Garoppolo Led Patriots Take Preseason Game 2

New England Patriots vs New Orleans Saints

The majority of Patriots fans are probably counting down the days until the games start to count, but the Patriots had their second tune up game of the preseason on Saturday night.

As the weeks go by, we are beginning to see the pieces of this roster come together, and we are getting some hints as to who will be playing where come September.

On the scoreboard, the Patriots came out on top after a late field goal by Stephen Gostowski. Despite digging themselves into an early 21-0 deficit, Jimmy Garoppolo and the rest of the backups were able to rally. Rattling off 20 straight to get back in it, and eventually got the win.

More importantly, the Patriots (and Saints) got through this one injury free, and we saw some important roster battles develop out on the field.

Let’s take a look at the at the most important things to takeaway from preseason game #2:

Devin McCourty Starts at Corner: Bill Belichick and the coaching staff threw a bit of a curveball at us when they moved Devin McCourty, one of the leagues top safeties, back to his original position of cornerback. McCourty played both left and right corner in his first two seasons in the league, but began transitioning to safety in 2012. Eventually he was moved to free safety permanently in the 2013 season, and has played there at a very high level ever since. McCourty made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, picking off seven passes and holding opposing quarterbacks to an impressive QB rating of 57 when targeting him in coverage. The 57 rating was the third best mark in 2010 among CBs playing at least 60% of the snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Some claim that McCourty’s Pro Bowl selection was based on the high number of interceptions, which was a result of McCourty being targeted 99 times. Based on stats provided by PFF, McCourty was actually very deserving of that Pro Bowl selection. Having said that, McCourty’s performance at CB on Saturday left something to be desired. New Orleans’ number one receiver Brandin Cooks beat McCourty twice on two drives, both for big gains. Also, the touchdown Cooks caught over safety Duron Harmon could have been made easier for Harmon if McCourty had slowed Cooks a bit in the first 5-10 yards of his route. In theory, there’s some logic to moving McCourty back to corner. On paper, it allows the Patriots to get their four best defensive backs on the field at once. McCourty and Malcolm Butler starting at corner, and Harmon and Chung at the two safety positions. If McCourty is playing corner that is bad news for the Pats, as he has blossomed into an All-Pro caliber player at safety. I will preface this by saying Bill Belichick is the best football coach of all time, and I am by no means smarter than he is, but I’m not a fan of the move despite McCourty’s early success at the position.

Ugly Start: More alarming than McCourty’s start at CB was the start the Patriots got off to in this one. In the regular season, you shrug the bad start off and settle for winning the game, but in the preseason this means that the starters got beat by the opposing teams first unit. Offensively, Tom Brady played the first three drives of the game and went three plays and out on all three. The Patriots couldn’t get anything going on the ground (more on that later), and Brady completed just two of five passes. We’ll give the first teamers a bit of a break as Brady and company were without main weapons Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Injury and rest sidelined Brady’s favorite targets respectively, so things will look a lot different on offense with those two in the lineup. More alarming was the performance by the starting defense against a solid Saints offense. Obviously Drew Brees is one of the leagues best signal callers, but he met little resistance from the Patriots defense. Brees was 8-10 for 159 yards and two touchdowns on three drives. He had no issues finding his new top target Brandin Cooks, and was put under pressure just twice and still completed both pass attempts. The defense stiffened against New Orleans’ backups, giving up just three points for almost three quarters, but Brees’ dissection of the defense was troubling to say the least.

Jimmy Garoppolo Hype Train: Maybe the biggest improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 came from the Patriots young backup quarterback. After a shaky performance against the Packers, Garoppolo looked more like the guy we saw last preseason against the Saints. The biggest difference in his play was his poise in the pocket, and his ability to get rid of the ball faster to take less sacks. Jimmy G released the ball on average in 2.04 seconds (really quick), and was 20-20 on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. To put that 2.04 seconds into prospective, Peyton Manning led the league in the stat last season averaging 2.24 seconds to throw. That’s not comparing Garoppolo to Manning (duh), just a little bit of context. All of the tools appear to be there for Garoppolo; arm strength, athletic ability, smarts, and especially accuracy. Garoppolo was deadly accurate in this one finding his receiver nearly 85% of the time on 33 attempts. It’s always tough to judge the backup quarterback in the preseason, as he goes up against defensive players that might not even be on the roster in a few weeks. Having said that, Garoppolo looked like a pro out there on Saturday, and it was hard to not be impressed.

Running Game: One of the troubling themes developing this preseason for the Patriots is a limited rushing attack. The Patriots are averaging just 88 rush yards through their first two games, ranking them 23rd league wide. It gets worse when you factor in that 55 of their 176 rushing yards came on one carry by Jonas Gray. LeGarrette Blount made his preseason debut, but it wasn’t much to talk about as he rushed for just 15 yards on 13 carries. The Patriots offensive line didn’t give Blount and the other running backs much help, as the Saints recorded 34 stops (tackles resulting in a offensive failure), meaning Patriots ball carriers were being contacted around the line of scrimmage all night. With the passing attack at their disposal, the Patriots just have to be respectable on the ground, but 2.3 yards per rush isn’t going to cut it.

Bradley Fletcher Siting: The new number 24 (sorry, Bradley) has been an iffy addition thus far based on those around the team during training camp. When the Patriots went with other options to start against Green Bay, it appeared that Fletcher might be in trouble. Well, he showed up against the Saints grading out as the best player on defense for the Patriots according to PFF. Fletcher was targeted five times in coverage, and gave up just two receptions for 8 yards. Furthermore, he made two plays on the ball, including a nice pass break up in the end zone to save a touchdown. Despite McCourty possible being back in the fold at corner, the Patriots are thin behind Malcolm Butler at the position. This should come as no surprise to anyone. Fletcher had an awful year in 2014 with the Eagles, but that entire secondary struggled in Philly, so there was some hope for Fletcher here this season. If he continues to play like he did on Saturday he should start to see more playing time.

Third Down RB: A week after James White appeared to take the role by the horns, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels gave Dion Lewis a shot to make an impression. Lewis is the short, shifty jitterbug that typically occupies the receiving back role for teams around the league. Think a very, very poor mans Darren Sproles. Lewis was taken in the fifth round by the Eagles in the 2011 draft, and struggled to see the field in his two years with Philly. He has the necessary speed and quickness to fill the role, and has a surprising amount of power for a running back of his size. That power was on display on his 11-yard touchdown run. Lewis also caught five passes for 36 yards, and at least looked the part. White, however, reminded us of his talent on a nifty 20-yard gain on a screen pass. White made a nice move to cut across the field to set up his blocks, and nearly took it all the way before getting caught from behind. It appears that White will have a decent sized role on this team.

We are now just a few weeks away from the start of the regular season, thank goodness. Now comes the interesting part of the offseason, as teams have to cut their rosters from 90 all the way down to 55.

Luckily for two players per team this season, the NFL expanded the practice squad from 8 to 10. Meaning teams can carry two extra players. For two NFL hopefuls that could be the difference between getting an NFL paycheck, and being out of a job.