Some might argue they are already there, but what stood out was the way they swarmed the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton, who didn't score during their time on the field (into the third quarter).
Outside linebacker/defensive end Chandler Jones was one of the star performers, working against converted right tackle Byron Bell and picking up two sacks and another tackle for a loss. Meanwhile, the coverage in the secondary was generally up to par and there weren’t as many penalty flags for illegal contact and defensive holding as there were in the first two weeks of the preseason.
Here are some other thoughts on the game:
- No. 2 quarterback Ryan Mallett came on for the third series of the game, before Tom Brady returned for the rest of the half and into the third quarter. We’ve seen Bill Belichick thrust his top backup into the early going of a preseason game unexpectedly in the past, with the message to always be ready. Belichick confirmed in a halftime television interview that was exactly what he was thinking when inserting Mallett into the game.
- Brady was especially sharp (17-of-21, 204 yards, 2 touchdowns). He looks ready to go and there's probably no need to play him in the preseason finale Thursday on the road against the Giants.
- When the Patriots put two versatile running backs in the game at the same time, how will defenses match them? That’s something to consider after watching Shane Vereen catch a short pass from Brady and race 40 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown in the second quarter. Vereen and running back James White were on the field at the same time on the play, as the Patriots used that “pony” grouping six times in the opening half.
- Receiver Josh Boyce, the 2013 fourth-round draft choice from Texas Christian, didn’t play an offensive snap until there was 1:26 remaining in the third quarter. That reflects how he’s decisively behind Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell on the receiver depth chart.
- For the fantasy folks, Vereen’s 26 snaps in the first half of this “dress rehearsal” game were notable. That was easily a team-high among running backs.
- No doubt that kicker Stephen Gostkowski is ready for the regular season. His 60-yard field goal to the closed end of the stadium with three seconds remaining in the second quarter was one of the more impressive plays of the night.
- While not Patriots-specific, it was hard not to be impressed with Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the first-round pick from Florida State. He had his hands full with Darrelle Revis and made some plays.
Tom Brady -- The quarterback looked like he is in midseason form, going 17 of 21 for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
Julian Edelman -- He was Brady's primary target with a team-high eight catches for 99 yards and also delivered an impressive 30-yard punt return in the first quarter.
Stephen Gostkowski -- The kicker hit from 60 yards to cap off an effective two-minute drive at the end of the second quarter.
Chandler Jones -- The outside linebacker/defensive end swarmed all over the field, having his way with converted right tackle Byron Bell in picking up two sacks and making six tackles.
Shane Vereen -- The running back contributed mostly through the air, with his 40-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter the highlight. He was the main running back option in the first half (26 snaps, a team-high among running backs).
Vince Wilfork -- He remains a strong force in the middle of the defense.
James Anderson -- The linebacker failed to finish a tackle on the sideline against running back Jonathan Stewart, allowing him to pick up extra yardage on his 20-yard gain at the end of the first quarter.
Jordan Devey -- The first-year right guard was involved in a play where he appears to mistakenly trip Tom Brady.
Will Smith -- The veteran defensive end was penalized for illegal hands to the face for the second time this preseason.
“Jerod is doing well. He’s making good progress,” Belichick said during his weekly pre-game interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub, without getting into specifics on what is holding Mayo back.
Mayo dressed for Friday night’s preseason game against the Panthers, but Steve Beauharnais started in his place. Mayo hasn’t played in the first half Friday, and isn’t expected to see any action.
“He practiced last week. We’ll see how it goes out here in pre-game warmup today, with some of our players, and probably make a decision on them a little closer to game-time,” Belichick said in the pre-game interview. “Of course, during the regular season we don’t have the luxury of doing that, but in preseason we do.”
OLB: Rob Ninkovich
DE: Tommy Kelly
NT: Vince Wilfork
DE: Joe Vellano
OLB: Chandler Jones
LB: Steve Beauharnais
LB: Jamie Collins
CB: Darrelle Revis
CB: Malcolm Butler
S: Patrick Chung
S: Devin McCourty
Of note: Jerod Mayo isn't starting for the Patriots, as Bill Belichick said in his pregame interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub that the team is managing an injury situation with him. Mayo is dressed for the game.
Also, Butler continues to get a long look against top competition and is competing well. The undrafted cornerback from West Alabama has been one of the surprise stories of training camp and the preseason.
LT: Nate Solder
LG: Logan Mankins
C: Ryan Wendell
RG: Jordan Devey
RT: Marcus Cannon
TE: Steve Maneri
QB: Tom Brady
RB: Shane Vereen
WR: Kenbrell Thompkins
WR: Julian Edelman
WR: Danny Amendola
It's noteworthy that Wendell, the incumbent at center the last two seasons, has earned the start over Dan Connolly, who had started the first two preseason games. Meanwhile, Devey continues to get a long look at right guard, entering the game having played every snap in the first two preseason contests.
TE Rob Gronkowski
WR Aaron Dobson
OT Sebastian Vollmer
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
RB Brandon Bolden
DT Sealver Siliga
LB Cameron Gordon
OL Bryan Stork
OL Chris Martin
DT Dominique Easley
DT Chris Jones
Weather conditions: Temperatures are in the low 70s and expected to be in the high 60s by kickoff. Though it is cloudy, it doesn't appear as if rain is in the forecast.
Those not expected to play: Friday, a list of Patriots not expected to play was posted. Carolina also has some key players out tonight. We will circle back after warm-ups to confirm which Patriots are not in uniform tonight.
Scouts in the house: The Ravens, Lions, Texans, Chiefs, Dolphins, Vikings, Giants, Steelers and Buccaneers are teams with scouts scheduled to be in attendance. The Patriots open the season with road games against the Dolphins and Vikings, and the Panthers open with the Buccaneers, Lions, Steelers and Ravens.
No field markings at Gillette: In a reminder that this is just preseason football, there is once again no Patriots logo at midfield and nothing in the end zones, making this a stripped-down version of the field we're accustomed to seeing at home.
GameDay cover: Bill Belichick is on the cover of the GameDay program being sold at Gillette Stadium tonight.
Cheffers gets the call: Carl Cheffers has been assigned as tonight's referee. Through two weeks of the preseason, his crew has called 21 and 24 accepted penalties, respectively.
National Anthem: Performed by Nicole Burke of Littelton, Mass.
Color Guard: Watertown (Mass.) Police Department Honor Guard.
1. Extended look at the starters: With Panthers coach Ron Rivera saying he plans to play his top players 30-35 plays, and quarterback Tom Brady relaying that Bill Belichick told players to expect a heavy workload, this is as close to a regular-season feel as one can get in the preseason. Brady pointed out this week that the Patriots have been crunched in the third preseason game in two of the past three years, both against the Lions. He would like to see a better performance, and a Panthers team traveling on a short week after playing Sunday sets up nicely for New England.
2. More clarity on backup quarterback? In last Friday's preseason game against the Eagles, rookie Jimmy Garoppolo was brought in before No. 2 signal-caller Ryan Mallett. Our sense was that it was just a case of the coaching staff wanting to see how Garoppolo responded against top-level competition. Garoppolo fared well, so what now? Mallett also played well last week, and perhaps tonight provides some more clarity as to how the Patriots are layering their quarterback depth chart behind Brady.
3. Eyes on Boyce and other perceived bubble players: Is a player like receiver Josh Boyce, the 2013 fourth-round pick out of Texas Christian, really on the roster bubble? On a night when top players are expected to receive significant playing time, we'll be watching closely to see how much time Boyce gets early in the game, both at receiver and as a kickoff returner. At receiver, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Brandon LaFell look to be decisively ahead of him on the depth chart. At kickoff returner, rookie running back Roy Finch has mostly assumed that role through two preseason games.
FALL RIVER, Mass. -- A lawyer for the fiancee of former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez asked a judge Friday to throw out perjury charges, saying Shayanna Jenkins did not willfully lie as she was bombarded with 1,630 questions over two days before a grand jury.
Jenkins has pleaded not guilty in Fall River Superior Court. Prosecutors said she lied to the grand jury nearly 30 times during the investigation into the June 17, 2013, killing of semiprofessional football player Odin Lloyd, who was dating her sister.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to killing Lloyd. He is also separately charged with killing two men in Boston in 2012.
Prosecutors told Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh that Jenkins immediately began to lie to police and continued her lies to the grand jury.
Friday's arguments centered on three lies that prosecutors say Jenkins told to the grand jury regarding her communication with alleged co-conspirator Ernest Wallace, her denial that she knew there were many guns stashed in the home she shared with Hernandez, and her contention that she did not remember where she had disposed of a box she got out of the basement.
Janice Bassil, Jenkins' attorney, said that there is no direct evidence to show her client lied and that errors in her testimony were a "good faith mistake."
"It's got to be more than circumstantial evidence. It's got to be more than guesswork and speculation," Bassil said. "There's no evidence that she said to somebody, 'I'm not going to remember,' or 'I'm going to go the grand jury and say I don't remember."
Bassil submitted into evidence still photos from surveillance footage taken inside Hernandez's home on the night of Lloyd's killing that she said seemed to show Hernandez holding what could be a gun and appearing to hide it from Jenkins.
Bell tolls at left tackle: After longtime stalwart Jordan Gross retired following the 2013 season, one of the bigger questions has been how the Panthers would fill the void. They flipped former undrafted free agent Byron Bell from the right side to the left. Thus, Bell vs. Chandler Jones tonight warrants a closer look.
Depth thinned on right side of offensive line: If the Patriots' pass rush looks explosive coming off the left side, one thing to consider is that Panthers' projected starters Nate Chandler (right tackle/knee) and Trai Turner (right guard/groin) are not dressing for the game. That could lead to a big night for Rob Ninkovich and Co.
Receiver re-do: One year after the Patriots almost completely revamped their receiving corps, the Panthers have undergone a similar change. Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner said Panthers first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin naturally has caught his eye, as well as veteran Jerricho Cotchery. Former Patriot Tiquan Underwood is also battling for a roster spot.
No Cannon-Johnson reunion: With pass-rushing left defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring) not dressing tonight, per the Charlotte Observer, it's a break of sorts for Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon. It was Cannon's leg whip of Johnson that led to some hard feelings last year.
Great respect for Patriots: As Ron Rivera points out, via ESPN.com NFL Nation Panthers reporter David Newton, Carolina views the Patriots as the measuring stick for where they hope to be. It's also notable to revisit the history between the franchises.
We'll circle back closer to game-time when it becomes more clear, but here's the snapshot look:
OT Sebastian Vollmer -- Starting right tackle has missed the entire week of practice, all but ensuring he won't play tonight. The Boston Globe reported that it's a foot injury and not considered serious.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui -- Just returned to practice this week after getting hurt on the fourth day of training camp, but hasn't been taking a full workload, so he'll need a little more time.
TE Rob Gronkowski -- He's graduated to 11-on-11 drills, but he's not expected to play tonight.
C Bryan Stork -- Rookie who has been out of practice since July 29 has been inching closer to a return to action, but hadn't returned to full-team work by the start of the week.
DL Dominique Easley -- First-round draft choice graduated to 11-on-11 drills this week, which is a sign of progress, but he's not yet taking a full workload.
DL Chris Jones -- Not practicing yet after getting his lower leg rolled up on in the preseason opener against Washington.
DL Sealver Siliga -- Hasn't practiced since injuring his left hand Aug. 5 in a joint practice with Washington, as the hand remains in a cast/protective brace.
LB Cameron Gordon -- Undrafted free-agent has been out since the sixth practice of camp with an undisclosed ailment.
WR Aaron Dobson -- Just started taking some limited reps in 11-on-11 work this week, which is a sign of progress, but he seems to still need some more time before he's ready for a game.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER: LB Jerod Mayo, DL Jerel Worthy, DL Ben Bass, WR Jeremy Gallon, LB James Morris, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Kanorris Davis, LB Ja'Gared Davis, LB James Anderson
Conditioning and possibly playing into third quarter. The overall conditioning of the team has been a high priority for head coach Bill Belichick in training camp, with an eye toward what figures to be a sweltering Sept. 7 season opener in Miami (1 p.m. ET kickoff). Quarterback Tom Brady said Belichick has told the players to expect a heavy workload, which could mean playing into the third quarter, which is often the case in the third preseason game. It's all tied to conditioning.
Good test for run defense. One of the themes of the week has been how facing an athletic quarterback such as Cam Newton, and a downhill power running team, presents a nice contrast to the spread-it-out Philadelphia Eagles offense from last week. So it's more good work for the starting front seven in the 3-4 alignment, which was solid against the run last week against LeSean McCoy & Co. Our eyes will be on linebacker Jerod Mayo and if he plays for the first time this preseason.
Following up with Stevan Ridley. The four-year veteran played 16 snaps last Friday as the Patriots focused heavily on the run game. Ridley's final snap was ruled a fumble, which was a close play but nonetheless brought a hot-button topic -- Ridley's ball security -- back to the forefront. In a game in which the starters are expected to play extensively, how Ridley responds bears monitoring.
Competitions on interior of O-line. Center and right guard are the spots to continue to monitor, with Dan Connolly (center) and Josh Kline (right guard) looking like the front-runners at this point. But incumbent center Ryan Wendell is still in the mix, and the coaching staff has also taken a long look at first-year blocker Jordan Devey, who has played every snap this preseason. Four-year veteran Marcus Cannon is also a possibility at right guard, although our feeling is that he looks more comfortable at tackle.
Malcolm Butler and sustaining his play. The undrafted free-agent cornerback from West Alabama has been one of the surprise stories of training camp, as he's not only practiced well, but has shown up in games with ball disruption and strong coverage. Can he sustain it?
Neither were part of the latest ESPN.com Patriots roster projection, as Williams has been sidelined with a lower right leg injury since getting rolled up on Aug. 5 in a joint practice with Washington. The 6-foot-2, 245 pound Williams wasn't expected to play in either of the Patriots' remaining two preseason games because of the injury, so there is always the possibility he could return when fully healthy.
Williams' departure highlights the Patriots' continuing tight end shuffle, as the team has made nine different transactions at the position since Aug. 10. Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, Steve Maneri and undrafted free agent Justin Jones now comprise the team's tight end depth chart, with fullback James Develin also factoring into the mix at times.
Forston, who has spent most of the past two years on the team's practice squad, might have become expendable after the Patriots acquired Jerel Worthy (Packers) and Ben Bass (Cowboys) in trades that bolstered depth up front.
With this in mind, here are the New England Patriots players who showed up on more than two top units (kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage) in last Friday's preseason game against the Eagles:
There are a few reasons why those players might be showing up on so many special-teams units.
First, they might be viewed as core players who figure prominently into the kicking game, and thus are either locks (e.g. Slater) to make the team or near-locks (e.g. Bolden, White, Ebner).
Second, they might be getting extended action because of injuries to others as 19 Patriots players didn't suit up last Friday, including safeties Kanorris Davis and Tavon Wilson, whose primary value comes on special teams.
Finally, it might be a case where the coaching staff wants to get an extended look at some players who might be closer to the bubble (such as Bequette and Fleming).
The biggest takeway from here is how Bolden, the third-year running back from Ole Miss, gives the Patriots plenty of "bonus plays" on coverage units. After what looked like a slow start to training camp for him that included a missed week of practice when the team was in Washington, his roster spot looks fairly secure.
No official reason was given, but those decisions must be made by the home team well in advance of the game so it can be communicated to the opposition for planning purposes. Along those lines, the Patriots will once again be in white Friday night against the visiting Panthers.
So by the time the preseason is over, the Patriots will have worn their white road jerseys for both away games (Washington, New York Giants) and both home games (Philadelphia, Carolina), and will don their home blue jerseys for the first time in the regular-season opener in Miami.
Why blue in Miami?
As the Dolphins have done in recent years, they like to put opponents in dark colors early in the season as part of what could be a heat-related advantage.