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Game Observations: Ten Takeaways From the Patriots Preseason Finale vs. the Titans

The Patriots fell to the Titans in their preseason finale on Friday night in Tennessee.

PDC

Nashville, TN – The Patriots concluded the preseason with a 23-7 loss to the Titans at Nissan Stadium on Friday night.

With the Patriots sitting most of their starters and 14 active players not dressing, this game had all the feels of a preseason finale. Behind a patchwork offensive line, New England managed only 79 total yards and eight first downs on 42 offensive plays in a lackluster performance.

The Patriots defense made more plays than the offense, but very few takeaways from this game are relevant talking points for this team in the regular season. New England is rolling into a showdown with the defending NFC champs to kick off the regular season with 18 training camp practices, two joint sessions, and one preseason audition for the starting group, and that'll have to do. That's a wrap.

Here are ten observations as the Patriots put a bow on the preseason on a Friday night in Tennessee:

1. Powerful Player of the Game presented by Enel: LB Calvin Munson

Although it says something about what has become of preseason finales around the NFL, Munson's production in the kicking game already had him on the roster bubble. On Friday night, the Pats linebacker finished the game with a team-high ten tackles, one tackle for loss, and a tip-drill interception. Munson might've made the team as a special-teams coverage ace anyway, but he made his case even stronger by showing he could provide depth at linebacker.

Munson showed off his closing speed by shooting the play-side gap on a zone run in the first quarter and then had great awareness to scoop a deflected pass off the turf to pick off Titans quarterback Malik Willis. Ultimately, it'll be a numbers crunch for Munson, but he'll probably stick around either on the roster or as a prime practice squad candidate.

2. Veteran G/T Riley Reiff Leaves Game, Adding to Patriots O-Line Injury List

The Patriots already didn't dress five offensive linemen who have all missed time due to injury, while rookie guard Atonio Mafi was a surprise absence. Well, we can add another to the list. After starting at right guard, projected starter Riley Reiff left Friday night's game with an apparent leg injury and did not return. Reiff has repped exclusively at right guard over the last few weeks, with the Pats giving rookie Sidy Sow opportunities at right tackle. New England's "best five" along the offensive line had Reiff in the mix, either at guard or tackle, with starters Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange hopefully returning by Week 1. Onwenu was officially removed from the physically unable to perform list earlier this week, while Strange is expected to be back for the regular season, according to reports.

Mafi, a fifth-rounder out of UCLA, treaded water as a rookie in his first training camp, which is notable. If thrust into a starting role, Mafi would be serviceable. The other young lineman making a roster push is second-year guard Chasen Hines. Hines is a big, athletic guard who fits the mold in the power run scheme and can effectively block on the move. Although he whiffed on a block that led to the initial pressure on a first-quarter strip sack, Hines paved the way for Kevin Harris's five-yard touchdown run and got a piece of safety Amani Hooker on a screen. If the Patriots will be down multiple bodies on the interior, Hines could make the team.

3. Is Rookie WR Kayshon Boutte a Roster Lock Following Brief Appearance?

New England sat its top five wide receivers and top two tight ends on Saturday night. While some of the regulars were banged up, Boutte was the only roster candidate at wide receiver to see any opportunities on Friday night, but his reps were limited to three offensive snaps. Boutte was also back deep for one kick return, which resulted in a touchback. There are two possibilities: either the Patriots wanted to hide Boutte so that he doesn't have any more preseason tape if he ends up on waivers, or his roster spot is safe, and he had nothing else to prove. My read is that Boutte is making the team. The rookie showed enough over the last week-plus, including on his 42-yard touchdown in Green Bay and steady improvement in practice, that his upside is too immense for the Patriots to walk away.

4. Patriots Third-Rounder Marte Mapu Makes Preseason Debut vs. Titans

After spending most of the summer in a red non-contact jersey following a pectoral surgery earlier this offseason, Mapu finally got into game action on Friday night. Although it wasn't perfect, Mapu's versatility, play speed, and physicality flashed in his 27 snaps. The third-round rookie logged snaps along the defensive line, in the box, over the slot, one snap at wide corner (on a tight end), and played 11 snaps at free safety.

Mapu was used in man coverage, flat/hook zones, robber/rat help, split-safety zones, and sub-package linebacker roles. He can play anywhere. The highlights for Mapu were an explosive coverage stop as a flat defender, where he showed off his closing burst and playing to his leverage to force an incomplete pass in the red zone. Mapu seemed too jacked up for his debut, going for forceful contact rather than sound tackling technique, which cost him on two missed tackles. But his physicality and play speed were apparent. Overall, it was a solid debut.

5. Did Any of Patriots Depth RBs Do Enough to Make Initial Roster?

The Patriots typically carry four running backs on their initial roster, but only lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson and free-agent addition Ezekiel Elliott are roster locks. It leaves second-year backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, J.J. Taylor, and WR/RB Ty Montgomery (DNP) competing to fill out the depth chart. Harris, who has been available all summer, got the early reps, scoring the Patriots lone touchdown on a five-yard run. Harris is a serviceable early-down and goal-line back, but he's not overly explosive or creative to pile up yards after contact. Taylor's burrowing running style is productive when he gets chances, and he has improved in the passing game, finding ways to survive in pass protection at his size.

As for Strong, it wasn't a great sign that the 2022 fourth-rounder, who reportedly missed the Green Bay week in concussion protocol, was still on the field in the fourth quarter. Strong has occasional shifty lateral cuts to go along with good straight-line burst, but his reads between the tackles are inconsistent. Given the draft capital invested, Strong will probably stick around, while Taylor needs to hope his brain fart on a punt return won't cost him in the coach's eyes. It shouldn't. Taylor earned a chance.

6. Thoughts on Backup QB Bailey Zappe's Final Preseason Appearance

With starting quarterback Mac Jones sitting this one out, Zappe got his second start of the preseason with an uninspiring supporting cast. The Pats didn't give Zappe much to work with after shutting down rookie wideout Kayshon Boutte for the night following the opening possession. New England's QB2 mostly worked with Thyrick Pitts, Raleigh Webb, Malik Cunningham, Matt Sokol, and Anthony Firkser as his receivers while a makeshift offensive line was blocking for him (LT - Stueber, LG - Hines, C - J. Andrews, RG - Reiff/Murray, RT - Sow).

Although it was difficult for Zappe to succeed on Friday night, the second-year quarterback was noticeably frustrated with his performance in his post-game press conference. When the play is designed to get the ball out quickly, Zappe has made decisive decisions in the quick game to distribute the ball to his receivers. Due in part to a lack of time in the pocket, longer developing plays such as under-center play-action dropbacks and full-field progressions have been uneven this summer, leading to another four sacks in this one, and the QB is partially responsible for holding the ball. Zappe will still serve as a capable backup who can keep the offense afloat with similarly watered-down play-calling as his rookie season. However, the Zappe backers have taken a hit this summer. Mac has thoroughly outplayed him, delivering more consistent ball placement, timing, and opening up the playbook to include all of Bill O'Brien's bells and whistles.

7. Ronnie Perkins and Sam Roberts Help Cases to Make Initial Roster

At this point, it would be surprising to see the Patriots give up on Perkins on cutdown day. The third-year edge rusher struggles to stay healthy but shows a solid all-around game with enough speed-to-power to dent the pocket when he's out there. Perkins, when healthy, had a solid summer, adding to New England's depth on the edge behind Matthew Judon, Anfernee Jennings, and Uche. As for Roberts, he is a disruptive rusher, tallying a sack, three quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss. While making my final roster projection, it's tough to find a spot for Roberts, but he's an NFL defensive lineman they'll probably try their best to keep.

8. Christian Barmore and Josh Uche Among Defensive Regulars to Start on Friday Night

With the Patriots top defenders getting the night off in the preseason finale, it was interesting to see roster locks Christian Barmore and Josh Uche each play ten snaps on Friday night. However, this wasn't about their status on the roster. Instead, the Pats were likely getting a look at Barmore and Uche's run-stopping abilities as two players who project as situational pass-rushers. Ideally, you'd like to see them take the next step to becoming three-down players, especially Uche, who is in a contract year.

Although we'll need to see the tape to evaluate Barmore, Uche has used his quickness to avoid blockers in the run game over the last two weeks. By anticipating blocks, Uche slips around blocks rather than trying to take on blocks head-on, where he's unlikely to win a trench battle. Last week, Uche gave up the edge on a touchdown run in Green Bay. But there has been more good than bad from Uche against the run.

9. Rookie P Bryce Baringer Locks Up Punting Job, Kicker is Anyone's Guess

Baringer is the punter. The rookie put his final stamp on the gig with a 49.2 net average, a long punt of 69 yards, and two punts inside the 20. Finding a consistent approach will be the key for Baringer, but his leg is ridiculous. Ryland kicked the lone extra point and made it while also handling kickoff duties. The Patriots don't cut fourth-round picks, so the assumption is that the rookie kicker will win the job since he's close enough to veteran Nick Folk. I'm leaning toward Ryland, with the Patriots looking to trade Folk.

10. Second-Year CB Jack Jones Plays 23 Snaps on Friday Night

As one of the few projected roster locks to start the game on defense, Jones did not have a good night. The second-year cornerback was called for a 32-yard defensive pass interference penalty when he was trailing in coverage and couldn't get his head turned to adjust to an underthrown pass, allowed a 30-yard completion to Titans wideout Colton Dowell, was stiff-armed by rookie running back Tayjae Spears for extra yardage, and vacated his backside gap on a split-flow zone run when his man-coverage assignment motioned across the formation on a 23-yard run. Jones said it's been challenging to focus on football with his ongoing legal situation during his media availability last week, and some of that might've shown up on Friday night. Jones is always a little boom-or-bust in coverage, but he's a much better football player than that.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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