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Game Observations: Defense dominates Eagles

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Tom Brady’s 2018 preseason debut was a huge success but it was the suffocating pressure defense that led the way in the Patriots 37-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. The defense racked up eight sacks and harassed the Eagles three quarterbacks throughout the night.

Here are some random thoughts from New England’s second win of the summer.

-It would be hard to come up with a better performance than the defense put forth early in the game. The front four provided significant pressure, first on Nick Foles and then against Nate Sudfeld. Adrian Clayborn was the most effective, consistently beating Eagles backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai wide and forcing the passers to pull the ball down. He finished with just one of the eight sacks, but it was a big as his blindside strip sack led to Ja’Whaun Bentley’s 54-yard touchdown return. Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler and Derek Rivers also provided some pressure in a dominant performance.

-One interesting element of the pressure defense was the amount of blitzing done throughout. Patrick Chung came on at least two occasions and got to Foles on one, and the linebackers – specifically Bentley and Kyle Van Noy – spent the entire first half in the Philadelphia backfield. It was reminiscent of a preseason performance back in 2011 against Tampa Bay when Jerod Mayo, Andre Carter & Co. blitzed the Bucs to death. That kind of aggressive, high-pressure defense did not continue into the regular season so it will be noteworthy to watch how the approach changes, if at all, moving forward.

-The controversial helmet rule did not come into play in the opener against Washington last week but it was front and center in the Eagles game. There were four flags thrown against players initiating contact with their helmets, three against Philadelphia and one against the Patriots. The players looked confused on most occasions, and the most difficult to understand was called against Jordan Richards on what looked like a textbook tackle where he moved his head to the left as he was wrapping up the ball carrier. The Eagles had a couple of questionable ones as well but Rodney McLeod, Nigel Bradham and Jeremy Reaves all got whistled for the infraction. This will take some getting used to for all involved but at this point it seems these calls will impact games this season.

-One negative for the defense was the at-time spotty play of the secondary. Foles was wild early on and missed some open targets, and later there were a couple of drops by Eagles receivers. Jason McCourty and Keion Crossen struggled early as both saw plenty of action with the starters. Crossen was called for three penalties, two for pass interference and one for holding with the latter two taking place in the end zone. McCourty was badly beaten on a couple of occasions, one for an easy touchdown for Shelton Gibson. With Duke Dawson, Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones all not playing there was an opportunity for Crossen to emerge as a candidate to play in the slot but he struggled.

-In the second half some of the younger corners – Jomal Wiltz and J.C. Jackson – surrendered a number of big plays. Jackson got burned by Gibson for 57 yards coming out of the end zone, and Rashard Davis sprinted past Wiltz and Eddie Pleasant for another touchdown. The young corners have been competitive during camp but that did not translate to the field tonight, which could be good news for Jason McCourty as he looks to establish a role in his new home.

-Offensively things looked significantly better in the passing game than was the case in the opener. Of course having Brady at the helm tends to make everything look better. He completed 19 of 26 passes for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He used his reliable targets as he leaned mostly on Chris Hogan and James White, and the Patriots opened the game with an impressive touchdown drive. White was particularly effective both as a runner and a receiver, carrying four times for 31 yards and catching six passes for another 61. Included in the latter was an absolutely perfect 20-yard screen for a touchdown that saw White patiently wait for a wall of blockers to pave the way.

-The screen pass for a touchdown came at the end of the first half when Bill Belichick opted to stick with Brady and the first offense for a two-minute drill. The Patriots took over with 1:51 left and a pair of timeouts and marched effortlessly 69 yards in just four plays that took only 59 seconds. Brady found Jacob Hollister for 22 yards on a tough seam route that the tight end withstood a good hit to hang on. Belichick loves to create situations in the summer and the offense handled that one perfectly.

-In the two exhibition games Bentley has been one of the more active Patriot defenders. On the first series against the Eagles he showed his range when he ran down the sideline to cover Wendell Smallwood out of the backfield and stuck with the running back stride for stride. Late in the first half he got his hand in on a pass to Dallas Goedert in the end zone to prevent a touchdown. He also showed a willingness to shoot gaps on run blitzes and was physical at the point of attack. Based on his aggressive style near the line of scrimmage he’s very reminiscent of Brandon Spikes, but in the two preseason games he’s shown more coverage ability than Spikes.

-Things weren’t all perfect for the Patriots as rookie first-round pick Isaiah Wynn went down with what was announced as an ankle injury in the first half and did not return. Wynn did not appear to withstand any contact on the play and it looked like he may have gotten his foot stuck in the turf. There were no further reports on Wynn’s status but his absence forced LaAdrian Waddle back onto the field for extended action. Waddle started at right tackle but left as Wynn took his spot on the second series. Unfortunately Wynn was carted off the field and it looks like he may be some time moving forward.

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