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Game Observations: Starters open, but backups close out preseason

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This 2021 NFL season marks the first in which teams plays just three preseason games, rather than the four we've gotten used to for the past several decades.

Normally, we're used to seeing a team trot their expected starting lineups out for at least one full half, and often well into the third quarter, in what many observers refer to as the "tune-up game" before the regular season. In years past, the fourth exhibition contest was reserved primarily for players on the roster fringe who were fighting to prove they deserved a spot on the final 53-man roster.

Heading into this first-ever third and final preseason game, it remained to be seen whether the Patriots would treat this more like a historical third game of the summer – i.e., by playing their starters most of the night – or like a customary preseason finale, letting the bottom-of-the-roster players see most of the action. We'd get our answer Sunday night at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where it turned out to be more like the latter.

1st Half

The Giants had the ball first, so, New England's starting defense opened the game against New York's first-team offense.

Outside 'backer Josh Uche seemed to have a slow start to the summer, but came on strong this past week in practice. On the game's opening drive, the second-year defender kept his momentum going with a great third-down sack to force a Giants punt. The Giants looked dysfunctional offensively during much of the joint sessions and Uche had a lot to do with that. He picked up where he left off with that sack.

Later, in the second quarter, Uche pressured Jones deep in Patriots territory to force the QB into an incomplete pass.

* * *

After a week of joint practice sessions with their opponent, the New York Giants, this past week in Foxborough, rookie QB Mac Jones had an opportunity to face the front-line Giants defense for the majority of 11-on-11 periods. At the start of this game, though, Cam Newton came out for the first two Patriots drives.

Tough to blame Newton for the INT he threw on the second Patriots possession. Dropping back into his own end zone, Newton fired a pass up-field, putting the ball where his intended receiver, Jakobi Meyers, had to turn back toward the line of scrimmage to get both hands on it, but LB Blake Martinez made a tremendous play, with his back to the pass as it arrived, to strip Meyers of the ball before the two men fell to the turf.

* * *

Center David Andrews didn't suit up Sunday night after injuring his right foot earlier this past week in practice with the Giants. Versatile veteran Ted Karras stepped into Andrews' role Sunday night. Karras wound up seeing more playing time than perhaps he otherwise would have. Later in the half, he moved over to guard when the starting O-line was pulled from the game. Karras' night came to an end by halftime, though. He's almost assuredly got a spot on the final 53.

* * *

Jones entered the action in the early second quarter, taking over for Newton under center, but had a bit of difficulty finding his passing rhythm. A delay of game penalty, a dropped pass or two, some pressure by the Giants defense contributed to this stuttering start to his night, but he'd find a way to overcome it later on.

* * *

Kicker Nick Folk made his first game appearance of the preseason Sunday night. He'd been dealing with an unspecified injury that kept him out of action much of the past few weeks. However, Folk looked non the worse for the wear when he sailed a 41-yard field through the uprights to give New England an early 3-0 lead at the end of the Patriots' first drive.

New England next had a field goal attempt in the second quarter, but this time, the team sent out undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin for the 48-yard attempt, which he converted to double the lead to 6-0. Folk and Nordin have been getting alternating days to be the featured kicker in practice, and while the youngster has the stronger leg, the veteran is slightly more consistent. Nordin hasn't made it easy for Folk, though. He might not end up beating out Folk, but if the Patriots can keep him around on the practice squad, it might behoove them to do so to help Nordin continue to develop.

* * *

On the second Giants possession, the Patriots' defense faced several short-yardage situations that New York managed to convert for first downs. However, New England's run defense didn't give up much yardage on those plays – a testament to the beefy guys they've added this year to plug up the holes they frequently gave up there the past couple of years.

* * *

LB Ja'Whaun Bentley managed to get a shared sack of New York QB Daniel Jones (along with DE Deatrich Wise) despite having a Giants player's hand grabbing his facemask. There was no flag thrown against New York, but the Bentley-Wise sack pushed a driving Giants offense out of field goal range. The G-Men punted two plays later after Jones threw an incompletion.

* * *

With starters Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones out of the game due to injuries, defensive back D'Angelo Ross got a chance to play with the regular defense early in the Giants game. He took advantage of the opportunity by making a nice tackle to bring a Giants receiver down short of a first down, then an INT in the end zone that thwarted a would-be Giants scoring drive.

On the other end of the spectrum, CB Michael Jackson didn't do himself many favors in the battle to remain on the roster. First, he allowed a long pass reception to the Giants, then incurred a defensive holding penalty, followed by a 12-men penalty when he didn't get off the field in time.

* * *

WR Gunner Olszewski, now in his third year, still hasn't quite emerged as a bona fide pass catcher, despite having earned First-Team All-Pro punt returner honors last season. Case in point, he dropped a perfectly delivered pass from Jones in the second quarter that should have been a routine grab-and-go. I don't expect Olszewski's job to be in jeopardy, but I'd hoped he'd be more consistent by this point as a pass catcher. He's still got some work to do there.

* * *

Second-year offensive lineman Justin Herron had another penalty in the first half Sunday after earning a couple of them last week against Philly. He, too, is likely to be among the O-linemen on the 53-man roster, but it's been a tough stretch for him these past two weeks.

2nd Half

Jones returned from the halftime locker room to start the third quarter on offense, and with some help from his running backs, was able to lead New England on a touchdown drive to regain the lead. Second-year player J.J. Taylor picked up nice yardage with a couple of impressive runs, while rookie draft choice Rhamondre Stevenson caught a pass and made a Giants defender miss with an ankle-breaking juke move.

Both Taylor and Stevenson have enjoyed good preseasons, perhaps giving New England the peace of mind to be able to deal veteran Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams in the middle of last week.

* * *

Jones' pass to a wide open Isaiah Zuber for the touchdown must have had him reminiscing about his days leading the Alabama Crimson Tide offense, when he routinely had open receivers downfield.

Jones, on the next drive, should have had a second TD toss to Zuber on a fade route, but Zuber couldn't quite hang on to Jones' precisely placed ball. Good night overall for Zuber, who caught four passes for 50 yards. He may have surpassed Kristian Wilkerson for what might be a final WR spot on the roster, or he could just as easily return to the practice squad, where both men spent considerable time in 2020.

* * *

Taylor continues to prove and quick and elusive player, both as a ball carrier and a punt returner, backing up Olszewski in the latter category. Stevenson, meanwhile, has scored on the ground at least once in each of New England's three preseason outings this month. Veterans James White and Damien Harris are clearly atop the Patriots' running back depth chart, but these two young players are showing they can offer some solid reinforcements, especially with elder statesman Brandon Bolden nursing an injury that has limited his availability this summer.

* * *

Ross, who made the great play in the first quarter, was still on the field with the defense midway through the third, perhaps an indication of how he's still vying for a role beyond the practice squad, where he spent nearly all of 2020.

Newly acquired Shaun Wade, a cornerback who arrived in a trade with Baltimore a few days ago, also got thrown into the mix during the third quarter. New England surrendered a pair of late-round picks to get the rookie Ravens draft choice in what is likely an indication of some concerns about the roster depth at cornerback here in Foxborough – particularly with the aforementioned Jackson's lackluster showing Sunday night. Jackson, by the way, gave up a Giants touchdown in the early fourth quarter.

* * *

TE Devin Asiasi continues to overcome a slow beginning to his second training camp (he was dealing with a COVID diagnosis). With veteran Matt LaCosse out with an apparent concussion suffered during joint session with the Eagles a couple weeks back, Asiasi is showing us more and more that he can be a viable receiving option, glimpses of which he exhibited this past spring. The 2020 draft choice endured a mostly forgettable rookie campaign that saw him miss considerable time with injuries and a personal issue, but he now seems to be living up to some of the potential that the Patriots saw in him coming out of UCLA.

Asiasi, at best, will be New England's third tight end, behind free agent signings Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Yet, if the Patriots are going to run a lot of two-tight end personnel groupings, as we expect them to do as a result of these signings, they'll need suitable backups to provide insurance, and Asiasi is looking like one of those options, along with LaCosse, when healthy.

* * *

It was curious to see defenders like free agent signing Henry Anderson and third-year former draft choice Chase Winovich playing deep into the fourth quarter. Anderson in particular has enjoyed a solid summer and appears to have earned a spot on a crowded D-line roster, whereas Winovich is perhaps making up for considerable lost time after the edge rusher missed the entire spring and a good portion of the beginning of camp.

Guys who are on the field this late in the final preseason game are typically not long for the team, but there have been exceptions over the years – most notably DB Jason McCourty back in 2018, who wound up being an integral part of that eventual Super Bowl-winning squad. In my estimation, both Anderson and Winovich will still be around after final cuts this coming Tuesday.

Powerful Play/Player of the Game presented by Enel

The Ross first-half INT was huge not just for the Patriots in keeping the Giants out of the end zone, but also for the individual himself, who's competing to keep earning a paycheck from New England as final cuts loom on Tuesday.

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