Thursday, August 13, 2015

Five Reasons to Watch the Preseason

If you’re asking yourself: why give up a nice August evening to watch a bunch of football scrubs compete for jobs most of them will never get -- you’ve come to the right place. Most years there isn’t much to watch in the preseason; the games are tedious and fewer than half the plays feature players you care about.

However, that is not the story this year, at least not for Patriots fans. For the first time since 2006, New England lost significant free agents without players ready to take their place. And combined with the uncertainty of quarterback Tom Brady’s looming suspension, this preseason will provide more intrigue than any since the arrival of Bill Belichick 15 years ago.

So, if you’re tired of Deflategate talk (who isn’t?), it’s time to tune-in and watch the team build the best team they can from the parts they have. The preseason is still the preseason, but here are five reasons to pay attention to August football, New England style.

1. Suspension of Disbelief

Barring injury Brady will start most of the 2015 games, everyone knows that. But if the season commences with him under Goodell’s thumb instead of under center, it’ll be second-year QB Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm. Brady has already been ruled out of the first preseason game, so it’ll be the Jimmy show versus Green Bay tonight

Matt Flynn’s chances at the spotlight fell short when his hamstring didn’t allow him to practice. And recent signee Ryan Lindley simply doesn’t have enough time to take the backup role away from Garoppolo.

If Brady’s suspension holds up (or his knee, for example, doesn’t) these four meaningless games will be a preview of what to expect from Garoppolo in September. That alone is reason enough to watch every down.

2. Patriots Secondary Indefensible?

The day Darrelle Revis took his talents to northern New Jersey, the same hideous nightmare possessed every Patriots fan: will the defense revert back to its 2010-2013 form? Those defenses lacked secondary talent and were the embodiment of a bend-and-then-break system that put all the pressure on the offense.

The Patriots won 55 games during that time. But regular watchers of the team know that was smoke and mirrors. The fact that they never stepped back record-wise is testament to maximizing the offense and letting other teams crumble in big spots.

This year, with Revis gone, along with corners Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard, the team has fewer options against high-powered offenses. And fans rightly worry that things could look a lot like three years ago instead of last year.

The team is obviously banking on a permanent switch to the 4-3 to collapse the pocket from inside, meanwhile hoping outside speed gets to the passer. The linebackers are gifted enough to cover the short- and medium-zones, so they are hoping the pass rush gets the QB before receivers can get deep. Sounds good in theory, but how will it play out on the field.

In the pre-season games, note who gets the majority of reps inside among Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Chris Jones, Dominique Easley, and rookie Malcom Brown. If any of them can push the pocket and occasionally tackle a running back, expect them to get more time in the regular season.

Also, keep an eye on ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and newcomer Jabaal Sheard. Their ability to get consistent outside pressure on the QB without giving up big runs around end is the key to the defense.

And while you’re marveling at the play of rising stars, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, it makes sense to see how Jerod Mayo has recovered from his 2014 season-ending injury. If this trio stays healthy, they make up one of the most flexible linebacking corps in the league. But if Mayo goes down again, there aren’t a lot of options to fill his position.

3. The Return of Two Tight Ends

When the Patriots traded guard Logan Mankins for tight end Tim Wright last year, it appeared that the two tight-end offense was back for the first time since Aaron Hernandez landed in the clink. It didn’t quite work out that way. Wright was okay, but only started two games and his six touchdowns all came in blowout wins.

Wright returned to Tampa Bay in the off season, and the Pats replaced him with long-time Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler. Chandler’s stats aren’t eye-popping, but remember that his quarterbacks haven’t been nearly what he’ll have this year in Brady. More importantly, at 6’ 7”, Chandler offers another jump-ball option at the goal line.

Even in the unlikely event that Chandler doesn’t catch a single touchdown pass this season, just having another threat will open up the field for the Patriots other weapons. And in a year when they lost running back Shane Vereen, having more versatility in the passing game is crucial.

In the next four games, watch how many passes Brady throws Chandler’s way. A tight end can’t thrive without the trust of his quarterback. So it means more for Chandler to get two targets a game from Brady than 10 from Garoppolo.

4. Baby Got No Back (Running or Corner)

Among running backs, when Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley walked in free agency, and when LeGarrette Blount limped off the field a few days ago, here is what the Patriots lost:

  • 250 rushes for 1,012 yards, 60 catches for 485 yards, and 10 total touchdowns

If Blount is hurt, expect back Jonas Gray to step up (he was actually the team’s 2014 leading rusher, with 412 yards on the season). Watch how many reps Gray gets with the starters; that’ll tell you a lot about how bad Blount’s injury is.

In camp it appears James White might replace Vereen on third-down duty. But watch out for veteran Brandon Bolden, who has the size to take on blitzing linebackers and has Belichick’s loyalty for some unknown reason.

The preseason games should tell the tale with these two positions. If you see Gray, White, or Bolden playing with the scrubs late in the game, they probably won’t be starters come opening day.

Meanwhile at cornerback, when Revis, Browner, Dennard, and Arrington walked in free agency, here is what the Patriots lost:

  • 33 starts, 146 tackles, and 4 interceptions

No corner on the roster come close to those numbers, so expect a sharp drop-off in play and stats at this position. The hope seems to be that Logan Ryan will finally come into his own and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler can win the other starting job. But someone has to play slot receivers, and there just doesn’t appear to be anyone with Arrington’s unique combination of the right size and the tenacity to take on the shiftier guys in the slot.

In the preseason, watch who covers which receivers. If the team can shore up even one position, it would go a long way toward solidifying the secondary. Also, take note if free agent signees Tarell Brown or Bradley Fletcher get lots of reps with the starters. The team is probably depending on them more than they should, so it’ll be interesting to see if either of them pans out.

Oh, and don’t be surprised if the talent drain forces safety Devin McCourty back to corner. I know, it’s another defensive nightmare. But the team is well-stocked at safety and McCourty knows the defense better than anyone on the team.

(Note: the continuing employment of secondary coach Josh Boyer is a puzzlement. Players seem to get worse, not better, under his tutelage. How he keeps his job is a mystery even Doctor House couldn’t solve.)

5. Special Teams Change

The changes on special teams commanded much less attention this off-season than they should have. Scott O’Brien retired after six years with the organization. And he oversaw a much more aggressive and productive special teams unit than he inherited in 2009.

Joe Judge replaces O’Brien, along with coaching novice Ray Ventrone (a one-time Patriots special teamer). Add to that the risk of using a rookie free-agent at long snapper, and the move of the PAT from 20 yards to 33, and these changes could impact multiple games this year.

As for the preseason, pay careful attention to the long snaps. If you see punters or holders reaching for the snaps, it could spell trouble in a big spot during the regular season. Also, watch for place kicks that are closer to the goalposts than the center of the uprights -- a danger sign. And note if the kicks get more down-the-middle as the preseason progresses.

Also, expect the team is more aggressive about returning kickoffs deep in the end zone. They are one of the few teams that hadn’t gotten on that bandwagon when the NFL moved the kickoff up to the 35-yard line. But new special teams coaches are often more aggressive than those they replace.


There you have it; five reasons to shorten that visit to the BBQ and get in front of the television in time to watch the games, even in August.

It’ll be a lot more interesting than most years. And if you pay close attention, you’ll be ahead of the curve in football talk when the real games begin.

Enjoy the games!

- Scott

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