In the third preseason game of 2010, the Patriots had plenty of issues: New England struggled defensively against a young Rams’ team that was coming off a sub-.500 season the year before, thanks in large part to an impressive performance by young quarterback Sam Bradford. In the end, the Patriots suffered a 36-35 loss.
On Saturday night, things looked similar: This time, it was the Lions playing the role of scrappy young NFC team and Matthew Stafford in the role of young quarterback. Again, things ended badly for New England, which this time suffered a 34-10 defeat (click here for the complete recap).
So what does it all mean? A loss in the preseason shouldn’t be taken too seriously … just as we shouldn’t read too much into a thunderous win. (See the Patriots’ first two victories over Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, which were by a combined score of 78-26.) After all, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick inferred in the wake of the victory over the Buccaneers, when it comes to the preseason, it’s never as good as you think it is and it’s never as bad as you think it is. In contrast to the regular season, when measuring success in the preseason, things aren’t necessarily black and white; instead, it’s far more nuanced.
“I don’t necessarily think losing games and playing poorly ever helps,” explained quarterback Tom Brady after the game. “I think we have to understand, like every week, when you play well, there are things you need to do better. When you lose, there are things you need to do better. We don’t want to ride the wave of emotions: ‘We’re great and we suck. We’re great and we suck.’ We’re confident as a team. We just have to go play better.”
When it comes to an overall assessment of Saturday’s performance, it’s important to remember that the Patriots did not have several expected defensive regulars in attendance, including Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth and Leigh Bodden. And the Lions came in sky-high, treating the game like it was the most important contest in the history of the franchise … or at least since Barry Sanders left town.
And so, the Patriots go back home, watch the film, learn from the mistakes and move on. One of the things the Patriots did in the wake of last year’s preseason loss to the Rams was have the starters make a rare appearance in the preseason finale the following week against the Giants. They played that week, and New England then went out and won 14 of 16 regular-season games on the way to the best regular-season record in the NFL.
For his part, it sounds like Brady is ready to take a mulligan for what happened against the Lions and move forward next week to meet the Giants at Gillette Stadium.
“I hope so,” he said. “I’d love for us to get out there and play a lot better than we played tonight. There [are] a lot of us itching to get back on the field. After days like this, you want to get back on the practice field. You want to see the film, figure out the technique errors, the decision-making errors and make those point[s] of emphasis, then come out and try to practice better. It’ll be good to get out and practice, we’ll try to get out there and do a better job.”
Here are nine other things we learned Saturday night in Detroit:
ENERGY CAN SET THE TONE
The Patriots were simply not prepared for the level of energy that the Lions had right out of the gate, and they ended digging themselves a hole they could not climb out of. In the days leading up to the contest, several Detroit players pointed to this game as a measuring stick to see if they had arrived as a competitive team, and that level of intensity showed on Saturday. There were some questionable hits, to be sure, but it was clear from the jump that Detroit had the proper attitude when it came to this contest, and that showed on the scoreboard.
Making it even harder was the fact that the crowd fed off that intensity, making it even harder for the Patriots to get anything done when the game was in doubt.
“It’s certainly more than we’ve seen in the other two games,” Belichick said when asked about the level of energy at Ford Field. “There was good energy in the stadium tonight, and definitely the Lions gave their fans a lot to cheer about. There was a lot for the fans to be energized here with — their team played very well. They handled us easily, so I’m sure everybody there’s excited about their performance and they should be. They did a good job.”
SATURDAY MARKED ONE OF THE TOUGHEST TESTS OF THE YEAR FOR THE NEW ENGLAND OFFENSIVE LINE
Even with high-motor defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch on the sidelines, the Patriots knew that holding back the Detroit front four was going to be a stern test on Saturday. The Lions didn’t disappoint — even though they were only credited with two sacks, they controlled the game, bringing serious pressure on the New England quarterbacks all night and never letting them get comfortable in the pocket.
It began with linemen Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril getting after Brady on a consistent basis throughout the first half, as the Lions’ front four were able to simulate the sort of intensity the Jets’ defense had on Brady in last year’s playoff game. (A tough job grew even harder when right guard Dan Connolly went down with an ankle injury in the first half, forcing the Patriots to turn to backup Rich Ohrnberger, who was also tortured by Suh.) As the first half continued, the New England tackles were able to do a pretty good job neutralizing the Detroit defensive ends with some cut blocks, but Suh and Avril continued to wreak havoc inside.
However, it wasn’t just the fact that they were getting pressure in New England’s interior. Frankly, they really bullied the Patriots interior linemen, a rare sight against a team with more than its share of physical players. In addition, they were able to goad them into bad penalties — at one point, Logan Mankins was flagged for a facemask despite the fact that it was Suh who clearly got in a shot at Mankins. (That was followed up by one of Avril’s two sacks, which created an impossible third-and-31 situation for the Patriots.)
“We wanted to earn respect last year. I felt we did that. We want to continue to earn that respect,” Suh told Lesley Visser of CBS in a sideline interview late in the game. “And now it’s with fear — it’s all about fear. It’s about having quarterbacks fear us, offensive linemen fear us, every single game we step into. And that’s by our play. So we want to continue to get after quarterbacks and offensive lines and wreak havoc.”
TOM BRADY PROBABLY WON’T REMEMBER THIS TRIP BACK TO MICHIGAN ALL THAT FONDLY
The quarterback played into the third quarter, and had his worst game of the preseason, going 12-for-22 for 145 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Much of his trouble can be traced back to the struggles of the New England offensive line — he was sacked twice, fumbled once and was hit seven times — but to be fair, not all of that was on the O-line. He threw some really bad balls against the Lions, including one where he bounced it to a wide-open Wes Welker. (The two later rebounded on what appeared to be the same play, only this time, it resulted in a 44-yard touchdown pass to Welker down the middle of the field.)
The most disheartening moment probably came toward the end of the first half when the Patriots took over at their own 20-yard-line, trailing 20-10 with just over a minute left in the first half and all three timeouts. There was the distinct feeling that if New England could find its way to the end zone at the end of the first half, a 20-17 deficit — especially considering the 17-3 hole they had dug for themselves at the start — could be overcome.
The Patriots worked their way out to their own 42, but on a first-and-10 with 42 seconds left in the half, there appeared to be a miscommunication between Brady and Chad Ochocinco on a route on a short pass play to the left, and the ball was picked off by Detroit defensive back Ricardo Silva. Five plays later, the Lions punched it in for a touchdown, and that was that. Brady was back out for the start of the second half, but it didn’t much matter, as Detroit would win going away.
“From the [offense’s] first series on, we could never get into a rhythm — it was just a bad night all around,” Brady said. “We don’t make excuses for it, it just wasn’t a good night. We didn’t play the way we needed to play. I missed open receivers and the careless interception there, you’re not going to win games if you play like that. There’s only one way to get better: get back to practice, get back to work and improve the things we didn’t do very well. And hopefully we play better next week.”
WHEN IT COMES TO THE DEPTH CHART BATTLES, JULIAN EDELMAN DID THE MOST TO HELP HIMSELF
Edelman was probably the biggest positive in this game for the Patriots. The wide receiver and return man posted a 26-yard punt return that set up the Patriots' first touchdown, a 44-yard scoring strike from Brady to Welker. In addition, he had one kick return for a team-high 32 yards, and played into the second half at the receiver position, coming away with two catches for 12 yards before leaving the game late in the third quarter. (According to those who were there, Edelman was having his hand or finger looked at on the sidelines.)
The 2010 season was a bit of a lost year for Edelman, as he fought through injury and other struggles, but he has enjoyed an impressive preseason this summer — he’s arguably been the best and most consistent pass catcher of the preseason to this date — and has likely now solidified his spot at the No. 4 receiver on this team.
Edelman had the best night of the skill position players, but tight end Aaron Hernandez also chipped in with what was almost surely his finest performance of the preseason to date. He was targeted a team-high eight times and came away with five catches for 46 yards, with three of his five receptions giving the Patriots a first down.
THROUGH THREE WEEKS OF THE PRESEASON, THERE DOESN’T APPEAR TO BE MUCH DEFINITIVE NEWS ON CHAD OCHOCINCO
In contrast to Edelman, things aren’t so rosy right now with Ochocinco. It was another rough outing for the new receiver, who was targeted by the New England quarterbacks on four occasions but failed to come away with a single catch. In addition, he drew a questionable flag after there was downfield contact between him and a defensive back. (He was hit with an offensive pass interference.) There was the missed connection on the Brady interception, but the low point was an eminently catchable ball from backup quarterback Brian Hoyer midway through the third quarter that slipped through Ochocinco’s fingers.
To be fair, Brady raised a point that we discussed in this story — the fact that the wide receiver is learning on the fly, without the benefit of a full offseason program — and should be remembered whenever the topic of Ochocinco’s acclimation to the New England offense should be brought up. But with just one preseason game remaining and Ochocinco looking no more comfortable in the New England offense than he did earlier this month, you have to wonder how this team is going to utilize him going forward.
“He hasn’t had the luxury of an offseason program, so we’re trying to cram a lot of stuff in,” Brady said. “He’s very receptive, very competitive. He wants to do the right thing, he wants to do it well. We all do. That ‘s what we’re working towards.
“I wish I could say that we could go out there and every single thing would be perfect, every single game we play, every snap, and every drive we score a touchdown and never have negative plays. Look, it’s football. When you make a bad play, you got to overcome it, there’s resiliency that comes into the game, mental toughness.”
AMONG THE PLAYERS WHO MIGHT BE ON THE BUBBLE, NO ONE REALLY DISTINGUISHED THEMSELVES
Here’s a short list of veteran players who might be in danger when the first round of cuts come on Tuesday and a rundown of what they did.
Mark Anderson: Got the start at left defensive end, and unlike his performance in the preseason opener against the Jaguars where he was in the backfield on a regular basis on third down, he was a non-factor Saturday against the Lions. He finished with two tackles, but did provide one of the more memorable sights of the night when he flat out whiffed on a sack attempt of Detroit backup quarterback Drew Stanton in the third quarter that ended with the quarterback scrambling for an 11-yard gain. Ultimately, he will likely survive the first round of cuts next week, but with the emergence of Andre Carter, he will likely have to show something in the regular season finale if he wants to stick on the 53-man roster.
Jonathan Wilhite: The cornerback entered the game in the second half, and was banged up on a third-down play early in the third quarter, and he left the field under his own power. He did not record a tackle on the night, and is likely battling for what could be the fifth and final cornerback spot at this time. The more you break down the roster, you get the sense that his future could be tied to that of rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who did not make the trip and has struggled with injury since showing up in camp. If the Patriots do not feel good about Dowling’s long-term prospects, they might be inclined to keep Wilhite around as something of an insurance policy until Dowling appears to be NFL ready.
Darius Butler: A mixed bag — he had six tackles, one of them for a loss, but also was beaten in coverage on one touchdown. He’s probably a step ahead of Wilhite on the depth chart at this stage of the preseason because of his special teams skills (which could include working as a returner — more on that momentarily) and he should survive the upcoming cuts, but that doesn’t mean he should feel comfortable with where he is.
Sammy Morris: Still the only true fullback on the roster, he did get some work as a returner on Saturday, as well as time at the running back spot. It helped his chances that he was out on the field while rookies Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both did not play, but Morris still figures to be sitting squarely on the bubble over the next two weeks.
Matthew Slater: Slater would do anything to make the team, and no matter what the public says about him, that sort of flexibility and willingness to do whatever is asked of him goes a long way with the coaching staff in Foxboro. He continues to have a very good preseason — I cannot recall him dropping a bad ball all summer — and had a 53-yard reception on Saturday night. He now has two 40-yard receptions in the 2011 preseason, with both of them coming from Brian Hoyer.
KICK RETURNER REMAINS A QUESTION MARK
Brandon Tate saw his first action of the preseason, and came away with two returns for 27 yards. Butler, Edelman and Morris were all also used as kick returners, but no one distinguished himself as a kick returner on a difficult night for the Patriots.
It’s hard to get a sense of whether or not it’s Tate still working his way back after an injury he suffered earlier in camp, the new kickoff rules or Tate’s overall game, but he doesn’t appear to be the same explosive returner who was one of the best in the league over the first half of the 2010 season. If he is indeed on the bubble, there appear to be a handful of possibilities the Patriots can still look at at the position, including Edelman, who was one of the lone bright spots (he had a pair of impressive punts returns, including a 26-yarder that ultimately set up the Patriots' only touchdown of the night).
One player who could see more action at the position going forward is Butler, who worked as a return man in college and has taken some reps at the spot during practice. If Butler does get some work there, it could give him the positional versatility necessary to win a roster spot.
KYLE ARRINGTON SHOWED UP A LOT ON SATURDAY NIGHT, AND NOT ALWAYS IN A GOOD WAY
Let’s start with the good: There was a sack — Arrington came free when the Detroit offensive line looked more preoccupied with Andre Carter — and an interception along the back of the end zone when he gathered in a deflected pass off a ball that was deflected by fellow defensive back Devin McCourty. But it was rough going for most of the rest of the evening for the Hofstra product, who was beaten on several occasions by Detroit quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill. He also drew a flag for pass interference and he missed a tackle on an Aaron Brown nine-yard run on fourth-and-1.
To be fair, it wasn’t a good night for most of the New England cornerbacks: Wilhite went down with an undisclosed injury and Butler (who, at least on the depth chart, is currently challenging Arrington for the role of No. 3 corner) was beaten in coverage on a touchdown pass. And while McCourty had lots of good (a couple of pass breakups) there was some bad (he was beaten badly on two catches by Calvin Johnson).
In the end, this is a tough group to get a read on, even after three preseason games. They are without one of their top two corners in Bodden, and are also missing a rookie in Ras-I Dowling whom they were hoping to see sooner rather than later. The depth chart remains fluid, and a position to watch going forward.
LOOK FOR THINGS TO CHANGE THIS WEEK
The Patriots have kind of a funky week ahead of them: they have something of a short week to prepare for the Giants, who come into Gillette Stadium on Thursday night. (It’s not much easier for the Giants, who will also have a quick turnaround after their Monday night game against the Jets.)
But regardless of logistics, much needs to happen between Sunday morning and Thursday night. Like every other team in the league, the Patriots need to trim their roster from 90 to 80. And when it comes to preparing for the preseason finale, Belichick hinted New England’s approach might change.
“I think that obviously I did a poor job of having the team ready to play. We didn’t really do anything very well, in any phase of the game, certainly not good enough to win,” Belichick said. “We’ve obviously got a lot of work to do. I don’t think there’s any other solution to that than to go back and work harder, and try to correct a lot of mistakes. We need to do everything better.”