- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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After reviewing the second quarter of the Patriots’ 40-9 preseason loss to the Detroit Lions, here are some picked-up pieces and observations:
1. Looking for signs of life from any of the Patriots’ reserve defensive tackles because of the team’s shortage of depth, I had a few thoughts on the 23 first-unit snaps played by rookie Joe Vellano, who started in place of Vince Wilfork. The highlight came on a second-and-goal rush early in the second quarter on which Matthew Stafford threw incomplete into the end zone, as Vellano (aligned as a 3-technique, outside shade on guard) showed nice initial quickness to beat veteran left guard Rob Sims on a one-on-one rush to the inside. He caught Sims lunging and made him pay. That’s one area in which Vellano has flashed at times in camp -- first-step quickness as a rusher in tight spaces. But other times, Vellano’s relative lack of size (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) was evident against the Lions when he was more easily blocked in the running game (e.g. Montell Owens’ 6-yard run with 7:05 remaining in the quarter). The Patriots are thin at defensive tackle, and Vellano, at the least, looks like a strong practice-squad candidate.
2. The Patriots didn’t have a good night rushing the football, but there were a few positive flashes when fullback James Develin was in the game. Stevan Ridley’s 4-yard run with 12:55 remaining in the quarter came out of the two-back set, as did Ridley’s 5-yard run on the next drive. One of the downers out of the two-back set was a Ridley rush for a 1-yard loss on first-and-10, on which left end Jason Jones was unblocked (likely a busted assignment somewhere). Develin played nine snaps with the first-unit offense and also was inserted on the first-unit kickoff return unit in the wedge. He’s built some momentum over the past two weeks in terms of potentially earning a roster spot. Running out of a two-back set, as compared to a two tight-end set, gives the defense a different look and seems to be something coordinator Josh McDaniels has been interested in incorporating into the attack since his return.
3. Coming into the game, there was plenty of talk about the Lions’ strong defensive tackle duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and they came as advertised. But it was actually the ends who might have produced more havoc, as it was an off night for Patriots tackles Nate Solder (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right). It’s rare to see Vollmer beaten so cleanly, as he was by Jones with 4:58 remaining in the second quarter. That seemed to be an example of how a simple technique error can lead to a play being blown up, as Vollmer’s pass set didn’t appear deep enough, which gave Jones a clear path to Tom Brady, who had taken a seven-step drop on play-action. The play never had a chance because Jones was there as Brady completed his play-action fake. The Patriots were relying on Vollmer to handle Jones one-on-one because right guard Will Svitek and center Ryan Wendell had doubled Suh. Overall, there seemed to be a lot of pressure off the edges, forcing Brady to step up, where Suh and Fairley were mostly waiting.
4. More of a general point, but we heard Bill Belichick talk last week about how the Patriots have more versatility at cornerback this season than in the past in terms of players who can play inside and outside. A good example of this came on back-to-back series in the second quarter when the Patriots were in the nickel package (five defensive backs). On one series, rookie cornerback Logan Ryan lined up outside, while Kyle Arrington was in the slot. On the next series, Ryan was in the slot (playing competitively on tight end Tony Scheffler) and Arrington was outside.
5. Remember how tight end Rob Gronkowski first broke his forearm, playing the wing position on the field goal protection unit? One line of thinking is that perhaps a different player could fulfill the assignment so as not to subject a top player to additional risk of injury. Belichick, however, hasn’t changed his thinking since Gronkowski’s injury as the Patriots had Chandler Jones in that role on Thursday night.
6. The Patriots were stopped short on fourth-and-1 late in the second quarter when Develin was stopped for no gain. That was the one play of the half on which the offense went with three tight ends (Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Zach Sudfeld) and then two backs (Develin and Ridley). Sudfeld couldn’t hold his block on Ziggy Ansah, who crossed his face and crashed down the line to make the tackle. We touched on Sudfeld’s blocking earlier in the day as the area to watch for him to become a more complete tight end, and this play stood out as one he’d like to have back. In the regular season, perhaps the Patriots will turn to an offensive lineman as an eligible receiver on that type of play. Also, in fairness to Sudfeld, there was no certainty that Develin would have made the first down had he held his block. The Lions had pretty good push across the board.