FOXBORO — He stands in the longest shadow in the NFL, but every preseason, Brian Hoyer continues to remind people why he could be one of the most underrated players on the New England roster.
With Tom Brady and a serious chunk of the starters spending the evening on the sidelines, Hoyer and the rest of the Patriots got the NFL preseason started with a bang Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, as they crushed Jacksonville, 47-12 (click here for the complete recap). Between Brady, Jacksonville's first-round pick Blaine Gabbert (who was making his first career start) and Patriots rookie Ryan Mallett, Hoyer was arguably least heralded quarterback in the stadium, but the one who turned in the best offensive performance of the night, going 15-for-21 for 171 yards and one touchdown.
New England decided to rest several regulars, including Brady, Wes Welker, Chad Ochocinco, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Devin McCourty. Instead, the crowd was treated to some first-teamers and lots of backups in an attempt to get a look at as many different people as possible in game conditions.
“We looked at a lot of people here tonight, a lot of young players, and that was kind of the idea tonight — to get them in there and let them play — and we let them play against some better people there in the beginning of the game, so we’ll get a good evaluation of them,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “We’ll look at the film tomorrow and really see how everybody did, but overall it looked like the players competed pretty hard.”
After the Patriots misfired on their first two drives — which ended with a fumble on its first play from scrimmage and a punt right after — the New England offense scored on its next eight drives and generally dominated the Jaguars’ defense all night long. As has been the case throughout his preseason appearances the previous two years, Hoyer was a huge part of that, engineering four straight scoring drives to close out the first half.
“After those first two series — obviously, the first play and then having a three-and-out — we just wanted to get out there and pick up the pace,” Hoyer said. “And I think that kind of gets you in the rhythm a little bit, and we started to move the ball a little bit better.”
After a sluggish start, Hoyer settled in very nicely, completing 8-of-10 passes at one point in the second quarter as the Patriots busted out to a 19-9 lead by the end of the first half. He ended up playing the first two quarters, with his highlight coming when he put together a lightning quick four-play, 32-yard drive that culminated with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Price.
The work of Hoyer — and later, rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett (12-for-19, 164 yards, one touchdown) — was a sign that entering the 2011 season, the Patriots appear to have one of the better backup quarterback situations in the NFL. In particular, the quiet, steady work of Hoyer continues to impress.
“I’m going to see things tomorrow in the film that I wish I would have done better,” Hoyer said after the game. “But for the first game, to come out and move the ball, throw it around a little bit, lead the offense — I thought it was good, but there’s a long way to go.
“I wish I would have thrown the ball better to Taylor [Price] on the touchdown pass. I’ve got to put it in front of him, and that’s something that just comes with repetition, so I think we’ve got a long way to go. It’s a good building block, though.”
When it comes to measuring Tom Brady’s backups, it has always been Matt Cassel and Everyone Else. But over the last two seasons, based on his work in the preseason, Hoyer has earned the right to be considered Cassel’s equal. (I don't think it's a debate any more — it’s clear that Hoyer is better after two years in the system than Cassel was.) When he’s been under center, Hoyer always shows poise and control, and has developed a reputation as an excellent game manager. He will never be confused with No. 12, but the Michigan State product — who is entering the final year of his contract — is developing into a attractive prospect, one that a quarterback-hungry league could find intriguing if he reaches free agency at the end of the 2011 season.
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night:
ON THE TOPIC OF FOUR-MAN FRONTS, NOT MUCH WAS LEARNED
Much of the training camp talk has been about the Patriots shift to a four-man defensive front, and by our estimates, they spent the bulk of Thursday’s game in what could best be described as a four-man front. From the press box, it appeared New England was in a four-man front for 46 of the 57 defensive snaps, while they had a three-man front on 11 defensive snaps. They rotated lots of different players throughout in both sets, with youngsters (like Kyle Love and Darryl Richard) and newcomers (like Mark Anderson) seeing the bulk of the time.
However, they were offering different looks out of both sets — sometimes they’d have the fourth guy stand up, or have outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich set the edge, so it was tough to get a handle on what exactly what going on. In all likelihood, they were engaged in the true spirit of the preseason — experimentation — so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to see them do some of both. In the end, we shouldn’t read too much into what happened on the defensive front Thursday night for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that several of the players who will likely be starters in the system — including Vince Wilfork, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter — didn’t suit up.
DANE FLETCHER HAS COME A LONG WAY
At this point last year, the former undrafted free agent out of Montana State was struggling to make the team. On Thursday, he was the most important defender on the field — he had the green dot on his helmet, denoting the fact that he had the defensive communication system in his helmet. He made a series of big plays early on, blowing up a pair of running plays up the middle and ending the evening with a team-high five tackles.
“Dane has come a long way in terms of his understanding of the defense, calling signals, making adjustments and those kinds of things,” Belichick said. “And the signal calling is really a new responsibility for him, but we felt like it would be a good experience to give that to him instead of Gary [Guyton]. Gary has done it before, so just to give Dane that experience tonight and see how he handled it … it seemed to go fairly smoothly. We still got fouled up there a couple of times, but overall, it was decent.”
“It took a few plays. The first drive was a little shaky. Getting used to kind of having the control out there for the first game was a little tough at first,” Fletcher acknowledged. “It took just getting out there and finally just playing. For the first few plays, there’s a lot going on in your headset, a lot going on everywhere with adjustments and whatnot. Once you get settled in – and I felt like I got settled in after the first drive – I think our defense played pretty well after that.”
IT’S EARLY, BUT NATE SOLDER CERTAINLY LOOKS IMPRESSIVE
He was playing against Jacksonville’s two’s and three’s for most of his time out there, but it was impressive how dominant the rookie left tackle out of Colorado was on Thursday night. He has terrific speed for an offensive lineman — you could see how he could have played tight end at a high level — and has an amazing reach that kept defensive lineman away from Hoyer and Mallett all evening.
On one play, he held off Jacksonville defensive lineman Aaron Morgan for at least 5-7 seconds while Hoyer attempted to find his target. The pass was incomplete, but the sequence was really impressive — Solder’s lean physique and lengthy reach are an awesome combination when utilized properly.
When asked for an overall assessment of his first rookie outing, Solder said he would leave things to Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
“I’m going to leave that to them,” Solder said. “I could say there’s some things to work but I’m not exactly sure what they are. [Scarnecchia’s] going to get in there and some of the things I think I did well, maybe he doesn’t. He knows much better than I do.”
In my experience, when you are trying to evaluate a rookie offensive lineman in New England’s system, you are looking for two things: One, how much they get screamed at by Scarnecchia (and end up running laps as a result) and two, how much they get noticed. And in his relatively short time with the Patriots, Solder has passed both tests with flying colors.
“I think Nate did some good things,” Belichick said of Solder’s performance Thursday night. “I think he handled himself well in the practice opportunities that he’s hand over the last week. It seemed like there were some good things in the game that looked pretty good. There were a couple of things that didn’t look so good, but that’s the way it is with all rookies — you build on the positives and correct the mistakes and hope that we can eliminate or minimize those mistakes the next time around.”
SPECIAL TEAMS HAS SOME KINKS IT NEEDS TO WORK OUT
It was a bit of a mixed bag for special teams on the evening. As previously mentioned, there wasn’t much of a call for them — after punting at the end of their second offensive series, the only time we saw punter Zoltan Mesko the rest of the way was to serve as a holder on field goals or PAT’s.
However, there were a couple of miscues worth noting — in the first half, the Patriots botched a point-after attempt, a play that ended with Zoltan Mesko awkwardly kicking the ball out of bounds around the 50-yard-line. Following that, the Jags got great field position from a kick return from Deji Karim, who dodged the likes of Brandon Meriweather and Jonathan Wilhite before finally being taken down by Wilhite at the 18-yard-line. In addition, a penalty on Jonathan Wilhite in the second half negated a big punt return for Taylor Price.
However, there was some good news to report: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made another step back after suffering a torn right quad that prematurely ended his 2010 season. He shared some of the kicking duties with Chris Koepplin, but he did connect on a pair of field goals from 46 and 43 yards, and appeared to suffer no ill effects from the injury. And Mesko was only called upon once — midway through the first quarter — but he crushed a 53-yard punt in his only attempt.
STEVAN RIDLEY KNOWS HOW TO MAKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION
With the Patriots deciding to hold Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Shane Vereen out of Thursday night’s game for various reasons, it was up to Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Sammy Morris and Richard Medlin to make their case in one of the most intriguing positional battles on the roster.
Ridley was the clear winner on Thursday night, garnering 51 snaps and accounting for a team-high 64 yards rushing on 16 carries and a pair of touchdowns. (In addition, he showed a flair in the passing game — he was targeted a team-high eight times and came away with seven catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.)
“I just go out there and be a football player,” Ridley said. “God has blessed me with a lot of talent. He’s blessed me just to be out there and have a lot of talents, just to go out there and do a lot of things, catching the ball and running, try to be an all-around back. I’m nowhere close to perfect, and I just have a lot of work to do. I’m not satisfied, and I’m sure the coaches aren’t either, so I’m going to continue to work hard every day and try to do my best and help this team improve to get better.”
“I thought he had some good runs, and he made a couple good catches,” Belichick said. “There were some other things in terms of the rounds, pass protection, a couple run-reads that didn’t look – we’ll see how it looks on film, but thought he ran hard.”
As for the rest of the snaps, Richard Medlin was in for 13 (and ended up with 54 carries and two touchdowns). Meanwhile, Danny Woodhead for the start and played 12 snaps (five carries, 17 yards) and Sammy Morris had four snaps (at fullback) and had one carry for four yards.
TAYLOR PRICE IS STARTING THIS YEAR ON THE SAME LEVEL GROUND AS EVERYONE ELSE
The wide receiver out of Ohio got a late start as a rookie because of academic requirements, and was a step behind the rest of the roster all last season. Now, it appears he’s clearly in sync with the rest of the offense. Always a good route-runner, his footwork was sharp Thursday against Jacksonville, and he finished with five catches for a team-high 105 yards and a touchdown. On the scoring grab, he made a nice connection with Hoyer, tip-toeing along the back of the end zone and coming down with the ball on an 11-yard pass play.
“It’s funny because we had that play in practice the other day and it was almost the same catch,” Hoyer said. “I told him, ‘Just like practice.’ But he has come a long way. When it comes to game time, he really turns it on. He caught that one slant, he caught the ball by Ryan [Mallett] and turned up field and had a good gain. He comes to play when he gets the opportunity.”
The most intriguing catch of the night came when he was on the receiving end of Mallett’s first big play as a pro, a 50-yard catch from Mallett that started when the quarterback found him on a short pass play down the left sideline. Price made a clean reception before shaking a defensive back and gaining big yards. (The play eventually set up New England’s first touchdown of the second half, a one-yard plunge from Ridley that made it 26-9 early in the third quarter.)
“I know I’ve got skills,” said Price, the third-round pick who had just three catches in one game last year. “I believe in myself. I know I’ve got the talent to play at this level. It’s just about going out there and showing these teammates, getting the trust in these teammates and the coaching staff and showing them that I can play. I’m going to keep doing that and I’m going to keep getting better.”
MARK ANDERSON IS A SPECIALIST
In the early going Thursday night, the former Chicago Bear was on the field exclusively in third-down passing situations, and his high motor was evident. He caused plenty of havoc coming off the edge from the right defensive end position, at one point drawing two Jacksonville blockers as the Jags’ tried to keep him away from quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Later in the game, the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder spent some time out on the field on rushing downs, and while he didn’t get after it like he did when he was going after the passer, it was clear that the Patriots may have something with Anderson.
“I felt I had a couple of good rushes out there,” said Anderson, who ended up with a tackle and one quarterback hit. “I worked hard in the offseason on pass-rushing, and I just wanted to get out there on a live body and work some of the stuff that I worked on in the offseason. It worked out pretty good for me, but hopefully, I can bring that to the season and bring that to the team and we can make something happen.”
DARIUS BUTLER AND JONATHAN WILHITE NEED TO HAVE A GOOD WEEK
The two cornerbacks had their share of errors on Thursday night, with the Jags’ finding Butler a few times in the passing game and Wilhite suffering some missed tackles and taking costly special teams penalty. The duo, who are probably the fourth and fifth corners on the roster right now (behind Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden and Kyle Arrington) are likely battling with rookie Ras-I Dowling for one of those final cornerback spots. If Dowling is able to return to the field this week after suffering an injury — or if New England is keeping one eye on the transaction wire for spare corners — they could be on the bubble going forward. If they want to stay off that bubble, a solid week of practice and a good performance next week against Tampa could go a long way toward their futures in Foxboro.
IT’S GOING TO TAKE TIME BEFORE FOOTBALL IS FOOTBALL AGAIN
Thursday night wasn’t the crispest game for either side. Even for a preseason game, there were plenty of penalties (12 combined) as both sides continued to adjust to rules changes and the return of the game.
Jacksonville turned the ball over once and had a 14-yard punt, while the Patriots — a team that set records when it came to plus/minus last season — had trouble keeping control of the football early. Aaron Hernandez fumbled the ball away twice (he recovered one of them) and Woodhead also lost the handle (he ended up getting the ball back). In addition, safety Patrick Chung had a Blaine Gabbert pass thrown directly at him, but he bobbled the ball and dropped it.
“That’s what happens when you take your eye off the ball,” Chung said with a small laugh.
“We had a lot of balls out,” Belichick said. “One of them was lost and a couple other ones that were out that either we got back or they called is down or whatever it is, so yeah, no question, we need to catch the ball better. We need to run it and hang on to it better and not let it out. There’s no question that we’ve got to do a better job of that.”