The 2018 season is underway and the Patriots basically played two games in the opener against Washington. The first half saw them thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball, and much of that work included the starters. The second half was a different story, however, as New England rallied from a 17-0 deficit to post a 26-17 victory over the Redskins.
Here are some random thoughts from a preseason opener that featured more plenty of ups and downs.
-The defense opened with a semblance of the group that figures to open the season. Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers were the ends with Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown inside. Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts were the linebackers and the secondary consisted of Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. The interesting element was that group played well into the second quarter with Danny Shelton and some young defensive backs J.C. Jackson and Ryan Lewis rotating in.
-Despite playing against Colt McCoy and other Redskins backups, the defense struggled. Gilmore was victimized by Robert Davis for 20 yards on third-and-four when he couldn’t keep up with a crossing route. That was the third completion the Patriots top corner allowed in the first quarter before his night ended. Gilmore has been outstanding this summer and there’s no need for concern but Thursday was not his best effort.
-On the flip side, Chung was excellent in his short stint. He filled the hole on an early third-and-one carry by Rob Kelley for a short gain that barely moved the chains. Three plays later he was quick to stop tight end Jeremy Sprinkle for no gain on a third-and-two reception. Chung was flying to the ball like it was the regular season despite the calendar reading August.
-Rivers and Wise were active early on as well. It was interesting to see Rivers used on run downs and come off the field at times in passing situations. The second-year defensive end came into the league with a reputation as a pass rusher but early on he wasn’t used that way. He did get a chance to get after the passer as the game continued and he was impressive at times. He used a nice bull rush to get a hit on Kevin Hogan that drew a questionable flag for roughing the passer. Considering he was coming off a torn ACL that cost him his entire rookie season, Rivers’ extensive playing time was a positive.
-Rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley has been quiet during camp but he flashed a bit in the opener. Bill Belichick talked about his intelligence after the game and both he and fellow rookie Christian Sam donned the green dot helmet and called the signals at times. Bentley showed some nice range in the second half and tackled well in space.
-Again, on the flip side the problems the Patriots defense had a year ago covering backs reared its head again. Van Noy lost Byron Marshall in the flat and wound up missing the tackle on the 25-yard touchdown. Van Noy was late getting to the sideline and then barely got his hands on the Redskins running back before he went down the sideline. There were a couple of other plays where the linebackers were victimized in space that ultimately were called back for penalties for illegal blocks downfield that really had little to do with the completions. It will be interesting to see if Bentley and/or Sam can factor into the mix in that regard.
-Offensively things were not very good in the first half as the Patriots were outgained 259-100 in total yards. Brian Hoyer finished 17-for-25 for 147 yards but completed just 6 of 12 for 65 yards in the first half. A pair of big completions to Devin Lucien to close the half led to a 52-yared field goal but otherwise the offense couldn’t move against Washington’s backups.
-One bright spot offensively was the running game in the second half. Jeremy Hill was excellent, picking up 51 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown. Rookie Ralph Webb had his moments as well, picking up a pair of touchdowns to go with a pair of two-point conversions. He finished with 14 carries for 46 yards. The second-half ground production wasn’t overly surprising considering the experience level of the Patriots backup offensive line. Luke Bowanko, Matt Tobin and Ulrick John, three free agent additions in the offseason, have five, six and five years on NFL experience, respectively. They worked with James Ferentz, a third-year player, and Cole Croston, giving New England a group of older offensive linemen that dominated the young Redskins third stringers throughout the second half. New England finished with 140 yards on 40 carries, most of that damaged coming in the second half.
-One back who did not distinguish himself was Mike Gillislee. He carried 14 times for 43 yards and was stuffed on a pair of third-and-short attempts. He eventually converted each time when given another shot on fourth down, but his lack of production, coupled with Hill’s strong showing, could make him expendable.
-Eric Decker did not play in the game but did his best to get something out of the experience. Decker spent most of the night stapled to Tom Brady on the sideline. Brady also didn’t play and the Boston Globe tweeted that a sore back was the reason for his inactivity. Regardless, the television cameras caught Decker with Julian Edelman and Brady several times as the wideout did his best to absorb as much of the offense as he can as he plays catchup.
-Jackson and Lewis made a few plays on defense and continued their momentum from the practice field. Jackson was competitive in coverage and also flashed on special teams as a gunner on the punt team. Lewis also showed his physical side, burying rookie receiver Trey Quinn with a solid shoulder hit to the ribs. Quinn remained down for several moments before heading to the sideline where he vomited into a trash barrel. Lewis did make a poor play when he failed to pick up Simmie Cobbs tracking Geneo Grissom during the defensive end’s 53-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter. Lewis ran with his arm over his head celebrating instead of blocking Cobbs, and the Redskins receiver was able to prevent the touchdown. A teaching moment for sure for the young corner, who no doubt will hear about it watching the films.