By Chris Warner
I’ve often said that the Patriots don’t care much about preseason scrimmages. This year I’m hoping beyond hope that I’m right, because if they’re playing like this when they do care, it’s going to be a lo-o-ong autumn.
David Carr led the home team to a 7-0 lead on an 80-yard opening drive that included New York hopeful Darcy Johnson taking New England starting cornerback Fernando Bryant on a hayride for eight yards into the end zone. Long before the 19-14 loss came to an end, Pats fans had to wonder what was happening, and whether it would change in time for Kansas City.
Speaking of Darcy Johnson, if you didn’t know who he was before last night, you weren’t alone. The NFL didn’t have him listed on the team’s depth chart. He looked like an all-star, as did much of the Giants roster. The receivers and running backs broke tackles like plates at a Greek wedding, shattering the Patriots defenders on two extended scoring drives in the first half (the first took 4:25; the second, ending in Sinorice Moss’ 9-yard TD catch, lasted 7:05). And those came against the bulk of New England’s starters for a 13-0 halftime lead (Josh Huston’s extra-point kick clanged off the upright. No word as to whether New England claimed the upright off waivers).
For those who figured backup Matt Gutierrez would put an end to the madness, his chance with the first team offense was, to put it kindly, disappointing. Early in the second quarter, Gutierrez was sacked by Renaldo Wynn and Dave Tollefson, who sound more like attorneys than defensive ends. It has gotten to the point where my stress dreams will no longer involve lateness for an exam in a far-off classroom; instead, I’ll be quarterbacking the Patriots on third and long with Wesley Britt at left tackle. I just hope I wake up before I hit the ground.
Yes, at different points, the defense showed some life. Shawn Crable provided some pressure (five tackles, one sack), while linebacker Gary Guyton (10 tackles) made consistent plays in stopping the run and tackling receivers. Matt Slater – yet to get on track on his returns – even showed up on the defensive side and caused a fumble on a sweep (four tackles total, though I’d still like to see him on offense).
New England’s final drive of the half looked promising. LaMont Jordan started running downhill (for 11 and seven yards). Chad Jackson zipped through some open space for 16 yards. Team mascot (and I say that with much respect) Ray Ventrone found a seam against the defense and gained 13 on a short pass. Gutierrez followed an overturned interception with a well-timed 23-yard screen pass to Jordan that got the Pats to the two. “Well,” I said to myself, “at least they’ll go into the half with a score.”
Oh, silly, silly self. On the next play, Jordan got stuffed like prized bonito (Knocked down? Need help? Call Wynn & Tollefson). Gutierrez then attempted a fade pass, except the only thing that faded was Jackson’s chance of staying on his feet. Slip, interception, zero points, half over.
The back-ups who entered the third quarter failed to provide a boost, giving up a field goal after a 13-play Giants possession that took almost seven minutes off the clock. Carr was again the maestro, completing five of eight passes for 41 yards, including the two third-down passes necessary to keep the ball moving. Hey, blame Patriots cornerback-for-the-moment Jeff Shoate all you want, the passes were where they needed to be.
By the beginning of the fourth, Carr had led New York on yet another extended drive (18 plays, 64 yards, 8:37) for a field goal and a 19-0 lead. He would return only after rookie Andre Woodson fumbled two shotgun snaps and got yanked. At least their backup-to-the-backup QB didn’t look so hot.
Kevin O’Connell may have brought many New Englanders off of the ledge by engineering two touchdown drives, one on a high-arcing pass to Jackson in the corner of the end zone, the other on a five-yard sprint around the left end. The nasty shutout became a less-cringeworthy 19-14. Hey, even lukewarm water tastes good when you’re thirsty.
On the whole, New England had the momentum of cement. When necessary, Carr scrambled for the time he needed (it’s not as if he’s new to pressure: the man’s been sacked more than Ancient Rome) and completed 20 of 29 passes for 192 yards. For some perspective, the entire Pats offense gained 197. The visitors missed tackles, missed blocks, and missed opportunities. The Giants kept the ball almost twice as long as the visitors (39:50 to 20:10). While New York looked ready to make something happen, the Pats seemed content to get out of the way.
Hey, it would be difficult for me to care less about going 0-4 in the preseason. What chafes me is the lack of urgency on all sides of the ball. New England’s defense has one interception in four games. Opposing offenses have consistent, sustained first-half drives. The Patriots have averaged 14 points per game, never scoring more than 17. Besides the upbeat play of O’Connell, they have shown very little to excite fans in preparation for the regular season.
Onlookers have little idea how plain the defensive and offensive schemes have been or how much they will improve before September 7. Anyone can tell, however, that this team needs to change for the better.
So for starters, let’s change the mood of this column. Because teams must cut 22 players by this weekend, here’s a brief rundown of several of the roster battles coaches should have in mind.
Vince Redd vs. Gary Guyton – Guyton has to make the squad. Ten tackles is pretty good, whether playing against Giants backups or Madden 2009. He’s also got the quickness to cover backs that the Patriots have looked to add to their linebacker squad. On the outside, Redd has shown surprising strength in containment and noteworthy speed in tracking down rushers. If he gets cut, another team will come along and scoop him up.
You know what? Maybe that’s not the battle. What about both these guys in favor of Eric Alexander? We’re looking at two rookies with platoon potential vs. a four-year special-teamer who hasn’t cracked the linebacker rotation. It’s worth consideration.
John Lynch vs. Rodney Harrison – Sure, we assume both will make the roster. But doesn’t this remind you of the Harrison/Lawyer Milloy setup of 2003? Lynch and Harrison are hard-hitting safeties whose better days are behind them. Can they both stay, or should Bill Belichick look to install youth? It’s just difficult for me to envision them on the field at the same time, despite the myriad nickel/dime/rupee packages the Patriots defense has displayed.
Not much would surprise me. After James Sanders’ whiff of Johnson on New York’s opening drive, I wouldn’t mind seeing both Lynch and Harrison around to teach the basics of tackling to the youngsters.
LaMont Jordan vs. Sammy Morris – Jordan has done very well in his preseason role, averaging over four yards per carry in two games (4.5 vs. the Giants). Morris has rushed 12 times for 39 yards (3.25 per carry). While the other three running backs have defined roles (Maroney starts, Faulk receives, Evans blocks) the more Jordan and Morris play, the fewer differences I see between them.
It would work best to keep both, especially regarding the injury history of Maroney and Faulk; however, cutting Morris wouldn’t surprise me as much this week as it would have in early August.
C. J. Jones vs. Matthew Slater – Jones almost – almost – made a sweet kickoff return for 44 yards in the fourth. I saw almost because his fumble failed to inspire confidence, especially after his erratic play two weeks ago. He ended up with two catches for 14 yards. Slater had his aforementioned four tackles and some so-so returns, though he can’t get much blame for a lack of blocking.
Slater’s a draft pick who can play defense. Jones is a thoroughly decent receiver on a team with a lot of receivers. Looks like Slater wins this one, though I doubt he gets many reps at safety anytime soon.
Matt G. vs. Matt C. – Cassel has struggled with the first team offense, eliciting cries for his head to make way for Gutierrez. Thursday night, Gutierrez got the reigns and showed that it’s not so easy being king. While Cassel didn’t get far (42 yards total in two drives), Gutierrez went nowhere until his final drive of the half (see this drive chart).
If it’s a question of potential, Gutierrez wins, because he’s on track to improve at a faster clip than the four-year veteran Cassel, who’s been spinning his wheels. You have to wonder how much it all matters. Isn’t “backup to Tom Brady” kind of like “imitation chocolate?” At this point, it’s absurd to try.
Wesley Britt vs My Grandma – Just kidding! Kind of. I realized I still have a bad reaction to watching Giants ends running around Patriots tackles to sack the QB. Here’s yet another situation where the outsider (i.e., me) misses aspects of the blocking scheme that would explain not only what happened, but what was supposed to happen. The line as a whole has failed to find a rhythm. Maybe it has to do with the shifting personnel; maybe they have yet to get in synch with their various quarterbacks. In any case, they have lots of work to do.
This might be the first time I can remember that I’m not ready to see the preseason end. Although, at 0-4, I’m not sorry to see it go, either.