NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Tonight, the New England Patriots will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first of two scheduled contests this season; read on for ten keys to New England’s second exhibition of the season.
1. What type of workload will Tom Brady and the rest of the starters see?
In what was the most frightening moment of the season thus far, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady left Wednesday’s practice early after sustaining a minor knee injury which appeared potentially serious, but ultimately looks like a false alarm following Brady’s return to practice yesterday and reported desire to participate in the team’s secod preseason game of the year against Tampa Bay tonight. Whether Brady plays, and if so, I what depth, will be one of the key storylines of the game from New England’s perspective; however, it would come as a surprise if he were to see the field for any substantial period of time regardless of the severity of his injury. Last season, Brady, along with various other Patriots veterans, was held out of the team’s second preseason game in order for New England’s coaching staff to evaluate some of their reserve options.
In this case, an identical approach appears somewhat unlikely given the reports that Brady is determined to appear, but given that there is little incentive to subject Brady to any additional hits beyond a desire to further develop chemistry between the veteran quarterback and his young receiving corps, sidelining him for most of the game is a wise idea. With two intriguing backup quarterbacks on roster in Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow, tonight’s game presents an opportunity to gain significant in-game experience, which is particularly lacking in Mallett’s case. The former Arkansas passer is likely looking to put together a more comprehensive performance than his limited outing during the preseason opener at Philadelphia.
2. Can Tim Tebow improve upon his weak debut performance with the team?
Deserved or not, quarterback Tim Tebow’s performances will liekly be the most scrutinized aspect of New England’s preseason. In last week’s game at Philadelphia, Tebow looked lost as a passer, with his accuracy severely curtailed whenever he was forced to throw to a checkdown option, a problem which has limited Tebow’s effectiveness since entering the league. Regardless of Tebow’s personal character, he will have to show that he is capable of moving the offense in order to make the final roster, which is something that we have not seen to this point.
On the bright side, Tebow did gain thirty-one yards on four attempts, looking determined and elusive on runs which were clearly designed with Tebow’s particular strengths in mind; those runs make it appear as though the coaching staff is determined to Tebow’s success despite what can be considered an unconventional skillset at best. This week’s game should help create a clearer picture of what Tebow offers the team, as the second week of the preseason is typically a time for evaluating some of the players on the roster bubble. Tebow won’t get all the snaps, as Ryan Mallett is practicing with the team after leaving last week’s game early, but the former Florida quarterback should see an ample workload for the second straight week. Without a dramatically improved passing performance, Tebow’s chances of making the final roster will diminish once again.
3. Will LeGarrette Blount continue to distance himself from Brandon Bolden?
If there was a star player in New England’s 31-22 victory at Philadelphia last week, it was running back LeGarrette Blount, who amassed 101 yards and two touchdowns over just eleven carries, one of which was a 51-yard touchdown run that helped Blount post an average of 9.2 yards per attempt. Although Blount was originally considered unlikely to make the final roster, he now appears to be among the team’s top four runners, with an opportunity to further distance himself from Brandon Bolden this week against his former team.
Bolden, an effective rookie runner for the Patriots last season despite not being drafted, averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012 but earned himself a place in Bill Belichick’s doghouse after serving a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, carrying the ball just thirteen times over the last six games of the season, including New England’s two playoff games. Last week, he committed a special-teams penalty by running into Eagles punter Brad Wing and averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt on a four-carry, fourteen-yard showing as a running option. Bolden’s youth, strength, aggression, and special teams value would make him hard to part ways with, so it’s possible that New England’s coaching staff will opt to enter the season with five running backs on roster, but should they remain committed to a four-man personnel group, it looks possible that Bolden may be playing for another team within the month, whether via a trade or as a consequence of being released during roster cutdowns.
4. What will New England’s wide receivers show in their second game together?
Even if we likely won’t see Tom Brady for an extended period of time, if at all, New England’s wide receivers, with the possible exception of Danny Amendola, should still see plenty of playing time as the team attempts to finalize its depth chart at the position. Rookie second-round pick Aaron Dobson started during the preseason opener, ultimately taking the field for forty-four snaps, while Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins entered the game later for over thirty snaps each. Of the aforementioned players, Thompkins, an undrafted free agent, was by far the most productive, catching all four of his targets for a total of 23 yards and demonstrating his ability to run both sideline and crossing routes.
While the Cincinnati alum would do well to simply recreate his initial showing, significant room for improvement exists for both Dobson and Boyce; the former caught only two of eight targets, dropping another pass, while Boyce uncovered himself on an overthrow but otherwise was not targeted. At this point, all three players appear to be locks for the final roster, but it would nonetheless assuage some apprehensions if they were to factor more prominently into New England’s offense this week against a young Tampa Bay secondary which is likely to feature cornerback personnel including second-year cornerback Leonard Johnson and rookie second-round pick Johnthan Banks. New England’s decision to release veteran wide receiver Michael Jenkins earlier this week should be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the likes of Dobson, Boyce, and Thompkins.
5. How will New England protect their quarterbacks from Tampa Bay’s pass rushers?
Protecting the quarterback figures to be an emphasis for New England this week, as the team barely sidestepped a serious injury to Tom Brady during practice this week and was forced to pull second-string quarterback Ryan Mallett from the game early last week after the third-year player sustained what appeared to be a minor chest injury. When third-string quarterback Tim Tebow entered the game, he struggled to work through his progressions on time, completing just four of his twelve attempts and taking costly sacks on a number of occasions; in total, ProFootballFocus holds New England responsible for allowing six quarterback hits in addition to four quarterback sacks. Fortunately, New England’s starting offensive line looked dominant even without right guards Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon; unfortunately, problems may crop up when the second-team linemen hit the field, which figures to be early in, if not at the beginning of the game.
Patriots running backs Leon Washington and Brandon Bolden must also redouble their efforts in pass protection after allowing a quarterback hit each over a combined four snaps in pass protection. Tampa Bay came away with just one sack last week vs. Baltimore, but has one of the best under tackles in the league in Gerald McCoy, with big defensive ends such as Da’Quan Bowers and rookie William Gholston, the latter of whom was responsible for a quarterback hit against the Ravens. One otpion may be to leave additional tight ends in pass protection to chip edge rushers and allow the interior offensive line to focus on stopping Tampa Bay’s tackles.
6. What kind of defensive looks will the Patriots present Tampa Bay with?
Relative to last season, in which the Patriots operated predominantly out of fronts featuring four down linemen, the defenses New England employed against Philadelphia last week featured a high volume of three-man looks, with defensive ends such as Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan, Marcus Benard, and Jake Bequette frequently being asked to create pressure out of a two-point stance. As the NFL continues to move towards an emphasis on the passing game, it appears wise to start investigating additional ways to create pressure. Traditionally, the Patriots have prized size and two-gap ability in their three-man fronts, but in 2011 the team began tailoring their defensive schemes to the skillsets of their personnel more inventively than ever, incorporating both one-and-two-gap principles.
Should the Patriots continue down that road, they may be able to craft a dynamic pass rush featuring an undersized five-technique such as Chandler Jones and an explosive edge rusher in rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins. The ways in which New England worked Collins onto the field against Philadelphia, which included various different rushes from wide angles, including out of the slot, were enticing; the assumption is that we’ll get to see a little bit more of these types of alignments this week.
7. What will New England’s defensive line rotation look like, especially at end?
Following last week’s season opener, it appears safe to say that the composition of New England’s starting defensive line is complete, with returning starters Rob Ninkovich (left end), Vince Wilfork (nose tackle), and Chandler Jones (right end) being joined by Tommy Kelly (defensive tackle.) However, a personnel overload still exists at the position, with three preseason games remaining in order to determine who will make the team’s final roster. Longshot Jason Vega has been waived following a knee injury sustained during practice, but candidates such as Marcus Benard, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan, Jermaine Cunningham, and Justin Francis remain on roster.
Last week, Buchanan (60 snaps) and Benard (42 snaps) were worked onto the field as members of New England’s second team, with Justin Francis taking 41 snaps and Bequette on the field for 35, according to ProFootballFocus. Cunningham is still not practicing with the team, an absence which may very well cost him his roster spot. It will be interesting to see how New England opts to employ their ends against Tampa this week. Additionally, defensive tackle/end Armond Armstead is still on the Non-Football Illness list, which should create opportunities for defensive tackle reserves to showcase their abilities. Second-year player Marcus Forston is probably the most likely candidate for a spot, but undrafted free agent Joe Vellano, a Maryland product, looked disruptive as well. Cory Grissom, Scott Vallone, and Rashad White also factored into the mix.
8. Will New England’s secondary be able to prevent big plays through the air?
Both of the top two quarterbacks on Tampa Bay’s roster, Josh Freeman and rookie third-round pick Mike Glennon, are considered to have among the strongest arms in the league; consequently, New England’s secondary should be well-prepared to defend against any passing attempts downfield. Freeman has been criticized thus far in his career for his tendency to check down to short routes, attempting just eighty-nine throws which traveled twenty yards or more downfield last season; however, of those passes, he completed a respectable thirty-one (34.8%), gaining 1,178 yards for an average of 13.23 yards per attempt.
Mike Glennon, the North Carolina St. product who saw the majority of Tampa Bay’s snaps in the preseason opener, had an inefficient outing overall, completing eleven of twenty-three passes (47.8%) for 169 yards and an interception, but was penalized by two drops, threw one pass away, and was hit as thrown on another, per Pro Football Focus. He also managed to complete one of his four tries downfield, gaining 41 yards on a completion to Chris Owusu deep down the left sideline. Given that Patriots starting cornerback Aqib Talib was burned by DeSean Jackson last week for a 47-yard score, and that rookie cornerback Logan Ryan also surrendered a 35-yard completion to Greg Salas, New England should prepare for additional tests down the field.
9. What will New England’s defensive back rotation look like this week?
In the preseason opener, New England started Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington at cornerback, with Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson aligned deep in the secondary as New England’s starting safeties. Something similar is likely in the cards this week, as two typical starters, free safety Devin McCourty and right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, were held out of practice this week. With Ras-I Dowling also not participating, the second unit may remain the same as well; last week, it featured Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon at the safety spots, with rookies Logan Ryan and Justin Green joined by Brandon Jones and Marquice Cole at cornerback.
Ryan, a third-round pick last April, struggled last week, surrendering completions on , but undrafted free agent Justin Green was impressive, limiting his assignments to 3/5 receiving for twenty-eight yards. If Dowling continues to miss time, and if Green continues his production at the position, the rookie may end up as an unlikely member of the final 53-man roster. In addition to Ryan, Tavon Wilson is another player who needs to dramatically improve his productivity, as he has been criticized for his performances throughout training camp and did not stand out last week, either. While he appears a safe bet to make the final roster, he could find himself buried on the depth chart at this rate, especially given Duron Harmon’s superior physicality and overall play recognition, as evidenced last week against Philadelphia.
10. Can New England’s specialists regain firm control of their starting jobs?
Despite his strong leg, Stephen Gostkowski has consistently failed to develop into one of the league’s top field-goal kickers, frequently missing the types of attempts which are reasonable to expect from one of the highest-paid kickers in the league and the seventh-highest paid player on New England’s entire roster. The Patriots could save $1,945,000 by releasing Gostkowski this season, and they could arguably find a similarly-effective option on the open market for less than that, such as Dan Carpenter, whose leg may not be quite as strong but who was similarly consistent in 2012. After going 1/3 in the opener, Gostkowski needs to rebound with consistent accuracy this week to prevent New England’s front office from investigating alternative options.
Punter Zoltan Mesko, too, may be in danger of losing his job, as the Patriots brought in Ray Guy Award winner Ryan Allen this offseason as an undrafted free agent signing, and thus far, Allen has demonstrated considerable leg strength, punting twice in the opener and averaging 54.0 yards per attempt, compared to Mesko’s three punts averaging 44.7 yards. New England could save $768,000 by releasing Mesko, whose cap figure is significantly higher than Allen’s modest $405,000 salary for 2013.