NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Despite a late surge, the New England Patriots managed to hold off the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-22, in the preseason opener. Yet for all intents and purposes, the final score was insignificant.
How individual players and personnel units fared was what carried weight.
Now like all exhibition contests, the Aug. 9 tilt was less so about the end result than it was about the performances that led to the end result. Cohesion is a work in progress at this point for the Patriots. And with a 90-man roster, the first-team offense and defense garnered a limited workload during Week 1 of the preseason.
But they still did garner a workload.
So with that in mind, how did New England’s first-teamers perform under the lights at Lincoln Financial Field?
It’s time to take a closer look at some of the momentous plays from early on.
Stevan Ridley Breaks Loose
On New England’s initial drive, quarterback Tom Brady didn’t have to drop back to throw the ball once. Stevan Ridley’s first carry on the first play was a big reason why.
Lined up as the single back in the Patriots ”12” personnel with two tight ends left, Ridley awaited the handoff from No. 12. Meanwhile, wide receiver Danny Amendola went in motion, which tagged Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher along with him.
Brady took the snap from center Ryan Wendell and handed the ball off to his 1,200-yard rusher. Ridley headed towards the C-gap, where tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and Amendola had zeroed in on their assignments.
In doing so, Ridley drew Philadelphia linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the far hashes.
The reaction of the defense, as well as the execution of his blockers, set up Ridley to cut back inside the B-gap.
The linebackers had already cheated up to the line of scrimmage, so the tailback sprung loose into the open range.
Ridley escaped from the 19-yard line up past the 35-yard line. Not far behind, though, was a quartet from the Eagles’ front seven. Outside the numbers was cornerback Brandon Hughes, who was being fended off by rookie wideout Aaron Dobson.
And nipping at his heels was safety Nate Allen.
Ridley looked home free. Although by the time he passed midfield and saw the red zone, he was tuckered out. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher came from the back of the pack to bring him down.
The run-blockers did their job, Ridley did his. A 62-yard gain was the byproduct.
Five plays later – with a little help from halfback LeGarrette Blount in between – Ridley had himself a touchdown.
Aqib Talib Eclipsed by Speed
Following New England’s early score, the Eagles tried to answer back with a score of their own. Five plays into that response, quarterback Michael Vick and Co. were able to.
Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson lined up at the “Z” spot off the line against New England press-man cornerback Aqib Talib. The slippery pass-catcher was prepped to run a skinny post route.
As Vick handled the snap, Jackson broke off and veered towards the sideline like he was running a fade. Talib picked up on his body language and adjusted by turning his feet to face the sideline.
As soon as he did that, Jackson shifted back inside with great agility. He didn’t go “dead” in his arms and he kept himself in a “phone booth,” so to speak. Giving off very little inclination of what his next move was, he made it tough for Talib to guess right.
While the double move left Talib’s hips turned inside out, it left Jackson with an inside lane and a window for Vick to target.
The one thing coaches can’t teach is speed. So even for Talib – a very talented one-on-one corner – the room for error was minimal in this situation.
Jackson flipped on the afterburners and all the defensive back could do was lunge. Safety Steve Gregory scurried over to help, but the play had already been made.
Jackson hauled in the overhead deep ball from Vick.
Jackson’s momentum tumbled him into the end zone for a touchdown. Just like that, it was tied up.
Talib did his best to keep up with one of the fastest receivers in the NFL. But when you’re one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, you have the ability to turn small hiccups into big ones.
Shane Vereen Creates Problems Out Wide
The versatility of 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen has been well documented. He is a change-of-pace running back. He is a receiver out of the backfield. And every so often, he is a receiver out wide.
When it came to his utilization on Friday night, he was all of the above. Yet most notably, he was out wide for two snaps. One of those snaps netted pay dirt.
After a completion to Amendola, four completions to undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and one to Dobson, the New England’s offense was rolling on its second drive of the game. Vereen capped it off.
The third-year pro stood behind the line of scrimmage as a wide receiver. But because Philadelphia saw “11” personnel in the offensive huddle, one less cornerback was brought onto the field.
In turn, that meant that Vereen was being guarded by 6’0”, 240-pound linebacker Mychal Kendricks. The 5’10”, 205-pounder was ready to take advantage with a stop-and-go pattern.
As the ball was snapped, Vereen stutter-stepped. The small fidget forced Kendricks to ease off, alleviating a runway outside.
Brady saw it.
Brady released the ball Vereen’s way. The utility man was looking back to see it float in. Kendricks, however, was not. And with Thompkins – the nearest receiver – shielding Fletcher, there was no extra defender to help cover.
The on-point ball flew into the end zone and Vereen was there to extend his arms. Just a stride behind was the linebacker.
Vereen used his soft hands to snare the over-the-shoulder grab and remained in possession through impact. With good body awareness, was also able to dig his feet into the grass.
The mismatch gave way to a 13-yard touchdown. Between the well-thrown ball and the impressive snag, the six points put the finishing touches on Brady’s sharp passing day.
Defensive Front Forging Through
New England’s defensive front acquired an adrenaline shot this offseason in the form of longtime Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Kelly, a veteran regarded as an adept three-technique pass-rusher, didn’t waste any time living up to his billing versus the Eagles.
It still took a collective effort to make it happen.
During the Eagles’ third offensive series, second-year quarterback Nick Foles subbed into to game. Yet with two minutes left in the first quarter, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia decided to keep the starting defense in the mix.
After a six-yard run by tailback Bryce Brown on first down, Philadelphia opted to combat a 2nd-and-4 with “11” personnel. Countering that, the Patriots implemented three down linemen – Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork and Kelly – and employed defensive end Rob Ninkovich as a stand-up linebacker.
As Foles took the snap and went through his reads, Kelly clubbed his heavy hands through the offensive line’s A-gap. He knifed past right guard Todd Herremans, just as Jones swung off the edge past shuffling left tackle Allen Barbre.
Kelly hurried Foles from the front side. Jones snuck up from his blind side.
The consequence of their pressure was impact. The 6’6”, 310-pound Kelly wrapped the QB up low, just as the 6’5”, 265-pound Jones jarred Foles’ collar.
Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes came in to swoop up the fumble. And after review, what was first ruled an incompletion ultimately was ruled a fumble and recovery.
The play sent New England’s first-team D out on a high note as the first frame drew to a close. They departed with a 14-7 lead.
In all, New England’s dry run against Philadelphia provided both the starters and the depth players with a venue to re-acclimate.
Their form was far from perfect. There were some “what-was-that” moments on the offensive side of the ball. There were some lax tackling and coverage moments on the defensive side of the ball as well.
With that said, it’s about growth. And revisiting the tape should accelerate that process for the Patriots.