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Random Observations from Preseason Game 3: Pats vs. Panthers

Pardon the lateness of this, but I had a long-scheduled comedy show last night and couldn’t really get a decent look at the game from the bar next to the club or listening to the radio call in the car. So I just watched the game this morning. Wait. Strike that. I take back the apology since not only is this just a fauxball game, but a Saturday and, as fate would have it, my birthday. Which I am spending trying to break down what is essentially a playdate with the Panthers and something none of us will ever remember, when I should be crushing 16 ouncers and smoking cigars instead of wearing out my keyboard fingers. So consider yourself lucky you have me at all today. Besides, even by fake football standards it’s not much of a game when the highlight is Belichick wearing a jacket that either:
A) Is his belated tribute to Craig Sager. Or
B) What he’ll be wearing in the saddle at Saratoga today.

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As a reminder, these are just impressions, not conclusions. You don’t look at a second-trimester ultrasound and decide it’s going to be one ugly baby:

–My first and biggest impression is that on defense, they were themselves at their most maddening. Or at least a dress rehearsal of themselves at their most maddening. Giving up long, clock-draining drives. Playing back by the outfield fence to keep plays in front of them and allowing long 3rd down conversions. And giving a lot of chunk plays on runs because the Sam linebacker or strong safety gets kicked out, leaving a mile-wide gap between the edge and the defensive end. And way too much of the kind of shitty tackling we saw in the Super Bowl when they treated the Eagles’ ballcarriers like your toddler in the backyard when you’re going “Oh no! I can’t catch him!!!” They stiffened up in the red zone virtually every time. But if I have to prepare myself for another season of “Bend, Don’t Break” I need somebody to let me know now so I don’t get my hopes up they’ll actually force punts and turnovers like great defenses do.

–Another familiar move by a still-unfamiliar guy is Adrian Clayborn doing a great job of fighting off blocks and then diving inside to lose containment on a great running QB like Cam Newton. I’m convinced that that exact type of freelancing – and not gas station synthetic pot – is the reason Chandler Jones was sent to Arizona. Whereas a Rob Ninkovich was allowed to play out his career because he knew how to set an edge without trying to play hero ball. I love what I’ve seen out of Clayborn so far, but he’s got to clean that up or he’ll be gone too.

–Stephon Gilmore is playing better than the yards he gave up might indicate. Yes, he got turned around by Curtis Samuel on a pivot route for a big gain. But he spent all night stride-for-stride with receivers, even on that deep back shoulder thrown to Devin Funchess. They might have 99 problems but Gilmore isn’t one of them.

–I’m also working through the Kubler-Ross Model of Accepting the Patriots are Replacing Malcolm Butler with Eric Rowe. I’m not at “Acceptance” quite yet, but I’m getting there. That deep ball he batted away at the goal line was played as well as anyone is capable in a league where defense has been criminalized. And he doesn’t appear to be getting targeted too much, so it bears watching to see if his assignments are just not getting open on him

–Jason McCourty is another story altogether. They actually had him at safety for the first time in his life. And for the most part, I’d say he looked like a guy who was at safety for the first time in his life. Less like a guy being told to do the same job only 20 yards deeper than like Julian Edelman when they put him back there on an emergency basis in 2011. And on that one play when he allowed Samuel to cross his face on a deep out to put Carolina at 1st & goal he looked like Owen Wilson letting Rachel McAdam beat him in Wedding Crashers. Hopefully this was just an experiment to see if he can make the switch like his brother did. But without a doubt he has been the biggest disappointment on the roster so far.

–JC Jackson though, continues to be a pleasant surprise, albeit going mostly against guys who in a few weeks will be out testing Trump’s claims of 6 million available jobs. He sniffed out a screen pass and came downhill to hold it to no gain. Followed a tight end in motion across the formation, read run, set the edge and then combined with Elandon Roberts for the TFL. He’s been making an impression at practices too and I’ll be crushed if he somehow is a roster casualty.

–Adam Butler got called for Roughing the Passer on a play where he drilled Taylor Heinicke in the belt buckle with his shoulder pad. I get that they over officiate in the preseason, but we’re getting to the point they need to put a dayglo orange circle on the area you can hit a QB. Or just give them red shirts and stop this madness.

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–Offensively, the most telling moment was a 3rd & goal when the line gave Brady enough time and space to cook a thick ribeye to a perfect medium rare and he had to check down to James Develin, how immediately got ragdolled by Luke Kuechley. Because nobody else was open. In a twisted, counter-intuitive way, it’s almost a good thing Edelman will miss the first month because it will force Brady to get to know somebody besides him, Gronk, James White and Chris Hogan. Sometimes you just have to show up to the frat mixer without your roommate and meet new people.

–I’m starting to get convinced that Phillip Dorsett will be one of those people. On a few plays he was able to leave his feet and pull down high passes without losing speed. He looks to know where Brady expects him to be, like when he was iso’d on a 2X1 receiver set and ran a little dig route where the ball was in the air before his break. He’s yet another 5’10” slot guy, but at least he seems to be picking up the reads.

–Cordarelle Patterson, not so much. Not yet anyway. Brady missed him wide open when he cut inside and the ball went out, obviously because Patterson didn’t know his assignment. But I like how they’re making use of him. Getting him the ball on short routes, shallow crosses and the bubble screens that are the rock upon which the church of this offense is built, and lettim him use his ball return skills to pick up yards.

–At this point, I don’t know what the hell to make of Eric Decker. He had one catchable ball broken up, which might have just been great defense. And he got wide open on a deep post but Brian Hoyer led him out of bounds. Plus he had a false start penalty. It just speaks screams volumes that he’s out there in the 4th quarter getting overthrown by Hoyer instead of trying to gain the trust of the only guy who’ll be throwing passes this year (God willing). And he’s not alone getting airmailed by Hoyer. He lobbed one over Patterson who was so far open up the seam that a drone strike on him wouldn’t have hurt anyone else. God, if they do need Hoyer to take meaningful snaps (again, please be willing, God), the mob that wanted them to pay Jimmy Garoppolo $30 million to hold a Microsoft tablet will be insufferable. More than they already are.

–Now for the Lightning Round: Trent Brown looked good. LaAdrian Waddle had a bad night. Ju’Whaun Bentley continues to be the rookie standout and looks like a starter. Nicholas Grisby flashes at times and has a name like a Harry Potter character. I have more, but it’s my birthday and I’m way too sober. But won’t be for long. We’re onto beers and cigars.