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Game Observations: Pats struggle in Carolina

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The Patriots and Panthers met for the fourth time in the last five years in Week 3 of the preseason. Unlike the previous three, New England was unable to come away with a victory and came home from Charlotte with its first loss of the summer, a convincing 25-14 Carolina victory.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots performance.

-It will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick continues to find ways to employ Cordarrelle Patterson. The wideout saw plenty of action against the Panthers, much of it coming in the first half with the starters. The results were mixed as he caught a shallow cross from Tom Brady and made a couple of tacklers miss and picked up 10 yards and a first down. But he also appeared to be out of position on a slant route later in the second quarter and had the ball bounce off his back hand. He finished with five catches for 36 yards, but only the 10-yard grab came in the first half.

-Belichick also used Patterson as a punt returner, something he doesn't have much experience with as a pro. He was back deep in the second quarter but did not get the opportunity to handle the kick as Riley McCarron took Michael Palardy's short punt after calling for a fair catch. Belichick is dealing with both the absence of Julian Edelman, his likely choice to return punts, and most likely the desire to find ways to get Patterson involved. It will be interesting to see if gets more chances to return punts in the regular season.

-Keionta Davis opened the game at left defensive end opposite Deatrich Wise with the rest of the starters. Davis saw extensive action with the top unit for the second week in a row, but once again failed to make much of an impact in the first half. It was also interesting to see Geneo Grissom and Trent Harris get some run in the second quarter before the starters called it a night. Grissom was part of the goal line defense on the first series of the night while Harris entered the game as a sub rusher later on. All three players would likely be considered squarely on the bubble at this point.

-Stephon Gilmore clearly does not like playing against the Carolina Panthers. Gilmore struggled during his first month with the Patriots last September, a period that culminated with a disastrous performance at home against the Panthers. Friday saw him surrender back-to-back long completions on the second drive for 28 yards each. The first came on a perfectly executed back shoulder throw from Cam Newton to Devin Funchess down the right sideline. The second was more glaring. He got turned around by Curtis Samuel and found himself chasing after a deep out in which he was beaten badly. He then gave ground while Samuel offered some fakes on his way to the big gain. In two plays the Panthers picked up 56 yards and were in scoring position.

-Gilmore also had a couple of strong plays in coverage, both coming on the first series of the night. He blanketed Torrey Smith on a deep ball down the right sideline on a play in which the receiver actually could have drawn a flag for interference when he appeared to push off Gilmore as the ball came down. The second play came in the end zone and forced a field goal when he got inside position against D.J. Moore on a slant and prevented the completion on third-and-goal. Even though Gilmore had his struggles later he opened the game with a couple of strong plays.

-One of the bright spots offensively was the play of Phillip Dorsett. He caught all four passes thrown his way for 36 yards, but that only tells part of the story. One grab came on fourth-and-three in the second quarter when he leaped high and grabbed the ball with a nice hands catch to move the chains. He did a nice job of getting open and making plays when he was called upon, and Brady took notice. "Phil did a good job and made some plays," Brady said after the game. "We got him late last year and he's been just grinding it out and trying to find a role." At this point he looks like he will open the season as the No. 2 receiver behind Chris Hogan with Edelman set to serve his suspension.

-File this one in the possible things to watch category. After four penalties last week for illegal helmet hits there were none called in the Patriots-Panthers game. The NFL tweaked the rule to indicate incidental contact would not result in the flag, but there really weren't any plays that seemed to approach the level that would have drawn penalties last week either. One observation from afar that may be in play is the style that some of the tackles were made with. Several players on both sides seemed to alter their approach and at least one – Panthers cornerback James Bradberry – completely turned his back as he made a tackle. Players seemed to be going out of their way to make sure their heads were nowhere near the impact point, and that will be something worth watching in the regular season. If that is the case, tackles will most certainly be missed.

-It was interesting to watch the second half when a handful of veteran-type players saw extensive action in various ways. Jason McCourty played alongside Gilmore at times early, but he was in the game at safety in the third quarter as well. Things didn't go well when he was on the back end as he allowed a 31-yard completion to Samuel that set up a touchdown. Vincent Valentine played extensively in the second half, which probably isn't a good sign for the third-year defensive tackle. Eric Decker sat out the first half with Brady and the starters and caught a pair of passes from Brian Hoyer after the break. It would appear all three are on the bubble.

-Jonathan Jones saw his first action of the preseason, appearing as the slot corner on the first drive. Jones would appear to have the inside track for the job, particularly with rookie Duke Dawson sitting out his second straight game due to an undisclosed injury. Jones has been very competitive in coverage during camp practices and had no glaring errors against the Panthers.

-Jeremy Hill and Mike Gillselee could both find their way on the roster, especially given the injuries to Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. Hill and Gillislee saw action in the first half with the starters, and interestingly they remained on the field in the second half when the backups took over. Hill appeared to dodge a bullet when it looked like he suffered an ankle injury but he stayed in the game and appeared on special teams later. Neither was particularly effective against Carolina but both ran hard and had some moments. Gillislee scored the Patriots only touchdown and added a two-point conversion to close out the scoring.

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