Before the Patriots/Falcons preseason game, I gave you 5 items to watch closely during the game. Let’s go back to those 5 items and see how they played out in the game.
Performance of the defensive line. The defensive line, overall, had a solid night. The starting unit was Vince Wilfork at nose tackle, Gerard Warren at left end, and Mike Wright at right end. Warren and Wilfork held their own while Wright provided a good pass rush. The problem comes with Wright stopping the run. At times he got pushed back, and coupled with a not-so-ideal situation at OLB, Michael Turner averaged 4 yards per carry. When the second unit came in, Ron Brace had a solid night and was listed as one of my “Risers,” and perhaps he could slide from left end to right end on running downs. Injured veteran Damione Lewis could also provide the early-down presence the team needs to tie up any loose ends (so to speak) on the line.
Performance of the outside linebackers. The OLBs, minus projected starters Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham, struggled. Marques Murrell and Derrick Burgess started the game but couldn’t get a solid pass rush. Murrell struggled covering Tony Gonzalez, but what linebackers don’t? On the Troy Bergeron TD, it appeared that one of the linebackers was supposed to pick him up in their zone coverage and missed the assignment, allowing him to run free and elude a tackle in the secondary. It seemed that the only way the Pats could get a decent pass rush was to blitz, bringing in at different times safeties, corners, and extra linebackers. Rob Ninkovich did get a sack, but it was more due to good coverage than an impressive effort. If blitzing is what it will take to get pressure this season, the young secondary will surely be tested.
Offensive performance on the road. The starting unit looked like a well-oiled machine, scoring touchdowns on both of the drives they were in for. The offense did get some help on the second drive when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 41-yard field goal wide right, but got a roughing-the-kicker penalty called which set the offense up with a first down at the Atlanta 11-yard line. What’s better is that the team showed a commitment to the running game, bringing balance to the offense and developing a more physical presence. How’s this for balance: At the end of the first half, the Pats had 14 pass attempts and 14 rushing attempts. At the end of the game, in total, the team had 29 passing attempts and 30 rushing attempts. When the second unit came in, it was rough going to start with the back-up offensive line collapsing. On the second drive for the second unit, QB Brian Hoyer went more to a 3-step drop to combat the lack of time he had to throw and had success doing that. G Ted Larsen had two false start penalties and has not looked good all preseason. His job could be in jeopardy.
Running backs. This group really stood out. Fred Taylor started the game and garnered 54 rushing yards on 11 attempts, including a 28-yard TD run. Sammy Morris also had a good night, getting some short first downs lined up as a fullback and in total ran for 52 yards on 6 attempts, including a 20-yard TD run. In total, the backs ran for 120 yards on 30 attempts, good for a 4.0 yards/carry average and 2 touchdowns.
Special teams stand-outs. Unfortunately, there were no stand-outs in terms of returning punts or kicks, or even making a good special teams stop. The Pats did not get to return a single kick-off, as all were boomed for touchbacks by Falcons punter Michael Koenen (who handles kick-offs). However, punter Zoltan Mesko had another great game. Mesko averaged 42.8 yards on 4 punts, netting 44.5 yards and dropping 2 inside the 20. He had a long punt of 50 yards. Of Stephen Gostkowski’s 5 kick-offs, 3 were touchbacks. Mike Reiss from ESPNBoston.com has a nice break-down of who started on the various special teams units and analyzed that when looking for back-end roster candidates. You can view that article here.