BOSTON (CBS) — Thursday night is your final chance to see football at Gillette Stadium until things start to count.
Training camp concluded Wednesday as the Patriots held their final practice open to the public, a joint walkthrough with the Chicago Bears. After those two battle it out in preseason game No. 2 on Thursday night, the Pats won’t take the field at Gillette again until Week 2 of the regular season when the Miami Dolphins come to town.READ MORE: Nor'easter Rips Part Of Roof Off Quincy Apartment Building
So soak in the home cooking Thursday night, even though it will be made up mostly by some backup chefs and most of it will probably be as entertaining as a bowl of soup. But the second preseason tilt this season is much more important than usual, giving Jimmy Garoppolo another opportunity to play starting quarterback (let’s just assume Tom Brady will not see the field again, tossing out all those warnings about those who assume) and providing others on the depth chart their chance to create some space in their roster battles.
The New England defense looks legit, and we’ll certainly be looking for more highlight plays from the likes of Jamie Collins and Trey Flowers. But this week we’re setting our sights on the great unknown of the New England offense, a phrase that hasn’t been uttered in these parts for some time. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and Bears take the field on Thursday night:
All eyes are on Garoppolo this camp, and the kid will get his second dress rehearsal as New England’s starting quarterback tonight against Da Bears.
Garoppolo’s preseason debut last week wasn’t bad, but it was far from perfect. He finished 11-for-18 with 168 yards against the Saints, making a handful of good plays while limiting the damage on his bad ones. His worst pass of the evening came the second quarter when Garoppolo threw across his body and into the Saints defense on third down, a ball that would have been picked off had it been a regular season defense on the field.
Overall, Garoppolo did a good job at something we take for granted with Tom Brady under center: Getting the ball out of his hand quickly. He averaged 2.17 seconds on his 18 attempts, but it’s when he held on for too long and danced around a little too much that he ran into trouble. We’ll see if this is one of the areas he’s improved over the last seven days.
These are the kinds of growing pains that were to be expected, and it’s better that these on-the-job learning experiences happen in meaningless games instead of the games that count. These mistakes will still probably happen when the games count, with No. 1 defensive units throwing all they can at Garoppolo and not backups trying to make the team, but now is the time to learn, adjust and adapt.
His debut last week was good enough, but now it’s time to see No. 10 take the next step forward, even with the limited weapons (don’t expect to see Edelman, Gronk or Amendola out there) he has on the field.
Offensive Line Has To Be Better
It doesn’t help Garoppolo that the offensive line is a work in progress, and will likely stay that way well into the regular season. Dante Scarnecchia is a the O-Line whisperer, but he has his hands full as New England’s un-retired offensive line coach.
The line started off slow last Thursday but looked better as the game went on, providing Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett with some protection and allowing them to operate for stretches of the contest. Garoppolo was sacked twice in his time on the field, but he showed that he has some pretty good football smarts when given a chance to use them. The line’s best play of Garoppolo’s half was when they gave him plenty of time in the pocket on a third-and-9 play in the first quarter, and the QB calmly hit Martellus Bennett for 14 yards to move the chains for the first time of the game.
The offensive line wasn’t great at run blocking, but that’s a different issue that we’ll get to.
There are plenty of bodies vying for jobs along the line, but Scar would prefer to go with a set group and not the rotation of players that we’ve seen the last few seasons. That could prove difficult at the moment, with Sebastian Vollmer still not participating and Jonathan Cooper dealing with a plantar fascia issue that has bothered him since early in camp. But with those players down, it has afforded other, younger lineman the chance to show their ability, notably rookie Joe Thuney.READ MORE: More Than 490,000 Lose Power As Nor'easter Hits Massachusetts
Thuney looks like the favorite to land the starting left guard job, with Shaq Mason over on the right side.
It also appears Bryan Stork is tightening the battle for New England’s starting center job, after David Andrews got the nod last week. Stork, who battled a concussion earlier in camp, brought some fire to the field during the joint sessions with Chicago, the kind of toughness that Scarnecchia loves from his linemen.
Left tackle Nate Solder played in his first game since October 11, 2015 last Thursday, and that showed. His return to form (the good form) is imperative for the Patriots and Brady/Garoppolo’s blind side this season. He’ll have to be better as the regular season inches closer, but we’ll give him a slight pass for last week given his return from a biceps tear.
The offensive line is always a point of emphasis for the Patriots, whether a 39-year-old All Pro is under center or a 24-year-old making his first career start. And it’s not just important for the man making all the passes.
Do The Patriots Have A Running Back?
They have several of them on the depth chart at the moment, but do the Patriots have any running backs that can actually contribute?
Tyler Gaffney made the best case against the Saints, identifying a giant hole in the defense and turning it into a 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He finished with 64 rush yards on nine carries in his first game in two years, and he has a shot to be the team’s starting running back in Week 1. While it’s a great story, that just helps to illustrate the concern at the position.
Dion Lewis was dynamic last season until he got hurt in Week 8, and he has yet to hit the field this summer. Donald Brown is also watching from the sidelines, as James White, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount try to piece together the running back corps. Blount racked up just 20 yards on nine carries against the Saints, and while he didn’t get much help from the struggling offensive line to start the game, that’s still just a 2.2 yard per carry average for a guy that used to bowling over bodies.
The old school running back is on the endangered species list in today’s NFL anyways, and on the Patriots, backs are better served when they can snag a pass or 10 out of the backfield. White and Gaffney can both bring that to the table, and even Bolden to a lesser extent. Blount will probably get another start on Thursday, but he may be running out of chances (that is, until it starts to get cold and no opposing defender wants to try to bring down the 250-pounder).
With Garoppolo under center for the first four games, and giant question marks over some of New England’s best offensive weapons, a good option at running back would be a nice luxury that the Patriots just don’t have at the moment. We’ll see if one of the many bodies on the depth chart can turn into that luxury.
No Fisticuffs, But Some Really Healthy Competition
Joint practice was chippy on Monday. And then again on Tuesday. Wednesday was just a walkthrough, but if players were given a chance to hit each other, things probably would have gone the way of Greco-Roman wrestling again.
Now the teams will hit the field on Thursday, and though the game doesn’t count, the hits on the field will when it comes to padded ones resume.
Malcolm Butler and Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery had a little slap session on Monday, and then didn’t see much of each other on the field on Tuesday. It’ll be interesting if they line up across from each other Thursday night, even if they let their play do the talking and not their emotions (it’s always fun to watch Butler go to work on another team’s No. 1 receiver). Stork let his temper get the best of him and got booted from practice on Tuesday, followed by several other little scraps during the practice session. We may see more of the same tonight.MORE NEWS: Photos: October Nor'easter Damage
It felt like these two teams don’t like each other on the practice field, and they probably won’t like each other on the playing field either.