NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Preseason or regular season, losing by 31 points is unacceptable for an NFL team. And following the Aug. 22 shellacking by way of the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reinforced that notion.
“We just have to get back to work and do better than that in every area of the game,” said Belichick in a next-day conference call. “I don’t think there’s anything different than what the picture was last night. There were a few good individual plays here and there but overall just, we can’t play like that and expect to do well against a good team.”
The Patriots were beaten in all three phases of the game during the 40-9 defeat last Thursday night. New England’s offense turned the ball over four times and went 5-for-16 on third- and fourth-down opportunities. The offensive line was beat physically and mentally, allowing two quarterback sacks, 15 hurries and an abysmal 68 rushing yards. And the defense – which was put in a tough spot early – broke down once the second- and third-teamers filtered in, conceding 24 second-half points.
The squad’s effort was certainly not enough, but not all was lost in the end result.
There was some semblance of good.
Kenbrell Thompkins Swats Past Darius Slay
On New England’s opening drive – five plays before a fumble by tight end Zach Sudfeld – quarterback Tom Brady and undrafted wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins added onto their connection of timing and trust.
As the Patriots came out of the huddle in “12” personnel with two tight ends flanked off of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and Stevan Ridley in the backfield, Thompkins lined up as the “X” receiver outside the numbers.
On this particular 2nd-and-11, the receiver was plotting an out-and-up route versus the man coverage of rookie second-round cornerback Darius Slay. Also considering the wide field of responsibilities Detroit’s single-high safety had to manage, the pattern played into the pass-catcher’s hands.
There’s something to be said for maintaining contact with your man until you beat him. And that’s precisely what Thompkins did versus Slay.
Off the snap, No. 85 stepped into Slay with his arms out, shielding his jersey. He chopped at the defensive back’s press, dipping his inside shoulder as he swung up and outside of him.
Thompkins showcased toughness through the restriction, and soon broke it. He made a beeline down the field, mustering as much as he could out of Slay’s early lapse.
By the time Brady’s on-point pass flew in, Thompkins had his head turned the ball with enough body awareness to stay on his path without running out of bounds. Slay’s head, however, was not facing the incoming ball.
Thompkins reeled in the throw with his palms up and secured it long before Slay had a chance to punch at it.
The physical route and leading pass netted a 37-yard gain. The reception helped dispelled some questions about Thompkins’ vertical potency.
Rob Ninkovich and Tommy Kelly Combine for Sack
On the third Lions drive of first frame, Detroit left the huddle in “11” personnel. Meanwhile, the Patriots left the huddle in a 4-3 alignment, with defensive end Rob Ninkovich and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly manning the left side of the line in the nine-technique and three-technique, respectively.
For Ninkovich, a lot depended on whether in-line tight end Brandon Pettigrew was going to stay in to block or depart on a route.
As quarterback Matthew Stafford handled the shotgun snap, it became clear that Pettigrew would not be aiding in pass protection.
Ninkovich bent towards right tackle Jason Fox, aiming to brush by him perpendicularly. Concurrently, Kelly lunged into rookie road-grading right guard Larry Warford, clenching at his chest pads and leveraging with leg drive.
Ninkovich did not carve outside his opponent. Instead, he pushed him back into the QB pocket. At that juncture, Kelly used an effective swim move on Warford, which propelled him through the B-gap of the offensive line.
New England’s right defensive end, Chandler Jones, was also in the mix, getting left tackle Riley Reiff on his heels.
With no ground to step into, Stafford held onto the ball as Ninkovich and Kelly rounded him up.
The tandem sack went for a seven-yard loss, setting Detroit up for a 2nd-and-17. It would be the Patriots’ only sack of the game.
Kenbrell Thompkins Beats Chris Houston with Deception
After his big first catch against Slay in the first, Thompkins was back in the deep-passing game in the second quarter of action.
On a 2nd-and-4 during New England’s third drive of the second frame, the Patriots loaded the left side in “12.” But Thompkins stood alone at the “X” once again. This time, he was covered by veteran corner Chris Houston.
He was set to run a stutter fade down the right sideline. Although in order to gain separation, he would have to sell the stutter.
As Brady took the snap from center, Thompkins dropped his left arm back and towards center field, and his left foot braced for what looked like a slant route. A split second later, he dropped his right arm back towards right field, lifting his right foot in the process.
Those subtleties caused Houston to skip inside.
In turn, the route-runner swooped past the DB’s left side. Keeping his pad level at a 75-degree angle through his cut, and also posting his front foot in the direction he intended to travel, Thompkins accelerated downfield.
And despite Houston’s salvage speed, Thompkins’ early movements credited him with an over-the-shoulder catch. Yet more importantly, it credited the Patriots with an additional 27 yards.
A route isn’t decided in the final 10 yards; it’s decided in the first two.
Those first two yards went a long way for Thompkins, as he finished with eight catches for 116 yards versus the Lions.
Aqib Talib Goes Toe-to-Toe with Nate Burleson
Midway through second quarter on a Lions 3rd-and-8, New England’s first-team defense was striving to get the punt team on the field.
Coming out in a 4-2 sub package to counter Detroit’s pass-suggestive grouping, Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib played three yards off savvy receiver Nate Burleson down the right sideline.
Burleson was prepping for a deep curl.
As Stafford harnessed the ball, Burleson broke off the line of scrimmage and looked back to his passer. Talib was right there with him, stride for stride.
As Burleson planted his left foot and leaned back to the ball, Talib’s presence on the inside left him vulnerable on the outside.
Nevertheless, his biggest vulnerability came from his stumble.
When Talib appeared to be out of contention, Stafford rifled a pass towards Burleson. He didn’t intend on New England’s top corner getting back on his feet in time.
But he did.
Talib sprung off the ground and into the air. He snuck in front of his receiver enough to flick the ball away from its intended target. Incomplete.
One down saw Talib shade, trip, rebalance, leap and break up a pass.
According to Pro Football Focus, Talib was on the field for 36 plays versus the Lions. He was thrown at four times, only conceding two completions for 20 yards. That type of output was not indicative of the bigger picture, though.
Collectively, the Patriots’ negatives were prevalent third preseason contest. But the few positives go to show that not everything can be thrown out with the bathwater.