Patriots

What to watch for in Patriots preseason game vs. Panthers

What to watch for in Patriots preseason game vs. Panthers

The 2019 Patriots have now been at it for almost exactly a month.

They’ve taken two road trips for joint practices and returned home with Bill Belichick gushing about the quality of work they got in.

They won a couple of games, unearthed an apparently brilliant rookie receiver named Jakobi Meyers, found that Chase Winovich is more than a pile of hair and a toothy grin, seen traits from Isaiah Wynn that project him as a guy who could play into the 2030s, found their starting quarterback is the same as he ever was and their rookie quarterback is a high-quality block of wood that can be turned into something very useful.

There’s more — almost all of it positive — so it’s been a good month. Which leads us to ask what the Patriots stand to learn from the all-important, third preseason game against the Panthers on Thursday?

Like, is it really “all-important” or are we contractually obligated to call it that?

With stakes as high as they are, organizations are constantly tweaking their approaches. “That’s the way we’ve always done it…” is not acceptable reasoning anymore.

The Rams will play few of their starters this preseason. Head coach Sean McVay explained why.

“When you look at some of the continuity now that we have on both sides of the ball coming back, and you say, ‘If something were to happen, is it really worth that risk in our mind?’ “ said McVay. “We just felt like that answer is ‘No.’ That’s the approach that we’re taking, I totally understand if people don’t agree with that, but we always make decisions that are in the best interests of our team. That’s just really for this unit. Does that mean we’ll always have that luxury? I think if you have a different number of returning players, then the narrative on that is a little different.”

How will the Patriots approach tonight and what are a few of the areas we’ll be locking in on? Glad you asked.

BATTLE SHAPING UP?

The Panthers have an excellent front-seven with players like Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin and Luke Kuechly. And they got pushed around by the Bills, who put up 24 points on the Panthers starters last week in Week 2 of the preseason. Short gave the defense an “F” for its performance. The Patriots, meanwhile, haven’t rolled out their first offense yet. Tom Brady figures to play tonight and — if there’s a lack of production from the offense in his first game-action this preseason — expect the competitiveness to flow over. Brady was expected to play last week but the Patriots pivoted. This is the best chance for meaningful, tackle-to-the-ground competition between now and the opener against the Steelers.

UNVEILING CAM

Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen (among others) also haven’t played in the preseason. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera wants to get “three or four” good series out of Newton before he sits him down and if the Patriots match that, they’ll be on the field defensively most of the first half. Throughout camp, the Patriots starting defense has been stifling. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see it take Newton a while to generate any kind of sustained success.

NARROW FOCUS ON WIDEOUTS

The Panthers have a non-imposing group in the secondary. Who will the Patriots throw at them and how will they respond? N’Keal Harry, who was down last week vs. Tennessee and hasn’t practiced since injuring his ankle two weeks ago, is falling behind and really could use the game reps since all he’s seen is two throws (both hauled in, spectacularly). Meanwhile, the activation of Demaryius Thomas and Julian Edelman this week means things just got real for Phillip Dorsett and Maurice Harris. Edelman, obviously, is making the team but Thomas — even if he doesn’t play tonight — could take out either of the other guys if he shows he’s closing in on being able to perform.

TIGHT END CONUNDRUM

Last week, 15-year veteran Benjamin Watson was running around the field in the second half of the Patriots second preseason game with the Titans. He came out of retirement for this? Apparently. With Matt LaCosse injured, Austin Seferian-Jenkins gone months ago and Ryan Izzo more blocker than pass catcher, the whole position group seems oddly constructed. As if there was no plan.

Maybe, as it turns out, the plan is to worry less about the name of the position and more about who can win in the passing game. If that means the team puts Thomas and Harry on the field and their size and strength gives what a tight end would in the passing game, what’s it matter what the position is called? The Patriots don’t care which position gets the football or that everyone is populated with similarly capable players. They know when they go to the line they have pass-catching backs, an inside-outside guy in Edelman and a bunch to choose from for their downfield and possession guys. Keep an eye on how often the Patriots go with no TE.

SONY’S TURN

Rookie Damien Harris had a terrific week against the 2s. Sony Michel is still the better back and will be until further notice but if Harris is here to lighten Michel’s load, it would be good if the weight was a least a little bit devoted to Michel as a pass-catcher. He’s worked a lot at that chore and his suddenness and change-of-direction ability would make him a bit more explosive outside than Rex Burkhead, who has good hands and is elusive but isn’t fast.

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Preventable Patriots controversy is the last thing Bill Belichick needed

Preventable Patriots controversy is the last thing Bill Belichick needed

The Patriots locker room was choked with media Wednesday afternoon. We mostly milled in small crowds of three or four with nothing to do but chat until a player stopped long enough to signal a willingness to chat. 

Then, like ants on a dropped popsicle stick, we’d swarm. Inevitably, a question about what happened in the Cleveland press box last Sunday would be lobbed up. The answer would be some variation of, “Not my department,” accompanied by a shrug. 

Away from the throngs, I buttonholed two different Patriots starters. 

I asked how much the swirl caused by an independent contractor for Kraft Sports Entertainment shooting video of the Bengals sideline from the Browns press box was impacting the team.

“F--- that shit,” said one. “I’m thinking about playing good on Sunday. I’m thinking about the Bengals. I have enough to think about. Not a concern.”

The other just shook his head and offered a pitying smile as if to say, “You don’t really think that’s on our plate, do you?” 

It wasn’t technically Bill Belichick’s department either, but it has very much been on his plate all week. 

If any of the 31 other franchises made headlines for doing what the Patriots did Sunday, the general reaction would likely be along the lines of, “Wow. That seems boldly stupid given the nuclear fallout from the Patriots sideline filming in 2007.”

For the Patriots to do it, given the nuclear fallout from their sideline filming in 2007? 

It was like an SNL skit. It couldn’t be real. 

Not surprisingly, Belichick is beside himself about it for a couple of reasons. 

First, he tolerates the intrusion of Kraft Sports Entertainment because he grudgingly understands that promoting the brand is important to the owner. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of anything he’s doing with, you know, the actual football team, he’ll scowl but bear it. 

But spending time entertaining questions about what he knew and when he knew it in the wake of a second consecutive loss to an AFC division leader? Those are brain cells suddenly occupied by something that not only has nothing to do with football, but which puts him in an awful light. 

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And that’s the second reason Belichick is so angry. He understands that a huge swath of football-watching fans and commentators stand at the ready, waiting for a chance to dredge up SpyGate, the jaywalking offense that was prosecuted like a felony assault on professional football. It’s the second time in five years Belichick’s had to stand up and say, “I know nothing…” about some alleged impropriety and he knows the response from too many will be, “Sure you don’t…” 

At 66, he’s a living coaching legend. His involvement and enthusiasm in the NFL’s Top 100 Players production feels like an embrace of that. It’s obvious he’s flattered by it and he was willing to share the best side of himself in each episode. 

But this very preventable controversy in which he had no part means a dredging up of past sins, both real and imagined. Stern words from Roger Goodell about a “thorough investigation” and the inevitable penalty — whatever it is — is a scratch on a legacy that won’t be buffed out for those that want to fixate on them because they don’t like the man. 

So of course he’s livid, furious, and any other adjective you’d like to use that’s a synonym for monumentally pissed off. 

You can blame the Kraft Sports Entertainment personnel in Cleveland last Sunday for bad judgment in that instance. 

But you can’t blame ownership for trying to promote and advance its brand, which is what the “Do Your Job” videos do. With a salary cap near $200 million projected for 2020, every team needs to exhaust its revenue streams. Mini-docs on the inner workings of the famously clandestine Patriots are a layup idea. The execution on this one was … off.

How will the NFL react? It’s probably a boon for the Patriots that NFL owners were meeting this week in Dallas. That allowed Robert Kraft to explain directly to Goodell and fellow owners what precisely happened face-to-face. Maybe that minimizes the number of teams who ring up Goodell to demand the full weight of discipline land on the Patriots regardless of the details. 

The NFL doesn’t need this issue hijacking its season. The Patriots have already been in the headlines enough for off-field drama this offseason between Kraft’s incident in West Palm Beach and the Antonio Brown saga. 

The league as a whole would be best served if its investigation is quick and transparent. A reasonable punishment that hits the team with a fine and leaves football out of it would be the best way to tie it off tidily. 

But there’s no guarantee personalities involved at the league level aside from Goodell — league counsel and Patriots antagonist counsel Jeff Pash, for instance — could be looking for another pound of flesh from the Patriots' hide. 

Confiscating some of Belichick’s precious draft picks would surely make the coach apoplectic especially since it’s the business arm of the organization that did the deed. And while some of his ire would be directed at the league, most of it would probably be directed in-house. 

So there’s a lot of tiptoeing past the coach’s office going on right now. 

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Patriots' Mohamed Sanu gives huge praise to Julian Edelman's toughness

Patriots' Mohamed Sanu gives huge praise to Julian Edelman's toughness

Julian Edelman is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and you'd have a difficult time finding many offensive players who are tougher mentally and physically than the 33-year-old veteran.

Edelman arguably is the most valuable player of the New England Patriots entering Week 15. The Patriots offense has struggled mightily of late. In fact, New England is the third-lowest scoring team in the league since Week 9. The passing attack has been hampered by new additions, who lack both experience with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and a firm grasp of the offense, as well as injuries. The wide receiver corps has two rookies, N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, playing prominent roles right now. Two of the veteran wideouts, Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett, have both battled injuries in recent weeks.

Edelman has been one of the few constants for the Patriots offense, both in terms of production and availability. It hasn't been easy for Edelman to be on the field every week in 2019. He has been on the injury report most of the year, but he's battled through all of these ailments to play in every single game.

“Man, you all don’t understand how tough Jules is,” Sanu told reporters Wednesday. “That dude’s tough. He’s a tough son of a gun, and he goes out there every day. Whether there’s something aching, something biting or whatever the case might be, he gives it all he’s got. Even when they tell him not to, he’s still out there, and that’s what I love about him. I love to compete with him, man."

Sanu added: "You can see how tough he is in his play. They don’t call him ‘squirrel’ for nothing. He’s a bad man.”

Edelman has caught 90 passes for 1,010 yards and six touchdowns this season. He's on pace to set career highs in receptions and yards, and it's possible he breaks his career-high in receiving touchdowns (seven) as well.

His status for Sunday's matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals is uncertain. He missed Wednesday's practice and was listed on the injury report with knee/shoulder issues. The Patriots might be wise to give Edelman a day off against the Bengals given the importance of having him as healthy as possible for the playoffs. The Bengals have a league-worst 1-12 record, and even though the Patriots have struggled to score points over the last five weeks, they shouldn't need Edelman to leave Cincinnati with a win.

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