Las Vegas – The Patriots had a very telling week culminating in an 23-6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in the preseason finale at Allegiant Stadium on Friday night.
After two competitive joint practices earlier in the week, New England's healthy starters and key role players participated in the last dress rehearsal before the regular season begins in Miami in 16 days.
Unfortunately, the big takeaway from Friday night's loss is that head coach Bill Belichick has a lot of work to do over the next two weeks. The Raiders second-stringers were in control against the Patriots starters and jumped out to an early 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We didn't have a good night in any phase of the game -- that's obvious," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters on Friday night. "It's disappointing because we did things a lot better in practice (this week)."
Patriots starting quarterback Mac Jones wasn't comfortable in the pocket. He also didn't see the field well, which was on full display when he attempted a late pass to an open Kendrick Bourne that was intercepted by Raiders rookie linebacker Luke Masterson.
"I have to do a better job of getting the ball out and stepping up in the pocket instead of running around and stop putting my line in a bad position," Patriots quarterback Mac Jones said after the game. "I pride myself in being right here behind the center, and you guys block for me."
The starting offense, including Jones, looking clunky in Friday night's game wasn't a surprise after viewing joint practices this week. New England's quarterback's timing, pocket poise, and typically sharp feel for the game are not where we are accustomed to seeing it right now.
Plus, the Patriots outside zone running game continues to have breakdowns in blocking, and it wasn't until they began running their old staples that they moved the ball on the ground.
Although Las Vegas's touchdown drive was on a short field following the interception, former Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham also led the Raiders backups on a 57-yard field goal drive.
To make matters worse, top receiving back Ty Montgomery was carted off with an ankle injury, and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers was also banged up in limited action.
As much as we might want to look for silver-linings in the defense's quick three-and-out that set up a field goal drive for the first-team offense, this was a difficult night for New England.
Here are eight observations with the Patriots wrapping up the preseason in Las Vegas on Friday night:
1. Patriots QB Mac Jones Struggles Against Raiders Defense
With his offensive coordinator from a standout rookie season on the other sideline, it's only fair to put Jones's struggles this summer into proper context. The second-year quarterback is dealing with an overhauled coaching staff, a tweaked offensive system, and an offensive line that is still a work in progress. There are things outside of his control contributing to his issues.
Although we'll need to review the coaches film for a more accurate assessment, from our view in the press box, it looked like Jones was hesitating to pull the trigger to open receivers and drifting into pressure at times.
The Pats quarterback looked more in rhythm when he threw on the move to a crossing Hunter Henry and found Kendrick Bourne for a fourth-down conversion. But this is not the Jones we saw for most of his rookie season, and the Patriots need to get him back on track fast.
2. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Kevin Harris's 33-Yard Run
On the Patriots first two running plays of the game, they went backward attempting to run the now more prevalent outside zone handoffs in their new-look offense. New England's starters lost four yards when a second-level defender shot the play-side gap to tackle Rhamondre Stevenson behind the line, and then right guard Mike Onwenu was called for a hold.
Unsurprisingly, the Pats best runs came when they dialed up power schemes and crack tosses, with Stevenson gaining 13 yards running behind left tackle Trent Brown on the toss play.
Later on, rookie running back Kevin Harris broke off New England's best run of the preseason on a one-back power play from the gun. With left guard James Ferentz pulling, tight end Matt Sokol and right tackle Yodny Cajuste won their blocks while sixth-round pick Chasen Hines worked immediately up to the second level. Harris followed Ferentz's successful pull, ran through an arm tackle, and nearly housed it from 36 yards out.
New England has tried to implement a more zone-heavy rushing attack this summer, and it's the type of scheme where you have to accept some early struggles and hope it takes hold eventually. But it also wouldn't be a surprise to see a gap-heavy game plan in Miami, with the Patriots recognizing what works with their current personnel along the offensive line.
3. Patriots Start Jahlani Tavai at Linebacker, But Raekwon McMillan Shows His Value
Fourth-year linebacker Jahlani Tavai continues to earn starts in the preseason with the Patriots first-team defense. But it doesn't feel like it'll last long for Tavai, as veteran Raekwon McMillan's play speed and open-field tackling ability are on a different level. McMillan prevented a big play on a screen pass to Raiders running back Brittain Brown, where Brown had room to operate. Limiting Brown to only seven yards on the play was another example of the much-needed athleticism that McMillan brings to the second level. He should see the field plenty this season.
4. Devin McCourty's Value to Patriots Secondary at an All-Time High
Based on Friday night's game, the Patriots are relying on a 35-year-old Devin McCourty now more than ever. As they always do to build out their depth, New England gave box safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips reps at deep safety to prep them in case of emergency. The auditions did not go well. First, Dugger bit hard on a play-action fake, allowing backup tight end Jesper Horsted to run by him for a 30-yard gain. Then, Phillips took the cheese on a crosser at the intermediate level, leaving Terrance Mitchell out-leveraged on a deep post pattern without safety help. If the Patriots want to move McCourty around more, or the worst-case scenario occurs, whoever is back there needs to be more reliable.
5. What Now at Receiving Back After Ty Montgomery's Ankle Injury?
The worst nightmare for any team when they play key contributors in the preseason is injuries, and the Patriots suffered their first major loss of the summer when top receiving back Ty Montgomery left Friday night's game with an ankle injury. The injury appeared severe, and it comes after Montgomery was New England's most consistent offensive weapon in joint practices this week. It's potentially a big loss. Where do they go from here? Expect to see Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson plenty in the passing game, especially in the early going, while rookie Pierre Strong could earn playing time in that role as the season progresses. If Montgomery's injury is season-ending, it could also open a roster spot for J.J. Taylor.
6. Rookie CB Jack Jones's Route Recognition Impresses on Several Plays
The deeper into the summer we get, the more fourth-round pick Jack Jones flies around. Jones has a ball-hawking mentality and sometimes flirts with being too aggressive, but his field awareness and ability to recognize route combinations are impressive. He consistently makes great reads in off-coverage to pass off routes and lock onto the intended target. Plus, his closing burst from off-man allows him to dislodge the football with a physical finish. A top three of Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, and Myles Bryant is a lock for Week 1. But Jones could push for playing time if he keeps progressing in practice. The Pats need more playmakers like him back there.
7. Rookies Pierre Strong and Marcus Jones Involved in the Return Game
With the two rookies behind veterans on their respective sides of the ball, the Patriots gave third-round pick Marcus Jones and fourth-rounder Pierre Strong opportunities in the return game. Jones, an All-American returner in college, flashed his skills with a 17-yard punt return in the first half. Strong didn't have any chances to bring the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs, but it's a good way to get his 4.37-speed on the field. Strong hasn't played to his timed speed on offense yet, so maybe we'll see it on a return here soon if they trust him back there.
8. Patriots Backup Interior O-Linemen Dark Horses to Make the 53-Man Roster?
When the Patriots turned things over to the backups, two interior offensive linemen who caught the eye were second-year T/G Will Sherman and sixth-round pick Chasen Hines. Sherman has the versatility to play either guard or tackle and consistently turned out his man in outside zone. If the Pats are sticking with the zone schemes, Sherman's foot speed to execute reach blocks would be a good fit. As for Hines, he's an explosive run-blocker and showed good awareness in pass protection. Hines's athleticism and power in the running game are reminiscent of a young Shaq Mason. Yes, that's high praise, so let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. But Hines generates a lot of power in the running game.