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Random Observations from Patriots Preseason Game 1 vs. Washington

I wasn't expecting to get an invitation to Gillette last night for the Patriots first (and only) home Fauxball game this year, much less to seats five rows behind the Patriots bench. But the daily grind of laboring without rest, giving everything I have to cover this team without any regard to my own needs, is not without its few bright moments. Just note that anything I say here is without the benefit of replays, other than the ones they posted on the new video board in the south end zone in Gillette. (Which is spectacular, by the way. Like looking at a 1080p TV the size of a strip mall. Next summer the Krafts should hold movie nights on the field. I could watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy extended cut on that thing and wouldn't take a bathroom break.) So I could be dead wrong on half the things I say here and probably missed quite a bit. 

Besides, like I always say this time of year, preseason is about impressions, not conclusions. I don't care about the numbers. If it were up to me they'd keep score like you do in Tee Ball and just tell both teams they won on the ride home as you stop at Dairy Queen. But still, it's one major leap closer to actual football. Like getting to see a great band rehearse before they go on tour. Whereas training camp is like watching one of their tribute bands. And practices in shorts and shells are like watching the tribute bands tribute band. Beatlemania Mania. 

So I'm over the moon about getting to see something we can actually draw impressions from. Plus this was the first time anyone's gotten to watch the Pats from the stadium since The Before Times. The last play with fans in attendance was Tom Brady throwing a pick-6 to Logan Ryan in a Wild Card loss. My personal last time was the week before, when they gave up a lead on the final drive by Miami and lost a playoff bye. Just on that note alone, this was an occasion of pure joy. That major part of our life that was taken away by a pathogen and now we got to have it back. (I swear to you with blood in my eyes not to try and fuck with us, variants.) Here's what I saw from my vantage point:

--We're lucky we even got this thing in on time because just before kickoff it was the first act of War of the Worlds where it's all swirling, charcoal-black clouds and Tom Cruise is noticing the lightning is coming from the ground up. Ushers  were telling people to run across the concourse by the lighthouse and get away from open ground. On a 90 degree night with the humidity reading at around "Sauna," the sight of a random cross section of Americans in the Pepperoni Stuffed Crust Age suddenly trying to put on the afterburners they haven't fired up since their last high school gym class was scarier than the idea of taking a bolt out of the blue. Fortunately for all, Ernie Adams ceded the controls of the secret Weather Machine over to Matt Patricia, who's got an Engineering degree, so he knew how to keep everyone safe. Though I wouldn't have minded getting struck, just on the 0.1% chance I'd get a superpower out of the deal. 

--The first notable scene was the response when Cam Newton came out, which was a huge round of prolonged cheers. Aside from a few practices, New Englanders haven't had a chance to watch him in person. And speaking for the group, I think they're thanking him for a lot of things. Coming here late in a Bizarro World offseason last year with a short camp. Battling through Covid. Being a great teammate. Being accountable. Working hard and having a great attitude. The public is split on who they want to have at quarterback. But that's business, not personal. Pats fans sincerely appreciate Newton, regardless of how enthusiastic they are about his passing of footballs. 

--That said, they cheered Mac Jones more. This is the tail end of a full minute long standing O:

And when it looked like Washington had tied it up with a minute to go, before the officials waited 20 minutes before reversing the call on the 2-point conversion, it wasn't the 2015 MVP they were demanding to see:

--I have many thoughts about many players, including a surprise choice for the guy I thought stood out the most for New England, but I know enough not to bury the lede here. While there were nice plays and some >ahem< teachable moments from both quarterbacks, I give Mac the edge over Cam in this battle of The Palindrome War. 

--I understand that statistically they were about even, it's not just about the numbers. The offense just runs smoother with Jones in there, if that makes sense. More in sync. It looks and feels more like it did when it was at its peak (which, just to be clear, it is light years away from being, regardless of who's under center). The Pats offense is a car with a manual transmission, and Jones is just better at working the clutch and shifting the gears. Newton is more prone to over-revving and shifting before the RPMs are in the red. Even as I say that I realize that probably 5% of our target audience under the age of 40 have ever driven a stick. But believe me, I'm sitting here celebrating my own brilliance for the analogy. 

--Jones tends to get the ball out quicker, more decisively, and with more accuracy. I see him throw to windows where the receiver will be, as opposed to waiting for a guy to get open and then deliver the ball. I feel like he can read through progressions a little faster and is better at looking high-to-low, taking the check down only when the deeper routes aren't coming open. For instance, a play that looked like it was going to Gunner on a deep cross was covered, so he came down to N'Keal Harry on a shallow dig route. 

You can nitpick and say he had Matt LaCosse open crossing the other direction on a mesh, three yards deeper, but Jones took the sure thing and Harry picked up the 1st down. (And the fact Harry is picking up YAC and fighting through tackles should be lost on none of us.)

--Where Newton seems to go underneath more because it's where he's more comfortable. For instance, one incompletion of his went right through James White's hands. But came on a 3rd & like 17, with White two yards behind the line of scrimmage with bodies all around him and had zero chance of picking up any meaningful ground if he had caught it. He also missed White on a screen that was set up to gain some ground, but instead killed the drive.

--And while I said I'm not into the numbers, I lay down the law and break it. Analytics seem to bear out what I'm saying about Cam working underneath:

--Yes, I acknowledge that Newton had a short sample size. And he did get clobbered by Chase Young blowing by Isaiah Wynn. But you can also put some of that on the QB, who is still prone to holding the ball too long, like we saw last year. After all a veteran needs to know that he needs to know where one of the top pass rushers in the league is at all times. Chase Young had 7.5 sacks and 12 QB hits as a rookie and just turned 22. Meaning his name doubles as his description. You need to track his whereabouts at all time and be ready to get the ball out fast. So that one is partly on Cam. 

--I want to be fair and not give Jones credit for his incompletions, but again, this is my dojo, my rules. His first attempt to Jakobi Meyers was a catch, but the officials didn't feel like calling it one and Belichick didn't feel like wasting everyone's time with a challenge. He put a deep ball into the end zone and Kristian Wilkersons hands, a pass Wilkerson himself says he should've had, though he was carrying a corner like a fanny pack and it would've taken a hell of a catch. And on about a 40 yard corner route against a defender with inside leverage on Gunner Olszewski, Jones led The Gun Show too far by about a half a step, to the outside away from the coverage. A great shot down field and a safe throw. Just not as precise as it needed to be. Still, you can't watch Jones total body of work last night or all through camp and argue he doesn't look the part of a professional NFL quarterback. 

--While I don't to put too much stock in body language, after having to spend the years 2017-19 looking for non-verbal clues as to the level of pissed-offness in the quarterback of the time because they'd drafted his successor and wouldn't give his wellness guru free airfare to the away games, there is something to be said about the way Jones carries himself. When he's on the sidelines, he's locked in. Looks anxious to get back out there, in practice reps as well as last night. He sticks closer to Josh McDaniels than Andrew Cuomo does to a pretty government employee. The point being that, if you think he's not ready for the spotlight after playing for frigging Alabama, you've got him all wrong. How he'll play when he does get in and how he'll respond once he has the inevitable three interception game is anybody's guess. But the moment is not too big for him by any stretch. 

--The perfect segue to get away from the quarterback talk is to mention that on this play, the first guy downfield to jump on Rhamondre Stevenson was Newton:

Holy smokes. This kid is 245 pounds. When asked about him, RB coach Ivan Fears had nothing positive to say. He just hard-graded him like Professor Snape, talking about all the work he had to do to be better at everything. So I've just assumed he was destined for a redshirt year like Damien Harris had in 2019. But for him to be able to take his LeGarrette Blountian steamroller frame, turn a corner and outrun everyone - including defensive backs - and go 91 yards like this? He could be a weapon in an already deep running back room. 

--I don't know what all the reception numbers were. What I do know is that Meyers is the Patriots best receiver at the moment. Not the biggest deep threat or guy you need to put your top corner on or the best candidate for bracket coverage. Just their best receiver. He's going to set up shop in the middle of the field in the space between the numbers, behind the D-line and in front of the deep safeties like Jabbar in the paint and wreak havoc. I still believe Olszewski has been destined by fate to be a slot receiver, but unquestionably Meyers is the slot guy for this year. And if they pay him, next year and beyond. 

--Without Hunter Henry dressed, we got a lot of looks I wasn't expecting when the year began. One tight end sets with a fullback, 11-personnel with three receivers. Plus a few spreads with one back or empty. And Jonnu Smith continued the body of work he's done throughout camp, being their primary tight end target who looks totally assimilated into the system:

--Defensively, we've come to expect that the scheme is vanilla in the preseason, and adds flavors and toppings as we go. And last night was pretty much 0% fat plain Greek yogurt. But still delicious after going so long without any dairy at all. It was almost all base 30-fronts. They stopped the run for the most part, putting Washington in a lot of 3rd & longs. Which they'll need to do all year. I heard yesterday they had six games last year where they gave up 5.0+ yards per carry, and went 1-5 in them. So I'm assuming Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson were in the mix up front a lot, but don't quote me on that. I can confirm that Kyle Van Noy was making plays sideline-to-sideline like Kyle Van Noy does. Dont'a Hightower saw a lot of action early on. And Ju'Whaun Bentley was alongside those two in the base alignments. Matt Judon on the outside looked like a guy who justified his Franchise tag last year. He's quick, can set an edge, rush and drop into coverage on flats and curls. The linebacker corps could be as big an improvement year-to-year as the tight ends.

--Possibly my favorite stop they made came in the red zone, when the Football Team (it still sounds as awkwardly place holdery as ever. Why not just go with Team to Be Named Later?) came out in a short yardage look, with three tight ends and two backs and the Pats were in their goal line D, Washington then passed out of the formation and it was broken up. That kind of scheme versatility is what made them the No. 1 defense in the league in 2019 and was missing last year. 

--My pick for best surprise of the night? Which I know you are dying for? Ronnie Perkins. The third round (96th overall) defensive end out of Oklahoma really stood out to me. He got a ton of snaps and was involved in a lot of tackles, and spent considerable time in the WFT backfield. Including this play where he used the right tackle to bludgeon Kyle Allen into an interception. 

It's the first real impression we've been able to get of the rookie, aside from him taking one-on-one instruction from Tedy Bruschi after practice. It seems like he's been listening and taking notes. 

--Joejuan Williams interception was not a fair indicator of how he's been playing. He's pretty much been the masked wrestler from Parts Unknown sent into the ring to make N'Keal Harry look good. Then last night got beaten along the sideline in the end zone. If I can talk about myself in the third person for a second, The Belichick Whisperer [tm] predicted they'd take Williams two years ago, but he can't argue the pick is working out. He's 6-foot-3 but is just one of those athletes who plays smaller than he is. 

--Williams was primarily in with the 2s, 3s, and infinities. The starters against Washington's primarily 3-WR sets were JC Jackson, Jonathan Jones in the slot, and Jalen Mills, with Michael Jackson Sr. rotating in. Personally, I think Mills' best asset is the fact he can play 10-15 snaps at each of five different spots in the secondary in the same game. I'm just not feeling him as an every down corner. So let's get this Stephon Gilmore dealio resolved so Steve Belichick can start taking advantage of the guy's versatility.

--The best defender on the Pats last night was Josh Uche. Which shouldn't come as a giant surprise since he flashed at times last year and has looked consistently good throughout camp. But you don't know until you know. Until you see him at full speed against highly trained professional blockers. He was slow to get up at one point and they raised the dreaded blue MASH unit tent. But after a scary minute, he jogged over and seemed fine. Here's the highest praise I can offer Uche. He's wearing No. 55 now. A number previously worn by Chris Singleton in the 90s, Junior Seau, Brandon Spikes (at his peak), and most significantly, Willie McGinest. And it belongs on him. 

--I saw a ton of Cam Newton jerseys in the crowd. And one Mac Jones. All things considered, that one was more impressive than all the Newtons, given the fact Jones' No. 10 had been made public about eight hours before kickoff.

--Lastly, Belichick didn't feel like challenging the Meyers completion, and didn't much appreciate Ron Rivera keeping everybody after work with his red flag throwing:

Granted his look of pure disgust is not in midseason form yet, but that's what preseason is all about. He's just go to be better every day than he was the day before. 

--Damn, this is fun.