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Patriots News 8-13, Thoughts On Preseason Opener

Steve Balestrieri
Steve Balestrieri on Twitter
August 13, 2023 at 5:00 am ET

Patriots News 8-13, Thoughts On Preseason Opener(PHOTO: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)
Posted: Aug 13, 2023 05:00
🕑 Read Time: 8 minutes

Good morning, and here are our Sunday Patriots news 8-13 and notes for this week. The NFL is back, albeit in the preseason, but it has been great to see live football again.

The first preseason game is in the books, where the Patriots lost to the Houston Texans 20-9. However, preseason isn’t about final scores. The team wants to see what their younger players can do in a game setting, especially if they aren’t getting a ton of snaps in the training camp practices. 

That being said, this one looked a lot like last season. The defense played well, but the offense, behind a patchwork offensive line, was stuck in neutral. Pass protection and running lanes were far from acceptable levels. 

There were, however, some good things to see in the game, which wasn’t the most exciting of matchups for sure. Keion White appeared unblockable at times. Christian Gonzalez looked good in his first NFL game, while Malik Cunningham woke up the crowd with his speed and athleticism. 

Stay tuned for my 53-man roster 2.0 projection later this week. 

Quick Hitters For the Patriots and NFL News: 

Bailey Zappe: The “Zappe Fever,” ongoing since last season, has cooled somewhat after Thursday’s game. Whether it was due to the QB pressure or the plan all along, Zappe was throwing a lot of check-downs and screens. 

There were receivers open downfield at times, but he didn’t have time to deliver the ball. After the game, social media had a lot of fans calling for Cunningham to replace Zappe as the team’s backup. People can be fickle. 

Zappe played until the third quarter, which should finally put to bed the myth of a QB competition between him and Mac Jones. Jones is clearly the better QB, and the team knows this.

CJ Marable: The Patriots have reportedly signed the running back from Coastal Carolina and the USFL’s Baltimore Stallions. Marable, in 23 games with the Stallions, had 220 carries for 925 yards and eight TDs. He also added 48 receptions for 396 yards and two TDs. 

With his signing, it puts the Patriots at 91 players, so the team will have to cut a player that is currently on the roster. Whether this is a signing for just a camp body for the remainder of the preseason or a true belief that he can help the team remains to be seen. That will ultimately rest on Marable. But I believe the former, and don’t close the book on Ezekial Elliot just yet. 

Chase Winovich: The former Patriot edge player was back in Gillette for the Texans on Thursday night and played well, notching two QB hits and a sack. But it was intriguing to see him playing late into the first preseason game. Afterwards, he was saying all the right things and professed his pleasant memories of being here. 

Patriots 4th & 2 Podcast: If you haven’t listened to our PatsFans.com podcast, Patriots 4th & 2”, in a bit, please check it out. Patriots 4th & 2 has expanded. 

Derek Havens and I spoke about the practice sessions now that the pads had come on and gave our take on how things are progressing. Russ Goldman has been recording some of his own takes in short 15-20 podcasts solo on camp thus far.    

Russ Francis/Chuck Fairbanks: The former Patriot tight end and head coach both should be in the Patriots team Hall of Fame, and the fact that especially Francis isn’t is an absolute travesty. Francis and the Raiders’ Dave Casper changed the game with how teams used the tight end position…this will be on our Sunday posts until it happens. 

Thoughts On Preseason Game #1 —

The Patriots lost the opener to the Texans 20-9, which had a 2022 feel. The defense was good, and the offense was stuck in neutral, so there is no sense in putting it off; the biggest takeaway was the play of the offensive line.

Offensive Line Play Was Not Acceptable: This is not a revelation; it has been an ongoing concern. Training camp has shown that the offensive line is still a major concern. Trent Brown (conditioning), Cole Strange (injury), and Michael Onwenu (PUP) have not been in uniform. David Andrews and Riley Reiff were off for the night. Calvin Anderson is out on NFI.

We have not seen the starting unit on the field together, and that is a major concern at this point, less than a month away from the season opener. So, the patchwork OL was overmatched against the Texans. Only one possible starter, Connor McDermott, started. He is locked into a camp battle with Reiff for the right tackle position. And he was playing left tackle. 

But these players are considered the top backups at their positions. And collectively and individually, the results weren’t there. The joint practices with the Packers this week will tell us a lot about where the group is at. And it needs to get fixed ASAP.

And the play-calling of Bill O’Brien at this early juncture of the preseason was very vanilla. 

The team did, however, mix in some RPOs for Malik Cunningham, which was used very well, but let’s temper the enthusiasm a bit here. But…he did inject some electricity into the Patriot offense, which was sorely missing.

Keion White Is A Stud In Game 1: The Patriots’ rookie DE/LB was outstanding in this game. In his first game action, he was, at times, unblockable. He terrorized Houston QBs while he was on the field (27 defensive snaps, 2 STs). 

Using his speed to power, White was dominant at times, using his 6’5, 286 frame to toss OL aside and get after the QB. He said his goal on Thursday was to get out and play physically, which was readily apparent. 

“Just play physical,” White said. “I can fix all the rest of the stuff, technique, and everything obviously needs to be corrected. Just playing a physical and dominant style of the game was my main focus today.”

He noticed some things where his game could improve, especially when standing up in a two-point stance, where he appeared a bit slow getting off the snap. 

“There were a lot of times where I was just trying to dissect a little too much,” White said. “I just needed to play fast, put my hand down and go.” Also, on the edge, Anfernee Jennings had a very good night, getting after the QB and setting the edge in the running game. With many starters sitting out, Mack Wilson wore the green dot, a communication device that Steve Belichick calls in the plays to the defense. Daniel Ekuale chipped in a sack as well.

It was also intriguing to see Marte Mapu, seemingly joined at the hip with Steve Belichick, charting the plays and calls as he called them in. He’s been in the red non-contact jersey after off-season pec surgery but has still practiced and gotten looks with the top defensive unit.

Tyquan Thornton Makes His Presence Felt: The 2nd-year WR has had a quiet camp this far, but he arguably made the play of the game. On the Patriots’ second drive of the game, facing a 3rd-and-8, Bailey Zappe threw an absolute dime downfield to Thornton. 

Thornton broke free at the line of scrimmage and gained separation down the left sideline. He leaped up and highpointed the ball perfectly, coming down with a 27-yard completion. It was a very encouraging sign for Thornton and the team. 

The Patriots need his speed, given the other WRs on the roster. He has to get open on the short and intermediate pass plays to open up things for the other receivers and gain some YAC (yards after the catch).  Also intriguing was that Demario Douglas was kept under wraps for this game. He only played two offensive snaps and one punt return, which was a fair catch. Bill Belichick said in his post-game presser that he wanted to get a look at players who hadn’t got a lot of looks in practice. 

Christian Gonzalez, Jalen Mills Look Good in the Secondary: Rookie CB Christian Gonzalez looked right at home in the left CB position for the Patriots. He had very good, almost blanket coverage on all of his snaps, from what I saw on the broadcast. Granted, it wasn’t against the top Texan WRs, but it was encouraging to say the least. 

While he got beat on a 12-yard crosser, he knocked the ball out for a forced fumble. “It was just a route, covered it, and went in and was trying to attack the ball,” Gonzalez said. “That’s something we preach on and things we want to do, and kind of went along with it.”

He chalked up the entire game (25 snaps) as a learning experience. “Had a lot of fun to go out there with my teammates and just try to get better each day,” he added. “And there is so much more that I can learn. Ready to get in tomorrow, watch the film, and get back to work.”

Jalen Mills had a fine first outing as the deep safety in the Patriots’ secondary as the team looks for a Devin McCourty replacement. It may turn out to be a free safety by committee with Mills, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jabrill Peppers in the mix. But with the latter three getting the night off, Mills, Joshua Bledsoe, and Myles Bryant got most of the work. 

Mills made a great play on the Texans’ first drive where he read rookie QB C.J. Stroud’s eyes and jumped the route, intercepting the ball and setting up the Patriots for a field goal. 

“I was actually in man-to-man with the tight end,” Mills said… “Once the tight end kind of chipped and released through, I knew that I could take him from depth, but I just kept my eyes on the quarterback. He just so happened to look to his right and my left, and I was able to get underneath the route and intercept the ball.”

After the game, Mills sought out Stroud and told him it was just a learning experience and voiced his opinion that the rookie QB was destined for good things in the NFL.

“You’ve got all the tools,” Mills told Stroud via FOX Sports Henry McKenna. “Believe in yourself. Keep working hard. You’ve got it.”

“He’s going to be a really, really good player,” Mills added to McKenna.

______________

“This whole offseason, starting from April until the start of camp, even up to now, to this game, we’ve been talking about building a foundation. I think me as a veteran guy – granted it is a preseason game, but to a lot of the veteran guys, the lights are bright still, they don’t know that it’s not a full stadium – but you can be a little anxious. I think just me with my presence, being here multiple times and then going out and showing them that we practice hard enough, and those same plays that we make at practice you can make in the game. Just go out there and trust yourself. I think that was the message that I was trying to send, is just go out there, be yourself and make plays.”

“Honestly, it’s wherever Coach sees fit. I can play in the slot. I can play strong safety; I can play free safety. I can blitz off the edge. I can do a lot of different things, so I think it’s just about trusting Coach to put me in the right position to help this defense, make plays and help the team win games.”

Jalen Mills on his switch from CB to safety in 2023. 

“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 he needed that. But I think Gonzo, he had a pretty good outing. I really didn’t get to see too much of him because they were running the ball a lot, of course. But, with Gonzo, he’s the same thing: put him in that bucket with those young guys. This whole rookie class coming in, working hard each and every day, asking questions and striving to get better.”

Jalen Mills, now taking on more of a leadership role after McCourty’s retirement, on how Christian Gonzalez fared in his debut. 

“Yeah, Jalen is an experienced guy, played safety. Played all the positions really in the secondary. Played the nickel, played the corner. Played safety at Philly. He played safety here for the first year for the better part of – I think, all the spring, then a little bit in training camp. He’s a smart, versatile guy. Played all those positions in the NFL. Gives us some good versatility and experience at different spots.”

Bill Belichick on Jalen Mills’ versatility which could be needed in 2023.

_______________

“Talent sets the floor; Character sets the ceiling.” Bill Belichick

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on Stitcher and Streamyard as Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, and myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news and game analysis

 

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About Steve Balestrieri

A former US Army Special Forces NCO and Officer, Steve has been following the Patriots since their days at Fenway Park. Steve has worked in the film industry and wrote as an Military Editor at SpecialOperations.com, 1945.com as a reporter for the Millbury Daily Voice, Millbury-Sutton Chronicle, and the Grafton News. He's also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)


Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 53 Man Roster Projection Bailey Zappe Bill Belichick Christian Gonzales Demario Douglas Keion White Mac Jones

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