FOXBORO -- It was the unquestioned low point of the night for a Patriots’ offensive line that has already had a few of them this summer.
With 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, Brian Hoyer took over at quarterback for Ryan Mallett. After an incomplete pass attempt to Donte’ Stallworth led to second and 10, Hoyer took a shotgun snap from center Nick McDonald, and was immediately under pressure. On one side, Philip Hunt flew past right tackle Marcus Cannon and delivered a strip sack. On the other side, defensive end Darryl Tapp helped generate more chaos as he steamed past left tackle Nate Solder.
The Eagles finished the night with two sacks and five quarterback hits in a 27-17 win over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium (click here for the full recap), but it was the sight of New England’s offensive line -- particularly the tackles on the edge -- getting turned around against the Philadelphia pass rush that will stick with people long after the game is through.
“We worked hard; we tried to take the most from it that we could. They absolutely are great pass rushers, so it’s a great challenge for us and it’s a great way to keep learning and getting better,” Solder said when asked about facing the Philadelphia pass rush.
It was a bad night for New England’s offensive line as a whole. The Patriots could only muster 2.1 yards per carry on 29 carries, and the two New England quarterbacks were 15 for 37 passing as Hoyer was sacked twice. But it was the tackles that really had problems, and the Philadelphia game comes on the heels of the preseason opener against the Saints, where Solder and Cannon also struggled at times holding back pressure off the edge.
It’s one thing to see Cannon have problems -- he remains more of a backup, at least at this stage of his career. But the sight of a first-round pick like Solder being overpowered and beaten badly is odd, given where he was at the end of the 2011 season. The steadiness and consistency that were hallmarks of Solder’s rookie year have been replaced by indecision and trouble with balance.
In the end, it was no coincidence that on a night where the Patriots’ tackles were struggling against a good pass rush, Tom Brady was nowhere to be seen.
“The Eagles are a good team, so we’re concerned about everything,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick when he was asked if he had concerns about pass protection. “Just go out there and play. We had over 50 plays in the first half and we had a lot of snaps, so we got a chance to evaluate a lot of things against the Eagles.”
Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham spoke about both Solder and Cannon after the game.
On Solder: “I was getting up under him a lot, and that’s probably the best thing. The challenges are that he is a big long guy, and you have to get his hands off of you. He is real strong, and you have to stay on your game when your are playing against him.”
On Cannon: “He is pretty solid and a good tackle. I feel like we should have gone at him a little more. I feel like a couple of plays he was inviting me up field and I took the bait. I shouldn’t have because the quarterback was stepping up and that comes with game planning. I think they had a good game plan for us and he is an all-around solid player, from what I can see. “
It’s not time to panic. Not yet, anyway. The Eagles have one of the better pass-rushing units in the league, and given the fact that left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer have yet to take a snap in a game for this team, there’s cause for some optimism. The return of Mankins would undoubtedly help Solder, while Vollmer would provide sorely needed depth at the right tackle position, and return Cannon to a reserve role, which is where he belongs at this stage of his career.
For you conspiracy-minded fans out there, even though he hasn’t been around for a moment of training camp, right guard Brian Waters still has a locker in the New England locker room. And finally, there’s the track record of esteemed offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who has done more with less than just about any position coach in franchise history.
But if some very fixable problems aren’t remedied between now and Sept. 9, that light at the end of the tunnel could turn out to be an oncoming train.
“It’s a building process, and this is the next step,” Solder said when asked about the development of the line. “As long as we keep continuing to get better every day, that’s kind of my goal right now.”
Here are nine other things we learned Monday night at Gillette Stadium:
JERMAINE CUNNINGHAM HELPED HIMSELF
The defensive end out of Florida did more than perhaps anyone else on the bubble to help his chances Monday against the Eagles. Cunningham -- as well as the rest of New England’s starting defensive line that included Ron Brace, Kyle Love and Chandler Jones -- got good pressure when he was in the game. The group did a (mostly) good job maintaining gap discipline, getting consistent pressure and winning its one-on-one battles.
Their best singular play of the night came just over six minutes left in the first quarter. On first and 10 at the Philly 26, Vick dropped back to pass and Love got great pressure up the gut. Meanwhile, Cunningham came off the edge and delivered the knockout blow, driving his helmet into Vick’s belly. The quarterback was sidelined, and left for the locker room soon after that to have his ribs x-rayed. (Nick Foles replaced him.)
Cunningham, who ended up with a team-high three quarterback hits, shrugged when he was asked about the shot that knocked Vick from the game, saying, “it’s football. Hits like that happen all the time.” But the performance had to feel very good for the 24-year-old, who suffered through a poor 2011 that ended with a trip to season-ending IR in December.
“It felt good to be out there playing football. It’s still early in the year. We still have a couple of preseason games left. We just have to keep building,” said Cunningham, who was trending on Twitter shortly after his hit on Vick. “Every game I go out there feeling I have something to prove. That’s just football, going out there and getting the person with the ball, running back, quarterback, receiver, whoever it is.”
BRIAN HOYER IS STILL THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK
There was some good and some bad from the backup quarterbacks, but there was nothing that shook us from our belief that Hoyer remains the No. 2 quarterback and Mallett, while showing promise, still has some work to do if he wants to be a consistent quarterback at the NFL level.
Hoyer, who was undone in the second quarter largely to a struggling offensive line (particularly the tackles), finished 5-for-17 for 55 yards and two sacks. He shouldn’t get the bulk of the blame for the subpar numbers, as he rarely had more than a couple of seconds to get the ball out -- the Philadelphia pass rush tore up the edges and made life difficult for the Patriots’ quarterback.
“You try to give your guys a shot, and hopefully, we can make a few more plays. I just have to make some better throws and just keep working,” Hoyer said. “I think there is a lot we can look at on tape and learn from. We haven’t seen a lot of man coverage during camp or in the other game, so it was good to get some live action with that.”
As for Mallett, he had one of the best drives of his Patriots’ career in the first half when he helped engineer -- with the help of some ill-timed penalties from the Eagles -- a 13-play series that went 80 yards and took 5:09. On the sequence, the highlight was a 20-yard completion from Mallett to Deion Branch late in the first to help move the chains -- Mallett’s finest moment of the preseason.
Overall, he finished 10-for-20 for 105 yards and a touchdown, and did a good job of keeping plays alive when things broke down, evading the rush and effectively managing the offense. On his touchdown pass to Silvestro, he held the ball, waited while some pressure developed around him, trusted his pocket and delivered a good, catchable ball to the converted defensive end.
“It felt good,” Mallett said. “It felt good just to get back out there again after the last game. It’s been, like, 10 days, so it’s good to get out there and play again.”
DEION BRANCH REMAINS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE PASSING GAME
The veteran wide receiver has had dirt thrown on his professional career in the past, but has always managed to rise up. And after a slow start to the preseason (he didn’t play against the Saints) and what appeared to be a lessened role throughout camp, he showed again Monday might why he’s so important to the success of the Patriots’ passing game, coming away with three catches for 51 yards.
“I felt good. I felt pretty good. I was excited,” Branch said after the game. “I was happy to be back on the field.”
Branch had two catches from Mallett, including a nifty 20-yarder over the middle that might have been one of the finest throws of Mallett’s professional career -- a sharply thrown ball over the middle where the quarterback showed poise in the pocket while stepping up and making a nice throw in the face of the Philadelphia pass rush.
In addition to his reps at wide receiver -- where he played deep into the second half -- Branch even lined up as a punt returner, a spot where he hasn’t seen any action since 2004. (He had two punts come his way, both of which flew over his head and landed inside the 10-yard line.)
“I never got a chance to do it, man -- one time, the guy hit it pretty good and the next one, he kicked away from me,” he said with a laugh when asked about working as a returner. “Don’t know why, I haven’t been back there in years. Should’ve just kicked it to me and given me a chance.”
CHANDLER JONES IS ON THE RADAR OF OPPOSING OFFENSIVE COORDINATORS
It wasn’t the sort of big-time performance we saw in the preseason opener against the Saints, but the rookie out of Syracuse showed up (mostly) positively again on film. Working as the left defensive end, Jones finished with 11 snaps in just under a quarter of action, and looked active against Philadelphia left tackle King Dunlap.
The Eagles’ sent a tight end his way to help out with Dunlap for most of the first series and tried to trap him on other plays. They also took advantage of some over-aggressiveness on the part of the rookie, who ran past the play on a couple of occasions. But for the most part, he was able to maintain gap discipline and prevent Vick from taking off and running.
“[Michael] Vick is very different from a lot of different quarterbacks in the league. He scrambles. You just have to contain him; that’s what we try and do. He’s just a great player,” Jones said.
DONT’A HIGHTOWER CAN RUN WITH A GREEN DOT ON HIS HELMET
Like Jones, Hightower started his second consecutive preseason game Monday night. From the beginning, it was clear that Hightower had more on his plate than he did in the preseason opener (a game where he assumed more responsibility after Dane Fletcher went down with a knee injury). With Jerod Mayo sidelined, the rookie linebacker out of Alabama was making the defensive calls -- he had the green dot, denoting the fact that he had the communication system in his helmet.
Hightower played 11 snaps -- all in the first quarter -- and ran a defense that included the likes of Jones, Brandon Spikes, Patrick Chung and Kyle Love. He didn’t do anything overly flashy, but finished with one tackle on the night, and took another clear step in his overall development as an NFL player.
“Anytime you can get out there and hit other guys -- not just hitting your teammates -- it’s always a step forward,” Hightower said. “I definitely felt like the way it’s going now, being able to learn so much from different guys and actually getting to play with [Brandon] Spikes against somebody other than a teammate feels like it’s only going to help me get better.”
“Dont’a Hightower is an outstanding player,” Jones said. “I’m glad we got him in the first round and I’m excited to see the things he does this year.”
NATE EBNER HAD A GOOD WEEK
After coming away with a pair of picks on the final day of camp, rookie defensive back Nate Ebner had his first interception in a game on Monday night against the Eagles. As Philadelphia was driving for a score at the end of the first half, Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles went deep left for Jeremy Maclin, but Ebner picked off the ball at the New England three-yard line. He brought it back to the Patriots’ 37-yard line.
“The ball came out and I just tried to make a play. That’s what I’m here to do, so it came to me and I did it and that’s that,” Ebner said. “I’m just trying to work hard and do my job. And if [the ball] finds me, it finds me. So I’ve got to make the play when it comes.”
“Nate’s shown up around the ball and that’s good,” Belichick said. “There are certainly a lot of things he needs to work on. He has good plays; he makes mistakes and learns from them. He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, but he works hard, he’s smart, he’s getting better. So, we’ll see how it goes here, how much we can build on tonight and the previous practices and we’ll see how much he improves going forward.”
Ebner won’t be going to the Pro Bowl -- he had trouble with containment on an early Philadelphia score -- but to this point in the preseason, he’s been competitive enough both on defense and on special teams to warrant a spot on the final 53-man roster. And at the very least, he’s making fellow defensive backs/special teamers like Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett awfully nervous about their situation.
“I would say I’m starting to get a feel for things, but you know it starts with practice and just getting better,” Ebner said. “Just trying to get better every day, every week. That’s really my focus now.”
THE RUNNING BACKS WILL BE USED IN THE PATRIOTS’ PASSING GAME
Over the course of the first two preseason games, it’s evident that the Patriots will lean on running backs as a legitimate part of the passing game in 2012. Shane Vereen was the leading receiver on Monday night -- he was targeted five times and caught a team-high four passes for 29 yards. And through two preseason games, the Patriots have targeted running backs 23 times. They have 11 catches as a group, and Vereen is tied with Julian Edelman for the team lead with six catches.
THE NUMBERS THAT SHANE VEREEN POSTED LAST WEEK WEREN’T A MIRAGE
The second-year back out of Cal was able to put good back-to-back weeks together, but Monday’s numbers are more important, as they came against Philadelphia’s starting defense. (His numbers in the opener came mostly against the Saints’ backups.) Getting the start, he came away with 49 yards from scrimmage (20 on the ground and 29 through the air), and showed good poise while running hard. Ridley will not be displaced as the lead back, but Vereen brings a different sort of style to the New England backfield. He’s more of a slasher, and when he gets past the first wave of defenders, can make tacklers look very foolish.
MANAGING THE CALENDAR THE NEXT NINE DAYS WILL PROVE TO BE THE PATRIOTS’ BIGGEST CHALLENGE
At least part of the reason the Patriots didn’t play almost 30 guys on Monday night is due in large part to the fact that the game was the start of a stretch where they will play three times in 10 days, a bizarre scheduling glitch that will include mandatory off-days and travels schedules.
It will play havoc with the coaches and players, and test the mental toughness of a team that is facing the first series of cuts in less than a week. And having relatively little practice will make it a challenge when it comes to evaluating players that might be on the bubble. But priority one will be to heal up in advance of their third preseason game of the year, set for Friday night in Tampa against the Bucs.
“We’ll find out tomorrow how it feels,” Branch said when asked about the quick turnaround. “Guys are going to be bruised up pretty bad. But this is part of the game. It’s football. This is the schedule that was given to us and we have to go out there and do it. It will be a quick turnaround. I think once we get on the field, that’s when guys will feel more in their realm. All the traveling and stuff might throw us off a little bit, but I think we’ll go out and be OK.”