbed his fourth touchdown catch of the preseason (and third in the red zone) Thursday night against the Giants, and Hernandez caught a four-yard touchdown pass earlier in the preseason against the Falcons. Alge Crumpler did miss a first-quarter touchdown pass from the five-yard line because he and Brady weren’t on the same page, but other than that, the tight ends were been money when it came to catching passes in the red zone through four preseason games.
For his part, Gronkowski said after Thursday’s game that he feels a lot more comfortable with where he is now as opposed to the start of camp.
“Going into camp with the team, having all the preseason games, having all the practices, of course I feel a lot more comfortable,” he told reporters. “[But] you are never 100 percent comfortable, and during this week of practice, I will be going out there and working hard to be 100 percent comfortable when it comes to the game.”
New England probably won’t be releasing a whole lot of defensive linemen on Saturday
Late in the game, rookie offensive linemen Ted Larsen — who played some defensive line in college at North Carolina State — and Thomas Welch were running with the defensive linemen. Inside linebacker Eric Alexander also got some time at nose tackle. Even for the usual surreal atmosphere that surrounds a postseason finale, it was a strange sight.
“We ran out defensive linemen there,” Belichick said after the game.
The Patriots entered the game without Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick and Myron Pryor, but as cutdown day looms, given the real lack of depth at the spot for New England, it certainly bodes well for young defensive linemen like Pryor, Deaderick, and Kyle Love, as well as veteran Damione Lewis, all of whom will be asked to provide support for the expected trio of Gerard Warren (left defensive end), Vince Wilfork (nose tackle) and Mike Wright (right defensive end).
Laurence Maroney is no longer the closest thing this team has to a feature back
There can be no denying that Maroney is no longer the Patriots’ No. 1 option in the running game. Faced with the option of getting him some snaps with the starting offense, Belichick and the coaching staff instead opted for Fred Taylor at the start of the game, and it now appears that New England will open the season with Taylor as its lead back.
Maroney did eventually see some action with the No. 2 offense — the first time he played since the preseason opener against New Orleans, where he was in the game for 12 snaps and carried the ball eight times. On Thursday against the Giants, he entered the game in the second quarter, and ended up with nine carries for 32 yards, the most work he has received in what has been a forgettable preseason for the Minnesota product.
As the regular-season looms, Maroney, who led the team in rushing two of the last three years, now projects as the second or (most likely) third back in a rotation that includes Taylor, Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
“I’m just one of the guys right now. I’m just being patient and sitting back and seeing how things play out,” he told reporters after the game. “Like I said, it’s just one of them situations where I’m always going to be prepared for anything. For the best or for the worst. Whenever they call my number, I’m always going to be ready.”
“I’m always a team player,” he added. “I always tell you year in and year out, whether I get four carries, no carries or 10 carries, I just want to win. I just want to be a part of a winning team and just go out there and help the team any way possible.”
In what was perhaps the most interesting positional battle of the summer, Brandon Spikes emerged as the winner
When camp first convened the last week of July, the most promising positional battle figured to be the fight for the inside linebacker spot opposite Jerod Mayo in New England’s 3-4, with Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie as the three players who had the best shot at winning the job.
But Guyton suffered a minor knee injury early on and McKenzie started to drop off as camp went on. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Spikes kept getting better each day and emerged quickly as the No. 1 option. He started all four preseason games next to Mayo (he had two tackles in Thursady’s preseason finale) and took advantage of his opportunity, doing everything he could to make the job his own. Right now, he currently projects as the opening day linebacker.
Guyton was in action Thursday night, working with the backups, and will almost certainly be counted on to provide depth as well as work on passing downs. (Given his experience in the system, if Spikes stumbles, the Patriots would almost certainly turn back to Guyton as the next best option.)
Things are not so certain for McKenzie, who might be on the bubble when cuts are announced on Saturday. He has seen playing time sparingly, but has played relatively well when given the opportunity and remains stout against the run. He certainly helped his chances on Thursday against the Giants with a team-high 10 tackles, which could ultimately be enough to land him one of the final roster spots. (Even though he does have practice squad eligibility, it’s unlikely McKenzie would make it through the waiver process necessary to make it to the practice squad.)
Going forward, preseasons are going to look more and more like they did this year
The 2010 training camp and preseason will be remembered for many things — the losses of Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden to season-ending IR, the questions about the status of Derrick Burgess and Logan Mankins (one showed, the other is still MIS, locked in a contract feud with the team that shows no signs of ending) and an almost unbelievable stretch of good weather that allowed the Patriots to get most of their work done outside
However, the most memorable is the joint practices between the Patriots and Saints and Patriots and Falcons. On both occasions, Belichick spoke passionately about how great both of the experiences were — the sharing of ideas, the chance to use each series of practices as a measuring stick as to how your team is doing, the opportunity to work with coaches and teams you respect and the chance to break up the monotony of camp. Even if there are no changes made to the schedule and four preseason games remain, expect the Patriots to make joint practice sessions during the preseason a regular event.
But that’s something to think about next summer. Now, after roughly five weeks, the 2010 training camp and preseason are done. The journey begins in earnest for the Patriots next Sunday when the Bengals visit Gillette Stadium for the season opener.
“I think everybody is ready to start the season next week, and we’ll get on it right away,” Belichick said. “We’re on to Cincinnati.”