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Analysis: Patriots-Redskins

View photos from the Patriots preseason game against the Washington Redskins on Thursday, August 7, 2014.

LANDOVER, Md. – New England may have been the more dominant team during the three days of joint practices with the Redskins in Richmond,Va. But on Thursday night, host Washington looked like the more polished squad. It was a sloppy affair overall, with numerous penalties throughout the night.

Several positions featured intriguing competitions, however, with varied personnel groupings being inserted to help sort things out. Here's what stood out from the team's first real test of the summer:

Backup QB

With Tom Brady getting a night off, Ryan Mallett started the game and went three-and-out on his first two series. After one half, he was 5-of-12 for just 55 yards. Mallett's play was inconsistent – some passes were bullets, while others were off-target floaters. But he was decisive in his reads. In that respect, he looked more improved than previous seasons, but his execution still lacks a starter's shine.

Rookie Jimmy Garoppolo was given his first snaps at the start of the second half, and nearly led the team on a touchdown drive on his first series. Same on the second series, but a fumble by rookie running back Stephen Houston wiped out a long drive. His third-down toss downfield to rookie Roy Finch went just inches out of reach on the next drive. But on his fourth and final effort, Garoppolo threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to Bryan Tyms. New England's second-round draft choice looked better on those four series than he had heretofore in training camp practices. Garoppolo's improved performance was the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable night for the Patriots.

O-line

Jordan Devey started at left guard in place of Logan Mankins. Marcus Cannon replaced Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. Dan Connolly started at center, while Josh Kline stepped into Connolly's erstwhile spot at right guard. Only starter from last year who was in place was left tackle Nate Solder. He had a holding penalty on the first series of the game and surrendered a sack on the next series.

Vollmer entered the game on the second series, but Cannon returned on the third. The first half was mostly a consistent lineup of Solder, Devey, Connolly, Kline, and Cannon. Ryan Mallett was often under pressure, while the running game totaled just 37 first-half yards.

Wendell came in at center in the third quarter. Devey moved to left tackle, with Chris Barker at left guard, rookie Jon Halapio at right guard, and rookie Cameron Fleming at right tackle.

At the center spot, it's difficult to assume that Connolly has supplanted Wendell as the starting center, considering the other substitutions along the o-line. Connolly did take considerable first-team reps at center during the week of joint practices, but it's still too soon to say he's now the full-time center.

Front 7

New England started off with a 3-4 front. Vince Wilfork manned the nose, with Tommy Kelly and Chris Jones at left and right end, respectively. Michael Buchanan, normally a defensive end, was the right outside linebacker. The presence of both Wilfork and Kelly, both coming off season-ending injuries, was a great sign for the Patriots.

Joe Vellano replaced Wilfork at nose on the second series. Kelly stayed on for one more before being replaced by Marcus Forston. Will Smith then took over for Chris Jones, who later replaced Vellano at nose. Just before the half, Jones suffered what was announced as a left ankle injury and was helped off the field by the team's medical staff and taken to the locker room for further observation. Not good for New England's depth at that d-line position, already down a player with Sealver Siliga having injured his left hand during the week of practices with Washington. Vellano returned to nose in the second half.

It's curious that New England has played so much 3-4 during the joint practices and first preseason game against Washington. The Patriots don't seem to have the right personnel for such a front. I'm wondering if the team will be more game-plan specific from week to week, sometimes playing 4-3, other times 3-4. Or perhaps head coach Bill Belichick wants to go back to his favorite look after a couple of seasons of full-time 4-3.

Safety

The starting safeties were Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung. Regular starter Devin McCourty dressed but sat out the contest. Duron Harmon replaced Wilson on the second series. He was later beaten – along with cornerback Logan Ryan – on the Skins' first touchdown pass. The trio of Chung, Harmon, and Wilson were rotating in and out throughout the first half.

After intermission, Nate Ebner and rookie Travis Hawkins took over at the safety spots. Neither did anything of note. We appear to be no closer to knowing who is going to start at safety alongside Devin McCourty once the regular season begins.

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