The Patriots fell 25-14 to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Friday night.
As the final score would indicate, there were plenty of negative takeaways on both sides of the ball, but there were also a few positive performances from an individual player perspective.
Here are the ten things we learned from the Patriots’ dress rehearsal against the Panthers:
1. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski Deliver Ho-Hum Performances
Rob Gronkowski made his 2018 debut albeit in a limited capacity. Gronk played a few series, mostly in the first quarter, as the All-Pro tight end got some live reps to knock off the rust. Gronkowski should have caught a touchdown but the pass rush through off the timing with Tom Brady. Although Brady missed that one, he looked good in the first half spreading the ball around to a number of different receivers, leading the Pats on back-to-back 14-play drives that ended in field goal attempts. We saw what we needed to see from the two best players on the Patriots roster.
2. Patriots Starting Defense Goes Back to Bend-Don’t-Break Style
After turning up the heat in the first two weeks of the preseason, the Patriots defense got back to their typical brand of football allowing chunks of yards before eventually locking down in the red zone. Carolina gained 201 yards in the first half but only scored nine points, finishing the half 0-3 in the red zone. The Patriots pass rush went back to a contained rush to keep mobile quarterback Cam Newton in the pocket, but they didn’t do a great job of that as Newton extended a few critical plays with his legs finding receivers for first-down conversion downfield. Head coach Bill Belichick talked about the marriage of the pass rush and coverage after the Eagles game last week, and we saw the front-end and back-end of the Pats’ defense fail to get on the same page once again this week. It’s either the pass rush or the coverage right now, but the Pats haven’t been able to get both going at the same time.
3. WR Julian Edelman Looks Like Julian Edelman
After reports that Edelman isn’t all the way back from his torn ACL last August, the Pats’ slot machine took a step forward on Friday night. Edelman got open consistently against Carolina flashing his typical quickness and precision route running that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from #11.
Edelman’s nine-yard reception on a third down screen pass had to feel good for the Pats’ receiver, as he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage, made multiple Panthers miss in space and picked up the first down when it looked like he would be stopped well short. Edelman then made two other catches, one on a dig route and another on a return route, two staples of his route tree, and the last of his three receptions was also a third-down conversion. Edelman looked like his old self and was in the right place at the right time whenever Tom Brady needed him.
4. Trent Brown Has Another Up and Down Performance
Patriots left tackle Trent Brown got on my radar last week after a shaky performance against the Eagles, and he’s still on my radar in a bad way after an inconsistent game against the Panthers. On the Patriots’ first possession, Brown had poor technique on back-to-back plays. On the first play, the Patriots ran a speed-out to Gronkowski where Brown was supposed to execute a cut block to drop the defensive end out of the passing lane but failed to get the end on the ground, leading to a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage. On the next play, Brown didn’t get the typical depth in his kick-slide that we are accustomed to seeing and was beat badly by a speed rush around the edge. However, Brown did bounce-back after that with some huge blocks in the run game and better technique out of his pass sets. Ironically, Brown was better as a run blocker than a pass blocker, which goes against the scouting report, but there’s some cause for concern as we’ve seen very inconsistent play from the Pats’ new left tackle.
5. WR Phillip Dorsett Delivers Performance We’ve Been Waiting For
In a positive development, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett had a strong performance as we finally saw the former first-round pick flash this preseason. Dorsett caught all four of the passes that Brady threw his way, including a 16-yard catch and run that showed progress from the wide receiver.
Dorsett caught a quick pass from Brady and immediately made the corner miss before running up the sideline for a significant gain. It was great to see Dorsett catch the ball and turn up the field with no hesitation, something we haven’t always seen from the speedy wideout. He also made a nice adjustment on another reception, and most importantly, Dorsett was on the same page as Tom Brady. On his fourth-down conversion in the first half, Edelman served as a decoy and Dorsett ran a timing route on the opposite side of the formation. Brady threw the ball to a spot, relying on Dorsett to be there, and the Pats receiver was there for the conversion. That’s a great sign as Dorsett continues to work his way into Brady’s circle of trust.
6. WR Riley McCarron Plays Over Eric Decker With Tom Brady
Second-year wideout Riley McCarron, who the Pats stashed on the practice squad last season, saw time with Tom Brady and the starters in the first half over veteran Eric Decker. On the one hand, a learning curve was expected with Decker, as the veteran wideout didn’t sign with the Patriots until August 3rd. But on the other hand, watching Decker play in the fourth quarter, and lose snaps to McCarron with Brady, signals that things may not be progressing quickly enough for Decker to earn a roster spot. One angle that makes it harder for Decker is that McCarron also adds value as a returner, and with Julian Edelman out for the first four weeks of the regular season, the Patriots need someone to fill that role. Plus, a year removed from an ACL injury, is it in the best interest of the team to have Edelman as the primary punt returner in the regular season? McCarron, or third-year cornerback Cyrus Jones, could find their way onto the roster as returners.
7. Ulrick John Gets the Nod as Third Offensive Tackle
Early in the second quarter, starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle was benched to end a series after taking a bad unnecessary roughness penalty in the red zone. Although the flag wasn’t ideal, it was interesting to see veteran swing tackle Ulrick John get the nod as the third tackle behind Brown and Waddle. John, was excellent in the first two preseason games, flashing veteran savviness and sound technique, especially in the run game. John received a 91.0 overall grade from Pro Football Focus through the first two weeks of the preseason, the highest grade on the team, earning him a spot on my initial 53-man roster projection. John had another solid performance against the Panthers and appears to be climbing his way up the depth chart. With the injury to rookie Isaiah Wynn, John is a safer alternative to some of the younger tackles on the roster in case of emergency.
8. Jason McCourty Plays Safety as the Veteran Attempts to Find a Role
In another interesting development, veteran cornerback Jason McCourty primarily lined up as a safety with the second-team defense as he continues to fight for a roster spot. Eric Rowe has solidified himself as the second perimeter corner opposite of Stephon Gilmore, and McCourty appears to be squarely on the roster bubble. In an attempt to find a role for the McCourty twin, the Patriots tried Jason out at safety against the Panthers. From this perspective, if McCourty is going to make the Patriots roster, it’s not going to be playing off the line of scrimmage as a deep safety in the Patriots’ scheme. You could see McCourty carving out a role as a matchup safety that plays either in the slot or on the outside depending on the opponent, but his skill set doesn’t translate to playing as the deep safety in the Pats’ cover-1 or cover-3 schemes. We saw McCourty struggle as the single-high safety in cover-1 when he was expected to provide help over the top for Keion Crossen but didn’t have the range to break up the pass. If that’s the role the Patriots want McCourty to play, he won’t be on this roster in a few weeks.
9. Patriots Run Game Struggles
After solid showings on the ground in the first two weeks of the preseason, the Patriots run game added almost nothing to the offense against the Panthers on Friday night. The Pats averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and had four negative runs as they struggled to move the ball on the ground against a stingy Carolina defensive front. The Patriots have sprinkled in more zone blocking schemes, especially outside zone, in the preseason as they continue to run multiple blocking schemes up front offensively. The Patriots starting offensive line fared better than the backups on Friday night, but overall, there were far too many runs where the backs were forced to make defenders miss around the line of scrimmage or were dancing around poor technique by the blockers in front of them. I fully expect Dante Scarnecchia to clean things up, and it will help to have Rex Burkhead and hopefully Sony Michel back to tote the rock once the games start to count, but the Patriots run game failed the test against a good Panthers run defense.
10. Rookie cornerbacks Keion Crossen and J.C. Jackson Make Their Case
Rookie corners Keion Crossen and J.C. Jackson put themselves in the 53-man roster conversation with strong training camps, but both struggled in coverage under the bright lights in the first two preseason games. However, both made their cases for roster consideration in Carolina on Friday night, as they fared very well in coverage with the second unit. Crossen got torched by the Eagles starting offense last week, but broke up two passes and allowed just one reception in coverage on the play discussed above where Jason McCourty should have provided safety help. Jackson also held his own in coverage but made his most significant contributions on special teams. Jackson made a tackle in punt coverage on Panthers rookie D.J. Moore in space and could make the roster if he continues to perform well in the kicking game. In my opinion, there are four roster locks at cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, second-round pick Duke Dawson and Jonathan Jones. If the Patriots want to go younger, and with two guys that can contribute in the kicking game, one of these two rookies could make the roster over veteran Jason McCourty.
11. Adam Butler is the Patriots’ Best Interior Rusher out of the Defensive Tackle Group
Every week second-year defensive tackle Adam Butler continues to impress and solidify himself as a roster lock. Butler brings a skill set to a defensive tackle group filled with run stuffers that the Patriots need on this team, a bigger body on the interior that can rush the passer. Butler’s got swift feet for a man of his size (6-4, 300 pounds), but his hand fighting is what impresses me the most about the former Vanderbilt star. Butler has a pair of aggressive and heavy hands, as you continuously see him using his hands at a high-rate to push around interior offensive lineman. When you get off the ball as well as Butler does, and can show that kind of upper body strength, you’re going to be a menace to block in the passing game. Butler continues to trend towards being a significant contributor for the Patriots this season as an interior pass rusher that can play on passing downs.