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Competition analysis/reaction: Jags-Pats

Posted Aug 11, 2011

A look at how the most competitive roster battles played out in New England's first preseason game.

You wouldn't realize it just by looking at the score - 47-12, the most points ever scored by a Patriots team in the preseason - but this was a typical exhibition opener, replete with fumbles, sloppy penalties, muffed extra point snaps, and lots of players on the field who don't normally get to experience game day conditions.

This year, it's even more competitive with NFL rosters having expanded to 90 players, up from the customary 80, so, opportunities to shine were even fewer for many young and inexperienced players.

More than a third of the roster - 33 players in all - either did not suit up at all or did not appear in the game, including most of the starters on offense and defense.

The following is an overview of the key areas of competition in all three phases of Thursday's Jaguars-Patriots contest:

OFFENSE

Among those players serving as spectators throughout the evening was quarterback Tom Brady. With his taking the night off, backup Brian Hoyer got the start at quarterback for the Patriots and played the entire first half. Rookie Ryan Mallett took over in the second half. Both signal callers enjoyed productive nights, each tossing a touchdown pass and leading the New England offense on several scoring drives.

Protecting them at left tackle was rookie first-round draft choice Nate Solder, who played nearly the entire game.

"It was fun. I'm enjoying myself," Solder said at his locker afterward. "It's kind of a process. This is just one step in a long journey."

Solder's line mates were left guard Thomas Austin, center Rich Ohrnberger, right guard Mark LeVoir, and right tackle Steve Maneri. That combination of younger, reserve players effectively played the entire evening. The group not only paved the way for four rushing touchdowns - two apiece by rookies Stevan Ridley and Richard Medlin - but also kept Hoyer and Mallett safe. Neither QB was sacked on the evening.

In fact, the signal-calling duo had nearly identical numbers: Hoyer went 15-for-21 with 171 yards (a long of 43 and a touchdown), while Mallett was 12-of-19 for 164 yards (long of 50 and a score).

Ridley also led a mostly backup group of pass catchers with seven on the night, though second-year man Taylor Price easily had the most yards with 105, including an acrobatic touchdown catch in the back of the end zone.

DEFENSE

Having lined up in traditional 4-3 sets throughout training camp, the Patriots backup defense came out for the first couple of plays of the game in their more usual 3-4 scheme. However, after that, they switched seamlessly to the 4-3 even without team substituting. The personnel grouping that started the game stayed virtually the same, save on obvious passing downs, when starting right cornerback Leigh Bodden came in as a slot corner.

No Jerod Mayo - he was among the resting starters - meant second-year inside linebacker Dane Fletcher wore the green dot on his helmet (indicating sideline communication equipment) and called the defensive signals on the field.

As he has done throughout camp these first two weeks, Fletcher looked impressive, often shooting gaps into the backfield and making five total tackles, two of which were for losses. He admitted afterward, though, that being the leader of the defensive 11 was challenging.

"It took a few plays. First drive was a little shaky, just getting used to kind of having the control out there for the first game. It was a little tough at first, but once I got the hang of it, I felt like our whole defense played pretty well."

As with quarterbacks, the d-line had virtually the same base unit of Darryl Richard, Kyle Love, Jermaine Cunningham, and Eric Moore for the first half, with Mark Anderson, Landon Cohen, Aaron Lavarias, and Kade Weston getting most of the second-half reps.

SPECIAL TEAMS

An offseason change in the NFL rule book helped backup kicker Chris Koepplin boot the opening kickoff out of the back of the end zone. This marked the first time NFL kickoffs have been spotted from the 35-yard line since 1994. They had been at the 30 from '94 through last season.

Koepplin handled all the Patriots kickoffs against Jacksonville, but incumbent Stephen Gostkowksi was called on to kick every extra point and field goal. Gostkowski would have been perfect, but on one point-after attempt, holder Zoltan Mesko couldn't snare an errant snap from Matt Katula and the ball squirted nearly to midfield before Mesko kicked it out of bounds.

Coming off season-ending surgery last November, Gostkowski looked in mid-season form, drilling field  goals from 46 and 43 yards.

Price was uninspiring as a punt returner (two for 14 yards and one fair catch), while rookie Jeremy Ross and incumbent Julian Edelman shared kickoff return responsibilities. Together, they averaged exactly 20 yards per return.