FOXBOROUGH – As always, when Bill Belichick is involved, don’t try to expect anything when it comes to your own analysis and season prognostications.
The anticipation over the preseason opener for 2023 was more exciting than many folks may have initially predicted. On Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots played their first preseason game of the year, a rare in-conference preseason matchup with the Houston Texans. Despite the Patriots having some deficient areas and the team needing to show its fan base something that smacks of “return to respectability”, many fans thought they would get a nice opening showcase of what the 2023 Patriots will be all about.
Maybe that’s exactly what they got.
In a game which was rife with bad offensive line play, a near impotent rushing attack (which was a by-product of the former), vanilla play calling (which is okay for the preseason opener, but there are limits), the Patriots showed their fans absolutely nothing on offense until the fourth quarter. Many of the starters did not play, which was expected and which makes what happened in the game somewhat salable, but you the Patriot fan might want to stop going ga-ga over the new wide receivers and that sleek new undrafted rookie quarterback and start wondering if the offensive line will be as abysmal as they were on Thursday night.
The starting tackles, Trent Brown and Reilly Reiff, are both battling age and assorted injuries. Another offensive lineman, Michael Onwenu, is still on the PUP list. What’s left is nothing to squawk about outside of David Andrews. The tackles for most of the game tonight were Andrew Stueber and fourth round pick Sidy Sow. Both guys have great upside but need a lot of coaching. James Ferentz did a lot of work at one of the guard positions as Cole Strange is also out with injuries.
The end result was not pretty. Somehow, Bailey Zappe (who started the game and played into the beginning of the third quarter) finished 12 of 14 passing for 79 yards, no touchdowns or picks, and a 90.2 passer rating. Zappe was hounded all night long, running for his life, making good decisions on throwaways, and got sacked twice. He could never get into a rhythm, never had any kind of sustained attack, and was harassed all night mostly by the second defensive unit of Houston.
The running backs showed us basically nothing. Rhamondre Stevenson was obviously rested, but Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris and J.J. Taylor were not. Those three guys had a combined 35 yards gained on 18 carries for an average of just over two yards a carry. They killed the Patriots on first down, and on third and short. Someone please explain why Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott still remain unsigned (sooner or later, the stupid money excuse will go away).
In the first quarter, Jalen Mills, now playing safety because of the retirement of Devin McCourty, made a nice read and picked off rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. That put the Patriots at the Houston 24-yard-line. But the Patriots went three and out, as Strong was stuffed for no gain on first down and Zappe was sacked for a seven-yard loss on third down. Despite the presence of rookie kicker Chad Ryland, veteran Nick Folk came on and drilled a 44-yard field goal which turned out to be the only Patriot score of the night until just inside two minutes left in the game.
Two rookies did bathe themselves in glory, and they weren’t named Pop or Boutte.
In the first half when the top defensive players were in there, Keion White, the second round pick out of Georgia Tech, served notice that he will be a force this year. He made big man plays for much of the first half, and helped set up a fumble recovery by drilling Dare Ogunbowale after a muffed handoff from last year’s starting quarterback Davis Mills. Calvin Munson recovered the fumble but the Patriots punted after a three and out. White looks like the real deal, and has drawn lots of praise from his coaches and teammates. His only obstacle might be the depth chart, as he should have lots of company with edge rushers.
With the Patriots hopelessly behind 20-3 in the fourth quarter, Belichick sent in Malik Cunningham with 9:43 left in the contest. Cunningham is an undrafted rookie out of Louisville. Before you start saying things like “Ooooh, he’s the next Lamar Jackson!”, don’t forget that they were saying the same things about Michael Bishop some 23 years ago.
That said, despite a Texan defense filled with players who will likely be cut, Cunningham showed why he draws rave reviews in practice. On five occasions he ran quarterback draws, and on one of those plays he nearly had his head taken off on a facemask penalty. Cunningham called his own number again down at the goal line and ran it in himself from 9 yards out to complete the 20-9 final score.
Cunningham turned out to be the team leader in rushing with 34 yards gained and a 6.8 average. He completed 3 of 4 passes for 19 yards and managed an 84.4 passer rating.
Next week, the Patriots will travel to Green Bay. They will have joint practices with the Packers, then play at Lambeau Field next Saturday night, August 19th. It being the second preseason game, perhaps the Patriots will get to see new Packer starting quarterback Jordan Love. Aaron Rodgers will pop up twice in the Patriot schedule this year, as he is now the new starting quarterback for the Jets.
Losing August games are usually okay. Belichick and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm know they have a lot of work to do. Brown and Reiff need to heal up and do what they were brought in for. Mac Jones will never be able to show anyone he can thrive under Bill O’Brien if he has no time to run the offense. Or if he cannot stay healthy because his blind side is not sufficiently protected.
So hit those blocking sleds, and play like your hair is on fire. This cannot be what our o-line is going to look like in 2023.
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Posted Under: Patriots News