Bill Belichick sent the bulk of his top players to the field for extended playing time Friday night in the third preseason game at Gillette Stadium. The result was impressive playmaking on both sides of the ball as the Patriots took the 30-7 victory over the visiting Panthers.
The New England Patriots take on the Carolina Panthers in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on Friday, August 22, 2014.
It was easily the best all-around performance by the team of the summer, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
But as Belichick and his players pointed out in the postgame locker room, there is still a long way to go over the next two-plus weeks leading to the regular season opener in Miami.
Cuts are coming. Jobs are still to be won and lost. And a few key decisions must be made.
With that in mind, here are a half-dozen blogservations from the action Friday night in Foxborough:
Unsettled safety – Heading into training camp one of the most unsettled positions was the safety spot next to Devin McCourty. A month later, nothing seems to have been settled. Patrick Chung earned the start in the dress rehearsal third preseason game, but he struggled covering tight ends for the second week in a row. Only Cam Newton overthrows saved Chung from allowing a couple big plays to Greg Olsen. Tavon Wilson got some early reps against the Panthers as well. And while Duron Harmon was the presumed starter coming out of spring practice and mini-camp, the second-year safety has done nothing to take the bull by the horns this summer. Heading into the preseason finale it looks like the safety spot could remain unsettled into the regular season. All the candidates have had their shot this summer at one point or another. All are also factors in the kicking game. None has separated himself from the safety pack.
Center of debate – A similar situation seems to have unfolded on the interior offensive line. Most theorized heading into the summer that Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell could be fighting for a roster spot. Both have seen significant reps at the center position, although Wendell has found himself playing in the middle into the fourth quarter of the last couple preseason contests. That's usually not a great sign for a veteran player. As it stands today it looks like both Connolly and Wendell have a solid chance at making the final roster, but what their roles will be remains unclear. That could depend on how the coaching staff sees the work done at guard by Josh Kline and Jordan Devey. Devey earned the start against Carolina and struggled a bit and could be resigned to more time on the practice squad. We may not have a beat on who's going to fill out the starting lineup on the offensive line until the first snap in Miami on opening day.
Edelman continues to improve – Julian Edelman's production last fall – leading New England with 100-plus catches for more than 1,000 yards – was a breakout effort. He was Tom Brady's only consistent, reliable option. But he didn't make a ton of big plays. Based on summer action it looks like JE11 might be poised for even more improvement in 2014, adding a bit more big-play potential to his value to the passing attack. He hauled in a 35-yard catch among his eight receptions against Carolina. This came after drawing a big pass interference call last week against the Eagles, on a play in which he also appeared to make the catch. Edelman has made a number of big plays in practice all summer long. He's not only shown the ability to get behind defenders, but also to use his body to shield the coverage and make late plays on the ball. For a team that still lacks options on the outside and down the field, Edelman might be a dark horse candidate to fill out the role a little more often for his buddy Brady this fall.
Split duties – Count me among those who love the split-back formations the Patriots offense has featured all summer. The variations allow for lots of flexibility as we've seen both power and finesse sets with James Develin joining Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and James White paired up and combinations involving all of them. Tonight we saw how explosive the look can be with Vereen and White when Tom Brady found the former all alone in the flat for a 40-yard touchdown. These looks will put pressure on opposing linebackers who will be put in bad matchups in both the running and passing games.
Third time's a charm – In retrospect it should have been a precursor to the Patriots solid performance when Brady talked about the team's desire to play well in the third preseason game after losing the last four such contests. Anytime Brady offers something of that nature it's generally a sign that Bill Belichick has stressed that point in practice, and the Patriots certainly responded. Not saying the positive preseason result against the Panthers has any more validity than the negative ones of recent years, but New England's effort was certainly a welcomed one.
Browner's late arrival – Brandon Browner did not appear in the game until midway through the fourth quarter. That's more than likely a result of the fact he won't be playing the first four games of the season while he serves his suspension. The players that took part in the majority of the first three quarters are the ones who will open the season, so Browner's late entrance isn't overly noteworthy. However, it should be noted that the big corner hasn't played all that well this summer and had trouble with penalties whenever officials were around to throw flags. Alfonzo Dennard made his preseason debut against the Panthers and he and Malcolm Butler have played well. Don't be surprised to see Browner struggle to get a starting job when he returns.