Well done, Patriots cheerleaders. I knew you’d never quit Defending the Wall.
In order to get ready for another season of high-octane, masterfully written, Pulitizer-worthy Knee Jerk Reaction columns, here are just a few random, probably way off-base observations from the Patriots’ first preseason game. As always with fauxball games, these are impressions, not conclusions. Because none of really has the first clue. It’s not football Christmas. But it is football Dec. 1. That day when we start to crack open the Advent calendar, pull back the little cardboard door, and enjoy the sweet, chocolatey, high-fructose empty calories inside until the big day arrives.
— Starting this post without talking about Jimmy Garoppolo (one ‘r,’ two ‘p’s, one ‘l’ … I’m in midseason form!) would be like starting a “CSI” episode without a dead body being discovered. So here goes: So far, so good. You didn’t get the sense you were discovering 1999 Kurt Warner all over again, but he seemed in charge. Familiar with the scheme. For the most part he looked like he was able to anticipate when guys were going to come open on the combo routes and went through most of his progressions. The biggest thing was that he didn’t make mistakes, either throwing the ball in the dirt when there was pressure or simply eating the ball and taking the sack, like he did on third down to set up the first defensive touchdown. I’ll take it.
— I liked two plays in particular. Obviously, the screen pass to James White that went for a big gain. Not even so much because of the yards it produced (and the touchdown it should have been), but because Jimmy G. had Kasim Edebali, Nick Fairley and Roman Harper closing in on him from three different directions like Owen’s velociraptors. And the initial read was to the back side, but he had the composure to go to his checkdown. The other was an incompletion he threw at James Develin’s feet after an overloaded misdirection play didn’t fool the corner, LeGarrette Blount didn’t connect on the blitz pickup, and Garoppolo got rid of the ball as he was about to be street pizza. Veteran throws, both.
— Early on, I was worried Garoppolo was going to put Martellus Bennett on missile lock, but even with his best target on the field for 37 snaps, he moved the ball around well. Hitting the backs, obviously. But also getting Aaron Dobson and Malcolm Mitchell involved. Which is a great sign.
— To use Bill Belichick’s favorite metaphor, building a house, Garoppolo has a solid subfloor, the poured-concrete basement is nice and level, and the framing is finished. By the Bears game he should have it weather-tight and there’s time to have it livable by the regular-season opener 30 days from now.
— Which brings us to Mitchell and the nightmare fuel that was watching his arm elbow get snapped back like a chicken wing. What Johnny Lawrence said of karate also is true of football: The first lesson is knowing how to fall. And that ain’t it. I thought it was a miracle that they said he’ll be back on the field soon, but then again, a similar thing happened to Matthew Slater a while back and I seem to remember Rajon Rondo, and neither missed much time. Still, if Mitchell does that again, the next kids books he writes will be called “Goodnight, Season,” “Oh, the Surgical Units You’ll Go!” and “Malcolm and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hyperextension.”
— I was more impressed by Jacoby Brissett than I was prepared to be. He didn’t look NFL-ready by any stretch. And maybe got lucky that the defensive backs he almost threw picks to aren’t NFL-ready either. But to use that old Bill Parcells chestnut, he didn’t look like a golf ball in tall grass — lost. Right now it looks like his No. 1 thing to work on is going through his reads. You can pretty much see a laser sight glowing on the chest of his No. 1 option on every play. But baby steps. And Thursday night he was better than the low-water mark of all-time Patriots preseason quarterbacks, Tim Tebow. (Please forgive me, Lord.)
— Brissett’s primary target was A.J. Derby, who seems to have a figure-four leg lock on the third tight end spot. It would be a departure, because they’ve typically filled that with a block-first, third-tackle-type of tight end. Your Michael Williamses and Michael Hoomanawanuis. But even though this kid is only 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, I don’t see how they don’t keep him and give him significant reps. Especially with all the attention Rob Gronkowski and Bennett are going to draw. He might never be covered.
— Another guy who’s emerging is Tyler Gaffney. And I’m not just talking about the long TD run, as impressive as that was. He just seems to have a great burst, runs fluidly, with his head up, shows great balance. I’m down on Blount after last year, when he never really made people miss or outran them. I would not be at all shocked if Gaffney finished high on the depth chart. They’ve kept him around through two injured seasons for a reason, and we’re seeing it.
— The Pats have a deep secondary. One that won’t be easy to crack. But Andy Hart put Cre’Von LeBlanc on my radar a while ago, and that sick, one-handed, upfield arm interception in the end zone has me thinking he’ll at least be in the practice squad mix. Especially with Darryl Roberts picking up a blatant pass interference and generally not covering anyone.
— What can we say about Marcus Cannon that hasn’t been said about … other offensive linemen who can’t pass block? (Note: That sentence got away from me. I’ll clean that up before the season opener.) I’d pay anything to have TSA move the lines through the airport as fast as pass rushers come through his side. Against New Orleans, we saw the exact same missed assignments that had Tom Brady classified as a bad insurance risk in Denver. On the White should’ve-been-score, the Saints brought Edebali up to the robber position pre-snap, and Cannon never so much as looked at him. If Dante Scarnecchia can’t fix him, he is unfixable.
— I haven’t even mentioned the score yet, because I don’t care. I probably would not care under any circumstances, but especially not when you had a tipped ball returned for a TD, a strip sack for a score, and teams going for it on fourth-and-2 in the red zone. If you do pay attention to the final score, I’ll assume you are a degenerate gambler and suggest you seek help, right away.
— That said, there is plenty to feel good about with regard to how those points were scored. Particularly on the defensive side. The biggest issues for the Pats defense at the moment are the replacements for Chandler Jones and (for the time being) Rob Ninkovich. And a handful of players next-man-upped. We know what Jabaal Sheard can do, and he was an animal, especially on that strip sack, scoop and score, which was positively Jamie Collins-level athletic. We heard positive things about Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom, both of whom looked like they’re making the sacred Year 2 jump. Chris Long looked OK for the short time he was in. And in Shea McClellin’s Tinder hookup with Patriots fans, he made a great first impression.
— All the hybrid defensive end/linebackers I just mentioned worked interchangeably, inside and out, two-point stance or hand in the vulcanized rubber pellets. Flowers and McClellin in particular showed some ridiculously good hand fighting on inside moves to get pressure. Between the raw talent, the versatility and the coaching, there’s every reason to think they can be just as good at getting after quarterbacks as they were last year.
— Again, these are just random observations that I will gladly disown later if they turn out to look idiotic down the road. What is not in question is that football — even fake football — is back. And welcomed by us all. Preseason’s greetings.