DETROIT – For the past three days, New England and Detroit tangled on the practice fields at Lions' headquarters, where the Patriots coaching staff had an extended period of time to gauge the performance of their players in competitive, game-like situations. Thursday night, the two teams met again for the first official game of this preseason, giving the players – mostly the younger and unproven ones trying to win permanent jobs on the roster – another valuable opportunity to showcase themselves.
Unlike the regular season, when final scores and collective team efforts are paramount, preseason games, particularly openers, are more about scrutinizing individual efforts. A strong showing, regardless of whether the team wins or loses, can help a player's cause, while a poor individual performance can set a player back in his bid to remain on the team by August's end.
Entering this training camp, the reigning Super Bowl Champions found themselves with a number of positions where the depth chart was far from settled, and that has continued through the first couple of weeks of practices. In the preseason opener, New England's tight ends, receivers, and left tackle position in particular would be under the microscope, as they have since camp opened in late July, but other positions stood out as well Thursday.
The Patriots elected to give the night off to most of their regular starters on both sides of the ball, including QB Tom Brady, who made a rare appearance at midfield for the coin toss – his only on-field appearance other than pregame warmups.
Experienced backup Brian Hoyer looked in control of the offense in his quarter-and-a-half of action as he guided the offense to a pair of touchdowns before ceding control under center to rookie draft choice Jarrett Stidham.
Meanwhile, New England's substitute-heavy defense played aggressively (six first-half sacks from five different players) in pitching a first-half shutout of Detroit. Let's look more closely at a few positions of note.
Rookie WR N'Keal Harry, despite appearing to suffer some discomfort with his right hamstring during the week of practices with Detroit, suited up Thursday night and saw action early. The first pass thrown his way, he hauled in for a first-down pickup inside the Lions' red zone. It was the kind of back-shoulder, contested catch he's been making throughout training camp.
"He's done a good job all camp, really," Hoyer said of Harry later. "I've felt comfortable throwing to him and he did a great job tonight."
Harry's grab set up an eventual touchdown throw from Hoyer to veteran free agent Maurice Harris, who's also looked consistently comfortable in this offense throughout the summer.
Undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers continued his strong start to his first professional training camp with a nice touchdown catch from Hoyer in the middle of the second quarter.
Meyers later received a 15-yard illegal crack-back block penalty that backed New England out of a goal-to-go situation, but made amends when he reeled in his second TD of the game shortly thereafter, this one from Stidham, who relieved Hoyer midway through the second quarter.
With time ticking down in the first half, Meyers made a 26-yard catch in Lions territory, which he followed up with a nice defensive effort to break up a would-be interception in the end zone on the very next play.
"Felt great just to play football, honestly," Meyers told reporters post-game. "I'm trying to embrace it all, slow the game down, and continue to get better. I have to keep proving to my coaches that I deserve to be here. I'm not on the team yet.
"I want to be great," added Meyers. "I want to be in a position where they can depend on me, trust in me. At the same time, we have a lot of great players on the team. If I'm going what they tell me to do, I should stick around."
On New England's third series, Harry came down with another impressive catch with a defender all over him, this time a 25-yard gain at the end of the first quarter. However, he was taken down hard to the ground and limped to the sideline. The medical staff took him inside the team's blue pop-up tent behind the bench for further examination. He stayed on the sideline thereafter, but didn't reappear in the huddle.
Second-year man Braxton Berrios chipped in, too, with a Julian Edelman-like move that got him open on 4th-and-2 in Lions territory early in the second quarter. He made the catch and dove for the necessary extra yardage. Berrios also made some big-gain grabs in the second half.
"They've been great," Stidham remarked about his receiving corps Thursday night. "Getting to know those guys, all of them are good people and really good football players."
Harris could've (perhaps should've?) had a couple of other long TD receptions that were contested by Lions defenders, but he was unable to secure the balls as they hit his hands.
Overall, though, a good effort by this group, as Hoyer acknowledged.
"Those guys have come a long way. They put a lot of hard work in and you could see that translate onto the field, whether it was Jakobi, Braxton, N'Keal, Maurice – all those guys."
Veteran TE Matt LaCosse, a free agent pickup during the offseason, heard his name called on the Patriots' opening possession, but for all the wrong reasons. He was flagged for a holding penalty on what was an otherwise nice gain by RB Brandon Bolden. On the next drive, however, he atoned with a 24-yard reception on a Rob Gronkowski-like seam pattern that put New England in favorable position just outside Detroit's red zone.
LaCosse added a second catch later in the first half, but right at the two-minute warning, he appeared to suffer a left leg injury and needed help from the medical staff to make it back to the sideline. That was all for him on the night.
Relatively quiet game for this group, which was also penalized a handful of times throughout the evening.
Rookie punter Jake Bailey was actually the first player to touch the ball Thursday night, as he was given the role of Patriots kickoff specialist in place of veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He sent the opening kickoff a yard or so into the end zone, which the Lions returned for a minimal gain. Bailey put the second kickoff in the exact same spot, but Detroit's return man took a knee for a touchback.
Bailey sent a couple of other first-half kickoffs halfway into the end zone, one of which was returned for not much gain.
In the first half, Bailey also got the nod in favor of veteran incumbent punter Ryan Allen when it came time for the Patriots to punt at the end of their first possession. He uncorked a decent 45-yard boot that was fair-caught. Allen spelled Bailey as punter in the second half and also held for all of Gostkowski's placekicks, which Bailey will eventually need to learn to do if he hopes to unseat Allen.
On the return side, Berrios exhibited intriguing quickness and elusiveness on four first-half attempts. He averaged nearly nine yards per punt return and looked fairly comfortable doing so. Berrios nearly took one all the way down the sideline for a score, had he not lost his balance and fallen out of bounds after a decent 17-yard gain. Another big pickup, for 18 yards, was negated by a pair of Patriots penalties on the play.
With veteran Julian Edelman still sidelined with a thumb injury, Berrios has a chance to lobby for a roster spot in this department.
In the second half, Berrios yielded return duties to rookie Gunner Olszewski, who showed spirit with a 19-yard return in the third quarter and averaged more than 11 yards on three returns.
Other Noteworthy Mentions
…Stidham acquitted himself fairly well, by and large, in his debut. Though he held onto the football a bit long at times against the Lions, he made quicker decisions with the football more often than he has during many of the early camp practices. He appears to be making steady progress in absorbing this offense.
"I had a great time," the rookie passer declared afterward. "Just doing it, the more comfortable I feel. Josh [McDaniels, the offensive coordinator] has been extremely good in the meeting room. He's a great teacher… I'm looking forward to watching film and seeing what I can improve on."
…Rookie CB Joejuan Williams started on the right side and got in the mix early with a run-stuffing tackle at the line of scrimmage. It was a rough night for him thereafter, as he gave up a few receptions and committed an ill-advised unsportsmanlike conduct penalty
…Somewhat surprisingly, undrafted rookie RB Nick Brossette saw significant minutes against Detroit, while draft choice Damien Harris was reduced to the role of spectator in uniform from the bench. Brossette took advantage, racking up an even 66 yards on 22 carries, a short touchdown run and ensuing 2-point conversion catch.
…New England's offensive line – a hodgepodge of reserve players all night – committed far too many holding infractions on running plays, but managed to do a good job of protecting the quarterbacks.
…Rookie DE Chase Winovich added to the sack total with a pair of second-half takedowns in his first action as a Patriot. He credited both his teammates and his assiduous note-taking during the week of practices with the Lions for his success Thursday.
"You saw me make a play maybe on a couple of occasions tonight, but really, there are so many guys up front [who contributed]," Winovich maintained. "I don't think anybody that puts in work regrets working too hard or giving a little extra. I had a game plan for how I wanted to attack things. Fortunately, they went my way, thanks to my teammates setting everything up."