The Patriots got their 2023 preseason underway on Thursday night against the Houston Texans, dropping a 20-9 decision with mostly backups playing throughout the game. The defense picked up where they left off last season, with Jalen Mills intercepting rookie C.J. Stroud on the first drive of the game, one of their two takeaways of the first half.
Bailey Zappe played the entire first half and one possession into the second half, as the second-year signal caller saw extensive action. Unfortunately, the offense wasn't able to produce much yardage or points, often hampered by an offensive line that struggled to protect or open holes.
But it's the preseason and wins and losses and production aren't yet what matters. What does matter is the experience that a number of young players got, as rookies Christian Gonzalez and Keion White had strong debuts that should be among some of the reasons for optimism.
Here are the other key takeaways from the first of three preseason contests this summer.
Mills Feeling Picky, Rookies Getting Ball
If there's one thing the Patriots defense can almost always be counted on for, it's taking the ball away and Jalen Mills got the team off to a good start with an interception on Houston's first possession of the game. Playing from a safety position, where he's spent training camp thus far since moving over from cornerback, Mills dropped down as a robber and picked off a bad throw by rookie second-overall pick C.J. Stroud.
Unfortunately, in the kind of non-complementary play that often littered 2022, the offense was unable to get a touchdown off of the turnover, instead losing a yard in three plays and then settling for a 44-yard field goal from Nick Folk.
But for the defense, this highlighted an overall strong start, including Daniel Ekuale's sack and some quality pressures from Anfernee Jennings and rookie Keion White. Jennings also drew a hold later in the second quarter, while White was able to disrupt a botched handoff, helping free the ball for recovery by Calvin Munson.
Christian Gonzalez and Jack Jones started at cornerback, as the rookie first-rounder got his feet wet with extended action. He forced a fumble that unfortunately rolled out of bounds, but already flashed some playmaking ability in his first NFL action. Gonzalez also chipped in on the kickoff team and saw his night end midway through the second quarter.
While Mills made the first flashy play, it was the top two selections from April's draft that kept the ball disruption going. It was a strong first step for Gonzalez and White in the NFL.
Thornton Goes Up and Gets It
Tyquan Thornton was one of the early offensive highlights, coming down with a 27-yard catch from Bailey Zappe as he ran down the sideline, went up and made a play on the ball before the safety arrived. Thornton has been working his way back into the lineup after dealing with an injury during the second week of training camp and had shown some good chemistry with Zappe that carried over to the game.
Thornton would chip in another catch for four yards later in the first half, capping off his night. In a game without many offensive highlights overall, Thornton's catch was one to build off of.
Not Much Brewing on Offense
With Bailey Zappe playing the first half behind a makeshift offensive line that featured two rookies, the offense was unable to get much going on the ground or through the air. They accounted for just 65 total net yards in the first half of the game, with 27 of them coming on one pass to Thornton. They picked up just two first downs in the first half as not much came easy on that side of the ball. It was vaguely reminiscent of some of last year's lackluster offensive performances.
Zappe was sacked twice and was under a lot of pressure throughout his first-half appearance. At least one or two of this starting line will likely find their way toward starting in the regular season, as the team's biggest concern of training camp was again apparent in the team's first preseason game. Conor McDermott played limited left tackle snaps in camp, yet went the distance there in the first half, before moving over to the right side as well briefly in the second half.
Pop Douglas played just a single series, while Kayshon Boutte, Tre Nixon and Thornton were the primary receivers in the initial two quarters. In the backfield, Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris both saw early touches, but produced just two yards on five carries through the first four drives of the game.
Situational Defense Comes Up Short
After a strong start to the game that saw them three punts and two turnovers, the Patriots defense watched Houston finish off the first half with a seven-play, 62-yard touchdown scoring drive that gave the Texans a 7-3 lead at the half. Veteran quarterback Davis Mills led the way on the drive, completing all five of his pass attempts as the Patriots secondary struggled to contain rookie receiver Tank Dell, who collected four of the five receptions on the drive. Backup slot cornerback Rodney Randle had his hands full with the rookie from Houston.
It was a disappointing ending to a strong first half for the defense and certainly a situational breakdown to learn from.
Zappe Goes Into Second Half
Zappe returned to open the second half and the offense showed some signs of life, getting a spark from a 26-yard kickoff return by Isaiah Bolden. A nice catch and run by Tre Nixon was followed by one of the better runs of the day by Kevin Harris, who found some open space and picked up seven yards. But things sputtered from there.
Facing a fourth-and-one from the Houston 44-yard line the Patriots went for it, but Kevin Harris was dropped for a one-yard loss and once again Houston took over control.
To make matters worse Kody Russey limped off the field as the attrition along the offensive line continued.
It was a bit surprising to see Zappe work into the second half, but with the offense largely stuck in neutral his snaps were still limited. He played just 28 snaps on seven drives through the first possession of the second half. Zappe was relieved by Trace McSorley after one second-half possession and then Malik Cunningham entered the game in the fourth quarter, running some read-option plays like he had in recent practices. Cunningham provided a bit of a spark in mop-up time, leading the team's best drive of the day, taking in a nine-yard touchdown run himself after wracking up 14 plays on the impressive drive.
The Season is Rolling
With the Houston game over and done with the Patriots have now officially embarked on their 2023 game slate. Next week they'll travel to Green Bay for some important and telling joint practices against the Packers before heading straight to Tennesee following the Saturday night game against the Packers for another set of practices with the Titans.
There will be a lot more to take away from those four joint practices and two games. But from what we've learned so far, based on 11 training camp practices and one preseason game, the offense still has a lot of work to do to get on track to consistently move the ball. They've shown glimpses of it over the last 10 days in practice but not so much in the game with mostly their back-ups.
The Packers and Titans will be stiff tests that tell us a lot more about where the offense is at. Meanwhile, it seems like the starting defense is on track to be their usual disruptive selves, but they'll face some good competition as well over the next two weeks.