CHARLOTTE, N.C. – We're supposed to get our most comprehensive look at an NFL team during the third preseason game. It's considered the best barometer of how close the team is to being ready for the regular season.
If that's the case, there was a mixture of good and bad to be taken on both sides of the ball from New England's come-from-behind victory over Carolina Friday night.
For most of the first half, the offense, with Tom Brady at quarterback, was unimpressive.
It was sloppy in the passing game (two interceptions, one Brady's fault, the other his intended receiver's), but it's important to keep in mind that he's still without his top three pass-catchers. Rob Gronkowski was held out again (coaches' decision), and Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman continue to nurse injuries. Meanwhile, the offensive line features three rookies in the interior o-line, and the o-line just can't seem to get anything going in the running game, no matter who's carrying the ball.
Check out a selection of the best images from the Patriots preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Friday, August 28, 2015.
Late in the second quarter, however, Brady started connecting with tight end Scott Chandler, making his first appearance of the preseason. Chandler only returned to practice this week after being on the sideline with an injury since early in camp. But once he caught his first pass from Brady, the QB went back to him. Chandler's third reception was the prettiest – and 18-yard touchdown down the left sideline that Chandler high-pointed over his Panther defender. It was reminiscent of the kind of scoring play Gronkowski had in Super Bowl XLIX.
If Chandler can continue to be a reliable target like that for Brady, the combination of Chandler and Gronkowski will be a devastating one against opposing defenses.
Primary concern in the secondary
Who will take over for Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner? If this game was any indication, it will be Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown. The
Butler was fortunate not to have gotten beaten for a touchdown late in the second quarter. He was beaten by a Panther receiver down the right sideline, but the Cam Newton's perfect throw fell through the intended receiver's hands. That miscue aside, Butler had a decent night in coverage. He's by no means an All-Pro yet, but Butler continues to demonstrate that he's capable of being an every-week starting caliber corner in this league.
Brown, meanwhile, played the first quarter, then sat and watched. It was the most action he's seen this preseason, and wasn't really challenged by Newton much. He did, however, come up with a great pass-breakup in the end zone that thwarted a would-be Panthers touchdown drive. It was a great individual play by Brown – the kind we've seen him make a number of times in training camp this summer.
Brown's appearance at corner meant Devin McCourty went back to his customary safety position after playing corner predominantly last week in New Orleans. McCourty has made no secret of the fact that he prefers to stay at safety, and Brown's participation in Carolina was a good indication of how the secondary will look in Week 1 (Patrick Chung was the other safety).
What was troubling, though, was how often the middle of the defense was soft. A number of times, Newton was able to complete passes to wide open receivers in that area downfield. If this is the secondary we're going to see from now on, this group needs more time together to work on their communication.
One other positive on D Friday was the play of Dominique Easley. The 2014 first-round draft choice had his strongest outing of his short career. He had three tackles, one for a four-yard loss, and a 12-yard sack of Newton. He also disrupted things in the interior, allowing others to make plays behind him, which was something Bill Belichick raved about Easley last year during his college days at Florida. Easley might finally be healthy enough (he suffered with injuries to both knees in recent years) to be able to live up to his considerable expectations.