Things we learned about the Patriots
Reading into defense, spotlighting play of backups and finding coachable moments
Five observations from the New England Patriots' 47-12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the preseason opener:
1. Focusing on the 4-3 defense and Albert Haynesworth. One of the big topics of discussion with the Patriots this preseason is what type of defense they will play -- 4-3 or 3-4 -- and the flexibility they have to play both schemes. Based on Thursday night, you can tell that the Patriots have been working exclusively on the 4-3. The telltale sign is when the third- and fourth-stringers play in the fourth quarter and that's the base package. You see that and realize that's what the young guys are being taught; that's where the coaches have started their base with them. It is a change.
Having said all of that, you still have to read the writing on the wall when it comes to the players they've been signing and consider that there will be an adjustment level and that this defense will have the ability to go from 3-4 to 4-3 on a week-to-week basis. So, instead of seeing Haynesworth at 3-technique (shaded on the guard at defensive tackle in a four-man line) one week, you might see Shaun Ellis at the 5-technique (playing over the tackle in a three-man line). These adjustments will be made on a week-to-week basis.
Haynesworth didn't play Thursday night, and what I'll be looking for in the future is how he embraces this opportunity. Maybe he does come out and play in the 3-4 and in the 4-3. So when Bill Belichick walks into the meeting room and says "This week, we're going to play the 3-4 because it gives us the best chance to win," let's see how Haynesworth responds. Does he say, "I'll play a little 5-technique for you, Coach," or will he only want to play in a 4-3?
2. Backup quarterbacks Hoyer and Mallett shine. One reason this game was so important for the Patriots was the play of quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Both looked good. Both looked as if this was their offense. Did you ever say to yourself, "Where's Tom Brady?" I didn't think that once.
Hoyer is going to be a starter somewhere one day. It might not be here, but his play will only benefit this team, whether it's on the field or in the form of trade compensation. Hoyer is in his third season and will be a restricted free agent after the season. You have to start thinking of the future with him because he's done nothing but get better from the first day he arrived. Other quarterback-needy teams have seen him play well. Now is when he starts to become considered a possible starting quarterback.
Hoyer has generated momentum, and what would really put him over the top is to do it in the regular season. If there is a blowout game, or an injury to Brady, having that regular-season film is really when the momentum gets going. Kevin Kolb, the former Eagles backup, was never really taken seriously until he did it in the regular season. That's when the buzz truly starts and teams are more willing to give up that high draft pick to get the quarterback position solidified.
As for Mallett, his size and arm strength are obvious. Two things that popped out to me were the way he dealt with pressure and his confidence. When faced with pressure, he bought himself more time by either scrambling or shuffling in the pocket to find a receiver downfield or his checkdown.
3. Early impressions of Blaine Gabbert and Jaguars. The rookie quarterback, selected 10th overall, looked cumbersome in the early going. He was very deliberate in what he was doing, locking in on his first read and robotically delivering the ball. When the pressure came, he didn't have enough presence to find his outlet, but as the game went on, he settled in and found his rhythm and made some great throws. Jacksonville has to be happy with his progress at this point.
I'd think that David Garrard is still the starter for the Jaguars, but all you want from a rookie quarterback in the preseason is to move the chains and have some productive scoring drives, especially after an offseason of no organized team activities or minicamps. There were just a couple of weeks of practice, and he converted on a few third downs early and made a couple of nice throws.
Also with the Jaguars, I was looking to see how their linebackers played because that was a big emphasis for them in the offseason, signing Paul Posluszny from Buffalo and Clint Session from Indianapolis. I didn't notice them much, except for one time when Posluszny was lost in coverage as tight end Aaron Hernandez beat him in the middle of the field for an easy 20 yards. That was a switch between the No. 2 and No. 3 receiver, and he should have been in better position.
So this was a game in which some young players were showcased, and, on a team with a lot of good receivers, Price showed he deserves to be a part of this club, or at least another squad. He might not play a lot in the second and third preseason games, but he made a statement, which was, "Thanks for the chance, I am ready."
5. Bill Belichick and coachable moments. OK, the Patriots played well and there were a lot of positives. It's understandable that some fans will be excited about the team scoring nearly 50 points, but my thought is, "Calm down." This is the preseason. We can remember the beginning of the Red Sox season and how they started 0-6 and it seemed as if the world was going to end. Now look at them, one game up on the Yankees.
Belichick will watch the film and seek out coachable moments. Some of those in this game were ball security with Hernandez and Danny Woodhead, runs on the 4-3 defense, and big returns against the Patriots on special teams.
With Hernandez, one thing he doesn't want to develop is a reputation after fumbling twice. Defenders will watch that and say "This guy gives it up." He will have to prove to them that the reputation is false. That's on film now, and if it happens one more time, it will be like sharks to blood -- here they come.
As for running on the 4-3, the Jaguars had some big runs early, hitting a quick trap up the middle. They were also able to get to the edge in the run game. There were some fundamental problems Belichick will want to fix. I know it wasn't the starters, and that's what you want to see in the coming weeks; how does the first unit do fundamentally? In that defense, you want to be able to stop the run with the front four dominating the offensive line so the linebackers can scrape and make tackles. Later in the game, the Patriots sent Dane Fletcher up the middle to stop the run and that's not the way you want to do it on a regular basis. These linemen have to get used to playing these new techniques.
On the coverage problems, I can almost hear Belichick now: "The kickoff is moved up, and we still can't make a tackle! Maybe we should move it up another 5 yards to help us out!" He's always looking for those coachable moments.
ESPNBoston.com Patriots analyst Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team.