The Patriots closed out the preseason with a 17-12 victory over the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. Rookie Danny Etling got the start and went wire to wire in leading the cast of Patriots youngsters to victory.
Here are some observations from the annual summer finale against New York.
-There weren't a lot of players who figure to factor into the Patriots plans in any significant way in the Giants game but one player of note was Jason McCourty. The veteran corner opened the game at safety and played the first quarter alongside Jordan Richards. He was late coming over on the first play of the night as Kyle Lauletta found Kalif Raymond for a nice 20-yard gain. He also saw action in the second half. Bill Belichick could be evaluating McCourty at a different position to build some depth, but he also might not believe the veteran is an option at corner. Richards has been much-maligned for his play on defense early in his career but at 5-11, 210 he's bigger than the 5-10, 190-pound McCourty and projects as Patrick Chung's backup in the strong safety role and could have an edge for a spot as a result. McCourty didn't play long but the fact that he played at all is likely an indication that his spot is not guaranteed.
-The situation on the offensive line is also worth monitoring, specifically the fights for backup jobs. Ulrick John was the first tackle off the bench in Week 3 in Carolina, and started the Giants game at right guard as Matt Tobin opened at right tackle. The two switched spots on the third series of the night, but that's when things took a negative turn. John appeared to suffer a left foot/ankle injury in pass protection and left for the locker room and did not return. Belichick was likely evaluating John's ability to play guard and tackle but if his injury is serious, and it appeared as if it could be, that won't matter. Tobin could now be in line for a roster spot as well as Cole Croston, who started at left tackle. During Tobin's time at tackle he was beaten for a sack by rookie Lorenzo Carter. Croston likely has the upper hand in that fight.
-There were a handful of bubble players who saw time on the defensive line and some of them had strong showings, led by Keionta Davis and Adam Butler. That tandem did a nice job rushing the passer as Davis split a double team to force an quick throw and Butler beat the guard cleanly on another play to force another play. Davis did have his problems as well, getting sucked inside on a reverse that saw him lose contain. Geneo Grissom and Vincent Valentine also got some work in the first half.
-As Belichick typically does in the preseason finale, the coordinators took the night off in terms of their play-calling duties. Josh McDaniels actually coached from the booth instead of from his normal perch on the sideline and it appeared that wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea handled the play calling. On defense, Brian Flores was on the sideline wearing his headsets but did not appear to be calling the signals. Defensive line coach Brendan Daly may have been handling those duties while safeties coach Steve Belichick was relaying in the signals to the secondary.
-Another interesting coaching element was Cole Popovich spending a lot of the time with the offensive line. Popovich is in his third season as a coaching assistant in New England and generally serves as Dante Scarnecchia's assistant, and he seemed to take over the duties altogether against the Giants. He had the group together after virtually every drive and was offering instructions the way Scarnecchia normally would.
-After not being a talking point in the Week 3 loss in Carolina, the helmet rule was once again at the forefront. There were three penalties called – all against the Giants – and none appeared to be worthy of flags. The final one was so egregious that Belichick actually looked like he was voicing some displeasure with referee Carl Cheffers' crew on a call that his team actually benefitted from. The league has tweaked the rule already but it seems every crew has a dramatically different view as to what constitutes a penalty, and those calls are going to impact games from week to week.
-Cyrus Jones got plenty of playing time both on defense and in the return game. He averaged just 3.3 yards on his three punt returns but did once again displayed solid ball security on his attempts. He was the deep man on kickoffs as well but all three Giants kicks went for touchbacks. On defense Jones was competitive in coverage and did a good job, although he was playing largely against players who won't be in the league next week.
-The Patriots signed three players earlier in the week – K.J. Maye, Kenny Farrow and Khalfani Muhammad – and all three flashed against the Giants. Belichick clearly wanted some additional options among his skilled position players as he kept most of his players on the sidelines and the newcomers did some nice things. Farrow had five carries for 24 yards and added three catches for 14 yards while showing some wiggle in the hole and making tacklers miss. Muhammad tacked on 21 yards on four carries and added 7 yards on his one catch. Maye was probably the most effective of the three as the wideout grabbed five passes for 71 yards including a huge 45-yard gain that set up the Patriots first touchdown. None of the three figures to stick around but coming in late in the process and putting some good plays on tape was impressive.
-Danny Etling had his ups and downs, as would be expected of any rookie quarterback, but definitely showed flashes of ability. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown but also tossed a pair of interceptions. He had bouts where his accuracy escaped him and he was also late with some reads, but also displayed some poised and athleticism while moving around the pocket. The highlight of his night – and the preseason in general – came late in the fourth quarter when he took over at his own 14 with a little more than four minutes left protecting a 10-6 lead. Etling executed a perfect read-option on first down, pulling the ball out of Ralph Webb's stomach before dashing around the right end for an 86-yard touchdown. The play put the game away and sparked a celebration on the Patriots sideline, including Tom Brady, who was quite excited watching Etling scoot untouched for the TD.
-Trent Harris is an interesting undrafted rookie who has flashed at times all summer. He's an undersized defensive end out of Miami who has the ability to rush the passer, and his athleticism allows him to be used in coverage at times as well. Harris' skill set may be worth talking an extra look at on the practice squad.