The Patriots continued their winning ways in the preseason with a solid defensive effort in their 19-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Here are some random thoughts from New England's third straight win over the summer.
Garoppolo struggles – For the third straight week Jimmy Garoppolo struggled when going against the opposition's first-string defense. His performance against the Panthers was the worst of the three, mainly because he had far more opportunities to recover from his slow start. Actually the first drive of the night was probably his best as the led the Patriots down the field into the red zone. But that's when his problems began. He faced a third down and couldn't get on the same page with Julian Edelman and wound up throwing one right to linebacker Luke Kuechly and was fortunate the All-Pro dropped it. Things seemed to break down a bit from there as he struggled handling the Panthers pressure, occasionally taking his eyes off his receivers while dealing with the pass rush. He ultimately played 19 snaps in the first half and 27 overall but wasn't able to put any points on the board while completing 9 of 15 passes for just 57 yards. He also was guilty of intentional grounding and was strip sacked once in what was his least productive performance of the summer.
Strange decision – Bill Belichick decided to play Tom Brady for 16 snaps in the first half but that wasn't the decision that was curious. That came late in the first half when the Patriots took over at their 14 with 56 seconds left and all three timeouts at their disposal. Instead of allowing Garoppolo to start to hurry-up drill Belichick decided to have him kneel on the ball. In a regular-season scenario it would make sense to play it safe, leading 9-0 with terrible field position. But in the preseason it seemed like a good opportunity to let Garoppolo try to make something happen with little consequences. Worst case Garoppolo turns the ball over, but even that could have been viewed as a learning experience. Instead they went conservative and it was strange.
Ryan strong debut – Logan Ryan saw his first action of the summer and played exceptionally well. He showed tight coverage throughout the first quarter and came away with a terrific interception off Cam Newton to cap it off. He was stride-for-stride on an early deep ball and then showed great ball skills when he high-pointed Newton's pass and came away with the first of three picks for the Patriots secondary. Ryan wore a red, non-contact jersey most of training camp before recently losing that in favor of his normal blue No. 26. He struggled at times during camp but on Friday night he was as solid as he's ever been.
Roster push –One of the most scrutinized positions on the roster is running back and one of the better stories this summer has been Tyler Gaffney. He got the start and ran well early on, picking up 34 yards on three first-half carries. Gaffney did a nice job finding creases in the Panthers defense and hit then quickly and decisively. He also seemed to maximize his runs by moving the pile forward and continues to make a push at landing a job. LeGarrette Blount turned in one terrific 17-yard run when he leapt over a tackler but was otherwise held in check, finishing with 26 yards on five carries. He was also stuffed on a fourth-and-one near midfield early in the second half.
Jonesin' for more – Rookie Cyrus Jones turned in an electric 60-yard punt return in the third quarter, showing great hands while backtracking to corral Mike Scifres' punt before beating a pair of Panthers coverage men en route to the long return. He also continues to hold the upper hand over Justin Coleman in the battle for the third corner job and was competitive in coverage.
Valentine's night –Rookie Vincent Valentine received his most significant playing time of the preseason when he got the start next to Malcom Brown at defensive tackle. He was rather quiet during his extended time, showing little push in the pass rush and at times getting turned while playing the run. The third-round pick has been quiet during training camp and has received many reps but it was clear the coaches wanted to give him a look with the starters to better assess his value.
Backup plan –Jacoby Brissett enjoyed his best game of the preseason, showing great poise and timing while leading the Patriots to 10 points after replacing Garoppolo late in the third quarter. He completed all nine of his passes for 85 yards and a touchdown, a 12-yard dart to DeAndre Carter on a slant near the goal line. Brissett used play action effectively and appeared to be in control throughout his time in the game, playing more effectively than he's shown in practice throughout camp. There has been some talk of perhaps adding a quarterback once the regular season begins, ostensibly to provide insurance for Brissett as the sole backup. But based on his effort against the Panthers, and what is likely going to be available, that doesn't seem to be much of a priority.
Extra points – The Patriots moved to 3-0 in the preseason for the first time since 2003 and just the second time under Belichick. … Brady returned with a bang by leading a pair of scoring drives on his first two series of the summer, the second coming on a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan. Overall he finished just 3 of 9 for 76 yards. … In addition to Ryan's pick, his Rutgers teammates Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon also came up with interceptions. The Patriots have now forced eight turnovers in three exhibition games. … Terrance Knighton did not play a snap and appears to be in danger of being on the outside looking in when it comes to earning a roster spot. … Nate Ebner made his debut after spending the summer with the U.S. rugby team at the Rio Olympics and made the tackle on the opening kickoff of the game.