EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – You could call it the NFL's final and most elaborate audition.
Preseason Game 4 is the last, best chance for so-called "on-the-bubble" players to impress coaches – their own and those on other teams – before final cuts are made over Labor Day Weekend. It's important for that reason alone. Which, of course, is why you usually see so few familiar names playing in these games.
However, this time, Bill Belichick decided to start as many available regular starters as possible on both sides of the ball. Nearly the entire starting defense saw action in the first quarter, including safety Devin McCourty, who normally sits this contest out. Wide receiver Julian Edelman also took part for the second straight week, both on offense and as a punt returner.
The Patriots coaches wanted to get a look at their starting offensive line – left-to-right: Nate Solder, rookie Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline, and Marcus Cannon – in Tom Brady's final appearance under center until Week 5 of the regular season. When key players are in such an otherwise meaningless game, the biggest concern is injury, and it appeared that Solder was the first casualty. He left the game midway through the first quarter and was treated on the sideline for what looked like a left leg injury of some kind. Cameron Fleming replaced him.
The New England Patriots take on the New York Giants in a preseason game at MetLife Stadium on Thursday, September 1, 2016.
Brady, meanwhile, in his last appearance before his league suspension begins, did not look crisp at all. Many of his throws were short-hops or off-the-mark, in part because his line wasn't able to provide adequate protection for him… and this, against a less-than-complete Giants D (no Olivier Vernon, no Jason Pierre-Paul, for example). He wound up throwing both a touchdown and a pick, and only completed 16 of his 26 attempts.
Meanwhile, on defense, LB Barkevious Mingo stole the show.
Just a week after arriving in a trade with Cleveland, Mingo entered the game late in the first quarter after most of the starting defense had seen a few series' worth of action.
"I knew I needed some reps to kind of get a feel for the defense," he told reporters afterward. Mingo then laughed knowingly when one of them pointed out that he showed great stamina going nearly wire to wire.
"Yeah, it was good to get out there with the guys. Definitely, it's a new team. These guys want to see what I can do. I want to see what I can do in this defense."
The 25-year-old displayed effective speed in pass rush situations and forced a fumble on one first-half play (it was negated by a Patriots penalty) before contributing on the very next play, which resulted in a fumble recovery for the Patriots.
Having only a week to digest the playbook, Mingo was nevertheless able to contribute substantially. He was active both as a pass rusher, dropping into coverage, and chasing down ball carriers.
"Still a lot more to go," he noted, "but I feel I got a good jumpstart and I'm ready to get back into it this week. It felt real good just to be out there to help the team."
Mingo looked every bit like the kind of player the Browns drafted sixth overall in 2013. On the night, the newcomer registered six total tackles, including one for a loss, and a pair of quarterback hits.
Some lesser-known players may wind up performing very well and it still might not save their jobs in the short term. However, if your last impression of a player is a good one, he just might have a chance to be signed later in the season if a need arises.
For instance, D-lineman Anthony Johnson, who's had a solid summer, made an early play with some pressure on QB Ryan Nassib which helped LB Dont'a Hightower register a sack on the game's opening drive. Johnson registered a sack in the early fourth quarter as well. He has done his best to prove he belongs on this team, but he might up being a victim of a numbers game.
If Johnson is concerned about the upcoming final cut-down date, he didn't show it in the post-game locker room.
"Hakuna matata ("No worries" in Swahili)," he declared. "You've got to control the things you can control. That's what I did. Just try to play football with reckless abandon and help my team the best I can."
Rookie D.J. Foster was given more reps as a punt returner after his debut a week earlier, then got the call behind Brady in the backfield, where he made a few nice plays running and catching the football. However, the undrafted player was a little too fancy-free with the football down in the red zone midway through the second quarter when he was hit and lost the ball. He had just made an impressive one-handed catch on a high screen pass from Brady on the same play.
It was imperative for him to bounce back, not dwell on the lone miscue, and take confidence in knowing that he would continue getting opportunities in the game.
"It was important," Foster admitted. "That was one of the things the coaches said. 'This is where you can turn it around and keep improving. Don't let it hold you back.' I learned my lesson. I talked to my teammates and coaches and they told me to keep my head up and go back out there and keep running the ball. So, I tried to turn the page and put it behind me. I have to understand that in the NFL, defenders are very athletic, they're coming from behind, coming fast. Just make sure I tuck the ball, keep it high and tight."
Foster encountered more bad luck in the fourth quarter when a touchdown run was negated by a Keshawn Martin holding penalty. Nevertheless, the practice squad looks very much like a possibility for this young talent who missed much of the first half of the preseason with a hamstring injury.
"I felt I got a lot more different looks, a lot of different runs. I felt involved in the game," Foster added. "It felt good to be out there and play a full game. It's been a while. So, I felt good. I missed a lot of time trying to get healthy, but I felt that the coaching staff gave me many chances to go out there and prove myself.
"Hopefully, I left it all out on the field. I tried to do everything I possibly could. It's in God's hands. I'm definitely blessed to have been a part of this team so far. Whatever happens, happens. I'm going to enjoy every day being around my teammates as long as I can."
Back on defense, rookie CB Cre'von LeBlanc was squarely on the bubble heading into this game. He was unable to play, however, due to a reported hip injury that kept him out of practice earlier in the week. He, too, could wind up on the practice squad if his injury doesn't prove too serious.
It's also of interest to note which veterans are asked to play in these otherwise meaningless affairs. Often, that doesn't bode well for their futures with that particular team.
Veteran tight end Clay Harbor is such an example. He has not done much in this, his first preseason with New England. He did even less in the finale at New York. Harbor started training camp on PUP and never quite was able to recover from that slow start. It wasn't until the second half versus the Giants that Harbor finally entered the game. Have to believe his odds of remaining a Patriot this weekend have greatly diminished.
It was also curious that another veteran defensive lineman, Markus Kuhn, didn't see action until midway through the third quarter. Kuhn was getting substantial reps with the first defense early in camp, but has steadily seen his workload decrease.
With regard to Foster, it was thought by many that third-year ball carrier Tyler Gaffney has shown promise this summer after his first two years were spent on IR. Yet, Gaffney didn't get any carries till the late first half and limped off the field after a nice run in the third quarter. New England's medical staff was attending to Gaffney's right foot on the sideline, which could prove problematic for his chances of remaining on the roster, at least in the near future.
We'll know very soon how much this exhibition finale helped or hurt any of these players. Final cuts must be submitted to the league office by 4 p.m. this Saturday.