Foxborough, MA – Football is back at Gillette Stadium for the first time in the 2023 season, with the Patriots falling in their preseason opener to the Texans by a final score of 20-9 on Thursday night.
Preseason football isn't about the final score or the final stat lines. It's about evaluating player performance, especially those players who are inexperienced either in the NFL, in the Patriots system, or both, and seeing how their skills might translate once it's the regular season.
To that point, there were good things to take away from Thursday night. New England's top two draft selections, Christian Gonzalez and Keion White, held their own, especially White, who was dominant at times. The Jalen Mills safety experiment is going well, Tyquan Thornton checked a box, and we learned a little about the rookie receivers (or is Malik Cunningham a quarterback? TBD).
However, as we've been writing here each day after training camp lately, the biggest storyline surrounding this team is the health and performance of the offensive line. Starting quarterback Mac Jones, the healthy starting linemen, and Jones's top pass-catchers didn't play on Thursday night, so this was the group New England was likely going to play whether they were fully healthy up front or not.
Still, with their two projected starting guards not in uniform and Trent Brown and David Andrews taking the night off, the showcase for the backups competing for roster spots wasn't a good one, bringing the Patriots depth along the offensive line into question. To be clear, this isn't a one-night issue either. This is exactly what we've seen in practice over the last three days or so – an inconsistent offense that can't string positive plays together because it can't block.
Until we see the top unit New England plans to roll with on the field, the spotlight will be on their other options. Mike Onwenu (PUP list) and Cole Strange (practice injury) remain absent. Brown is slowly ramping up his participation, and a huge void remains at right tackle, which has become a two-horse race between veterans Riley Reiff and Conor McDermott because free-agent addition Calvin Anderson remains on the non-football illness list.
At this stage of the summer, it's not hyperbole to say that the offense's success, and therefore the team's success, ride on offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm piecing together the offensive line. Last season, the offense was dysfunctional. This year's offensive system isn't flawed anymore, but the talent must be there.
Here are eleven game observations after the Patriots fell in their preseason opener to the Texans on Thursday night:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Bailey Zappe Connects With Tyquan Thornton on 27-Yard Completion
The lone offensive highlight for the Patriots "starting" offense was an excellent sign for second-year wide receiver Tyquan Thornton, who has struggled with finishing through contact at the catch point throughout the summer. Thornton's speed has flashed to create separation downfield, but he has lost several contested catches where he had to fight through the defender.
On Thursday night, Thornton team-upped with quarterback Bailey Zappe for a 27-yard completion between two zone defenders in a cover-two structure. Initially, Thornton has to get off an aggressive jam by the corner, who will squat underneath in the flat. The speedster bounces off the contact at the line of scrimmage, gets himself open in the cover-two hole, and adjusts to a back-shoulder throw to high-point the ball as the safety comes over the top.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Zappe gave a detailed answer as to what he saw on the play, while Thornton told Patriots.com that he's been spending extra time working on strengthening his hands after practice to make catches like the one on Thursday night.
"[Tyquan Thornton] had a MOR, a mandatory release vertical go route. They just so happened to cloud that side. For us, it's like a hole shot," Zappe explained. "I was waiting for the corner to squeeze down on the out. I was able to put it up there and give Tyquan a chance to go up there and get it. He made a heck of a play. It was nice to see him go up there and get it."
Thornton has game-breaking speed, and he has created downfield separation. If he can consistently finish through contact at the catch point, he might start gaining momentum.
2. Rookie Keion White Steals the Show Amongst the First-Year Patriots
With most observers waiting to see first-round pick Christian Gonzalez and the rookie receivers, it was second-round pick Keion White who stole the show. White, who has a handful of flashes in practice, was a game-wrecker in his 27 snaps. White rushed from multiple alignments and stances, converting a good first step into power with a push-pull technique tossing a Texans offensive lineman to the turf for one pressure and a nice press-and-shed rep to force a cutback into the teeth of the defense on an outside zone scheme. White's ability to be the contain defender on bootlegs was also impressive, and he made an instinctual play to pounce on Dare Ogunbowale to force a fumble when the Texans running back dropped a pitch. White was a little late getting off the ball from a two-point stance and still needs a go-to counter to his long arm/bull rush. But the second-rounder is oozing with talent. White is going to be an immediate contributor.
3. Christian Gonzalez Has Fine Rookie Debut in First Preseason Action
New England's first-round draft choice played 25 snaps in his preseason debut, with 24 plays at outside corner, as expected. Gonzalez was in phase (good position) most of the night, especially on a third-down corner route where he smothered Nico Collins. My eyes were on Gonzalez for most of his snaps, and he lived in the receiver's hip pocket. With that said, cornerback is a position where you can have 23 good plays, but people will talk about the two bad ones.
There were a few "down" plays for the Pats rookie, mainly a 12-yard completion to Steven Sims where Sims beat Gonzalez coming across the field on a crosser where it looked like Gonzalez was a beat late reading the release. The rookie did a nice job of punching the ball out to force a fumble on the play, though, showing impressive closing burst. Although the fact that he was open wasn't his fault, someone was late to the flat when Gonzalez had the deep third in cover-three, Collins also lowered the shoulder into Gonzalez for a few extra yards on the first play from scrimmage. Overall, it's a passing grade for Gonzalez, but the 21-year-old still needs to improve his route anticipation. With his movement skills, he'll get there.
4. Replacing D-Mac: Jalen Mills Shows Well in Safety Dress Rehearsal
In the first game without Devin McCourty anchoring the backend in over a decade, the Patriots continued cycling through several options to play the deep safety role in Bill Belichick's predominantly single-high defense. Although he only took a few snaps in centerfield, Jalen Mills, who is converting to safety from cornerback this season, was impressive.
Mills had the defensive highlight with an early interception of Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who was making his NFL preseason debut. Mills had the tight end in man coverage, but the tight end stayed in to block, so Mills became a free defender. After Stroud canceled out the left side, he came to his right, thinking it would be clear to throw an outside in-breaker. Instead, he threw it right to Mills, who read the quarterback's eyes the whole way. Mills also registered a tackle for loss from the star/nickel position, where he said he overheard the O-Line communicating and anticipated a run. Mills's versatility to play multiple spots makes him a valuable defender in the secondary.
5. Backup QB Bailey Zappe Not Given Much to Work With in Preseason Opener
It's difficult to hold much against backup quarterback Bailey Zappe. With starting quarterback Mac Jones sitting this one out along with New England's other frontline players, Zappe played through the first series of the second half, and the offense only produced three first downs with him under center. Although the numbers weren't pretty, the offensive line made the conditions extremely difficult in the pocket.
Zappe had two opportunities to convert third downs where receivers uncovered downfield, but the pocket collapsed quickly. First, the Pats tried dialing up a post-wheel concept to Zappe's left, and it looked like rookie Kayshon Boutte was winning on the post, but pressure forced Zappe to throw the ball away after escaping the pocket. Then, the Pats ran a rub concept to get tight end Anthony Firsker free at the sticks. Firsker flashed open, but there was too much pressure in Zappe's face for him to deliver a pass.
Although the biggest piece of the blame pie goes to the offensive line, Zappe's ability to deliver the ball from congested pockets is a concern due to his height (6-0). I'm not trying to pick on the guy, but the Firsker play, in particular, was one where you'd like to see him stand tall and deliver, and I don't think it's a poise issue with Zappe. He has been practicing throwing from different arm/sight angles to get the ball over the trees, and seeing over the line is sometimes challenging.
It was somewhat surprising to see Zappe lead six drives, not including the end of the first half, on Thursday night. Most likely, Zappe stayed out there because the coaching staff hoped he'd put at least one scoring drive together. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
6. Bill O'Brien Doesn't Show his Full Deck, But the RPOs are Coming
We'll have a more detailed breakdown of the maiden voyage for Bill O'Brien's second stint as the offensive coordinator in After Further Review. But my initial impressions were that O'Brien ran a very vanilla script in the first preseason game, which isn't surprising at all – why give anything away right now? That said, O'Brien was calling run-pass options at a high rate, with six RPOs during the six drives that Zappe was in the game, and it might've been more. That's the number we had in live charting. For now, the Pats are attaching bubble screens to the run actions. Hopefully, they'll start running more downfield routes, such as slants and seam routes, once they graduate to more complex schemes.
7. Are the Patriots Hiding Rookie WR Demario Douglas (plus: Boutte Thoughts)?
Besides one punt return (fair catch) and two snaps as a slot receiver, training camp star Demario Douglas didn't get much run on Thursday night. My read on that is that the coaches view Douglas as a fringe core guy already. Douglas is still a rookie, so he isn't quite in the JuJu, Parker, and Bourne group yet, with the Pats veteran wideouts taking the night off.
In his post-game press conference, head coach Bill Belichick explained Douglas's limited workload: "Guys that have gotten more work in practice got less time in the game. Guys that got less work in practice got more time in the game so that we could evaluate everybody."
Either the Pats don't want the film out there on Douglas, making it easier to pass him through waivers to the practice squad if it comes to that, or he has already graduated. I'm leaning toward it being more the latter.
As for fellow rookie Kayshon Boutte, the Pats other sixth-round pick at the position, played 26 snaps primarily as an outside receiver. Boutte only registered two catches for seven yards, but he challenged the coverage downfield on a few other plays. Boutte's straight-line speed and strong hands are standout traits that could earn him a roster spot.
8. Second-Year Running Back Audition Runs Into a Roadblock
Another surprising move regarding snap distribution was how much J.J. Taylor we saw rather than second-year running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris. The preseason is a great audition for the 2022 draft selections. They need to prove they're trustworthy backups to lead back Rhamondre Stevenson, or Belichick needs to get Ezekiel Elliott's agent on the phone. Like the quarterbacks, the running backs didn't have a chance on several plays, including a fourth-and-short stuff by Houston where Harris was contacted in the backfield.
Strong also had one opportunity to move the chains on third-and-two, but Zappe had to loft his pass over linebacker Cory Littleton, giving Texans rookie Henry To'oTo'o time to cut down Strong in the flat. Maybe you'd like to see Strong break the tackle there. But it was a bang-bang play where he didn't have the ball in his hands until To'oTo'o was already there. Strong also had a nice jump cut to produce an eight-yard run. It wasn't the flashy showing we were all hoping for, but Harris and Strong didn't have much open space.
9. Let the Malik Cunningham Hype Begin
Cunningham is the perfect roster hopeful/undrafted rookie signing to give the fourth quarter of a preseason game some intrigue. Cunningham is an explosive, agile ball carrier who can be a difference-maker with the football, which we knew from his college tape. Now Texans linebacker Jake Hansen knows after Cunningham claimed his ankles on Thursday night.
Is he a quarterback? The throw to Tre Nixon was a good one, a drop. Is he a receiver? That's a long, long path. I'm not sure where Cunningham fits in or how they get him on the roster. But he was moving at a different speed out there. It's worth continuing to explore it.
10. Rookie Punter Bryce Baringer is Wrapping Up Punter Competition
In practice, Baringer was already winning the job, and averaging 50 yards per punt with two punts downed inside the 20 was another box checked. Corliss Waitman hasn't been bad, but Baringer is a weapon.
11. Rookie LB/S Marte Mapu Works the Sideline with Defensive Play-Caller Steve Belichick
Following a glance at the sideline to observe the defensive play-calling responsibilities, my initial thought was that nothing had changed, with Steve Belichick calling the defense and Jerod Mayo aiding with substitutions. However, I quickly did a double-take when I spotted a player standing directly next to Steve with a notepad. That player was third-round draft selection Marte Mapu, who has been practicing in a red non-contact jersey due to offseason pec surgery. Mapu isn't cleared for contact or game action yet, but he was taking super-mental reps by charting plays while Steve relayed them to the players on the field. The Patriots may view Mapu as a future green-dot wearer. It speaks to Mapu's football IQ and how locked in he is despite being unable to play.