Last week, I took a look at the game film from Thursday's preseason opener and broke down an uneven at best offensive performance. Things looked a bit better on the other side of the ball, where the front seven brought considerable pressure on Packers quarterbacks throughout the game. Here are my position-by-position takeaways.
Defensive line: Interior
I was looking forward to seeing how this group would look, as we finally got to see Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley on the field together. Given the heavy investments the team has made in those two, it's fair to say they are expected to become key players on the defensive interior sooner rather than later.
It was a bit of a mixed bag from Brown, but there were several flashes of the talent that made him a first round pick. His power stood out on film, particularly in short yardage situations. The highlight of his night came on first and goal on the Packers first possession, as his solid upfield push forced Eddie Lacy to cut back behind the line of scrimmage. Chandler Jones and Jonathan Freeny wind up getting the statistical credit for the stop, but the play is possible because of Brown winning the line of scrimmage.
Brown's ability to defeat blockers with his hand usage stood out in college and he also flashed that two snaps later, using a quick club move to immediately beat Pro Bowl guard TJ Lang. The running play was unaffected, as Lacy's run was designed to hit a different gap, but it was another sign of Brown's obvious physical gifts.
Of course, there were some teaching moments to go with the flashes. At the 8:22 mark of the first quarter, Brown gets sealed off on zone blocking run to the right. He does recognize the play and manages to get back to his blocker's inside shoulder, but doesn't do so quick enough, allowing the runner to cut back right past him. If he makes the read a split-second faster, he has a chance to stuff the back for a minimal gain. Things like that should come more natural to him with more experience at this level.
Like Brown, Easley's performance was a bit of a mixed bag, with both his strengths and limitations evident. At a listed 285 pounds, Easley is extremely undersized to play the interior, and must rely on his explosive quickness to defeat blockers. When he does so, the results can be breathtaking, but he can also be controlled by bigger, stronger blockers once they get a hold of him.
That gave me more reason to watch Easley closely, as he didn't have the same explosiveness he used to dominate at Florida last year during an injury-hampered rookie season. While he didn't look quite like the monster he was in the SEC, there was a little more pop in his first step than he showed last year.
Easley's highlight of the night came on a 4th and short stop on the Packers second possession. Despite giving up significant weight, he wins the line of scrimmage by using his low pad level and quick first step to deliver a blow to his blocker, pushing him about a yard back into the backfield. Jabaal Sheard defeats his blocker and cuts Lacy down for the stop, but the run was unlikely to produce a first down regardless due to Easley's push. Brown also deserves some credit on the play, as he gets less push but does well to create a hole-clogging pile of bodies in the middle of field.
That play stood out, as did a third and goal on which his hustle in pursuit prevents Aaron Rodgers from being able to scramble for a touchdown. That level of athleticism simply wasn't there for Easley last season. However, there were too many plays in which he was simply controlled by his blocker one-on-one. When Easley can attack the outside shoulder of his blocker, he does well and manages to get push up field (see his up-field rush at the 2:12 mark of the first quarter for an example). The key for him going forward will be fine-tuning his technique to put himself into that kind of advantageous position more consistently.
The other key member of the rotation up front was veteran Antonio Johnson, who played the first series alongside Brown with the ones and then rotated with Easley and Brown throughout much of the first half. Johnson had a strong upfield push on a few plays, but also was too easily sealed off from running lanes on several occasions, with Eddie Lacy's 15 yard first quarter run standing out as an example. Johnson does well with the talent he has, but he's less stout in the middle than Brown, Sealver Siliga or Alan Branch (the later two did not play Thursday) and less explosive than Easley or Zach Moore. He's earned the opportunities he's gotten with his hard work, but I still consider him unlikely to make the final 53 man roster.
Speaking of Moore, he was one of a handful of nominal "edge" players to take some snaps inside in an interior rusher role. Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson all did so, with all three using their quickness and long arms to make some splash plays. The Pats will certainly have enough numbers to give Belichick and Matt Patricia plenty of game-planning flexibility.
After seeing Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich take on a superhuman workload the past few seasons, the Patriots invested heavily in this area this offseason, signing free agent Jabaal Sheard and drafting Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. All three of those guys made their fair share of plays Thursday, but the biggest standout was someone completely off of most radars: former Saint Rufus Johnson.
Johnson didn't just flash, but was consistently in the backfield throughout his playing time. At 6'6" with long arms, Johnson used his leverage and explosiveness to torment Green Bay's backup tackles. ProFootballFocus had him down for a sack, two QB hits and two more hurries in his 23 pass rushing snaps, but even those impressive numbers don't due justice to how often his rushes affected the play in subtle ways. He has a long way to climb up this depth chart, but more performances like that will make him a very difficult cut. He will have to get healthy, however, as he left the game late with an undisclosed injury. It remains to be seen whether he'll travel with the team to partake in joint practices against his former team.
Johnson wasn't the only guy from this group to suffer an injury, as Trey Flowers left after an impressive but abbreviated stretch with an apparent concussion. The aggression Flowers plays with was readily apparent on the field, and his uniquely long-arms give him an obvious leverage advantage against most linemen, something he used to his advantage on his sack of Aaron Rodgers. There's a lot to like here.
Flowers' early exit meant more snaps for fellow draftee Geneo Grissom, who also impressed. Like his peers on the depth chart, Grissom boasts an intriguing combination of power, length and explosiveness, giving him the flexibility to play inside and outside. My biggest takeaway from his first live action was how well he used said length to control his blockers and maintain gap control. Check out this run stop at the 7:52 mark of the second quarter, where he drives the right tackle deep into the backfield before shedding him to catch the ball carrier for no gain.
He flashed that on the inside as well, forcing James Starks to break outside on this first down carry. Good technique from the rookie, who came into the NFL without a set position.
With Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher not playing (and Jamie Collins leaving after the first series), there were plenty of snaps to go around. The fact that the vast majority of those went to Jonathan Freeny and James Morris likely reflects their standing in the team's competition for depth roles behind the top three starters.
Both players had their moments, with Freeny's range in coverage showing up at several points. He also showed solid instincts, including a nice job at the 12:15 mark of the second quarter sniffing out a screen. While range is definitely his strength, he could stand to tackle better, as his missed tackle on Eddie Lacy turned a first quarter carry from a 3-4 yard gain into a 15 yard romp. Still, good range means making it to more plays, which was evident as Freeny turned in a team high four stops in the running game.
His teammate, Morris, doesn't have quite the range, but made up for that for the most part against Green Bay with solid instincts and physicality. Morris didn't have as many tackles or stops as Freeny, but he was consistently in position and brought good physicality against the run. Certainly not a bad showing from him.
Those two were clearly ahead of everyone else in the depth competition, as Cameron Gordon struggled mightily. His failure to set the edge was the reason for the breakdown that allowed Packers running back Alonzo Harris to run untouched for a 25 yard third quarter touchdown, and he also took an unnecessary penalty in the fourth quarter. Miscues like that won't improve his already long-odds at earning a roster spot.
The biggest takeaway for me was seeing veterans like Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher play deep into the game. It's clear that the depth chart still hasn't been decided on beyond Malcolm Butler, who got the star treatment by getting subbed out after 15 productive snaps.
McClain was a standout to me on film. While he did allow catches on three of his five targets, he had tight coverage on his assignments all night. His tackling also stood out, including a first quarter outside run that saw him knife through traffic to undercut James Starks for no gain.
Darryl Roberts also showed well in the surprise start. He allowed both of his targets to be completed, but for a low average of only 8 yards per catch. The athleticism that stood out during the pre-draft process showed on the field, as he was in tight coverage throughout his playing time and able to quickly make tackles to prevent any yardage after the catch. The key for him now will be getting healthy, as he appeared to suffer a wrist injury that ended his night prematurely.
It was an interesting up-and-down night for Logan Ryan, who did not get the start despite presumed starter Tarell Brown being out. Ryan allowed only three of his seven targets to be completed, and had a pass defensed on fourth down that ended a Green Bay drive. However, he also drew a defensive holding penalty and was absolutely roasted by backup receiver Jeff Janis for a 26 yard touchdown. Ryan has shown good ball skills throughout his career, but the Janis touchdown highlighted his relative lack of recovery speed for the position. That kind of inconsistency appears to be the reason he's fallen behind Butler, Brown and now possibly Devin McCourty on the cornerback depth chart.
Another position where presumed contributors like Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards and Tavon Wilson played deep in the game. That could be a reflection of the team's depth, as it's likely there will be a surprise cut from this group at some point this summer.
Wilson has had a strong camp by all accounts, so it was disappointing to see him struggle a bit out there Thursday. He missed two tackles and allowed six of his seven targets to be completed. Given that physicality is supposed to be the strength of his game, he'll need to show much better than that this week against the Saints in the tackling department. It was a much better showing from the rookie Jordan Richards, who was consistently in good position, made all his tackles, and showed up with a n ice play to knock Ty Montgomery out of bounds on a play near the sidelines, negating his acrobatic would-be first down conversion.