After an offseason where roughly 8,435,117 stories were written about the impending downfall of the Patriots (and the passing game in particular), quarterback Tom Brady went out Friday night and put the NFL on notice: if you want to write off the New England passing game, well, you’ll do so at your own peril.
On the heels of a white-hot week where he scorched the Eagles consistently in a series of joint practices -- one Philadelphia defensive back even accused Brady and the New England offense of trying to “bully” them -- Brady ratcheted things up in Friday’s preseason opener. He played 16 snaps and was 7-for-8 for 65 yards and one touchdown, that coming on a ridiculous completion to Shane Vereen in the corner of the end zone that floated gently into the arms of the running back.
Afterward, Albert Breer of the NFL Network asked Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans what his team took from four days of work with the Patriots.
“Brady is still the man,” said Ryans. “Brady is still the man.”
Of course, on Friday, Brady got a big boost from the Patriots running game: New England got a combined 193 rushing yards from LeGarrette Blount (101 yards on 11 carries) and Stevan Ridley (eight carries, 92 yards), including a 62-yarder from Ridley and a 51-yard touchdown run from Blount.
But after the first drive featured nothing but running plays, Brady and the Patriots aired it out on the next series, throwing the ball on eight of their 10 plays from scrimmage. The sight of Brady zinging it all over the field to a flock of rookie receivers like Aaron Dobson (two catches, 35 yards), Kenbrell Thompkins (four catches, 23 yards) and Vereen (two catches, 18 yards) is a positive development for a New England passing game that underwent a massive overhaul over the course of the offseason.
"It started with what we did up front," Brady said. "It was great -- the offensive line took a lot of pride in that. We're challenged to be a tough football team, so to really do that and run the ball like we did was great. The second drive, we were able to make some plays throwing the ball -- spread the ball to different guys. KT (Kenbrell Thompkins) did a good job, Aaron (Dobson) did a good job, Josh (Boyce) had some opportunities, Danny (Amendola). I mean, everyone contributed. So it was really a good week. It was a good week."
We have seen Brady do more with less over the years: 2006 is certainly one comparison that comes to mind. In that context, it’s important to remember that when you look at the offense in totality, the 2013 edition of the running game is far superior to the 2006 collection of backs Brady had to work with that season.
Ultimately, as the quarterback said earlier in camp, the offense is still a work in progress. There will still be growing pains for the young pass-catchers as they continue to develop, build consistency and evolve as legitimate NFL-ready talents. But Brady’s performance this week was another reminder that as long as No. 12 under center, this is a passing game the rest of the league will need to take very seriously, no matter the targets.
“We’re a better football team now than we were when we started the week,” Brady said. “It’s a building process, and we’re trying to make one play turn into two good plays turn into three good plays.”
Here are nine other things we learned Friday night:
LE GARRETTE BLOUNT IS TRENDING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
In his continuing quest to win a job in the New England backfield, Blount made his case with an impressive outing against the Eagles, finishing with 101 yards on 11 carries and a pair of touchdowns. His highlight came on a first-half touchdown run that featured a super slo-mo cutback from the big guy where he reversed direction, found a seam and rumbled down the field, eventually plunging into the end zone thanks to a nice block from Sudfeld. (It looked like a slowed-down version of the Marcus Allen reverse from Super Bowl XVIII.)
Taking a look at the depth chart, you would have to figure that Blount and Brandon Bolden are fighting for the role of primary backup to Ridley, and at this point, Blount has a slight edge.
In truth, it was a good night for all the running backs -- the Patriots offense rushed for 248 yards against the Eagles, with Blount and Ridley doing the bulk of the work.
“I think he surprised us all,” Ridley said of Blount. “Like I said about this running back group, we’re special. We have a lot of work to do, [but] I can say we’re off to a good start.”
"We had big runs, we had short yardage runs where we needed to get the ball, we ran in on the goal line," Brady said. "That establishes the identity of the team how well you run [and] how well you stop the run, and all those guys did a great job. They are big, strong, powerful runners that want the ball in their hands. And when they get in the rhythm, they make a bunch of plays. Stevan Ridley has done it since he got here.. Shane (Vereen) is doing it. Brandon (Bolden) made some runs."
RYAN MALLETT STILL NEEDS TO DISPLAY BETTER TOUCH
Mallett is still the Patriots No. 2 quarterback, and also had some really good moments. But in many ways, this was the same guy we’ve seen for the better part of the last two preseasons: a quarterback with a cannon for an arm, but someone who still needs to develop finer touch on the rest of his passes. An early laser to Julian Edelman was a really impressive pass (as was a nice pass play that came on a rollout to Zach Sudfeld). But then, there was the floater (and sure touchdown) that landed just out of the reach of a wide-open Josh Boyce that he’d dearly love to have back.
He went 9-for-18 for 97 yards, and left late in the second quarter with what the team called a head injury. (He told reporters after the game that he didn’t need -- or take -- a concussion test, which means his removal was a precautionary matter.)
“I thought he did a solid job in there. I thought all of our quarterbacks were productive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Mallett. “We got production from a lot of guys. It’s not perfect out there by any means -- we’ve definitely got things we’ve got to work on. But I thought we did enough good things to move the ball fairly consistently and be balanced.”
THE TEBOW THING IS ... INTERESTING
After Mallett went down in the second quarter because of a head injury, Tebow got a ton of snaps at the end of the first half and into the second. He had some good moments, and showed good touch on a couple of screen passes. He also managed to put together a third-quarter scoring drive that relied heavily on Blount.
However, there were also times where he took too long to get rid of the ball and failed to recognize pre-snap changes in the Philly defense, leading to busted plays and negative yardage. At this point in his career, he presents an intriguing question -- he is not an NFL game-ready quarterback when presented with a traditional offense. (Simply put, you cannot bang a square peg into a round hole.) But if you want to try some different things and install a different package, that remains a possibility. That much was seen on one play that saw New England run the 49ers style read-option from the three-back pistol with Tebow in the game.
“Just to be out there, for all of us, to go out there and play the game we love, it was a lot of fun,” Tebow said. “I think I have room for improvement, that’s what these games are for. Next week, let’s do a little better.”
Belichick was asked specifically about Tebow’s night, which ended with him going 4-for-12 for 55 yards.
“Really, I think it’s all about the same for everybody -- we did some good things out there, [but] it was far from perfect,” he said. “We can all learn from it. We’re going to learn from it and we’ll all improve it. I think that’s true of myself, the coaches, the players. I think we played competitively, but we all make mistakes out there and there are things that we can learn from. We’re certainly not in midseason form by any stretch, so we’ll just keep working to clean up the things that we can improve on, and there’s plenty of those, for all of us.
“I’m not singling anybody out -- we’re all in that boat. We haven’t played a game in six months, this is the first one. There were some decent things, but there’s also plenty of things we need to work on.”
THERE ARE SOME POSSIBILITIES WHEN IT COMES TO COVERAGE LINEBACKERS
First, the versatility displayed by rookie Jamie Collins was pretty impressive. The Patriots are clearly putting a lot on his plate, and the Southern Miss product responded nicely on Friday night. While he had his rookie moments (including one play where he had Nick Foles in his sights for a sack but simply overran the play), he was running with the twos, and he moved around a lot, spending some time in coverage as well as working as a rusher, primarily as a delayed blitzer. It’s still a strong belief of mine that he will -- at least initially -- make his bones as a coverage linebacker in this league. His preseason debut ended with two tackles (one solo).
Second, Dane Fletcher saw his first game action since last year’s preseason opener when he went down with a season-ending knee injury, and he also flashed a nice ability to run with tight ends and running backs. By my count, he had at least two passes defensed (the gamebook has him with one), and showed a nice ability in coverage.
TOMMY KELLY WILL BE AN IMPORTANT PART OF THIS DEFENSE
Kelly is a massive presence in the middle, and certainly appeared very comfortable when slotted next to Vince Wilfork in New England’s four-man defensive front. He made one of the best defensive plays of the night when he and Chandler Jones combined on a sack and forced fumble. New England was able to come away with the turnover thanks to Belichick throwing the challenge flag. The Patriots couldn’t make the Eagles pay, but the turnover was a good sign.
Kelly ran pretty much exclusively with the starting defense alongside Wilfork at defensive tackle, and looked feisty while trying to collapse the pocket. There could be a concern about possibly overusing the 32-year-old Kelly, particularly with Armond Armstead facing a murky medical future. But at this point, he’s a clear upgrade from Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, who spent most of last season manning the spot next to Wilfork.
EVEN WITHOUT ROB GRONKOWSKI, THE PATRIOTS WON’T BE SHY ABOUT USING TWO- AND THREE-TIGHT END SETS
The Patriots leaned heavily on their tight end groupings all night, with Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui all getting lots of time. New England went with a lot of two- and three-tight end sets throughout the evening. Part of that was to help bolster the running game -- which really dominated for most of the night -- but at the same time, they were also used as part of the passing game. (Hoomanawanui also lined up in the backfield on occasion as a fullback.) As a group, it didn’t pop statistically like the Gronkowski-Hernandez combo, but they were steady and consistent, and accounted for four catches (three from Fells and one from Sudfeld) on the night.
THE ROOKIE RECEIVERS PASSED THEIR FIRST TEST
We should pump the brakes and guard against overreaction, but at the same time, the young pass catchers looked impressive in their first preseason action, particularly early when running with the first teamers. Overall, Thompkins and Dobson accounted for 46 receiving yards on New England’s second drive of the night (the one that went for 80 yards), and in all, combined for 58 of the 217 receiving yards.
At first glance, the routes from the two of them appeared to be very crisp and well executed, and they did a nice job on contested catches that smaller receivers would have had an issue with. With Thompkins, he was able to make adjustments and appeared to run some of the routes that Aaron Hernandez favored when he was a part of the New England offense. His best moment likely came when he converted a third down (on that second drive) in which he found the sticks and caught a back-shoulder throw. He ended with four catches for 23 yards.
As for Dobson, he worked nicely in tight coverage, and while he had a bad drop in the red zone, it was otherwise a nice night for the Marshall product. One thing that did stick out about Dobson was that while many of the young pass catchers were cooling their heels on the sidelines in the fourth quarter, Dobson played late into the game. (It could have possibly been a chance to get more reps after being tossed out of practice earlier in the week because of a scrap.) He finished with two catches for 35 yards.
MARCUS BENARD HELPED HIMSELF
Benard, an under-the-radar free agent pickup by way of Cleveland who was considered a bubble candidate before Friday night, showed up consistently throughout the night working as a pass rusher. He was lined up on the interior and also kicked outside on more than one occasion, and ended up with two sacks on the evening. It was a good evening for a guy who is attempting to win a spot as a depth/situational addition, and is battling with Jermaine Cunningham who already has time in the system.
IT WAS A ROUGH START FOR THE SPECIAL TEAMERS
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a pair of field-goal attempts (from 44 yards and 53 yards -- both went wide right). He connected on a 34-yarder, but it wasn’t the sort of start that will inspire a lot of confidence. Rookie punter Ryan Allen outkicked his coverage, and as a result, the Eagles picked up a 62-yard return. And Bolden was hit with a questionable running into the kicker penalty in the second quarter that gave the ball back to the Eagles. All in all, not a good night for the New England special teams group.