PHILADELPHIA -- The Patriots started preseason play with a win over the Eagles on Friday night, starting strong offensively and finishing with nearly 250 rushing yards.
Below are 10 takeaways from the game, including some areas that may have been glossed over upon first review:
1. System consistency on offense. There were some who wondered whether the Patriots would scrap their offensive system after an offseason of extensive personnel turnover. More to the point, would they abandon the reliance on multiple-tight end sets? If Friday night is any indication, that won’t be the case, as the Patriots opened the game with seven straight multiple-tight end plays. The team could well feature more three- or four-wide receiver looks than we saw in 2012, but don’t expect the fast tempo or dependence on tight ends to fade entirely this season.
2. Thompkins flashes. We’ve discussed -- extensively -- the rookie wide receivers throughout training camp, specifically focusing on the trio of Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins. They teamed up for six catches on Friday, four of which were hauled in by Thompkins. The numbers may look pedestrian in the box score (just 23 yards), but Thompkins looked comfortable in his understanding of the offense, won at the line of scrimmage, and made grabs in competitive situations. There was one snap during which Thompkins redirected Boyce to the proper alignment after Boyce broke the huddle and went to the wrong side of the formation. Seems like he’s catching on fast.
3. Timely defense. Thinking within the context of the starters, the defensive performance tonight drew some parallels to the 2012 version of the Patriots. A big score over the top of Aqib Talib (on a pass from Michael Vick to DeSean Jackson) was a low point, but the Patriots later came up with a timely turnover from a combined effort by Tommy Kelly and Chandler Jones. That was a linchpin of the defense last season. Kelly’s interior rush was a positive of the night as well, as that’s something the Patriots need next to Vince Wilfork.
4. Offensive line makes statement. Prior to training camp, one area that we felt was being overlooked was the continuity on the Patriots offensive line, a strength of the team last season. Though Dan Connolly was unavailable, the five layers of protection for Brady were dominant, keeping Brady largely upright and paving lanes for Stevan Ridley to burst through. High marks are in order for left tackle Nate Solder on Ridley’s opening-play run, as Solder’s big block sprung the 62-yard gain. The dominating effort continued, as the Patriots rushed for 8 yards per carry for the night.
5. Blount, Benard show up. If we had to choose just one player among the nonstarters who exceeded expectations for the night, we’d tab running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Marcus Benard. Blount surpassed 100 yards rushing on just 11 carries, while also adding two scores. He showed decisiveness, power and vision. Benard, meanwhile, aligned in multiple spots along the defensive line, finishing with five tackles (one for a loss), a sack and a quarterback hit. He’s been an upstart during camp and continued that effort into game action. His first step and relentless approach make him a difficult rusher for opposing offensive linemen to stall on extended plays.
6. Ballard gets the work in. Positive sign for tight end Jake Ballard, who was on the field to start the game for the Patriots, working as an end-of-the-line blocker. While there has been some chatter about Ballard not standing out during camp, it’s important to remember what he is -- a burly, blocking tight end with reliable catching skills -- rather than what he isn’t -- a “move” tight end. From what we saw, there were no noticeable side effects of Ballard’s knee injury during the game, and he looked to play an important part of the strong rushing effort.
7. Harmon and the Cover 2. It won’t show up in the game book, but give rookie safety Duron Harmon credit for his pass defense. What was most important, at least from this view, was that Harmon consistently appeared to get to the “honey hole” in Cover 2 defense. That’s the area of the field located between 15-20 yards down the field and between the numbers and the sideline. Traditionally, that’s the area of vulnerability for a defense running Cover 2, and something the Patriots struggled with at times last season. If Harmon can prove to be an umbrella-creating safety in the back end, he could compete for playing time sooner than we initially anticipated.
8. Punting competition assessment. The Patriots could have a punting competition on their hands, as undrafted rookie Ryan Allen has impressed during camp. Though he finished with a substantially higher gross average (54.0 vs. 44.7) than Zoltan Mesko, we’d actually give the slight edge to Mesko for the evening. Allen had one punt that was returned 62 yards by Eagles receiver Damaris Johnson, and it appeared as though Allen may have outkicked his coverage. Situational punting is a critical aspect to special teams, and an area Mesko has stood out in during previous seasons. Rounding out some kicking game thoughts, Stephen Gostkowski clearly needs to be better than his 1-for-3 showing tonight, and though the Eagles were able to down the punt at the 1-yard line, Julian Edelman showed good situational awareness to let a punt drop deep in his own territory.
9. Coverage linebacker thoughts. The Eagles offense will effectively work the underneath passing game this season, a tough test for any linebacking corps. There were a few instances where we saw Patriots linebackers get outflanked on either crossing patterns or flat routes from backs out of the backfield. Specifically, the pairing of Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes will be tested in this regard. One wonders if Jamie Collins, who showed up in a few different spots on defense, will get some more looks in the team’s sub defense as a coverage player.
10. Dictating offensive matchups. Running back Shane Vereen had a nice night that was highlighted by a touchdown reception thrown by Brady early in the first quarter. The catch was a display of Vereen’s soft hands, but also a reminder of what has long made the Patriots’ offense successful: the ability to dictate matchups with their personnel. Ushering out three receivers, Vereen and tight end Zach Sudfeld, the Patriots deployed an empty set with Brady in shotgun, setting them up with man coverage from the Eagles. Mychal Kendricks, an athletic linebacker, actually had good coverage on Vereen, but Brady’s ball placement was superb and Vereen’s grab equally solid. The take-home point remains that this offense will be able to defeat defenses with its scheme on top of the personnel.
Extra Point. We’ll look forward to further examining the game via a film review at a later time, but one undrafted rookie who appeared to flash tonight was defensive tackle Cory Grissom. Seemed to show some toughness and stout run-stuffing ability.