Commentary

What Pats' preseason taught us

Belichick & Co. offered some surprises and plenty of positives

Updated: September 2, 2011, 11:21 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Things we learned this preseason with the New England Patriots:

Defense will have a different look. After utilizing a 3-4 alignment as the base defense last season, featuring a style that players often refer to as "read and react," the Patriots have loaded up on defensive linemen and are attacking more in 2011. Bill Belichick previously acknowledged the composition of the roster is likely to be different from the past, with more linemen and fewer linebackers, which signifies a shift from the traditional Belichick-type 3-4 alignment. After an offseason in which the most-asked question was "Where's the pass rush?" the change is arguably the most significant development since training camp began.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Chad Ochocinco
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesChad Ochocinco is clearly still working on mastering the Patriots' offense.

Ochocinco needs more time. The Patriots didn't waste time inserting veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco into the starting unit after acquiring him in a trade; he was catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady on his first day. But Ochocinco's transition to the Patriots' offense has been slower than anticipated (three catches in two preseason games), and he's preached patience, pointing out that 15 weeks of an offseason program has been condensed into about four weeks of training camp. Ochocinco doesn't consistently separate from receivers down the field like he used to, so his primary value to the Patriots figures to be in the intermediate areas where his savvy route running can create openings.

Haynesworth can blend in. One of the reasons it has a chance to work with defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth in New England is that he isn't being asked to be the key cog, but instead a spoke in the wheel. And he's buying in, citing the support of ownership, coaches and teammates. "Everybody is here for you," he said. One probably isn't far off when saying there aren't too many other NFL teams that can create that type of culture. At this point, Haynesworth projects as part of a defensive tackle rotation with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren and Myron Pryor, as the Patriots have a lot of depth and quality on the interior.

Humble pie for Meriweather. When Pro Bowlers Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady, Logan Mankins and Wes Welker were held out of the preseason opener, two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather played the entire first half. Then, in the preseason finale, Meriweather didn't enter until the second half and played with many who won't be on the Patriots' roster Sunday morning. What to make of Meriweather's unusual preseason? Part of it is the coaching staff looking at other safeties and combinations, but one would be naive to think there isn't at least something a little more to it than that.

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
Elsa/Getty ImagesLinebacker Jerod Mayo has taken on a bigger leadership role this season with the Patriots.

Leaders are emerging. In 2010, it quickly became clear that veteran tight end Alge Crumpler was an important leader on the field and in the locker room. This year, linebacker Jerod Mayo's leadership seems to be elevating to a higher level. Combined with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, quarterback Tom Brady and left guard Logan Mankins, that's where the leadership starts in 2011. The Patriots are positioning third-year safety Patrick Chung to potentially join that mix.

Welker looks like his old self again. Declaring that he feels like he's in the best shape of his career, receiver Wes Welker has regained some of the quickness he lost after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in January 2010. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Welker has had a strong camp, as the NFL's leading receiver since the 2007 season is primed for a big year entering the final campaign of his contract. On the flip side, veteran receiver Deion Branch went without a catch this preseason, and one wonders how much he's slowed down.

Mankins' bridge was broken but never burned. Last year, left guard Logan Mankins made a public request to be traded and his agent fired some verbal bombs at the Patriots. In past years, that would make the likelihood of an extension seem remote, but in a surprise, the sides were able to reconcile and Mankins signed a lucrative six-year extension making him the highest-paid interior lineman in the NFL. It was a win-win situation for both sides -- Mankins earned more financial security and the Patriots lowered their salary-cap charge.

Promising signs from rookie class. The early returns have been good, with first-round draft choice Nate Solder, who played as much as anyone this preseason, gaining experience at left tackle and right tackle in games and at right guard in some practices. Like any rookie at this stage, Solder isn't a finished product, but the tools, work ethic and attitude are clearly there.

Cornerback Ras-I Dowling (second round, 33rd overall), running back Shane Vereen (second round, 56th overall), running back Stevan Ridley (third round, 73rd overall), quarterback Ryan Mallett (74th overall) and tight end Will Yeatman (free agent) all project to make the roster and, outside of Mallett, should contribute on the 46-man game-day roster.

No problems with Brady's right foot. When quarterback Tom Brady underwent surgery on his right foot in late January, the expectation was that he'd be back in time for the start of training camp and there would be no issues. That's exactly how it has unfolded. January's big news turned into non-news after the first day of practice.

Gostkowski is back. Also on the injury front, kicker Stephen Gostkowski has made a full recovery from the torn right quad that sidelined him for the final nine games of 2010. The right-footed kicker started taking kickoffs in the third preseason game, and his strong leg should benefit the Patriots with the kickoff being moved up 5 yards. The main concern on special teams is instability at long snapper.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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