Thankfully, even though it was the all-important dress rehearsal, the third preseason game is still very much just a preseason game.
Friday night in Carolina the Patriots struggled in plenty of areas on both sides of the ball in a 25-14 loss to the Panthers.
Gone were the big plays on defense and precision passing game of a week earlier against Philly. This time, with starters playing for both teams on both sides of the ball, Bill Belichick's squad just never found much of any positive consistency.
Despite Rob Gronkowski making his preseason debut and Tom Brady playing the entire first half, the Patriots had eight drives before halftime that ended in punt, field goal, missed field goal, punt, punt and fumble.
While the offense had its issues, the defense was similarly suspect as tackling, pass rush and coverage all were less than stellar.
Again, though, the fact that New England finished the third preseason game with seemingly no major injuries is a major positive. That the game doesn't really count, certainly won't keep Belichick from breaking down the tape and coaching the heck out of the players involved in the poor play. LaAdrian Waddle's unnecessary roughness call that got him benched will be very much noted. Derek Rivers failing to be on the field for a two-point play on defense will be dealt with.
But the real games and the regular season opener are still two-plus weeks away. This was another step in the process building toward the games that count, albeit a somewhat ugly one.
"I think we all would have liked to play better," Brady said. "Hopefully we can take something from it, get back to work and see if we can do a better job next time."
"They outplayed us across the board for four quarters. We have a lot work to do. There really wasn't any part of the game that was competitive," Belichick said.
Before moving on to the final preseason contest in New York next Thursday night against the Giants and the impending roster decisions, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from the loss in Carolina:
Phillip Dorsett – There has been plenty of focus on the need for Brady to find complementary targets to get comfortable with rather than just throwing to proven, reliable options that he's found success with in the past. Dorsett took a step in the right direction against the Panthers. He caught all four passes thrown his way for 36 yards. That included a nice grab on a fourth-down play as well as a 16-yard long on a sight adjustment quick-hitch on which he made the first defender miss. Dorsett continues to get early reps with guys like Brady, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. Friday night he made the most of those reps as he continues to prove his worth. "Phil did a good job," Brady said. "He made some plays. He's grinding it out, trying to find a role."
Eric Rowe – The pass defense wasn't great. But Rowe had a nice early pass defense on a Newton pass over the middle. He had tight coverage and smoothly reached across to bat the ball away. The veteran seems to have asserted himself as the No. 2 cornerback option as the regular season draws closer.
Ja'Whaun Bentley – The rookie linebacker celebrated his birthday with action that began on the third defensive series of the night. He again showed the ability to cover, sticking with tight end Greg Olsen on a short completion. He tied for a game high with five tackles and has seemingly made it clear that he not only is destined to make the roster but also should be in line for at least rotational reps on defense this season.
Jonathan Jones – After opening the summer on PUP due to an ankle injury, the third-year cornerback has practiced the last couple weeks and finally made his preseason debut in Carolina. The veteran was on the field early and didn't appear any worse for the wear. He may be in line to be the top slot cornerback heading into the regular season.
Stephon Gilmore – New England's No. 1 cornerback had a tough game for the second time in three preseason contests. Gilmore gave up consecutive 28-yard gains in the first quarter. The first was pretty back-shoulder throw from Newton. The second saw Gilmore get spun around like a top for a too-easy completion. He did have a nice pass defense on the goal line, but the former Pro Bowler faces high expectations in his second season in Foxborough.
Jason McCourty – The veteran trade addition saw work at safety for the first time in his career. That wouldn't seem to be a good sign for his standing with the team. He also gave up a big play early in his work at safety, though he bounced back later with a nice tackle on a run play on the goal line. McCourty was supposedly brought in to compete for the No. 2 cornerback job, but right now it looks like he's fighting for a roster spot and has yet to prove himself worthy of any specific role in the secondary.
Eric Decker – He's only been on the roster a couple weeks, but the veteran still doesn't seem comfortable. He didn't get early reps with Brady. He did end up catching two of the five passes thrown his way later in the game, but also had an ugly drop down the middle, something that's plagued him on the practice field this summer. Even with a lack of bodies or proven options at receiver, Decker is far from a lock to make the roster at this point.
Tackling – One of the glaring issues early on defense was some poor tackling. That was particularly notable with defensive end Deatrich Wise. The second-year end, who has had a very strong summer, couldn't quite get his hands on Christian McCaffrey on a couple early runs. Wise wasn't the only one to miss tackles in the game, an area of concern for the defense in two of the three preseason games this summer.
What do you think of our lists? Additions or alterations?