EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – From a player's perspective, you want nothing to do with the fourth preseason game. At this stage of the summer, NFL coaching staffs generally know who they want on their upcoming 53-man rosters, which must be compiled by late this Saturday afternoon.
Therefore, most of the players whose jobs are deemed safe are held out of competition in the exhibition finale. Those who do play are perhaps doing so for the last time. With only a handful of roster spots to be won, in most cases, a player's performance in Game 4 of the preseason can potentially secure or derail his chances of making the 53.
With that in mind, our focus tonight is on the Patriots who, in all three phases, may have helped or hurt their own chances, based on what they did against the Giants.
Easily the star of the night for New England was rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson.
The undrafted player made an athletic, leaping interception on a deep pass late in the first quarter. In the second quarter, however, he appeared to lose his man in coverage and badly missed a would-be tackle of that same player downfield, which led to the Giants receiver scoring New York's first touchdown.
In the second half, Jackson continued to advocate for himself by making another athletic play on an interception. Covering his man tightly down the sideline, Jackson kept his head turned back toward the floating ball and tipped it to himself to complete the INT.
"I turned my head around on the deep route and just made a play on the ball. The second one's the same thing," he explained. "I'm just doing my job. That's about it. I felt like I had a pretty good game, but I still have a lot more to improve and get better."
Jackson suffered an injury scare in the late third quarter when he went down with a left leg issue while helping block on a Patriots punt return. He was able to limp off the field shortly thereafter and the team's medical staff announced he was dealing with dehydration. Cramping is likely what caused Jackson to exit.
It's been that kind of up-and-down summer for Jackson, who has made a number of plays, but also given up an equal number. Jackson may have shown enough potential that he could be a consideration for New England's practice squad if he fails to make the 53.
"Yeah, I had something to prove. I knew I had to [play well] this last preseason game to try to make the roster," Jackson concluded. "I don't know… we're going to find out Saturday, this weekend."
A player who has appeared to be in surprising limbo all summer is veteran cornerback Jason McCourty. He took his first-ever snaps as a safety a week earlier against Carolina, and again spent his evening there versus New York. He only played a few series in the first quarter before being pulled for what he thought was the rest of the night. However, an injury to rookie A.J. Moore forced McCourty to return unexpectedly for a short time in the third quarter.
McCourty could very well have a roster spot locked up. Perhaps the coaches wanted to give him some extra time to work on his position versatility. He maintained afterward that he's not at all concerned about the impending cut-down date.
"No, no concern at all. I've played this game long enough," he proclaimed, "to know that you control what you can control. Whatever they decide is up to them, but I felt like throughout training camp and preseason, I've done my best. I've been able to execute, pick up the defense, do those things, but the ultimate decision of whether I'm here or not is not in my hands."
Rookie defensive back Keion Crossen rushed off the field in the early going with what looked like a right shoulder area injury. The seventh-round draft choice returned in the late second quarter and was lucky that the Giants receiver who beat him on a deep pattern couldn't secure the ball, or else he might've surrendered a touchdown on the play. Crossen remains a raw talent and might be destined for the team's practice squad.
Rookie QB Danny Etling has barely seen the field all summer, either in games or in practice sessions. As a seventh-round draft choice, he's hardly a lock to stick around, particularly considering that New England frequently only keeps two quarterbacks on its 53-man roster.
Etling did little to bolster his case against the Giants, struggling mightily in the opening half. His 12 incompletions on 24 pass attempts were often wildly off-target and he appeared to botch a call on a running play when he went the wrong direction as he turned around to hand the ball off. Etling tossed a deep-ball interception midway through the second quarter and followed it up with another INT over the middle as the first half was drawing to a close.
He showed off his athleticism toward the end of the fourth quarter when, on a well-executed fake handoff from the shotgun, Etling sped untouched down the right sideline for an 86-yard touchdown. At this point, though, it seems Etling's best chance of remaining a Patriot is if he fills one of the 10 practice squad slots.
Rookie running back Ralph Webb, who started in the backfield with Etling, remains a long-shot for the 53, but made the most of his opportunity versus New York. As he did in the preseason opener versus Washington, Webb caught a touchdown pass in the red zone while coming out of the backfield.
Webb is unlikely to crack the crowded roster of rushers, although his combined summertime performance might warrant consideration for the practice squad.
Third-year lineman Ted Karras, who started a couple of games at center for New England last season, did so again for the preseason finale. He later shifted to right guard to allow James Ferentz to take second-half snaps with Etling. Karras' versatility as an interior player and potential backup to starter David Andrews might give him an edge over other linemen who are vying for precious few spots.
For instance, Cole Croston, generally a guard who made the roster as an undrafted rookie a year ago, saw time at left tackle in New York. He, too, seems to be competing with veterans Matt Tobin and Ulrich John for one of the few backup o-line jobs that could be available. All three stood out, though not for the best of reasons.
Croston incurred a penalty for an illegal block in the back of a Giants player in the early second quarter. In the fourth quarter, Croston picked up another penalty for an illegal peelback block. John sustained some sort of leg foot injury in the mid-second quarter that required him to be taken inside the team's blue medical tent behind the bench. Later, he was escorted to the locker room with members of the team's medical staff.
Tobin combined with Jason King to incur a chop block penalty in the first quarter
Cyrus Jones drew the assignment of returning kickoffs and punts for New England in the summer finale. He did little with the opportunities, but this might not necessarily be an indication that he's on the roster bubble. Jones missed considerable training camp and preseason time while on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and, as a result, his coaches might have wanted to give Jones some make-up time on the field.
Of course, there will be a number of players who took the field Thursday who will likely be regular season roster certainties – after all, there are 11 positions that must be filled on every play and only so many players a team can afford to rest. We'll know for certain how this summer has shaken out for all these players when roster cuts are made and the practice squad takes shape this coming weekend.
Check out photos from the Patriots preseason game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Thursday, August 30, 2018.