What we learned Wednesday: Ready for the real thing
|08.30.12 at 2:15 am ET|
It’s over. That’s the most important thing.
Sure, the rookies got their reps, a few guys got dinged up (we still don’t know about the long-term health of Shane Vereen), the veterans got back into the swing of things and the coaches have a chance to look at an awful lot of bubble candidates between now and Friday, when they have to cut the roster to 53.
But when it comes to the most important stuff we learned about the Patriots Wednesday, it’s simple: after four fairly vanilla preseason games where they offered next-to-nothing in terms of scouting nuggets for their regular-season opponents, everyone is relatively healthy and ready for the real thing, which starts a week from Sunday in Tennessee.
On a night where Tom Brady was playing receiver in a pickup game on the field beforehand, you kinda knew this one wasn’t going to be all that intense. The only New England “starter” who was on the field at the beginning of the game was right tackle Sebastian Vollmer — only because he hadn’t played all summer — and he was out of there before the end of the first quarter. In fact, Brady, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Jerod Mayo were among those who made the trip to New Jersey and suited up but did not play. Wes Welker, Patrick Chung, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Spikes were among the Patriots not spotted in uniform.
In the end, the stats in this one don’t really matter — Ryan Mallett played most of the game at quarterback, Brandon Bolden got a ton of reps at running back and Jermaine Cunningham had an impressive night at defensive end. The Giants won, 6-3 (click HERE for the complete recap), on a pair of field goals from Lawrence Tynes, but the Patriots accomplished their two major goals of the night: they survived preseason without any major injuries and had a chance to look at a lot of players.
When the clock struck zero, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was happy.
“We had a good competitive game tonight,” Belichick said after the game. ”I thought we competed well, the Giants competed well, it was a good, hard-fought game. And as I said, we got to look at a lot of people.
“We’re ready to turn the page and start playing them for real a week from Sunday,” he added.
Here are nine other things we learned Wednesday night:
JERMAINE CUNNINGHAM HAD A BIG GAME WHEN HE NEEDED IT THE MOST
For someone who was considered to be on the bubble all summer, it was a very nice game for the defensive end out of Florida, who has managed to put together a pair of impressive games this preseason and could ultimately find his way back onto the 53-man roster because of his effort.
With an impressive performance against the Eagles already on the resume, he started Wednesday night against the Giants and played most of the night. He came away with three tackles (two solo), two sacks (for a total of 21 yards) and three quarterback hits. Those numbers were padded because some of them came against second- and third-teamers, but it was the sort of dominant effort at times that he needed to secure a spot on the roster.
Cunningham had both sacks in the first half. The first happened midway through the first quarter when he beat his man to the outside and dropped Eli Manning for a 14-yard loss. The second one was at the end of the second quarter, and was a seven-yarder on backup David Carr where he was able to get good pressure to the inside. Cunningham added to his night when he drew a holding call on Giants offensive lineman Matt McCants on New York’s first drive of the second half.
In the end, Cunningham ended the preseason with six quarterback hits, best on the team. His future could ultimately be tied to Andre Carter — if the veteran does end up returning to the Patriots, it would cut into Cunningham’s playing time. But you can’t say that he hasn’t battled in his attempt to stick around.
JEFF DEMPS IS STILL GETTING UP TO SPEED
The former Olympic silver medalist didn’t get the crazy run that Bolden did — Bolden was the New England offense for large stretches of the game on Wednesday night — but he continued his acclimation into the Patriots’ offense with a healthy amount of reps. With no Ridley, Vereen or Woodhead, he had six carries for 15 yards and three catches for 31 yards, as well as four punt returns for 49 yards and one kickoff for 19 yards.
His best play came on an impressive 23-yard catch and run on a swing pass from Brian Hoyer in the fourth quarter, a play where the quarterback was able to take advantage of a mismatch which led to a nice gain. (However, it could have been an even bigger plus for the Patriots if Demps hadn’t slipped and fell.)
“I was looking forward to breaking loose,” Demps said. “I tried to plant so hard and come underneath the safety I lost my footing and just slipped and fell.”
Demps appeared to get a little dinged up late in the game when he injured either his right knee or ankle, and was being looked at while he was on the sidelines. (According to reports, he was speaking with the media after the game in the locker room — usually a sign that he’s OK. Still, his situation bears watching.) But overall, he feels good about where he is with just under two weeks in the New England system.
“I think I made a little progress, nothing major, but a little step,” Demps said of his work on the field. “I was able to learn some different play, some different routes, things like that.”
RYAN MALLETT HAS MADE NICE STRIDES THIS PRESEASON
The second-year quarterback was uneven early against the Giants, but seemed to find his footing and build confidence as the game went on. He struggled with touch early — on one third-down screen pass, he put the ball in a tough spot for Bolden. He caught it, but the running back couldn’t reach the sticks for a first down. A small thing, but something that he still needs to work on if he wants to get to the next level.
But there was some good with Mallett, as he appeared to build as the half continued — he had a nice rollout and connection with Alex Silvestro that led to a first down. He also had a pair of first downs picked up on consecutive plays, one on a five-yard completion to Kerry Taylor and another on a 15-yard run by Bolden. He ended up 8-for-15 for 40 yards.
“Not bad,” Mallett said when asked about his performance against the Giants. “There’s good things, bad things, stuff like that when we go look at the film, we’ll be like, ‘I could’ve done this better. I could’ve done that better.’ It’s just something you learn from.”
He concluded the preseason 33-for-67 for 300 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. While he didn’t get to air it out much at all, he feels better about where he is now as opposed to last season.
“Last year, I didn’t really know too much, [and] coming in late didn’t help,” he added. “Having the spring and then the camp now was crucial for me, and I feel a lot more confident in what I’m doing.”
Meanwhile, Brian Hoyer finished up, going 9-for-15 for 96 yards with three sacks and an interception. Asked about the backup quarterback competition, Belichick said it was a “competitive” situation.
“Those guys have gotten pretty much equal opportunities all the way through from the spring, into the practices in preseason, in the preseason games other than the Tampa game — you know we only played one quarterback after Tom in that game,” Belichick said. “But otherwise it’s been about as equal as we could have it. It’s very competitive, it’s tight, and we’ll see … you know, try and make the best decision we can for the team on that one.”
THE BEST POSITIONAL BATTLE OF THE NIGHT WAS AT LINEBACKER
Jeff Tarpinian was one of a handful of players in the running for the final linebacker spot, and got some good reps on the night. With the starters out, he was wearing the green dot on his helmet for a large portion of the contest, and ran the defensive huddle when he was in there. Tarpinian had a nice stop at the end of the third quarter, and ended up with seven tackles (six solo) to go along with one pass defensed.
With Tracy White still on the shelf and Dane Fletcher on IR, the Iowa product is part of a three-way positional battle for the final linebacker/special teams spot that includes linebacker Niko Koutouvides and Mike Rivera. The three engaged in an impressive statistical battle Wednesday night: They finished the game with the three highest tackle totals, as Rivera had 12 tackles (11 solo), two for a loss. Meanwhile, Koutouvides (who appeared to suffer a right wrist injury) had eight tackles (five solo).
SEBASTIAN VOLLMER IS BACK
The right tackle was the only “starter” to open the game for the Patriots on either side of the ball Wednesday night in his first action of the summer on Wednesday night against the Giants. Even though he was only in the game for just under three series, just the sight of the big German on the field has to be encouraging for Patriots fans who were wondering about the idea of heading into the regular season with Marcus Cannon at right tackle.
At the same time, it was hard to get a sense of where Vollmer’s fitness is at this point, but he looked fluid in his motions, and didn’t give up a sack in limited action. (Cannon and Dustin Waldron also saw time at right tackle, and the latter gave up a bad sack late in the first half.)
The tackle wouldn’t critique those who were at right tackle while he was out, but certainly sounded happy about being back out on the field
“Obviously, I had enough on my plate for myself, so evaluation of other players is not something I can do,” he said. “But I’m sure the coaches put the best five out there starting next week and I’m sure it’s going to be a solid group. I do think we’ve been getting better every day.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE PREPARING A LOT OF PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE CENTERS
The Patriots went with four different centers on Wednesday against the Giants, as Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Donald Thomas all took reps at the position. It was a chance for the Patriots to give a wide variety of players a shot, and perhaps get New England prepared for a year like they had last year when they were forced to go with four different players at center over the course of the season.
“We played with four guys last year, and they all showed that they could play at a good level,” Belichick said. “We’ve had a good competition there this training camp, this preseason, and we’ll have to make a decision on them.”
For Thomas, an offensive lineman going into his second season considered to be on the bubble, it was a good opportunity to show some versatility.
“I think it’s great, honestly, having guys at different positions,” he told reporters. “Everybody has pretty much had the chance to play next to everyone else that’s on the offensive line. The good part about it is, if someone else is in there, we’ve played with that person before, and it’s not like if you make a call, they don’t know what’s going on. I think that’s the best part about it. Our situation, we’ve had a lot of guys in there, and everybody’s been able to play with somebody different almost every practice, and it’s just helped us out.”
As for the rest of the offensive line, the protection was mostly positive. However, Waldron allowed a sack, while backup left guard Derek Dennis appeared to struggle with injury before yielding a third-quarter back of Mallett. And backup left tackle Darrion Weems was beaten around the edge for a fourth-quarter strip-sack of Hoyer.
BRANDON BOLDEN CAN’T COMPLAIN ABOUT NOT GETTING AN OPPORTUNITY
As was the case with Demps, the undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss was well-positioned to get some extended reps against the Giants because those above him on the depth chart were out. Turns out, he provided the bulk of the New England offense in the first half — over the first two quarters, he had 15 carries for 59 yards, as well as three catches for 16 yards, both team highs over the first two quarters. On the Patriots’ lone scoring drive of the night, a drive that took 12 plays, he was part of six of them. He ended up leading the team in total “touches” with 18.
There were some drawbacks — he fumbled a punt return that was eventually recovered by Demps. In addition, he wasn’t able to finish off a red-zone drive when he couldn’t get the ball in from the three on a third-and-goal situation midway through the second quarter. But like many other players who were on the bubble heading into Wednesday’s game, Bolden made a case to be included on the 53-man roster when cuts are made later this week.
“I just tried to go in there and take advantage and maximize it each and every time,” Bolden told reporters after the game. “I felt like I left it all out there on the field. Running, pass protection, I tried to do everything I could.”
It’s worth mentioning that despite his impressive performance against the Giants, the best place for Bolden right now could be on the practice squad; a developmental year would certainly do the rookie some good. But his effort Wednesday night may make it impossible to keep him if the Patriots do that — New England would need to expose him to waivers, and it’s likely another team would claim him before he would have the chance to return to the Patriots. Regardless, he’s made cutdown day a little tougher for the coaching staff.
NATE EBNER HAS TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT HIS CHANCES TO MAKE THE TEAM
Ebner, along with fellow defensive back Marquice Cole, has been improving throughout the summer, and it’s paying off at the right time. (Cole sat out the game, and appears to be “roster-safe” at this stage of the preseason.) The rookie, a sixth-round pick out of Ohio State, got a lot of playing time for the second consecutive preseason game on Wednesday, and again put enough good things on film to likely land a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Without Patrick Chung – who wouldn’t have played if he was healthy because so many regulars were out – Ebner saw plenty of reps, and always seemed to be around the ball. It wasn’t all positive: in the first quarter, he almost allowed a long-distance connection from Eli Manning to a New York wide receiver when he squatted on a route and allowed the wide receiver to get past him. The Patriots dodged a bullet when the pass fell incomplete, and Ebner appeared to get a talking to from Belichick on the sidelines when all was said and done.
However, he almost got his hands on another pick midway through the second on a third-down pass play, and in the end, he was around the ball all night, playing well and looking competitive in one-on-one battles. He finished with a pair of tackles and one pass defensed.
Like Bolden, his performance this preseason has put the coaching staff in a bit of a bind: A sixth-round pick, he’s now played well enough that he likely wouldn’t last if the Patriots put him on waivers to get him through to the practice squad. But when you consider his value as a special teamer, as well as what he’s been able to bring to the table as a defender in nickel and dime packages, it’s no surprise that he’s looking at a roster spot.
THE PATRIOTS SPECIALISTS HAVE HAD A GOOD PRESEASON
If you’re looking for one major takeaway from this game, it’s that punters Zoltan Mesko and Steve Weatherford — two who are at or near the top of their respective games — are already in midseason form. Mesko punted nine times on the night and put six of them inside the 20 while finishing with an average of 46.8 yards. Meanwhile, Weatherford — whose ability to consistently tilt the field was one of the forgotten reasons the Giants were able to beat New England in Super Bowl XLVI — ended up averaging 52 yards on nine punts, including a 64-yarder. (Only one punt return on the night was for more than 10 yards, a 17-yarder from Demps.)
As a group, the effort put the capper on a pretty good preseason for the New England specialists. Long snapper Danny Aiken has wobbled from time to time, but the work of Mesko and kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been excellent. Gostkowski connected on his one opportunity of the night against the Giants, banging home a 20-yard field goal to give New England a 3-0 lead. (For the preseason, Gostkowski was 5-for-5 on extra-point attempts and 4-for-5 on field-goal attempts.) In addition, against the Giants, he put both of his kickoffs into the end zone.
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