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Analysis: Encouraging signs vs Bears

FOXBOROUGH –Another week, another slow start for the Patriots offense under Jimmy Garoppolo's direction, but that group also responded with a solid overall effort for the second straight game.

An improved rushing attack, led by LeGarrette Blount, helped Garoppolo's cause, while a fumble in the Bears red zone by Brandon Bolden briefly complicated matters for the understudy QB. Garoppolo and the Patriots offense had to settle for field goals at the end of a couple of sustained drives.

"It was still not our best start," Garoppolo conceded. "We started with another three-and-out which is never good, but after that, I think we got into a nice rhythm offensively. We just have to finish some of those drives. We got the ball down there, we were moving it well, had some long drives, slot plays, but we've got to finish at the end."

It's really tough to assess just how well Garoppolo is doing. When he's had success in these first two games, it's come mostly in the second quarter, against mostly backup defenders on the other side of the line of scrimmage. In fairness to him, though, while he's started both contests, he's also been without most of his top pass catchers. He's also trying to operate with an offensive line that remains unsettled.

It was encouraging, however, to see him guide the Patriots offense to a score at the end of the first half in the two-minute drill. Garoppolo looked calm and confident as he engineered the go-ahead drive.

"Finishing with the touchdown is obviously what we wanted to come away with," he added. "I forget how many seconds exactly, but I think it was like 12 or 13, something like that left on the clock. Taking the last shot, especially in the first half like that is really what we always try to do. We don't want to give them another opportunity to score. It was executed pretty well. It's just something good to build off of."

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Overall, his results were positive, finishing 16-of-21 for 181 yards and that one touchdown. Even his few incompletions were on-target throws that weren't hauled in by his intended receivers.

Add in the fact that he wasn't scheduled to start Thursday's contest – a reported last-minute accident involving Tom Brady and a pair of scissors was to blame – and you have to give Garoppolo credit for responding the way he did. He looked good in the pocket, even when under duress at times, and made good decisions with the football. It looks, from this vantage point, like the young passer is improving.

Derby off to the races

Elsewhere, there's no question that Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are the studs at tight end on this Patriots roster, but job opportunities are available after that on the depth chart. One man who appears to have the inside track for the third tight end spot is second-year player AJ Derby.

After spending 2015 on IR, he's been making impressive catches throughout training camp, and that continued against Chicago. Derby snagged a touchdown from Garoppolo at the end of the first half, then made a fantastic sideline catch in the third quarter. Both of those came in double coverage and with Derby taking solid hits after the catch. He seems to be in the lead in the race for that third spot. Veterans Clay Harbor and Bear Pascoe are lagging far behind, as are rookies Steven Scheu and Bryce Williams.

"I'm really just trying to get better every day, so I've got to watch the film and see how I did," Derby told reporters. "I'm having fun, I enjoy it."

Flowers continues to bloom

Picking up where he left off last week, second-year DE Trey Flowers is making the most of his opportunities to play with the first-team defense. More adept at rushing the passer than stopping the run, Flowers continues to demonstrate a knack for causing havoc in opposing backfields. He shared a first-half sack with newcomer Anthony Johnson and pressured Bears starter Jay Cutler a number of times.

The New England Patriots take on the Chicago Bears in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, August 18, 2016.

Backfield battle

As noted earlier, Blount ran well in the first half, something he does from time to time. He has games where he has one or two nice, long runs, a touchdown or two, and impressive looking final stats. Problem is, he doesn't do this consistently, which makes him an unreliable commodity.

Against Chicago, he led all rushers with 69 yards on 11 carries, including a nice 21-yard jaunt and a goal-line touchdown plunge.

Third-year back Tyler Gaffney appears to be challenging Blount for a role in this offense, based on what we've seen from him in training camp and last week's game against the Saints. Versus Chicago, Gaffney was given some first-half chances to run the ball, particularly down near the goal line. However, he didn't get much blocking help up front and failed to find the end zone. I still like what Gaffney has to offer, though, and believe he has a legitimate chance to make the squad.

Centers of attention

Speaking of that o-line, there's still a fierce competition for the starting center job, although a slight edge seems to be in David Andrews' favor. He and Bryan Stork alternated series snapping to Garoppolo. The race is too close to call at this point.

Keeping up with Jones

Second-round draft choice Cyrus Jones continues to perform better in games than he has in training camp practices. He's now come up with a turnover in each of the first two exhibition contests and saw plenty of action with the first defense in the early going. He also did better returning punts, though that's not saying much, considering he only ran one back last week for a couple of yards.

Jones is assured of a spot on the 53, but is there room for another rookie corner. Cre'von  LeBlanc, last week's star with his one-handed INT, and Jonathan Jones didn't do much to distinguish themselves, nor did second-year player Darryl Roberts or veteran E.J. Biggers. Those players all saw action in the late second half. LeBlanc actually surrendered a bad, across-the-field touchdown pass on the game's final play. 

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