The Patriots and Titans wrapped up their preseasons in a contest that featured mostly backups and bubble roster candidates for the vast majority. The Patriots came out on the short end of the scoreboard, 23-7, finishing off their summer at 1-2, and will now shift their preparations toward the regular season, which opens in two weeks.
However, it was still an important night for a number of Patriots players who hope to stick around on either the 53-man roster or the 16-man practice squad when cutdown day arrives this Tuesday. Calvin Munson, Ronnie Perkins and Sam Roberts are just a few players who stood out and made their case for a job.
Here are the key takeaways from the preseason finale.
1. Run Defense Shows Up Early
A week after getting pushed around by the Packers, the Patriots run defense showed up to play in the final preseason game, led by strong early performances by Anfernee Jennings, Calvin Munson and Daniel Ekuale among others. Through the first two drives, the Patriots held the Titans to -1 rushing yards on eight attempts, controlling the line of scrimmage and playing with the kind of intensity that must've been motivated by a week's worth of getting an earful from the defensive coaches about how they played in Green Bay when they allowed 119 rushing yards.
It was mostly backups that brought the thunder against the run, but players like Christian Barmore and Carl Davis who will be part of the defense did see some early action. Sam Roberts was disruptive, finishing with a sack, two tackles-for-loss and three QB hits.
Munson particularly flashed in this game, registering multiple tackles, including one for a loss, before grabbing an interception at the end of the first quarter. A core special teamer, Munson showed some unexpected playmaking ability on defense that could help earn him a roster spot.
The defense struggled to maintain the level at which they started, allowing three 10-play drives, two of which resulted in touchdowns. That allowed the Titans to pull away for the win, with the majority of the damage they inflicted coming through the air.
The New England Patriots take on the Tennessee Titans in a preseason game at Nissan Stadium on Friday August 25, 2023.
2. Pass Pro Problems Continue
While the run defense looked much different than last week, the pass protection showed similar issues to those they had in Green Bay, including a strip sack that the Titans recovered on the Patriots second possession. Andrew Stueber was beaten off the edge, with Bailey Zappe initially avoiding the rush, but then running back into the Titans defender who then was able to punch the ball out. Tennesee took over at the five-yard line in a turnover that mirrored a similar play last week.
The Patriots defense would get a stop inside the red zone, holding Tennessee to a 6-0 lead in the first half.
Pass protection problems would pop up again on the Patriots' ensuing possession, with Zappe being sacked again, this time on third down, forcing the Pats to punt.
The offensive line issues might've been further complicated when Riley Reiff was forced to leave the game in the second quarter, heading to the locker room. The attrition up front has been adding up and this could be another blow, at the very least to their depth. There's little question the offensive line is one of the biggest question marks as we rapidly approach the regular season.
3. Mapu Debut
Rookie third-round pick Marte Mapu debuted in this game, finishing with four total tackles. Mapu had been recovering from off-season pec surgery and spent the start of camp in a red jersey before moving to the blue defense practice jersey in Green Bay. He was held out of last week's game but finally got his chance against the Titans, lining up at safety most of the time.
As is to be expected, there were some ups and downs in his first NFL game action, with Mapu missing an early tackle but flashing good coverage on the third down in the red zone after the forced fumble had Tennesee knocking on the door of a touchdown.
It's hard to see how Mapu will rise above the top four veteran safeties and get significant playing time. Perhaps he has some potential as a sub-linebacker, but at this point, it appears the rookie will have to bide his time until an opportunity arrives. Coming out of Sacramento State at the FCS level, that's not totally unexpected, but Mapu's size and instincts should earn him a role sooner rather than later. It was a good last opportunity to get him some long-awaited experience.
4. Not Much Brewing for Backup Offense
Bailey Zappe and the Patriots backup offense failed to get much production going in this game, aside from a 23-yard catch-and-run by Thyrick Pitts. Zappe gave way to Trace McSorley in the second quarter, only to return for additional snaps in the third quarter.
Even with Malik Cunningham inserted for some more quarterback snaps, the Patriots offense was stagnant most of the night but without many starters participating, it's hard to read too much into it. The team settled into Cunningham, Pitts and Raleigh Webb at receiver and they produced just three catches between them. Zappe finished 8-of-15 for 57 yards and four sacks while playing well into the fourth quarter. The offense produced just eight first downs total in the game.
The unfortunate result was that it was hard for any offensive players to really make a splash. J.J. Taylor was elusive as always, Kevin Harris had a tough touchdown run and Pierre Strong ripped off a couple of runs as well, but those were among a small total of promising plays on that side of the ball.
5. We're on to the Regular Season
With the conclusion of the Patriots third preseason game, the team will now turn their sights on the Week 1 opener against the Philadelphia Eagles in just over two weeks. The team can use the extra time, especially to get healthy along the offensive line. It appeared last week that Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu, the projected starting guards, were getting close to a return. Getting them back in the lineup would be a huge bonus to help solidify things, leaving right tackle as the only big question mark.
But that's a big question mark indeed, with Reiff leaving this game with an injury, Conor McDermott missing since Green Bay and Sidy Sow still getting used to the position. Luckily, two weeks can be a long time for recovery, however, even with a renewed lineup, questions of readiness and conditioning will come to the forefront against the defending NFC champs.
Otherwise, it was a productive summer for the Patriots. The defense looks primed once again with some fresh faces mixing in, while the offense seemed refreshed under Bill O'Brien. Now, we'll see how it all comes together when the games count.