FOXBORO -- If you were a New England skill position player who wasn’t targeted at least once in Friday night against the Bucs, you should probably be concerned.
While no one will turn up their nose at a W, the preseason isn’t necessarily about winning games -- it’s also about getting as many different players as many looks as possible and figuring out who can play and who can’t. To that end, the Patriots constantly shuffled several bodies in and out of the offensive lineup during Friday’s preseason win over Tampa Bay.
“We got to play a lot of players,” acknowledged Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
A whopping 11 players were targeted in the passing game, and even if you only got a couple of targets, chances were pretty good you were still able to get some good playing time -- seven different New England players ran the ball. In all, 12 different skill position players (not including quarterbacks) got touches.
It was clear that there were two directives in this one for the coaching staff: one, start fast. And two, make sure as many guys as possible see the field. The Patriots accomplished the first goal when they won the toss and elected to receive (a rarity), and then went on to score on three of their first five drives of the night. And the constant rotational work on both sides of the ball throughout the evening allowed them to get a look at as many players as possible.
That not only included established offensive options players like wide receiver Danny Amendola, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, but youngsters like tight end Zach Sudfeld, who continued his remarkable summer with a touchdown catch from Ryan Mallett, as well as a reception on a two-point conversion in the first quarter that might have been Tom Brady’s finest pass of the night, a floater to the end zone that allowed Sudfeld to show off his massive catch radius.
“The game [tonight] was pretty incredible,” said Sudfeld, who finished with two catches on four targets for 32 yards and a touchdown. “I’m a rookie and have a long way to go and a lot to learn and a lot to improve on -- but so far, it has been a great experience.”
“Zach’s worked hard to learn our offense. It’s a little different than what they did at Nevada,” Belichick said of Sudfeld. “[Tight end] coach [George] Godsey has done a good job with him. He’s had to learn how to be an on-the-line tight end. He’s making progress but he’s got a long way to go. He’s made a lot of gains.”
Brady, who completed his first 11 passes of the night, was an equal opportunity quarterback -- his total 12 targets were to six different receivers: Amendola, Vereen, Sudfeld, Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce and LeGarrette Blount all had receptions via Brady, who was on the field for 23 total snaps.
It’s only two games and so it’s difficult to infer too much into the thought process of Brady, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. (Especially when it comes to the quarterback, who didn’t speak to the media after Friday’s game.) But at first glance, it appears that the days of Brady relying on one receiver are a thing of the past.
“He sure looked good,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of Brady.
Regardless, for many players on the fringes, Friday night represented a terrific chance to make a statement as to why they should be on the roster. In many ways, it could be their final opportunity: Next week will mark the third preseason game, which is almost always the exclusive domain of the starters, at least for the first two-plus quarters. Then comes the first round of cuts, and with it, the roster paring that will continue through the end of the month.
In the end, however, when it comes to cutdown day in Foxboro, no one can complain. Everyone will have had their chances.
Here are nine other things we learned Friday night at Gillette Stadium:
THINGS ARE SETTING UP VERY NICELY FOR SHANE VEREEN
The third-year running back out of Cal has moved effortlessly into the role of third-down back/joker, and continues to not only flash an ability to run the ball when needed, but also show versatility as a pass catcher. Friday night against the Bucs, he played well after most of the rest of the starters were removed, and ended up with eight touches (four carries for 29 yards, four receptions for 46 yards) and 75 yards from scrimmage. In all, he’s touched the ball 13 times in two preseason games and come away with 105 yards from scrimmage -- a whopping average of eight yards per attempt. With so many offseason losses on offense, Danny Amendola will almost certainly be asked to take up the lion’s share of production, but Vereen will also play a multidimensional role in helping replicate the statistical output of former targets like Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead. “Shane is a fast guy -- it’s hard to cover him,” said quarterback Ryan Mallett. “When he gets the ball, he’s explosive. He catches passes, he takes the ball on handoffs and he makes plays. He’s hard to tackle.”
TOM BRADY REMAINS AS SHARP AS EVER
The quarterback is having an amazing summer. As was the case last week against the Eagles, the quarterback was astoundingly accurate Friday against Tampa Bay: In his two series against the Bucs, the Patriots came away with two scores, a touchdown on the first sequence, an artfully executed series that ended with a perfectly delivered 26-yard strike to Amendola where he found the receiver over the middle. (His best pass of the night likely came when he gently floated one to massive rookie tight end Sudfeld in the far corner of the end zone that allowed New England to pick up their first two-point conversion of the night.) In his two preseason games -- 39 snaps -- he’s a combined 18-for-20 for 172 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.
DANNY AMENDOLA IS IMPRESSIVE
The newcomer has easily been the best and most consistent receiver of the summer for the Patriots, and in his first extended stretch in a New England uniform on Friday night, the 27-year-old had a terrific outing, coming away with six receptions for 71 yards (both team highs). That included his first touchdown of the preseason, a nifty 26-yard grab down the middle of the field that marked the Patriots’ first touchdown of the evening. The route was a double post, and on the play, the Bucs paid more attention to Kenbrell Thompkins than Amendola, and the Patriots made them pay. “I thought we got some good work in,” said Amendola, who had seven catches for 77 yards through two preseason games. “We wanted to start fast -- that was our goal. I felt like we made some plays early and it was good that we got on the board early too.”
SPECIAL TEAMS IS AN ISSUE
The preseason is usually the time to work out the kinks, try some different personnel combinations and essentially experiment in a number of areas. But by any metric you want to use, the performance of the New England special teamers over the first two games have been subpar. Friday night marked another rough outing, one that included a sequence at the end of the half where two penalties (holding and false start) turned a 35-yard field goal into a 50-yard attempt. Gostkowski knocked it off the upright -- the Bucs made them pay, as they turned it around quickly for a 37-yard field goal right before the first half. There was a shanked punt, four penalties in all, and to cap it all off, New England also allowed a 63-yard kickoff return. Not good.
BRANDON SPIKES CAN RUSH THE PASSER
A reasonable facsimile of the starting defense did a good job collapsing the pocket and getting good consistent pressure on Tampa quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon in the early going, as the starting defense finished with four sacks. It was different seeing linebacker Brandon Spikes -- traditionally a run-stopper who has one regular-season sack in his three years in the league -- get after the passer, but he was able to set the tone early by demolishing Tampa Bay running back Doug “Muscle Hamster” Martin on one play and getting to the quarterback. The electric Spikes had another sack in the first half, and was joined by defensive ends Chandler Jones (who got a nice push on Tampa left tackle Donald Penn) and Rob Ninkovich, who also had one each. All in all, a good night for the New England pass rush. “Guys were just making plays, flying around,” said Jones. “Spikes came in early. Ninkovich, I think he had two sacks. [Vince] Wilfork was doing a good job. Wilfork is always taking on those double teams, which just makes it easier for me, makes it easier for the rest of the line. Everyone was just going hard.”
LOGAN RYAN IS MOVING UP THE DEPTH CHART
The rookie defensive back got a lot of work in Friday against the Bucs, nearly going wire-to-wire, and at first glance, he had several positive moments, including one of the best defensive plays of the night when he took an interception back for a touchdown midway through the third quarter. After dropping what would have been a sure pick last week against the Eagles, Ryan has started to show up more and more on the radar in a positive fashion -- he had a similarly nice read on a ball that he picked off in practice on Wednesday. He’s not a starter, and it’s unlikely he’d unseat a healthy combination of Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard (at least at this point in his career). But his stock is certainly on the rise.
(Conversely, second-year defensive back Tavon Wilson had a rough sequence at the start of the fourth quarter when he was beaten on three straight plays at the end of a Tampa Bay scoring drive. Wilson, who was also on the field for an extended stretch, has struggled to maintain consistency over the course of the summer, and finds himself in a battle for a roster spot. Friday wasn’t the sort of performance that will help him.)
RYAN MALLETT PROBABLY DESERVED BETTER
Mallett was mostly on the good side, including a nice sequence at the end of the first half that would have resulted in at least three points if New England weren’t flagged for a pair of penalties that turned a 35-yard field goal attempt into a 50-yarder that was missed by Gostkowski. (Vereen had a drop on the drive that could have gotten the Patriots even closer.) He ended the game 12-for-20 for 137 yards and a touchdown pass to Sudfeld on a tipped ball. He finished with 24 total snaps on a good night, and while it won’t completely silence his critics, it was an improvement on his final stat line from the preseason opener against the Eagles. “It felt good to get back there and throw it,” said Mallett, who is 21-for-38 for 234 yards and a touchdown in two preseason games. “Man, I had all day back there with the guys blocking, so I was just trying to get the ball to our receivers. I missed a few easy one, but we’ll hit those eventually.”
WHEN YOU ARE DISCUSSING TIM TEBOW, CONVENTIONAL FOOTBALL WISDOM DOESN’T NECESSARILY APPLY
The backup quarterback played the entire second half and struggled mightily when it came to throwing the ball consistently. He finished 1-for-7 for -1 passing yards and an interception, with the pick coming on a bad ball that was air-mailed over the head of Thompkins. In truth, it was one of the ugliest stat lines I can ever recall for a New England quarterback, worse even than Zac Robinson or Andrew Walter. He did have six carries for 30 yards, the second-best yardage total on the team, but continued to show an inability to deliver a clean ball to a receiver. Any other outing would likely get a quarterback pink-slipped, and while he still could get released between now and the start of the season, for now, Tebow continues onward in his attempt to secure a roster spot. “I worry about what I can control -- not listening to outside influences and worrying about what I can’t control,” said Tebow, who is 5-for-19 for 54 yards and an interception in two games. “It’s [about] my attitude and my effort and getting better every day and just staying focused.”
TRAINING CAMP IS NOT OVER
As it appears on the schedule, the end of the second game usually heralds the end of training camp. But Belichick reacted to a pair of questions about the end of camp with the look of someone who had just gotten a whiff of month-old milk. “Training camp is not over,” he said. “I want to make that perfectly clear.” The inference was obvious -- while the training camp experience as we know it has come to a close and the bouncy houses and free Gatorade for the media will be put into storage until next July, that doesn’t mean those still on the roster can afford to relax or get complacent. Relax at your own peril, especially with the first round of cuts coming on August 27.