The Patriots opened the preseason with a 22-11 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The starters didn't get much playing time but there were more than a few significant players who received extended looks. Here are some random thoughts from tonight's game.
-Situationally Speaking – Bill Belichick had to love the way this preseason opener unfolded with regards to the various situations that came up. The defense got several opportunities to come up with fourth-down stops, including a couple on the goal line and another on a short-yardage run. He also saw three two-point conversions attempted including one that the Patriots picked up with a Jonas Gray run. When the Patriots stopped one of the Packers fourth-down attempts it created an opportunity for Jimmy Garoppolo to run a two-minute drill from around midfield and that drive ended with a 56-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Belichick often creates situations in practice but to have them materialize organically under game conditions had to have the coach feeling good.
-Brady's return - OK, Tom never went anywhere but it was still a pretty cool moment at Gillette Stadium when No. 12 emerged from the tunnel to a thunderous ovation, and then even more so when he took the field to start the game. But why did he play when many reports indicated that he wouldn't? Knowing Belichick we'll likely never know but I have a theory. When news broke earlier in the day indicating that Brady would not have to appear in New York next week for another hearing, I think Belichick may have changed his mind. If Brady was forced to miss that Aug. 19 practice -- a valuable joint session with the Saints -- the coach may have felt compelled to play Brady in the game against New Orleans so he could get back those lost reps. Last year Belichick told us Brady's heavy workload in practice against Washington was more than enough to compensate for the fact that he didn't play in the Redskins game. Now that he won't miss any practice time, a fact Belichick didn't know until Thursday, perhaps he altered the plan. Of course he may have simply wanted Brady to enjoy the embrace of the home crowd that he so richly deserved and next week had nothing to do with it. Either way put us in the corner of the fans who were thrilled to see TB12.
-Corner concerns –Malcolm Butler has been the man at left corner all summer and he performed well in his brief time on the field. But the other spot has been a concern and interestingly rookie Darryl Roberts got the starting nod against the Packers. He allowed some completions to Jordy Nelson, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed about, but he competed well and did not appear out of place. Robert McClain saw a lot of action in the slot and also performed well. Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher weren't as successful, particularly Ryan. The third-year corner figures to be in the mix for a starting job but he struggled against some of the Packers backups, including Jeff Janis, who caught a long touchdown behind him. The spot very much remains a work in progress.
-Young impressions – In addition to Roberts, the Patriots rookie class got plenty of opportunities. Jordan Richards was in early and often, as were Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom. Flowers flashed before leaving with an injury, coming up with a huge sack after beating David Bakhtiari off the edge. Guards Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason went almost wire to wire and both were involved in Gray's long touchdown run. And first-round pick Malcom Brown was a solid presence in the middle of the defensive line. He was one of the front four involved on a key fourth-and-short stop in the first quarter, a play in which the Patriots defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage.
-Judging Judge – Joe Judge is replacing special teams coach Scott O'Brienand things did not go well in his first game in charge. The overall performance wasn't bad – Josh Boyce had a couple of solid kick returns and Gostkowski booted a 56-yard field goal – but there was some sloppiness the boisterous coach was likely not happy about. The Patriots got called for a pair of 15-yard penalties while covering punts, the first against Daxton Swanson for failing to return to the field of play immediately after being blocked out of bounds and the second a personal foul on Duron Harmon in the second half. Some chaotic moments on special teams are to be expected in preseason openers but two 15-yard penalties made for a tough start.
-Sheard debut –Jabaal Sheard enjoyed a solid start to his Patriots career, showing up occasionally on the pass rush and even collapsing the left side of the line on the defense's big fourth-down stop. Sheard showcased a couple of different pass rush moves, the most impressive coming on an inside swim that freed him up for a quick pressure. Sheard has been used inside in sub situations during camp and he appears to be a solid candidate to join Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in a three-man rotation as pass rushers.
-Boyce returns –It wasn't the best night as a receiver for Josh Boyce but the young wideout did show some speed on a pair of kick returns. He averaged 27.7 yards on his three attempts, which included returns of 31 and 35 yards. He'll obviously need to be more consistent as a receiver in order to stick around and make his presence felt but he did provide a spark in the return game.