For the second week in a row the Patriots were badly outplayed early on but once again the backups were able to find a way to get a victory. Here are some random thoughts from New England's 17-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
-Three's a crowd –There's been a lot of discussion regarding the potential replacement for Shane Vereen and Dion Lewis, James White and Travaris Cadet are the leading candidates. But on Friday night we saw Brandon Bolden get some opportunities in that role. He was used as both a receiver and runner on third downs and didn't enjoy much success. He carried the ball five times and managed just 12 yards and was unable to catch the one ball thrown his way. Bolden's bright spot came on a 9-yard run that moved the chains for the first time for the Patriots, but clearly his versatility and special teams ability have him very much in the mix.
-Welcome back –For the first time since last October Jerod Mayo suited up and was on the field in the middle of the Patriots defense. Evidently the long absence made the captain a bit surly because he brought and edge to the field on the very first series of the night. The Patriots faced back-to-back short-yardage situations on the first drive and came up with big stops. Each time it was Mayo's physical presence that led the way as he clogged the hole against Jonathan Stewart on both third and fourth down. Mayo has been quite active throughout training camp and hasn't looked rusty at all on the practice field – and he was not rusty against the Panthers either.
-Brown right on –Tarell Brown has been slow getting into gear this summer after coming off foot surgery in the offseason. He didn't play in the opener and saw limited action in New Orleans. Against the Panthers he got the start at right corner and moved inside to the slot when the Patriots went to their nickel and dime packages. Brown was impressive in the first half with a pair of passes defensed. He showed excellent form in coming over the top to knock passes away each time, and he's clearly established himself as the best option on the right side.
-Missed opportunities – Aaron Dobson had his struggles in his preseason debut, especially early on. He got the start with Tom Brady and the first offense and failed to make a play when given the chance. The most glaring came on the third series when Brady tried to hit him on a deep post when it appeared as if Dobson had a chance to make the play. Brady's throw was a bit behind Dobson and forced him to slow down, but as the receiver reached to grab it he allowed Charles Tillman to get inside his arms and caused him to bobble the ball. Tillman eventually wrestled it away for an interception. In the second half Dobson was able to get deep for a 40-yard gain from Jimmy Garoppolo, but it was the play that he didn't make that stood out.
-Easley does it –Dominique Easley flashed some of the quickness and athleticism that made him a first-round pick in 2014. He shot through the gap from the defensive tackle spot and take down Stewart for a 4-yard loss in the second quarter, and later showed some nice speed and strength when he dragged down Cam Newton for a 13-yard sack. Easley has played all over the front but appears to be best-suited for an inside position where his speed can be tough for guards to handle. Nice flash from the second-year tackle in Charlotte.
-Not so special effort –For the second time in three weeks there were some issues on special teams. The Patriots allowed a pair of lengthy returns – the first a 32-yard punt return by Ted Ginn and the second a 37-yard kick return by Fozzy Whittaker. **Joe Judge's *troops had problems with penalties against Green Bay as well, but there were also some bright spots. Chris Harper turned in a 16-yard punt return to set up a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, and Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 53-yard field goal to provide the winning margin on the following series. Ryan Allen did a nice job of handling a low snap from rookie Joe Cardona on that kick. Cardona has been a bit erratic during the summer, although with no glaring errors thus far.
-Offensive start –Obviously it's nowhere near the time to push the panic button but the play of Tom Brady and the first offense has been troubling to say the least. Brady entered the night having led five drives with just a single first down and no points to show for it. On six drives against Carolina the Patriots first team went three-and-out four times and Brady tossed picks after managing just one first down on each of the other two. Finally on the Patriots seventh series and 12th possession of the preseason Brady led a perfect two-minute drive to close the first half as New England went 80 yards to a touchdown. That drive ended with a perfect lob from Brady to Scott Chandler for an 18-yard touchdown.
-No. 1 corner –Malcolm Butler continues to own the left corner spot and has started each of the three games before watching from the sideline in the second half. While Butler is getting the starter treatment his performances thus far has been a bit uneven – even though the negatives haven't really shown up via statistics. In the opener against Green Bay he allowed* avante Adams* to run past him only to benefit from Aaron Rodgers' underthrown pass. In Carolina he again was torched on a deep ball and this time Corey Brown dropped the sure touchdown. While Butler's aggressiveness has also been on display – particularly on a nice pass breakup on a slant in the first quarter – he's also shown the ability to get beat deep. The latter was something that caught* Bll Belichick's* attention during the game when TV cameras caught him offering some instruction to the young corner regarding the deep ball.