Here are some thoughts and observations from the Patriots second preseason game, a 42-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
1. Nothing is safe at safety — Kyle Arrington started at safety for the Patriots opposite Devin McCourty. Arrington’s play and toughness has often been referenced by Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who he has used both as a starting cornerback, a slot corner and now back deep, a new and different look for all involved. Belichick actually addressed Arrington’s possible use at safety early on in the week.
“I think Kyle has a really good skillset to play anywhere back there,” Belichick told reporters Monday. “He’s fast, he’s tough, [and] he’s a good tackler, which your safeties need to be. Not that your corners don’t need to be, but I’d say it’s even more important at safety. He tackles well, he runs well, he’s a very athletic player. So I’d say his toughness and his tackling are similar to Devin [McCourty], same type of player who played corner to safety with similar type skills – speed, range, toughness. Those assets you need at safety, and Devin has them and Kyle has them.”
Arrington, who is waiting to see how he looks on film before declaring whether or not he was comfortable, has disrupted the training camp competition at the position. Along with Logan Ryan, who got his first snaps at safety Friday, the Patriots appear to be uncomfortable with Duron Harmon (two tackles, one interception), Patrick Chung (one tackle), and Tavon Wilson. Wilson sat out of Friday’s game with an injury after starting last week against Washington.
What’s more, with the integration of Alfonzo Dennard into the Patriots lineup after his injury, the emergence of cornerback Malcolm Butler, and both Arrington and Ryan’s versatility, the Patriots may not need the plethora of defensive backs they have now. The select few — McCourty, Arrington, Dennard, Ryan, Butler, Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner — are ahead of the rest of the pack. And now, it appears the coaches view an all cornerbacks secondary (including McCourty) as an option that can’t be passed up. Others will certainly feel the squeeze.
2. Ryan Mallett shows growth — Call it baby steps. But it did appear that backup quarterback Ryan Mallett improved over his last outing, finishing 7 of 11 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown Friday against the Eagles. His touchdown strike, a 17-yard pass on a fly route to Brian Tyms, was precisely the kind of bold decision making that he had lacked in previous outings. And for once, he put the ball in a position where a number of receivers could make plays. (Tyms had another opportunity to catch a pass from Mallett in the end zone that was dropped.) And then he gave us some added value by showing off his (limited) mobility. He ended up with nine yards rushing after taking two sacks. But he also had a 6-yard rushing touchdown. It was a win-win for Mallett on Friday despite entering the game after rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (who continued to impress). Mallett’s journey is all about small wins now. He needs to have as many good outings as possible for his next job and he’s got only two more opportunities left.
3. The logjam at wide receiver — On another team, Josh Boyce would be a coveted receiver. He’s got good measurables, decent speed, and was productive in college. But now, in his second year with the Patriots, he’s on the brink of losing his job thanks to a logjam at his position. Including Boyce, the Patriots have eight wide receivers worthy of a roster spot, making this year’s 75-man and 53-man roster cuts even more interesting. Boyce caught two passes for 31 yards and had a carry for another 13. He’s been outplayed by Kenbrell Thompkins (three receptions for 32 yards, one touchdown) and Brian Tyms (three receptions for 29 yards, one touchdown) this preseason. While receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson, and Matthew Slater appear to be locks to make the roster, the only wiggle room the Patriots have is with Boyce, Thompkins and Tyms. After what you can consider was Tom Brady’s most open support for a player in Thompkins (“I’ve got so much confidence in him and what’s he’s been able to do”) that there really is only two players to consider when the cuts come. Where does that leave Boyce? Where does that leave Tyms? We’ll keep asking until one of them is gone.
4. What losing Jerod Mayo means — The Patriots are increasingly utilizing the 3-4 defensive grouping with defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones operating as the team’s outside linebackers. These are not new roles for Ninkovich, a converted linebacker, and Jones, who played a bit of OLB last season. But it’s still one that is a cause for adjustment, particularly with Jerod Mayo out of the mix. The Patriots are relying on Dont’a Hightower to shepherd the defense and Jamie Collins to supplement as an inside linebacker in his stead. But Collins, with his speed and athleticism, is best used on the outside ‘backer to help cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. For Jones, who has appeared at times awkward in his duties on the outside, there seems to be no limit in the responsibilities thrown his way. The Patriots continue to rely heavily on him because he is one of the team’s favorite players and most dynamic talents. But that doesn’t mean his newfound responsibilities in the 3-4 naturally fit with his playing style. Jones is at his best when he’s rushing the passer and setting the edge. Considering that Mayo has been sidelined for the past week, had the Patriots defensive captain been available it is likely that roles of each member would have shifted. In a perfect world, Jones would have remained a defensive end in the 3-4, Collins would have been on the outside, and Joe Vellano (the starting defensive end) would have taken a seat. It’s easy to see that losing Mayo, along with linebacker James Anderson, has set the Patriots starting defense adrift as it continues to use the 3-4 more and more.
5. Long snappers need to be better — There were two botched punts, including one that was blocked, as well as a missed field goal attempt. All in all, it was poor performance by the Patriots special teams unit on a night when the weather wasn’t even a factor. It appeared long snapper Tyler Ott and linebacker Darius Fleming weren’t on the same page during one Ryan Allen punt, allowing for it to be blocked by the Eagles’ Arrelious Benn. And then in the third quarter, the team’s other long snapper Danny Aiken fumbled his snap to Allen, who scrambled to recover it and punt it away. I’m sure the group just wants to forget this day. But for these two long snappers, who are battling for a job with each other, there’s really no excuse. They need to better.