The Patriots opened the 2022 preseason with a 23-21 loss over the New York Giants, but as is the case in the preseason, the final score wasn't the story on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
Instead, the headliner from Foxboro was the in-game play-calling and responsibilities for the offensive coaching staff on the Patriots sideline. Along with the rotating play-caller, Thursday night's preseason opener was the first time we saw New England's tweaked offensive system in a game setting.
Senior Football Advisor and offensive line coach Matt Patricia handled play-calling duties for the Patriots first two possessions with quarterback Brian Hoyer and then handed those responsibilities off to offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach Joe Judge. At times, we saw Patriots center David Andrews, who didn't play in the game, in the middle of offensive line huddles, while Patricia and assistant O-Line coach Billy Yates were also heavily involved.
Although the Patriots continue to give Patricia and Judge opportunities to call the offense, the plays they were dialing up didn't initially resemble the Shanahan aspects we saw in practice.
With Hoyer under center, the Patriots ran more of their traditional offense with a power/gap running scheme and a passing game that looked very similar to the offense last season.
However, rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe ran more of New England's under-center install that did feature the inside and outside zone concepts that the Patriots were drilling in training camp. As was the case in practice, the Pats struggled by averaging 2.9 yards per rush.
The problematic area for the Patriots on outside zone concepts, both on Thursday night and in practice, is the interior combination blocks. The idea is for the play-side guard to block the defensive tackle until the center overtakes the block and then the guard climbs to the linebacker at the second level.
Currently, the timing from the play-side guard working up to the linebacker needs to improve for the outside zone scheme to create the necessary rushing lanes for the running backs.
The Patriots offensive line was cleaner in pass protection, allowing the quarterbacks to find success passing the football downfield, leading to impressive flashes for New England's wide receivers.
Plus, the Pats defense had promising moments against Giants starting quarterback Daniel Jones, with linebacker Mack Wilson's play speed and a consistent pass rush standing out on initial viewing.
Here are nine game observations from the Patriots preseason opener against the Giants:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: WR Tyquan Thornton's 2-Yard Touchdown
Before we get too ahead of ourselves with the second-rounder, let's keep preseason football in context. Still, Thornton is a dynamic route-runner, and he flashed the tools we see daily in practice on Thursday night. His quickness at the line, deceptiveness at the top of the route, and explosiveness through the break are legit on top of his speed.
On his two-yard touchdown reception from Brian Hoyer, Thornton uses a stutter move to gain an inside release at the line. Then, he bursts upfield to get the corner on his back, uses a subtle head-jab fake to sell an inside break, and works through contact to cut outside for six. The little subtleties in his release package and route breaks excite you -- he is more than just a burner.
2. Patriots Rookie QB Bailey Zappe Looks Cool Under Pressure
Although we saw Zappe have inaccurate moments in his first NFL action, the rookie settled down and made some impressive throws under pressure. Zappe wasn't a statue in the pocket, moving around to extend plays on more than one occasion, and stared down the barrel to complete a go-ahead touchdown pass to Lil'Jordan Humphrey late in the contest.
The Giants brought the house on a zero blitz on the key second-and-goal play, forgoing a deep safety to bring in an extra blitzer. With the pass rush converging on Zappe, he gave Humphrey a shot against single coverage up the seam, and the big wideout made the catch. No, there isn't a quarterback controversy in New England. But Zappe's performance deserves a closer look in our After Further Review film breakdown in the coming days.
3. Patriots LB Mack Wilson's Play Speed on Full Display
Among the likely core contributors who did see the field on Thursday night, offseason acquisition Mack Wilson brought the type of speed to the second-level that the Patriots desperately needed at the linebacker position. Wilson, who has shown closing burst in coverage and as a blitzer all summer, did the same against the Giants. Wilson registered a quarterback hit by closing quickly on an interior blitz of Daniel Jones and then made a quick tackle from his hook zone to stop tight end Daniel Bellinger short of the line to gain on third down. Those are the plays the Patriots were missing from their linebackers a year ago.
4. Patriots Rookie LG Cole Strange Holds Up Well in Preseason Debut
Although we'll need to review the tape before drawing any final conclusions, first-round pick Cole Strange appeared to hold his own in his first game action. In particular, Strange's run blocking stood out, executing his role and making a key pull block on a one-back power scheme to clear the way for running back J.J. Taylor to move the sticks on third-and-short. Again, we'll dissect the game film on Strange, but it looked like a solid showing by the rookie in his first outing.
5. Participation in Patriots Secondary is Telling
Outside seventh-rounder Andrew Stueber who is on the non-football injury list, rookie cornerback Marcus Jones was the only first-year Patriot who didn't play on Thursday night. On the one hand, Jones could still be working his way back from offseason surgery on both shoulders. But on the other hand, Jones isn't practicing with a red non-contact jersey at this stage. The other theory is that the rookie slot corner and punt returner, who was repping with the starting defense over the last week in practice, is considered a core contributor already.
Out of all the corners who did participate on Thursday night, Shaun Wade's competitive ball skills stood out watching the game live. Rookie Jack Jones nearly jumped multiple passes for interceptions, too. The fourth-rounder has ball-hawking qualities in coverage.
6. An Early Look at Receiving Back Competition
Following James White's retirement earlier in the day, the Patriots now have a hole to fill in the receiving back role. Based on training camp, veteran Ty Montgomery has the inside track to fill that role, and Montgomery was among the offensive starters who sat out on Thursday night, signaling the coaches see it the same way. Rookie running back Pierre Strong Jr. is a future candidate for the James White role. But Strong struggled in pass protection against the Giants, which is often where rookie running backs with potential as pass-catchers have growing pains. Look no further than White, who redshirted his rookie season as he learned under Shane Vereen. Strong's burst did show up on a smooth nine-yard run late in the game, where he made a crisp cut off left guard Arlington Hambright's block on an inside zone scheme.
7. Patriots DB Myles Bryant Returns Punts For First Time Since High School
Speaking to reporters after the game, Bryant told Patriots.com that Thursday night's contest was his first time returning punts since his final game in high school. Bryant then credited the coaching staff for identifying his initial quickness as a trait that would translate to punt returns and added that he's used to carrying the football since he was a running back in high school. Safe to say that Bryant has a knack for returning punts with 30 and 16-yard returns against the Giants.
8. Patriots Young Pass-Rushers Flash vs. Giants
After reviewing the film, we'll get the official quarterback pressures tally, but a trio of Patriots pass-rushers had good moments on Thursday night: Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche, and rookie Sam Roberts. Roberts, in particular, was someone who caught the eye beyond what he has done in practice to this point. We had the Pats rookie with three quarterback pressures and a drawn hold, including setting up Uche for his sack with the initial hurry on Daniel Jones. Roberts's first-step explosiveness to get underneath blockers and push the pocket is NFL caliber.
Another note: the Patriots spent most of their base defensive snaps featuring a 4-3 over front. It's not the first time they've used an over front, as they went to it at times last year, but it's worth monitoring if they're switching to a more even front base defense versus an odd front structure (3-4 defense).
9. Patriots WRs Kristian Wilkerson, Tre Nixon, and Lil'Jordan Humphrey Lead the Way
Leading the way through the air were a trio of wide receivers who also had moments in practice. Wilkerson, who played in four games for the Pats over the last two seasons, is in a tough situation. With a team-high eight catches and 99 yards on 12 targets, it's clear that Wilkerson can hold his own against NFL-caliber competition. But his path to being more than a backend of the depth chart option is murky. Outside of a third-down drop, Nixon continues to show off enough burst and acceleration through his route breaks to create separation at this level. Although the drop stings, the route itself was a snapshot of Nixon's ability to create separation quickly on underneath routes. As we know, that is a valuable skill set in the Patriots offense. As for Humphrey, he also beat the Pats secondary up the seam for a similar touchdown grab in practice earlier this week. At 6-foot-3, he might find a role as a jumbo slot or, at the very least, could be a valuable practice squad receiver to mimic bigger targets.