Some thoughts following the Patriots’ preseason loss against Houston:
1) The one criticism people seemed to have about first-round selection Christian Gonzalez was what many believed was a lack of physicality by the standout at Oregon and such a moment occurred on Thursday night.
The play happened early on after Texans wide receiver Niko Collins caught a pass from quarterback C.J. Stroud, with Gonzalez there to meet him as Collins ran up the left sideline. But rather than go up and put a hit on him, Gonzalez sat back and waited before he lowered his shoulder and Collins, who is 6’4″, 214lbs, leaned in and barreled the rookie defensive back backwards.
Gonzalez, who isn’t exactly a small player himself at 6’2″, 205lbs, likely learned pretty quickly that he’ll have to be a little more aggressive at this level. Teammate Jalen Mills said after the game that he talked to the rookie about that play, which he said “woke him up a little bit.”
“We talked about that first tackle that he had on the sideline. He told me it woke him up a little bit, but he said that he needed that,” said Mills. “But I think Gonzo, he had a pretty good outing.”
Despite that, Gonzalez ended up with a pretty good showing. He looked good in coverage and did have a forced fumble, which saw him knock the ball out of the hands of Stevens Sims but unfortunately, the ball went out of bounds. Overall, he finished the night with three tackles in his preseason debut.
2) Speaking of Mills, he had a solid outing himself Thursday night. He picked off a pass by Stroud on that same possession, stepping in front of a throw on a 3rd-and-21 for the interception, On the play, Mills kept his eye on Stroud and jumped the route, which gave the Patriots the football at the Houston 24-yard line after Mills sprinted up and snatched it out of the air at their 37-yard line, and took it back 13-yards.
“I was actually in man-to-man with the tight end, he was in the backfield, though,” explained Mills on the play. “It was a longer down and distance. So I kind of showed a two-high look, I think it was Myles Bryant who was next to me. Once the tight end kind of chipped and released through I knew that I could take him from depth, but I just kept eyes on the quarterback. He just happened to look to his right – my left – and I was able to get underneath the route and intercept the ball.”
Mills looked comfortable in his new role Thursday night and brought plenty of energy, getting guys fired up including bringing them all together after the turnover. He seems to be settling in well and that’s certainly a good sign ahead of this season.
3) Rookie defensive end Keion White definitely stood out and was absolutely terrific in this one, with White showing off tremendous speed as he wreaked havoc in his first NFL preseason game.
He had several plays where he easily shook off whichever blocker attempted to stop him, including getting pressure and factoring in a sack by Shaun Wade on Houston’s second possession. He followed that with another great play where he brought down Stroud as he tried to scramble away on a 3rd-and-4 and held him to just a 2-yard gain, which forced a punt.
White overall finished with three tackles and based on what little we saw of him, he was a huge bright spot for a team that definitely appears to have some pretty good playmakers on that side of the football.
Ekuale played well Thursday night. (PHOTO: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)
4) Another guy who was solid was Daniel Ekuale, with Ekuale wreaking a little havoc of his own. He made a huge play on the opening drive for the Texans after dropping Stroud on a sack for a 15-yard loss after they had just moved the chains. That play put Houston in a long-yardage situation and that ultimately factored into Mills’ interception.
He got pressure on several plays, albeit he was called for a roughing the passer penalty on the ensuing drive that was a little questionable. On the play, Ekuale leaped over Stroud after Anfernee Jennings had already gotten there and knocked Stroud down, with Ekuale doing his best to avoid landing on the quarterback as he was going down. Unfortunately, he made contact with him with his arm and the officials threw the flag.
Still, despite that, it was a nice outing for the 29-year old, who definitely played well.
5) The Patriots offensive line had a rough night, especially the group that kicked things off. With Cole Strange, Trent Brown, and Mike Onwenu each sidelined, rookie Atonio Mafi got the starting nod at left guard next to Conor McDermott at left tackle, while James Ferentz started at center, with Kody Russey starting at right guard and rookie Sidy Sow getting the start at right tackle.
Mafi was a player I was curious about, as his film after he was drafted was impressive and we haven’t heard much about him during camp.
He was a little inconsistent, showing some good moments and some bad moments. He missed his block on the opening carry by Pierre Strong Jr, which ended up getting stopped for no gain by the player he had been blocking. But he came back on the next play and made a nice chip inside before moving over to help McDermott out.
That gave Bailey Zappe time to complete the pass to Strong, who picked up six yards and got the football down to the Houston 18-yard line. However, on the next play, he was driven back and had his man get underneath him, which played a part in Zappe getting sacked.
On the next drive, it was a similar situation. He made a decent block on the first down play on an inside screen pass to J.J. Taylor, and then got downfield with a good block on the next play, which was a run by Kevin Harris.
Unfortunately, Harris was brought down after Sow let his guy get inside and he made the tackle to drop him for a one-yard loss. Mafi then did a good job pass-blocking on the 3rd-and-8 play, which led to the leaping 27-yard grab by Tyquan Thornton, which extended the drive.
That seemed to be sort of how his night went. Some good moments, some not so good moments and it was more or less a theme for a group that had clearly not seen a lot of time together and the result wasn’t all that surprising.
But Mafi’s athleticism was apparent and on the blocks he held, he looked similar to the impressive guy we saw coming out of UCLA. While Strange will hopefully be back at some point, Mafi definitely appears to potentially provide some solid depth after what he showed us Thursday night.
6) Sow had a similar showing. He was pretty good overall, and he actually dealt with two players coming in from the right side when Zappe was sacked on that first drive, doing a decent job of trying to fight them off before Zappe was sacked. Although, it’s tough to say who he had on that play as he initially took the inside player (who Russey was blocking) before moving to the end who was coming in off the edge.
On the next drive, he did a good job pass blocking on the inside screen to Taylor but lost his block on the second down play mentioned above when Harris was dropped for a 1-yard loss. However, he did a terrific job pass-blocking on the throw to Thornton.
Like Mafi, that was sort of the theme as well with Sow. Some good, some not so good. But for a player who is still learning the position at the NFL level, there were enough positives where it certainly provides some hope as we get deeper into training camp.
7) In the punting game, rookie Bryce Baringer was also a little inconsistent. He boomed his first kick and ended up seeing it fair caught at the 10-yard line, while mis-hitting the next one, but managed to get a good bounce where it still eneded up as a 57-yard punt after it was downed at the 18.
He also had a touchback, along with a 62-yard punt on a play where they were pinned in at their own 13 and he needed to flip the field.
One factor to take into consideration is the fact it rained for most of this one, which certainly made life a little challenging there but overall, he looked fairly solid.
That part of the Patriots game has always flown a little under the radar but with a young quarterback and some growing pains still likely ahead, having someone like him is certainly important.
Zappe had a tough night Thursday night. (PHOTO: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)
8) Bailey Zappe had a tough night, especially with how inconsistent they played up front. Zappe found himself under duress for most of the contest and they were never really able to get into much of a rhythm.
Zappe missed just two targets Thursday night after finishing 12-of-14 for 79-yards, both of which were balls he intentionally threw away. The 27-yard throw he made to Thornton was a pretty good throw, albeit it hung up there a little longer than he probably wanted but Thornton was able to go up and make a nice play on the football.
Aside from that, there weren’t a lot of big throws made and many of them were short passes as he tried to get the football to guys in space and allow them to make plays. However, one thing was notable was that Zappe went to more of a side-arm delivery on a few of them, which he said stemmed from some of the work he did with a throwing coach during the offseason.
“You’ve got to keep up with the new trends around the league, I guess,” joked Zappe. “It’s kind of something this offseason I worked on with QB Country, the people I trained with with. Just being able to throw around guys instead of trying to throw it over, try to prevent knockdowns or incomplete balls and just being able to move in the pocket and really just throw around guys. I mean, that’s really as simple as it can be. Just trying to get it as easy as I can to the receivers and let them do what they’re best at.”
Cunningham was the lone bright spot on offense Thursday night. (PHOTO: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)
9) Malik Cunningham got his first snaps at quarterback and he energized the fans at Gillette Stadium late in this one, which was good to see given that there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer for on that side of the football until he came into the game early in the fourth quarter in relief of Trace McSorely.
Cunningham engineered the only touchdown drive of the night, and he did somewhat single-handedly. He started things off with a 7-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, followed by a nice throw to Scotty Washington for 11-yards that got them into Texans territory.
From there, he rushed for seven yards, and then ran twice, with the first being called back for offensive holding, while his next one saw him take off for 6-yards, only to have defensive back Jacobi Francis grab his facemask and completely spin Cunningham’s helmet around, which fired up Cunningham as well as everyone else in the building after the replay on the brand new massive scoreboard showed how egregious that play was.
Three plays later, Cunningham made the throw of the night that didn’t even end up as a completion. He rolled out to his right on a 3rd-and-2 and made a terrific pass on the run to Tre Nixon in the back right corner of the end zone, but Nixon got his hands crossed up and couldn’t quite come down with it.
That was a disappointing play and it marks the second preseason in a row where Nixon had a shot to make a big play and dropped it, which has been a trend of his and has kept him from potentially earning a spot. The former UCF receiver, who was clutch in college, has fought hard for what he’s achieved so far, but not being able to come up with a key play in a big moment at the NFL level has hurt him.
Fortunately, Pierre Strong picked up 8-yards on the ensuing 4th down play and Cunningham took it in from 9-yards out three plays later for the touchdown, slipping past defenders and into the end zone.
That capped off a 14 play, 75 yard drive, which at least sent everyone home with something positive to talk about.
He finished the night 3-of-4 for 19-yards, and Belichick praised Cunningham for working hard at receiver this preseason and taking advantage of the snaps he’s had under center.
“That’s this opportunity and he’s done a good job with it,” said Belichick of Cunningham after the game. “He’s embraced it, he’s worked hard, he’s improved a lot as a receiver, the snaps he’s had at quarterback in practice and tonight, he’s done a pretty good job with it.”
While it was a tough night at times, it’s the first for this group and there was still enough positive to build from that they can take into next week. Zappe sort of said it best after the game when he spoke to reporters.
“It’s not always as bad as you think and it’s not always as good as you think when you go back and watch the film,” said Zappe. “So that’s the good part about it. We get to go back tomorrow and get back to work.”
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary