Burkhead's versatility highlighted the first team offense's time on the field. Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports
After a weekend spent working instead of watching football, I took to NFL's game pass today to give Saturday's preseason game a close watch. Here, in no particular order, are my observations
Tight end Dwayne Allen wasn't targeted in the passing game, but he did show up positively on film a number of times for his blocking. One play that stood out to me came with 3:45 remaining in the second quarter, as the former Colt motioned into the backfield before executing a nice "wham" block on linebacker Zach Cunningham, a highly touted second round pick. Allen's block helped to open up a huge hole for Dion Lewis, who scampered up the middle for an easy 14 yard gain. Plays like that were likely the main reason Allen was targeted as a trade acquisition, as Bill Belichick had praised Allen's blocking ability in past season's while preparing to face the Colts.
Sticking with the tight ends, it was a mixed bag for James O'Shaughnessy, another veteran trade acquisition making his Patriots debut. O'Shaughnessy was clearly behind the top duo of Allen and Gronkowski but ahead of rookie Jacob Hollister in the pecking order for snaps. Thought of as more of a "move" tight end, O'Shaughnessy was involved in the passing game, catching five of his team leading six targets for 41 yards. While not a dynamic weapon, he's clearly a natural athlete who looks more than comfortable running routes and adjusting to the ball in the air. However, he was inconsistent as a blocker (there were some good snaps and some in which he clearly struggled with power) and was fortunate that his fourth quarter fumble rolled harmlessly out of bounds. Perhaps some rustiness there in the ball security department, although Houston's Thomas DeCoud deserves credit for a textbook helmet-to-ball hit. I still view O'Shaughnessy as the clear favorite for third tight end duties, with his special teams contributions helping him considerably in the battle for that depth roster spot.
On the defensive side, it looked like the team was trying to give some of their bigger bodies up front a conditioning test after the regulars all missed last weeks preseason opener. The top interior trio of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine all made their preseason debuts, with Valentine in particular playing fairly deep into the game. Branch looked like the same guy who dominated for long stretches last season, regularly pressing his blockers into the backfield. Valentine on the other hand was frustratingly inconsistent, mixing in dominant flashes (driving his man into the backfield to force a short checkdown with 8:01 remaining in the first quarter) with lapses. The same drive of that pressure also featured a third and one conversion in which Valentine attempted to shoot a gap inside, allowing his blocker to seal him off from the hole the runner would hit to convert the first down. Surely a teaching moment for the talented young defender when looking back at the film.
With rookie Deatrich Wise joining the likes of Dont'a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Trey Flowers on the sidelines, the defensive edges were largely manned by Kony Ealy and rookie Harvey Langi. They occasionally mixed other linebackers (Kyle Van Noy, Trevor Bates) on passing downs, and also gave undrafted rookie Caleb Kidder some unexpected second quarter snaps, but Langi and Ealy played the bulk of the snaps on the edge. Rookie Adam Butler spent most of the game mixing in as an interior rusher on passing downs but also got fourth quarter reps on the edge, matching up with Texans fourth round rookie Julie'n Davenport.
Langi (48) came close but never quite got to Deshaun Watson
It was a mixed bag for Langi, but there were flashes that showed what the Patriots see in him. His athleticism in space is uncommon for an edge defender and could come in handy, particularly against mobile quarterbacks. This showed up on Deshaun Watson's first snap of the game, as the Texans faked a zone run left before rolling the speedy Watson out the opposite way, towards Langi. That kind of play design normally eats up edge defenders, but Langi managed to chip the tight end (Watson's hot read on the play) before racing the star rookie to the sidelines, holding him to a gain of one. With running threats such as Alex Smith, Cam Newton and Tyrod Taylor looming on the schedule, reps like that will certainly be kept in mind by the coaching staff.
Mixed bag for Ealy as well, but there were encouraging flashes to build on. Once thought to be on the chopping block after a disappointing start to camp, Ealy built some positive momentum in joint practices and continued to flash with the lights on as a pass rusher. He didn't get any sacks but got awfully close a number of times, using his strength to get inside of aforementioned rookie Davenport on one noteworthy rep. He also had an impressive run stop, stacking and shedding his blocker to prevent Alfred Blue from taking advantage of a solid interior surge from his line. There were negative moments as well, of course. An neutral zone infraction will never earn you points in Belichick's locker room. There was also a noteworthy rep in which his upfield rush left a wide open escape lane, which Watson used to scramble for a third down conversion. Snaps like that show that Ealy's adjustment to New England's multiple scheme is still ongoing
As for Adam Butler, the undrafted rookie got in the backfield several times but had noteworthy struggles finishing plays. There were two separate instances in which he burst into the backfield but was unable to take Texans running back D'Onta Foreman down, including the rookies' fourth quarter go ahead touchdown. Butler did draw two holding penalties, including a second quarter snap in which he absolutely pancaked guard Chad Slade, flushing Watson out of the pocket for a would-be Valentine sack (an Eric Rowe holding penalty negated the play, setting up a replay of third down). He also had an impressive spin move for a pressure while working as a defensive end late in the game.
Another rough showing from Elandon Roberts, who has not had the best summer. Roberts missed several open field tackles and had his coverage shortcomings highlighted by a big catch and run by Texans running back D'Onta Foreman. Roberts was late to adjust to Foreman's slant route, unable to make the tackle due to getting crushed by teammate Jonathan Freeny, and injured on the play. He has at least one splash play a game (in this case, shooting a gap and blowing up a pulling guard on a run stuff) but his inconsistency in the passing game is maddening. His struggles to stay healthy are also getting concerning: can a 230 pound player survive in the NFL playing a role that requires taking on offensive linemen and fullbacks with regularity? It's a question the Pats will be forced to answer when making tough cutdown decisions, with Roberts' relative lack of special teams contributions working against him.
Cyrus Jones was aggressive in the return game
It was nice to see Cyrus Jones make some positive momentum in the return game after last week's disastrous showing. Jones had several impressive returns, highlighted by a 32 yarder that set up a second quarter field goal. Most importantly, he looked comfortable fielding the ball in several difficult situations; he had a defender bearing down on him on the aforementioned big play and fielded another one over the shoulder while on the run. I also found it noteworthy to see the support he got on the sidelines following his big return: it's clear that guys in the locker room like the kid and are rooting for him to turn things around.
I'm not making a big deal over Malcolm Butler's rough night in coverage. Every cornerback in the league, even a stud like Butler, gives up a play or two sometimes. Butler's coverage was also pretty good on Bruce Ellington's long sideline catch, as he ran stride for stride with the speedy receiver but failed to locate the ball. Jaelen Strong's touchdown was a tough rep, but I wonder if the Pats would match Butler up on the 6'2" Strong in a regular season matchup. That could be a case of the Pats challenging Butler now, when the results don't matter, with a tougher matchup for him skillset-wise. They have a history of doing things like this in preseason; remember, we're only two years removed from Devin McCourty attempting to check then Saints receiver Brandin Cooks one on one on the outside in Week 2 of the exhibition slate.
I still think Jimmy Garoppolo will be fine if, god forbid, he winds up playing significant snaps this season. However, his interception was inexcusable for a quarterback with his experience in the league. Preseason or not, trying to make a play or not, that ball has to get out of bounds. You can't let the defender have a chance to make a play in that situation.
Nice bounce back effort by DJ Foster, who was a bit of a go-to guy for both Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. Foster is unlikely to ever become much of a tackle breaker between the tackles, but his passing game chops and electric ability in space remains evident. Not sure if he's making this team given the numbers crunch, but he'll be a tough cut if it comes to that. I wouldn't be surprised to see someone pick him up on their active roster if the Pats do expose him to waivers in hopes of keeping him around on the practice squad.
The numbers crunch that could keep Foster on the outside looking in was highlighted by a big night from Rex Burkhead. Burkhead did a nice job of fighting for extra yards despite tough sledding in the running game, but he really shined as a pass catcher. Simply put, he is a mismatch for linebackers, which showed on several occasions. Veteran Brian Cushing was helpless against him on one throw to the sidelines, and rookie Zach Cunningham got juked out of his shoes by a head fake on Burkhead's touchdown catch. He also showed up with an impressive blitz pickup on Brady's near interception. With Burkhead offering the most run/pass versatility of the crowded backfield, it wouldn't surprise me if he ends the season as the leader in running back snaps played.
Fleming's pass protection struggles have become a concern
With LaAdrian Waddle out with a concussion, Cameron Fleming had a golden opportunity to gain some separation in the competition for the swing tackle role. Unfortunately for Fleming, it was more of the same from the fourth year tackle, who has struggled through a tough summer. His worst rep actually came on one of the Pats highlights of the night, as Tom Brady hit Rex Burkhead for a touchdown despite Fleming getting bowled over by Ufomba Kamalu. Fleming had some good moments as a run blocker, but his pass protection will be a major concern if injuries to either Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon force him into the starting lineup.
He hasn't been talked about much this summer, but rookie tackle Connor McDermott has been better than I expected. McDermott had noteworthy struggles with power as a collegiate player, and there were a few instances on Saturday when stronger defenders drove him back. However, he largely managed to keep his quarterback's clean, using his pure size and quick feet to stay in front of his assignments. He's not ready to take on NFL starters yet and will likely be a practice squad stash if he sticks in New England, but I see some potential here.
On the other hand, guard Jamil Douglas seemed to struggle on Saturday. A 2015 fourth round pick of the Dolphins, Douglas spent the past season on the Patriots practice squad after flaming out in Miami. He's an excellent athlete for the position but, like McDermott, struggles with power at times. I noticed him either getting blown back off the line of scrimmage or knocked on his backside far too often during his time on the field. His athletic talent combined with his time in the Pats system gave him a punchers chance at the start of camp, but it's looking likely that Ted Karras is the only interior lineman to make the roster other than starters David Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason.