FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots improved to 2-0 in the preseason with a 25-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night, their first exhibition game at Gillette Stadium of 2013.
The win wraps up a second straight week of joint practices, as the Buccaneers spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday working alongside the Patriots in advance of the game.
Below are 12 takeaways from Friday's action, including some underlying storylines that may have gone unnoticed upon first glance:
1. So much for the concerns about how a recent knee injury might impact Tom Brady's performance, as the quarterback was masterful two days after going down in a scary moment during Wednesday's practice. Brady had just one incompletion on the evening, carving the Buccaneers defense on an opening-drive score and looking precise on nearly every one of his throws. Brady had his usual command of the offense, and continues to be in sync with his new cast of receivers, led by Danny Amendola.
2. Amendola was the best receiver on the field Friday night, and he showed off what makes him unique as a player: his precise route running, stop-on-a-dime quickness with the ball in his hands, and the ability to stress a defense up the field as well. Amendola snuck behind the defense on a post for a score, and the spacing on the route was an important takeaway. The 2013 version of the Patriots offense, at least in early viewings, has shown an ability to spread a defense thin both horizontally and vertically. They have some perimeter presence with Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but also some slot stressers in Amendola and the tight ends. This isn't to say that this year's offense will be better than last year's, just different.
3. After the game, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained he decided to receive after winning the coin toss in order to give his team a chance for a fast start. The move paid off with a touchdown for his offense, and the defense followed suit, forcing a stop on the Bucs' opening offensive drive. The first defensive play from scrimmage was a blitz-up-the-middle sack from linebacker Brandon Spikes, one of three first-quarter sacks for the Patriots. That's a critical component to this defense's success, as they struggled to pressure the various Eagles quarterbacks last week. Each of the Patriots starters at defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, recorded at least one sack as well.
4. There were some ups and downs from Ryan Mallett during the second quarter, as he came in to relieve Brady, completing 12-of-20 passes, including a 22-yard score to tight end Zach Sudfeld. We've learned before that the evaluation process of a backup quarterback extends far beyond preseason game action, as many will recall an uneasy 2008 preseason for Matt Cassel that left many outside of the organization uncomfortable with the thought of him as a fill-in starter. Cassel went on to help the team to 11 wins that season, reinforcing that we have to look at preseason games as just a piece of the puzzle. Mallett flexed his effortless arm strength on some throws, while he had misses that you'd count on him to make if he were the starter. The most important takeaway from tonight is an evaluation of a player's traits. For Mallett, we still want to see more before making a hard-line evaluation one way or another.
5. There's been an abundance of talk about the Patriots' rookie receivers during training camp (and we'll include Sudfeld in that group), but it was the one who was drafted highest, Aaron Dobson, who appeared to have the smallest role in the early portion of the game. Dobson took just one snap during the opening drive, far fewer than Kenbrell Thompkins, and that could be a sign that Dobson is further down the depth chart at this time. The two are different types of perimeter receivers, with Thompkins a more refined route runner and with better quickness, but Dobson holds the edge in size and length, an important set of traits in the red zone and competitive catch situations.
6. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork didn't play a heavy dose of snaps tonight (neither did Jerod Mayo), which gave us a chance to check out the rotation of defensive tackles behind him. Veteran Tommy Kelly is effectively the second starter in our estimation, but the picture becomes much less clear after that. Marcus Forston flashed on a goal-line play that resulted in a tackle for loss, while undrafted rookies Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano also showed some ability to generate interior push. Forston was a surprise to make the 53-man roster last season as an undrafted free agent, and the door appears to be open for another undrafted free agent to land on the active roster this year, especially if Armond Armstead is unable to return before the start of the regular season.
7. A few special-teams thoughts: Kickoff coverage was an area of strength for the Patriots throughout the 2012 season, but tonight it fell short of expectations. The Bucs returned their first kickoff 63 yards, far too much to give up. On the positive side, ace special-teamer Matthew Slater had a textbook take-down in punt coverage from his gunner position, a role he drew praise from Bill Belichick for earlier this week. Finally, for the second straight game, we'll give the edge to punter Zoltan Mesko over Ryan Allen in the competition (this week was a clear victory for the incumbent starter). Allen was unable to pin a plus-50 punt deep in Tampa territory, and Mesko had a substantial edge in overall average (44.3 to 39).
8. While the Patriots feel good about their starting trio of cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington -- the depth at the position is an area to monitor. Rookie Logan Ryan had the defensive play of the night, hauling in an interception for a touchdown. That comes after last week's failed interception against the Eagles. Veteran Marquice Cole provides some slot presence and special-teams value, but Ryan duplicates much of what Cole is able to do. If Ras-I Dowling is unable to return soon from injury, Ryan could effectively work himself into the fourth cornerback job, which could turn into third cornerback duties if Alfonzo Dennard faces jail time stemming from his July arrest.
9. Preseason games aren't always predictive of what the regular season will hold, but we saw quite a few two-back sets from the Patriots early on in the game. That's not something we saw much of last season or even last week, but fullback James Develin was on the field to start the game and played a handful of snaps on the Patriots' 15-play opening drive. When Josh McDaniels returned to New England, there was a belief that he might bring more two-back sets with him. Although that wasn't the case in 2012, we saw a steady dose of it on Friday night. Develin could be in competition with Michael Hoomanawanui for a roster spot.
10. There may not even be a starting job for him to win, but second-round pick Jamie Collins had strong stretches on defense Friday night, the second time in as many preseason games that he's impressed. The rangy, long 23-year-old worked almost exclusively as a strongside linebacker from a stand-up alignment, which appears to be the role he has settled into (and one that Dont'a Hightower handles among the starting group). What will be interesting is to see if his movement skills are enough to translate into a prominent coverage linebacker role in sub defensive packages. One area that stood out for Collins tonight: his ability to stack and shed in the running game, an area we though he could improve upon from his college tape.
11. Left tackle Nate Solder took some heat this week after allowing his defender to rush through him during practice, which led to Brady going down and dinging his knee. Truth be told, that's a part of playing left tackle in the NFL -- there are many talented rushers -- but it looked like Solder had a steady performance tonight. That's par for the course for the 25-year-old, viewed by many as a high-upside left tackle, but he deserves credit for bouncing back after what was likely a long Wednesday night for him.
12. Noteworthy: For the second consecutive week, Jake Ballard was used as the blocking tight end with the starting offense. From our initial viewing, it looked like another strong effort from the burly tight end, as he helped to set the edge and kick-start the running game. He played 19 snaps tonight, seven more than his 12 against the Eagles.