The New England Patriots are coming off an up-and-down preseason game one against the NFC East’s Washington franchise.The back-ups shrugged off a slow start by the first units on both sides of the ball to pull out a 26-17 victory over Washington.
The Patriots’ offense failed to record a first down until the third drive of the game in the second quarter. The first five drives all ended in punts and netted just 44 yards. Mike Gillislee got a shot at running back and disappointed while Jeremy Hill looked good in his first action in New England..
On defense, the alignments were very vanilla and Colt McCoy moved the ball up-and-down the field despite some solid pressure from the New England front seven. The secondary struggled no matter starters or back-ups in the first half.
The Patriots host the Philadelphia Eagles in preseason game two on Thursday night. Although the fans see it as a Super Bowl rematch, for the Patriots it is just another opportunity to get in some work against someone other than a teammate lined up across from them.
While it is still a preseason game and does not matter in the standings, there is still much to watch on the field. Here are the top five match-ups to watch (with a Super Bowl 52 twist) on Thursday night in Gillette Stadium.
1) New England Offensive Tackles vs Philadelphia Edge Rushers
The New England offensive line did yeoman’s work in Super Bowl 52 for almost 58 minutes against the ferocious Philadelphia defensive line. Now, with left tackle Nate Solder in New Jersey with the Giants and Marcus Cannon again dinged-up and not playing, the tackles are likely to be the massive Trent Brown and LaAdrian Waddle.
Brown has started on the left side much of training camp despite playing on the right side in San Francisco. At six-foot-nine and 370 pounds, Brown is quicker than a man his size should be and is able to use his quickness and size to shutdown pass rushers. He will get a great test on Thursday night with Derek Barnett and Michael Bennett likely lining up across from him.
On the other side look for Waddle to swap series with first round draft pick Isaiah Wynn who has lined up at left and right tackle as well as guard in training camp. Wynn appears to be in line to be the top backup and swing tackle while potentially providing depth inside as well.
Waddle has been excellent at right tackle but injuries have slowed him in New England. He will likely see Brandon Graham and Chris Long lined up across from him. Waddle and Wynn will have their work cut out for them in the passing and running game against the Philadelphia edge rushers.
2) New England Safeties vs Philadelphia Slot Receivers, Tight Ends and Running Backs
New England will roll out a number of potential back-up safeties including Eddie Pleasant and Damarius Travis. With the poor play on defense of Richards over the past few seasons (albeit his strong special teams play has kept him on the roster), Pleasant–a veteran of six seasons in Houston–has the best chance of making the roster. Travis is a longshot in the box safety who was stashed on the practice squad last season.
The big test will be the New England nickel defense with three safeties. This unit (and the four safety dime defense) was brutalized by Nick Foles in Super Bowl 52. Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung (and Richards as the fourth safety) were burnt repeatedly by Nelson Agholor, the Philadelphia tight ends and running back Corey Clement.
Philadelphia added second-round draft pick tight end Dallas Goedert to Zach Ertz at tight end and former Packers tight end Richard Rodgers is an Eagle as well. Clement is joined by dynamic receiving running back Darren Sproles who is back for one more season after missing 2017 due to injury.
This group will give the New England safeties a challenge throughout the first half. Despite their reputation in pass coverage, McCourty, Chung and Richards were burned time and time again in man coverage against the Eagles in Super Bowl 52. For the New England defensive coaching staff, going against this deep Eagles unit could be just the test they need.
3) Quarterback Tom Brady vs Philadelphia Secondary
For New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, his first action of 2018 is going to be against his final opponent of 2017–the Philadelphia Eagles. Brady had a herculean effort against the best defense in the NFL passing for 505 yards and completing 28 of 48 attempts with three touchdowns (all statistics from ProFootballReference.com unless otherwise noted).
Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are back in Philadelphia in 2018 but slot cornerback Patrick Robinson has been replaced by 2017 second round draft pick Sidney Jones. Behind Mills and Darby the Eagles are auditioning 2017 third round draft pick Rasul Douglas and rookie fourth round draft pick Avonte Maddox.
The Patriots are countering with a different group of wide receivers for Brady in 2018: Danny Amendola (8 receptions for 152 yards) is in Miami now; and Brandin Cooks (one catch for 23 yards before leaving due to injury) was dealt to Los Angeles for a first round draft pick. The Patriots will have Julian Edelman back for the preseason but will not be available in the regular season until week five.
However, Chris Hogan (six catches for 128 yards) and Phillip Dorsett (one catch for 19 yards) are back for the Patriots. They are joined by Eric Decker, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Kenny Britt. The Patriots have already released Jordan Matthews and Malcolm Mitchell at the position in training camp.
Devin Lucien, Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron are longshots for the roster and likely will not see much time with Brady. Tight end Rob Gronkowski rarely plays in the preseason but Brady will get time to develop chemistry with the rest of the tight ends.
Brady will likely need to knock off some rust, but he will be hard pressed to start slower than the team did last week with Brian Hoyer in preseason game one against Washington. All eyes are on Brady in his first action, but as long as he gets rid of some rust and stays healthy, that is all that New England’s coaching staff needs to see from him.
4) New England Linebackers vs Philadelphia Running Backs
One key player from the New England defense absent in Super Bowl 52 against the Eagles was Dont’a Hightower. Hightower was the leader of the defense and his absence hindered a defense that was last seen being torched by Nick Foles.
Hightower returned against Washington and played 27 snaps last week (per NFL.com). It was the first time he had played since week seven when he was injured against Atlanta. Not surprisingly, the defensive collapses early in 2017 coincided with Hightower missing time in the fourth quarter of week one and weeks two and three.
That weakness against the passing game killed the Patriots in Super Bowl 52. Running back Corey Clement had four catches for 100 yards. Most of that damage came against the safeties, but with Zach Ertz collecting seven catches for 67 yards, a linebacker able to cover would have been a great help.
Safety Jordan Richards was a goat of Super Bowl 52 due to his role covering Clement. He was burned repeatedly as he allowed 81 yards on three catches on three targets. Clement made Richards look foolish on one play in particular as he burned him for a 55-yard reception on a wheel route.
In addition to Clement, the Eagles return Darren Sproles who missed much of 2017 due to injury. In addition, Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey are two other running backs vying to make the team who could cause a problem in the passing game. Smallwood–a special teams ace–is healthy and taking snaps from Pumphrey.
Pumphrey was on injured reserve last year after being a fourth round draft pick with Clement taking his role. Now a lower body injury kept him from playing against Pittsburgh in preseason week one. His status is unknown for the Patriots.
The Patriots should have an opportunity to see Marquis Flowers, Christian Sam, Ja’Whuan Bentley and Nicholas Grigsby getting playing time and trying to cover these running backs. They also need to stop them in the running game. An underrated part of the defensive breakdown in Super Bowl 52 was New England allowing 164 yards rushing to the Eagles.
Much of those yards were due to a weak defensive line but linebacker Elandon Roberts spent much of the game being run over. Bentley showed some thump and has looked good in coverage so far in training camp. Thursday night should be a good test for the young New England linebackers.
5) New England Running Backs vs Philadelphia Front Seven
The New England Patriots have a deep and talented running back group in 2018. However, with the injuries to first round draft pick Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead having missed the first preseason game and not expected to play Thursday night against Philadelphia, the Patriots have had to delve into that depth already.
Against Washington the Patriots had Mike Gillislee lined up behind James Develin. According to NFL.com, Develin played just four snaps at fullback. Receiving back James White played just five snaps and special teamer Brandon Bolden played just four snaps on offense.
The bulk of the playing time went to Gillislee (19 snaps), newcomer Jeremy Hill (19 snaps) and undrafted free agents Ralph Webb (25 snaps) and fullback Henry Poggi (27 snaps).
Gillislee had a team leading 51 yards on just 11 carries and was the clear standout running hard and exploding through the space made by his offensive line. Gillislee had less space it seemed, but even so only averaged 3.1 yards per rush gaining 43 yards on 14 carries. Webb averaged just 3.3 yards per rush but found the end zone twice and looked solid in his first action gaining 46 yards on 14 attempts.
Once Washington’s first team defense left the field the Patriots were able to push around the back-ups. The running game did nothing until Hill checked in and rushed for 11 yards on the first play of the second quarter. At halftime, Hill had four rushes for 30 yards and Gillislee had just nine on five carries.
The New England run game should have a good test with the solid Philadelphia front seven. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan are a potent one-two punch in the middle of the defense and have veteran Haloti Ngata and impressive youngster Destiny Vaeao stepping in with Jernigan questionable to start the season healthy after offseason back surgery.
On the edge, the Eagles can roll out an impressive group of ends. Derek Barnett, Michael Bennett, Chris Long and Brandon Graham make up one of the deepest and diverse group of edge rushers.
Nate Gerry (fifth round draft pick last year) appears to be in line to start as the third linebacker. Former New England Patriots linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (who the Patriots should have kept over Elandon Roberts), Corey Nelson (three year backup in Denver) and Joe Walker (special teams player) are all in the conversation as well as the third linebacker is one of the few holes on the Eagles’ defense.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01