FOXBOROUGH – The final score is never the most important aspect of any preseason game. What counts most is how players perform, particularly at positions where jobs are up for grabs.
Thursday night against Jacksonville, Bill Belichick elected to dress, but not play, most of his key starters, which opened a door of opportunity for a number of younger, less proven players. Several rookies stood out, in fact, for various reasons.
Pass-catchers pack a punch
Through the first couple of weeks of training camp, second-year receiver Devin Lucien stood out in practices with numerous impressive catches, while rookie Austin Carr toiled quietly.
That script was flipped Thursday night in the preseason opener, as Carr shifted his game into fifth gear with a couple of deft sideline grabs and an acrobatic touchdown catch to close out the first half. The Northwestern product caught all five Jimmy Garoppolo passes thrown his way in the first half, while leading all Patriots receivers at intermission with 44 yards.
Throughout the game, Carr also showed a willingness to block on running plays and for fellow pass catchers downfield.
"I think overall, just, the offense got in a rhythm," Carr explained later. "Up front, the o-line was getting a good push, we were getting good gains in the run game. Jimmy… great communicator, great leader. It really showed in the second quarter.
"It's a very selfless environment. Guys are sharing information, even on the sideline. The vets aren't just in their own huddle. They're coaching up the rookies, talking with us, helping us get better. That's the kind of culture that leads to winning here."
Meanwhile, rookie tight end Jacob Hollister opened eyes for the first time this summer. He's been mostly overshadowed by Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen during practices, but with those two men sitting out the Jags contest, Hollister was a regular target of both Garoppolo and third-stringer Jacoby Brissett in the second half.
Hollister's hurdling of a Jaguar defender during a run-after-catch in the third quarter was a highlight-worthy play for New England along with Carr's TD catch.
"I don't know how it happened," he laughed. "I saw him coming. I think it was a corner, so, I knew that he would probably go low. So, I ended up jumping and luckily made it over him."
Hollister showed not only great hands, but also toughness by taking a couple of direct hits to the head from Jacksonville defenders (both of which drew penalty flags) and responding with clutch catches.
"Just trying to do my job tonight," Hollister stated, "and it was a product of the coaches getting me ready, feeling good. Everybody did their job for most of the night. Still made a lot of mistakes, but looking forward to getting better."
As the top choice in New England's 2017 draft class, Derek Rivers entered the preseason opener as an obvious focal point. Yet, his fellow draft choice, Deatrich Wise Jr., had been enjoying a more impressive training camp to this point.
Rivers showed promise early in the game, nearly sacking Jags starting QB Blake Bortles on a 3rd down play in the mid-second quarter. From the right DE position, Rivers' nice combination of speed and power drove the left tackle into the backfield. Rivers came a split-second shy of taking Bortles down, but the pressure proved enough to force Bortles into an incompletion on the play.
During a 2nd quarter Jacksonville drive, Rivers again brought 3rd-down pressure from the offense's left side, which forced backup QB Chad Henne into an errant throw. The ensuing field goal attempt was no good.
The New England Patriots take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, August 10, 2017.
Rivers moved around quite a bit during the first half, being utilized on both ends of the line. For the most part, though, he occupied the left defensive end spot for the better part of three quarters.
Wise exited much earlier, but not by design. In the 2nd quarter, he went down to the turf, sprawled on his back, after combining on a tackle of Jags RB Chris Ivory. He eventually walked off under his own power, but after a brief observation on the sideline by the team's medical staff, Wise was escorted to the locker room. It appeared as if he was struck in the head while trying to make the tackle.
Later, the Patriots confirmed that he indeed suffered a head injury. Wise did not return to game action.
Backup Left Tackle
Even if he were healthy enough to play, Nate Solder likely wouldn't have, based on all the regular starters who didn't play Thursday night. In his recent absence this summer,
LaAdrian Waddle and Cam Fleming have been vying for supremacy as Solder's replacement, with Waddle appearing to hold a slight advantage judging by camp practices.
In the game, Waddle got the call to start and hold down Solder's spot. It didn't begin well for Waddle, who surrendered a 7-yard sack of Garoppolo on third down on New England's first possession, forcing a punt. Later in the next drive, Waddle appeared to false-start on one particular play, although no flag was thrown. On Garoppolo's TD strike to Carr, Waddle nearly allowed his man to get to Garoppolo, but the QB sidestepped the oncoming pressure to fire the pass.
By and large, though, Waddle had a solid night, both in run-blocking and pass protection.
Fleming, meantime, saw considerable first-half action at right tackle.
In the second quarter, the pair teamed up the left side, with Fleming at tackle and Waddle at blocking tight end. This was mildly intriguing, as Fleming has been typically called upon in the past to serve as the blocking tight end. That play was effective, resulting in a 4-yard rushing gain behind those two blockers.
Fleming spelled Waddle on the left side on New England's second possession of the second half before retiring for the evening.
Keeping up with Jones
Cyrus Jones, the top pick of the Patriots in 2016, started at right corner, and also fielded punts and kickoffs. Jones was involved in a big play in the 2nd quarter when he surrendered a 97-yard touchdown to Jags WR Keelan Cole. Jones allowed Cole to get a free break off the line of scrimmage, thus getting a step ahead of Jones downfield. Cole hauled in Henne's perfectly placed pass and outraced Jones to the end zone.
Jones was victimized on another long touchdown in the late 3rd quarter, a 42-yard bomb on which he again appeared to let his receiver run right by him. In this case, it looked as if Jones thought he had safety help, but Jordan Richards was late coming over to assist.
On special teams, Jones did well to hang onto the football – something with which he struggled a year ago – but his returns left much to be desired.