FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Despite a sweltering day in the middle of an expected heat wave here in New England, a hint of autumn managed to fill the air Thursday night as the Patriots kicked off their 2021 preseason. Temperatures remained uncomfortably warm throughout the evening, and a severe nearby thunderstorm threatened to interrupt proceedings shortly before kickoff of the club's first of three exhibition contests this month.
However, the storm passed and the game got underway as scheduled, and not a moment too soon for the thousands of fans who filled the blue and red seats of Gillette Stadium for the first time in more than a year-and-a-half. Their presence infused this game – albeit a meaningless one in terms of the standings – with an energy that was lacking throughout all of the 2020 season, when spectators were barred from attending due to the pandemic.
Early on, the Patriots gave their supporters much to cheer about, and as first preseason games go, there were several noteworthy takeaways.
Rookie QB Mac Jones, the team's top draft choice this year, came out on the field for warmups long before most Patriots passers ever appear. Normally, the specialists – kicker, punter, long snapper – are the first to emerge from the locker room to get loosened up, followed by kick/punt return men, then QBs and wide receivers.
Jones, though, appeared eager to get to work. As the kicking trio made their way onto the field, Jones joined them in a short-sleeved shirt, his game pants, socks, and cleats (minus his shoulder pads and helmet) to take some extra drop-backs and throws to a member of the football staff while first-year assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree looked on and provided guidance.
Jones went through what's referred to in gridiron parlance as a "route tree," having football staffer Chris Mattes line up in various spots on the field to simulate the various places where receivers might get open during their routes. After a good 10-15 minutes of work, Jones went back inside the locker room to continue his pregame preps before returning later for the usual pregame warmups.
It's unclear if Jones asked for the additional warmups or if he was asked to do so by his coaches, but either way, his body language seemed to suggest that he was excited to be doing it.
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This being the first game in forever for Bill Belichick without his trusty aide de camp Ernie Adams up in the coaching booth (Adams retired earlier this year), I was eager to see whether Belichick's new confidante, Matt Patricia, would assume Adams' position up above or take up residence on the sidelines.
For years, Adams would stick close to Belichick on the practice field and confer frequently with him about whatever struck his fancy. He'd also scout the opposing team during pregame warmups from field level, but once kickoff got things going, Adams would retreat to the coaching booth overlooking the stadium so he could relay information to Belichick from different perspective.
Throughout the 2021 spring and summer practice sessions, Patricia has been close by Belichick's side on the practice field, much like Adams was for years. When Patricia served previously as defensive coordinator for the Patriots, he roamed the sidelines during games. Thursday night against Washington, Patricia came out on the field for pregame warmups, although he appeared to be focusing more on his own players rather than the Washington's. Perhaps that'll change when the regular season gets underway and the games begin to matter.
Once the game got underway, Patricia observed the action from up high, as Adams had before him.
New England invested heavily in free agents this past offseason, and one of them, edge rusher Matt Judon (the highest-priced of the new defenders), made a positive impact almost immediately. Judon stood out within the first five minutes of play, not just because he was wearing bright red, long sleeves on a disgustingly hot night.
On Washington's first possession, which opened the game, Judon shot into the backfield on a third-down play just over midfield and crashed down along the line of scrimmage to take down a Football Team ball carrier, forcing a Washington punt. He then registered a pass breakup and a QB hit (which was nearly a sack) before he appeared to suffer a painful injury to his left knee.
Judon rolled on the ground in obvious pain, then removed his helmet and slammed it to the ground in what is usually a foreboding sign that a player knows he's just sustained a major injury. Yet, after walking off under his own power and briefly going for observation inside the blue pop-up medical tent on the Patriots, Judon was back on the field, having only missed a handful of plays. Seems he escaped a scare, but his health status will nonetheless be worth monitoring when the Patriots head for joint practices with the Eagles in Philadelphia next week.
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Another of New England's high-profile offseason acquisitions, TE Jonnu Smith, made a cameo in his Patriots debut. His first reception, an underneath crossing pattern on a throw from QB Cam Newton, looked very much like the kind of play he's thrived on during the first two weeks of camp here in Foxborough. Smith eluded the first tackler, then turned up-field and squirted through a couple of other Football Team defenders to pick up 16 yards. Two plays later, Smith incurred a holding penalty that nullified a nice run by RB Damien Harris down inside the Washington 5-yard line, but the catch he made showed what kind of dimension a productive tight end can add to this offense.
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With mostly familiar names playing on both sides of the ball during the first two series, New England's new-look defensive front performed well against the run – a vulnerability of theirs the past couple of seasons. In pass coverage, though, the Patriots left much to be desired, surrendering a number of big plays off the arm of Washington starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
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Jones entered the game, taking over for Newton, on the third possession. His first throw, a short one to Jakobi Meyers on a shallow crossing route, seemed to hit the turf and was ruled incomplete by Scott Novak's officiating crew. Meyers immediately got up and protested, and replays validated Meyers' claim that he indeed came down with the football. Belichick elected not to challenge the call, but it was a great catch for which Meyers ultimately won't get credit.
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Undrafted rookie kicker Quinn Nordin opened the scoring with a 35-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Nordin, a University of Michigan product, entered the game as the only active kicker, as incumbent veteran Nick Folk continues to nurse some unspecified injury that has caused him to miss the past several practices. Later, Nordin drilled his second field goal, a 50-yarder, right down the middle with plenty of distance to double New England's lead.
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Jones hasn't been asked to throw many deep passes during this first fortnight of training camp, but he nearly completed a great one early in the second quarter. Jones looked for a streaking Kristian Wilkerson from about 40 yards out. The ball arrived on target, yet the receiver just couldn't hang on in the end zone.
Jones came out firing again after intermission, often connecting with Wilkerson. A rookie practice squad member in 2020, Wilkerson has thus far had a strong camp and is seeing more and more action during practices. This productivity spilled over into the game against Washington Thursday. It's safe to say that, of late, Wilkerson is emerging as a factor in this offense. He seems to have benefitted greatly from a full offseason in New England's program.
After seeing action in all of the second and third quarters, plus a portion of the first, Jones was relieved by veteran Brian Hoyer in the fourth quarter. The rookie passer finished a solid first night in uniform, completing 13 of his 19 throws and looking mostly comfortable in the pocket, despite intermittent pressure by Washington.
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On field goals, Nordin was a perfect 3-for-3 against Washington, his third a 40-yarder during the third quarter. However, after fellow rookie Rhamondre Stevenson ran in a touchdown for the Patriots in the early fourth, Nordin pushed the PAT wide right.
One of three Patriots kickers during the spring, Nordin now just has Folk to out-do if he hopes to stick around. Leg strength isn't an issue for Nordin, but consistency has been at times since he arrived in Foxborough. He needs to take advantage of every opportunity he's given, especially with Folk on the mend.
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Washington appeared to tie the game at 15 with about a minute-and-a-half remaining when the Football Team scored a touchdown and a subsequent two-point conversion. The officiating crew reviewed the two-pointer, though, and ruled that the receiver didn't complete the process of the catch. So, the score went back to 15-13 Patriots. Preseason games no longer go into overtime (a change the league made just this year) and Hoyer remained at quarterback thereafter, but had the game still been tied, it would have been interesting to see if Belichick would have inserted Jones back into the huddle for a potential game-winning drive attempt.
Instead, Stevenson added his second score of the night. Following the Washington kickoff, he took a toss from Hoyer and burst through a big hole on the right side of the line. Stevenson then raced 91 yards to the Washington end zone. Nordin, incidentally, converted the ensuing PAT.
Stevenson is a big-bodied back, but this kind of speed is something we've also seen glimpses of during camp practices. He's shown an ability to catch the ball as well, making this rookie ball carrier an intriguing all-around prospect.
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Despite Judon, LB Josh Uche, and CB Myles Bryant needing brief medical examination and attention on the field, New England appeared to come out of this first preseason contest in fairly good health as a team – always a victory no matter the final score.
The New England Patriots take on the Washington Football Team in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, August 12, 2021.
Powerful Player of the Game presented by Enel
It's usually unwise to overreact to anything that happens in the first preseason game. Both teams generally are running generic versions of their offenses and defenses and haven't done much, if any, game-planning for their opponent.
What we can take away with some degree of confidence, though, is what we see when the regular starting players are on the field. In Thursday's game, both New England and Washington played their offensive and defensive starters for the first two possessions each, and during that brief span, Judon made several positive plays all over the field. He was clearly the star among the starters.