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One of the hardest aspects of preseason football is weeding through what’s real and what’s not.
Patriots rookie quarterback Jarrett Stidham was impressive on Thursday night in his first NFL game.
Stidham completed five passes of ten or more air yards looking comfortable at the helm of New England’s offense.
The rookies’ performance even garnered some praise from head coach Bill Belichick on his Friday morning conference call:
“I think there were several plays that dawned all of the categories really. Quick throws where the read was clear and the receiver was open and then maybe a secondary read, and then there were a couple of times where he scrambled and extended the play. He ran a couple times and completed a pass to – I think it might have been the tight end, [Andrew] Beck or [Ryan] Izzo – but anyway, there was a little bit of everything there. The most important thing for the quarterback is not to turn the ball over, make good decisions, and throw accurately, so he did all of those at times,” Belichick said.
Although it was undeniably positive, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
The fourth-round pick out of Auburn didn’t enter the first preseason game of the year until the 8:18 mark of the second quarter following John Simon’s interception.
On Stidham’s first drop-back, the following 11 players were on the field for the Lions defense: Jamal Agnew, Tavon Wilson, Mike Ford, Jonathan Wynn, Jalin Maybin-Reeves, PJ Johnson, Kevin Strong, Eric Lee, Will Harris, Amari Oruwariye and Andrew Adams.
Based on Detroit’s projected depth chart, none of those players are likely to start on opening day for the Lions.
In other words, he was facing a bunch of two’s, three’s and even four’s.
With that said, there’s no doubt that Stidham has improved rapidly since the start of June minicamp until now.
And it’s important to focus on that steady improvement rather than getting caught up in what Thursday night means for Stidham’s future as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Back in June, it was already apparent that Stidham had the arm talent to make NFL throws, and we saw that on display in a game for the first time.
Where the rookie has made significant strides, however, is with his processing speed and ability to read coverages at a pro-level.
As recently as joint practices in Detroit, Stidham was hanging onto the ball in the pocket for an eternity passing on NFL open receivers because of a shy trigger finger.
Stidham’s time to release against the Lions was still on the slower side at 3.02 seconds, but he did release nine throws in under 2.5 seconds completing seven of those passes.
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Stidham’s first big-time completion put the Patriots in position to get points before the half. The Lions were in a cover-3 zone with the weak side safety rotating down into an intermediate zone, leaving one safety in the middle of the field. Stidham worked two in-breaking patterns by Braxton Berrios and Jakobi Meyers. The safety rotating down cut Berrios’s route off as he ran across the field, so Stidham waited for Meyers to break inside away from the boundary corner and in front of the deep safety. Stidham made a good decision and placed the ball perfectly for Meyers to make the catch.
Here’s a still frame of when the ball hit Meyers’s hands that shows how accurate of a pass that was.
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Two plays later, Stidham threw another downfield strike that went off the hands of tight end Ryan Izzo. On the play, the Lions were in cover-2 man coverage, and the two deep safeties widen at the snap. With the safety movement, Stidham knows he has Izzo one-on-one with a linebacker up the seam. The ball is right there for a touchdown, but Izzo drops a perfect throw in the end zone.
To start the second half, Stidham drove the Patriots into Lions territory, but the drive stalled despite a well-thrown pass by the rookie.
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First, Stidham made a timely throw to Maurice Harris off of play-action to get on the other side of the 50-yard line. Harris ran a dig route over the middle off of the fake, and Stidham waited until Harris got into his second throwing window. In the first window, the dropping linebacker slid underneath Harris’s route, so Stidham held the ball and waited for Harris to clear the linebacker before firing for a gain of 11 yards.
A few plays later, Stidham dropped one of two deep ball dimes to Maurice Harris that narrowly missed a long completion.
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Stidham does an excellent job of subtly climbing in the pocket to avoid the edge pressure. He also stared down the middle of the field during his drop to hold the safety long enough to keep him away from Harris. Harris had his trail arm held down, pass interference by the rulebook, and that contributed to the drop. For most of the night, Stidham showed great pocket presence and awareness to not drift into pressure.
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Along those lines, Stidham hung in there a few drives later to deliver a strike under duress to Braxton Berrios. Berrios beat his man cutting across the field, and Stidham delivered an accurate ball while taking a hit in the pocket.
To cap off that drive, Stidham made another on-time throw to running back Nick Brossette for a successful two-point conversion.
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On the play, Stidham’s primary read was a two-man route combination by tight end Ryan Izzo and wide receiver Dontrelle Inman. Both receivers are covered, and Stidham calmly cycles through the progression to get to his running back open in the flat for two points.
Although the two-point conversion was successful, Stidham was shaky in the red zone both in practice and at times on Thursday night.
In the red zone, quarterbacks need to make even quicker decisions than in the open field because the area is so condensed.
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Stidham hesitated on this red zone play where he had two open receivers in the end zone. First, Stidham has Berrios crossing with some space to score if he lofts the ball into the corner. He decides to hold the ball and target Damoun Patterson, who is also open, but instead of leading him into space the ball is behind Patterson allowing the defender to challenge the Pats wideout at the catch point.
The early returns on Stidham should be positive as the rookie made several impressive in his debut and flashes the same arm talent on the practice field.
He also has a surprisingly good grasp on the mental aspects of the game and the Patriots offense.
But all of these things are signs of potential rather than arguments that he’s a future starter.
Stats provided by Pro Football Focus