If you watched the Patriots’ preseason opener Thursday night, you noticed a trend.
All the familiar faces, from Bill Belichick to Mac Jones and Devin McCourty, were on the sideline.
Belichick opted to sit most of his starters and a few key reserves against the Giants, partly to protect them from the unnecessary injury risk of the preseason. Studying his personnel decisions — while also weighing players’ respective contract situations — 32 Patriots should currently be considered roster locks. Including players who saw action and are virtually guaranteed to make the final 53, from rookies Cole Strange and Tyquan Thornton to kicker Nick Folk, that number rises north of 40 locks.
That leaves roughly 10 roster spots up for grabs, jobs that will be determined by how players perform in games like Thursday’s and the joint practices Belichick has scheduled over the next two weeks.
Think the preseason doesn’t matter? Think again.
Here are the Herald’s complete film observations from the Patriots’ preseason opener:
- Talk about vanilla. The Patriots hardly substituted, trotting out three receivers, one running back and one tight end virtually the entire game. They called zero play-action passes, and only a few run concepts. Belichick and Co. went the extra mile to shield their hand Thursday, even by preseason standards.
- The only peek they provided of the new offense came on the first snap of the fourth quarter, when quarterbacks coach Joe Judge called a run-pass option (RPO) that paired a bubble screen with a Power run. Under former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Pats largely eschewed RPOs.
- Part of the vanilla play-calling was no doubt influenced by the Giants defense. The Giants blitzed rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe on half (!) his dropbacks. Zappe handled himself well under pressure, going 12 of 16. He threw a live ball, particularly on far-hash throws that needed extra zip.
- It’s unclear yet whether Zappe’s aggressive approach, including firing 30-yard back-shoulder throws on second-and-5, was a reaction to the Giants’ pressure or his preferred playing style.
- New York’s high-pressure defense also forced the Patriots receivers to constantly combat man coverage, a weakness last year. Ranking the receivers by their success against man-to-man Thursday, the list goes Kristian Wilkerson, Tyquan Thornton, Tre Nixon and Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
- Thornton is sneaky strong. He successfully fought off Giants defensive backs downfield and was twice used as a primary blocker on two run plays. Thornton held his own, save for missing a crashing safety that resulted in a run stuff.
- Thornton is also obviously, remarkably sudden. His combination of acceleration and long speed is unique to this roster, something the Pats must maximize if he cracks the top four of their depth chart. He’s a big play waiting to happen
- All of Humphrey’s six catches were in the second half, context that puts a small damper on his overall production. Still, the Patriots’ depth at wideout is the best it’s been in years, meaning the competition — even without top-shelf talent — should be fierce through the end of camp.
- On the ground, the Patriots struggled with their projected base outside zone scheme. They called seven outside zone plays, which averaged fewer yards per carry than man-blocked runs, their more common calls under Josh McDaniels.
- Most of those problems with the outside zone are fixable: properly identifying who’s responsible for frontside linebackers and sealing off backside defenders trying to chase the play down. Once the Patriots begin calling bootleg play-action fakes off the outside zone, that should keep backside defenders honest instead of crashing the backfield.
- Because of the blocking, rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris had quiet debuts. Harris had one breakdown in blitz pickup, while Strong was perfect in a tiny sample.
- Solid showing for first-round rookie left guard Cole Strange, who lasted only two series. His run-blocking outshone his work in pass protection, a continuation of training camp.
- Rough night for offensive tackles Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste and Yasir Durant, injuries aside.
- Broken tackles: Wilkerson 3, J.J. Taylor
- Sacks allowed: Team
- QB hits allowed: Team 2, Bill Murray, Kevin Harris
- Hurries allowed: Team 2, Yasir Durant, Kody Russey
- Run stuffs allowed: Durant 2, Yodny Cajuste, Tyquan Thornton, Team
- Holding penalties: Cajuste
- Drops: Tre Nixon, K. Harris
- Defensive linemen Henry Anderson, Carl Davis and Daniel Ekuale, linebackers Anfernee Jennings, Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan and defensive backs Terrance Mitchell, Malcolm Butler, Myles Bryant, Joshuah Bledsoe and Brad Hawkins made up the starting defense.
- Wilson’s speed in the middle flashed immediately, a stark change from Patriots defenses of the past. He registered a QB hit on the opening series.
- Jennings also flew off the edge to crush Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. He later drew a hold and tallied two hurries. Jennings currently projects to be first off the bench behind Matt Judon, assuming the Pats continue to play an outside linebacker on one edge and a defensive end on the other.
- Only Josh Uche matched Jennings’ production on a per-snap basis, while sixth-round rookie Sam Roberts tied Jennings with four pressures.
- Roberts generated his last three pressures on one second-quarter series, but earned his first with an impressive rep against offensive lineman Evan Neal, the No. 7 overall pick in last April’s draft.
- Despite that pressure, Davis produced the most impressive tape among D-linemen. He controlled blockers 1-on-1, stacking and shedding them to stop the run or drive them back into the pocket on passing downs. He should stick for another year as the Pats’ backup nose tackle.
- Tough outing for second-year linebacker Cameron McGrone, who missed a tackle late, occasionally looked a step slow in space and played through the end of the fourth quarter.
- Defensive tackle Jeremiah Pharms Jr. and outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins also earned poor marks for their run defense.
- Second-year cornerback Shaun Wade, however, thrived on the outside. He got his hands on two passes, including an incorrectly assessed defensive pass interference penalty, and allowed just two catches on seven targets.
- Wade took the field after Mitchell and Butler hit the bench. Mitchell’s forced fumble was the defensive highlight of the night, a picture-perfect punch-out, while Butler missed an early tackle and survived a lost rep at the goal line thanks to a Kenny Golladay drop.
- Sacks: Josh Uche
- QB hits: Anfernee Jennings, Mack Wilson Raekwon McMillan, Nate Wieland
- Hurries: Sam Roberts 4, Daniel Ekuale 2, Jennings 2, Uche 2, LaBryan Ray, Harvey Langi, Cameron McGrone
- Holds drawn: Jennings, Roberts
- Run stuffs: Team
- Pass deflections: Shaun Wade 2, Jack Jones, Joejuan Williams, Henry Anderson, Ronnie Perkins, Jeremiah Pharms Jr.
- Missed tackles: Malcolm Butler, Harvey Langi, Jalen Elliott, Ekuale McGrone
- Myles Bryant looked like a natural on punt return, covering 30 yards on his first run-back and 16 on his second. Bryant is putting the pressure on third-round rookie Marcus Jones, who left college as one of the best returners in NCAA history.
- Thursday’s starting groups on punt, punt return, kickoff and kick return) did not include veterans Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis, but they did feature rookie safety Brendan Schooler, linebacker Cameron McGrone and receiver Tre Nixon on three of the four.
- Safety Joshuah Bledsoe, sixth-round rookie running back Kevin Harris and linebackers Harvey Langi, Anfernee Jennings were on two starting teams, as was backup tight end Matt Sokol.