NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots capped off the exhibition schedule with a 28-20 victory over the New York Giants on Thursday night. But for those who saw their most extensive action of the preseason during the Week 4 tilt, it was about far more than the final score.
It was about the final auditions.
The Aug. 29 game at Gillette Stadium served as an unofficial farewell party for dozens of current Patriots. A large fraction of whom will never don the “Flying Elvis” helmet again, while some will never play in the league again. Because by 6 p.m. on Aug. 31, New England’s roster – and the 31 other NFL rosters – will be cut from 75 men to 53 men. And the whittling has already begun.
With that reality set in, the battle versus New York was a vital one for every Patriots player firmly entrenched on the bubble. Many played like it was vital, capitalizing on the limited reps to give the coaching staff a lasting impression.
Not everyone can stick around come September, just like not every non-vested talent can end up on the practice squad. Although whether it’s in Foxborough, Mass., or elsewhere, several players opened up new opportunities for themselves from their efforts against the Giants.
George Winn Takes the Reins
After backing up Isaiah Pead for a few years at the University of Cincinnati, running back George Winn got his chance and ran with it in 2012. The 5’11”, 210-pound then-redshirt senior rushed for 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns – both tops in the Big East that season. But despite a prolific campaign, Winn did not hear his name called in April’s draft.
After signing with the Houston Texans for rookie minicamp in May, the 22-year-old was waived three days later. He spent a month without a team before the Patriots signed him on June 17. Although given New England’s stockpiled stable of backs, Winn’s hard running style, determination and vision was hidden as the sixth man on the depth chart. Through the first three preseason games, Winn garnered one carry for a loss of two yards.
He finally got his chance to flash against the Giants, however.
Winn led the Patriots with 14 attempts for 54 yards in the last exhibition game, notching a touchdown in the process. Nonetheless, Winn’s most impressive showing of burst came on a toss play at the end of the first quarter.
On a 1st-and-10, the Patriots came out with “12” personnel bunched inside the numbers, while the Giants defense operated from a 4-3 with an in-the-box safety. In order for a play to be made, New England would have to rely on successful pull blocks from flex tight end Zach Sudfeld and right tackle Marcus Cannon.
As backup quarterback Ryan Mallett took the snap from center, he turned to shovel the ball Winn’s way. Sudfeld and Cannon departed on their pulls, while the rest of New England’s blockers engaged their assignments accordingly.
The left cornerback tried to anticipate Winn’s crack outside, but Cannon was there to swallow him before he could cut he ball-carrier down in the flats. Winn altered his angle and veered beyond he outstretched tackler to break the play open.
He turned the corner and ran downhill for another 10 yards before four Giants defenders swarmed. Winn lowered his shoulder to create the hit rather than be dealt the hit, as he toppled out of bounds.
With the blocks on point, Winn took the toss from Mallett 14 yards and out of New England’s own red zone. He showed that while he doesn’t have great speed or size, he can get the most out of his body.
Michael Buchanan Bursts off the Edge
A defensive end and “Bandit” outside linebacker during his days at the University of Illinois, Michael Buchanan notched 11.5 sacks between his junior and senior years. But despite his unrelenting pursuit off the line, 4.78 40- time and 6.91 three-cone time at the NFL Scouting Combine, and long 6’6”, 255-pound frame, the 22-year-old fell in the draft. The projected third- or fourth-round draft choice turned into a seventh-round flier.
And that played into the Patriots’ hands at pick 226 overall.
Now despite the fact Buchanan was seen a high-value and versatile late-round selection, his early performance with the Patriots – through practice and preseason games – was unconvincing. There were questions about where he would line up, as he saw work with the defensive line and linebacker units. There were also questions about his ability to overcome his lean build to forge through blocks.
Through the first three preseason games, No. 99 made eight tackles but saw his pass rush grade out at -1.9, per Pro Football Focus. Given the logjam in the defensive end rotation, his odds of making the final cut appeared to be dwindling.
Buchanan fought to better his odds when he needed to. That was evident in the second quarter of the Giants game.
As New York left the huddle in “21” personnel, with two backs and an in-line tight end, Buchanan stood off the weak side of New England’s 4-3 against left tackle James Brewer.
Giants backup quarterback David Carr handled the snap and dropped back, buying time as he went through his reads. Meanwhile, Buchanan worked his arms inside and out, causing Brewer to widen his base in defense of a B- or C-gap rush.
By widening his base, Brewer left himself susceptible to Buchanan’s quickness. From the seven-technique, Buchanan sliced outside his blocker and ran the arc towards Carr in the pocket.
He didn’t slow down through the turn.
Carr was hit from his blindside by Buchanan, and the ball was throttled out as a result.
The ball tumbled idly before fellow seventh-round selection Steve Beauharnais scooped it up and ran for seven yards the other way.
In all, Buchanan’s ranginess, violent hands and speed off the edge translated into four tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Better late than never, Buchanan showed more in one game than he did in the three previous games combined.
Jake Bequette Reemerges
The 90th pick in the 2012 draft, defensive end Jake Bequette did not have the rookie season many expected him to have. Instead, he essentially redshirted – logging work in three games annd amassing 29 snaps, according to Football Outsiders. The Arkansas product who collected a whopping 23.5 sacks over his college career did not get to the quarterback in year one.
He didn’t record a tackle, either.
The 24-year-old’s underwhelming start with the Patriots did not seem to progress much through organized team activities, training camp and the first three litmus tests of this year. And in turn, his future with the team, let alone his future in the league, is in doubt.
Yet with a strong performance against the Giants, Bequette shined glimpses of promise. He did not register a sack, but he did create pressure for his teammates and made three tackles, including one for loss.
He looked stronger than he’s been in the past. And that was visible on a run stop midway through the fourth quarter.
Bequette lined up in a three-point stance opposite right tackle Bryant Browning, as the Giants showed “11” personnel with Carr in shotgun.
As Carr harnessed the snap and handed off to tailback Michael Cox, Bequette knifed through the right B-gap off the offensive line. He charged diagonally at the squared Webster and expanded his runway.
Bequette shuttled past the inside shoulder of his tackle and encroached on the runner, whose lanes were closing fast.
Bequette wrapped Cox up for the tackle. It netted a one-yard loss.
Will it be too little, too late for New England’s former third-rounder? Or will it be enough to keep him around for another go of it? Time will tell. But Bequette played with urgency, and he’ll have to continue to play that way, regardless of which team he’s playing for.
Quentin Sims Ends it in the End Zone
When the Patriots inked a deal with undrafted Tennessee-Martin wide receiver Quentin Sims on July 19, it was seen as a due diligence signing for the dog days of camp. But before long, it became clear that the big-bodied 6’3”, 202-pounder possessed the traits to be an NFL player.
A Georgia Tech transfer who tallied 86 receptions for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior for the Skyhawks in 2012, Sims picked up the pace early on in camp. Nevertheless, with the likes of rookie draft picks Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, as well as undrafted surprise Kenbrell Thompkins taking extra reps, Sims did not make a catch in the first two preseason games. And in the third contest against the Detroit Lions, he grabbed just one for 14 yards.
But when the Giants came to town and third-string QB Tim Tebow entered the game for the second half, the 23-year-old Sims found a last-gasp moment to make an impact.
Tebow not only found his favorite target for three catches and 72 yards, he also found his favorite target for two touchdowns.
Sims caught four of six passes thrown his way this preseason. He finished on about as a high of a note as he could, too, reeling in a TD as time expired in New England’s final game of August.
It could have been a victory formation for Tebow and Co., but it ended up being much more. Setting up shop in a jumbo “21,” the Giants played man on the outside. Sims stood as the “X” receiver across from cornerback Terrence Frederick, and was readying for the fade.
Tebow took a rapid five-step drop following the snap, and deposited a floater in Sims’ direction. And with 10 Giants nowhere near the vicinity of Sims, it would all be up to Frederick, who was forcing his man away from the inside.
As Sims’ jog past the pylons propelled him into his leap, the 5’10”, 187-pound Frederick was no match.
Sims reached up and caught the ball at his apex. Even with his man keeping him from boxing inside, Sims managed to shade in front of the corner enough to win the 50-50 ball.
The FCS receiver seized the moments he had against the Giants. He did so all the way through the final seconds, getting both feet in bounds to further New England’s lead.
Now all triumphs in a Week 4 preseason game must be taken with a grain of salt. The field isn’t stocked with first-teamers, and it’s not the most polished competition the professional level has to offer. With that being said, the fourth week of exhibition is still pivotal for those who have yet to establish themselves in game situations.
Their play meant something, even if the game itself meant nothing.