Dominating the preseason is like dominating a cupcake. It feels really good until you realize it’s just a cupcake, and you’re likely to hate yourself later for thinking so highly of it, devouring it unabashedly and subsequently blowing up your calorie count. (What, you don’t count calories?)
While the Patriots have made fools of their competition in the preseason, dominating the cupcake so to speak, more than anything we are getting clues to the look and makeup of this 2011 team we can expect both in terms of personnel and weaknesses. Without looking too harshly at how the team performs now, we’ll focus in on tidbits that have intrigued us through training camp and Thursday night’s 31-14 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not trying to be coy here but keep that in mind as we explore the meaning of the meaningless.
1. Not only did we finally get to see TB12 in his first game action since the loss to the New York Jets last winter, we also finally got to see him connect with Chad Ochocinco in a game environment. The two had been working hard on their communication in practice, impressing onlookers enough to forget about Ochocinco’s age (33) with his splendid route running and dogged work ethic. Yet the on field product wasn’t very good. And it wasn’t Ochocinco’s fault. Forget the 8-yard TD pass in the first quarter between the two. Low-hanging fruit if there ever were any. Pay close attention to all of Ochocinco’s targets. Brady’s first pass to Ochocinco led the receiver enough over the middle of the field for him to stretch out for it and get walloped in the process. What would’ve been a "SportsCenter"-esque diving grab, turned into the first of a night full of highlight hits on Patriot players. He followed with the touchdown and later targeted Ochocinco again in the first quarter on one of those patented depth route adjustments to the sideline. On this occasion, Brady was too high on his pass while Ochocinco was too late coming out of his break. Belichick, Brady and Ochocinco clearly intimated that there was much more work that needed to be done for the combo to be better. “We missed a lot of time. A lot of time,” Brady said. “A lot of it is just us trying to communicate. You gotta put the work in. You gotta practice. You gotta make mistakes.” Ochocinco seemed to place any miscommunication on him. “I’m the one part that isn’t up to speed with everybody else.” Whether that might be the case or not, we know that it’s a developing chemistry and that the promise is so obviously there, it’s scary. There’s no need to imagine a team with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Ochocinco, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price. It’s a reality that will work in Brady’s favor, as all are outstanding route runners with decent to above average speed. The extra few series Brady and Ochocinco played in the game – while Patriots fans were worried about every rough hit their franchise quarterback endured – were necessary to that end. And it wouldn’t surprise me if in the next two preseason games Brady was risked in these games more and more to help along Ochocinco. Is it worth it? I think so. But we will see.
2. Sammy Morris, like many others on the team, surprises and perplexes by his presence. He’s seen fewer and fewer touches over the years and is constantly in the “dump him” pile of cut lists. Yet he’s returned again, working his way through this preseason game as the short-yardage back. He had 3 carries for 5 yards and was successful on two 3d-and-1 situations, gaining a first down each time. Similarly, Stevan Ridley in his only short-yardage situation – a 4th and 1 – fumbled. Everybody will have a role come Week 1 and it appears that Morris is doing his best to lock up his for another season through both his successes on the field and the faults of others. The wild card here, which bears interest on the final 53, is the rookie Shane Vereen out of Cal. He suffered a hamstring injury at the beginning of camp and the second-round pick seems to be a cut-worthy candidate without any practice or game action to go on. Touches are already going to be hard to come by.
3.The shuffling of safeties, which has seen a mix and match of pairings throughout each game, is exactly what Patrick Chung had told reporters to be prepared for. The players are ready for anybody to be inserted anywhere. But make no mistake about it, there are jobs on the line. Chung and Sergio Brown played a ton in the first team defense all week in practice leading into the game, but as was the case against Jacksonville, Chung lined up with Brandon Meriweather to start. While the trio found themselves working with one another at certain spots, it’s plain as day that Meriweather is battling Brown for his place in the starting lineup. He had a couple of good licks on Tampa Bay receivers, including one where he noticeably passed up a kill shot after Woodhead was blasted on a punt return, opting for a more league friendly hit at the waist. But Brown was also called for a horse collar on punt coverage – a big no-no because of its 15-yard price tag. On the other hand, Meriweather found himself chasing down Buccaneers receivers after a rash of bad coverage, something he is all too familiar with. Without James Sanders available and with Bret Lockett going down with a thigh injury, it’s hard to gauge whether or not there will be any other saviors for the secondary already on the roster. Losing out on Dashon Goldson and working out Darren Sharper were big clues into Belichick’s dissatisfaction with the group, but it’s also unclear which mix of the trio works best together – and in which package. Chung can often line up at strong or free, and has lined up as a nickel corner, too. His versatility, toughness and speed has made him a staple of the group. Meriweather, it appears, is best when he’s at free safety and able to freelance – something Belichick is not too fond of. So with almost a month of training camp and two preseason games, we can all pretty much say it’s a crapshoot. But if I had to, I’d put my money on Brown.
4. Can the Patriots deal with a running quarterback? Josh Johnson is not Michael Vick, but he sure did break loose of the defense, rushing for 24 yards on three carries. By the numbers, it doesn’t seem like much. But it gave sense to what could be an alarming trend for the Patriots. Again, Johnson is not Vick. But Vick is on the schedule. As is slippery Big Ben Roethlisberger, Tim Tebow and Ryan Fitzpatrick to a lesser extent. The Patriots know they have some things to pin down before the season starts. Let’s hope that their containment defense is high on the priority list because it’s not just the random scramble that spurned the defense, but bootlegs to both sides of the field.
5. Belichick made the call of the game when he rushed in backup QB Brian Hoyer for one play just to see how he would respond in a moment’s flash. He was promptly pulled again for Tom Brady, who finished the first quarter and then finished the half. Hoyer didn’t have a memorable outing by any means (1 of 4 for 6 yards). On the play, he completed a pass to Green-Ellis for six yards. Hoyer continues to compete with rookie Ryan Mallett for the No. 2 QB spot but he’s obviously ahead of the youngster. Mallett didn’t help his cause in Tampa, misfiring on a number of opportunities and getting intercepted on a floater that was returned for a touchdown. (Mallett got hit while throwing the ball and then got whacked again on the interception return. I’m sure he’d like to take that whole play back.) While the two preseason games have been a showcase for each in the competition, the next two may end up being a function of Brady’s season tune-up and Mallett’s game filler. Hoyer, who will still have to be ready to play whenever, might not be needed at all. But it’s good to know he can respond with a second’s notice.