By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
At the end of the day, 25 points allowed to the Carolina Panthers in a preseason game – nine in the first half by the starting defense – is the most important thing. But despite some good things to take away, the Patriots’ starting defense showed there’s still room for improvement in certain situations before the start of the 2018 regular season.
One area they did improve in, however, is the red area. Carolina made it to the New England 20-yard-line or further with Cam Newton under center three times, and kicked three field goals. That was much more Patriot-like than what they did last time out against the Panthers, and certainly better than what they showed at the end of the 2017 season.
“We always talk about being good in the red area, forcing teams to kick for three points instead of giving up touchdowns,” safety Duron Harmon told reporters after the game. “That’s one of the positive things that we can definitely take from this, but we need to do better on not letting people get down there and driving on us to help create better field position.”
The Patriots tightened up closer to the end zone and kept the scoreboard low, a good sign that they’re playing more like themselves. But overall, they can take both positives to build upon and negatives to fix from Friday night’s 25-14 loss in Charlotte. The starting defense had perhaps the most clear ups and downs of the night. For every nice moment, there seemed to be a breakdown waiting on the next snap.
Big plays down the field continued to be something of an issue for the Patriots secondary, and appear to be a problem against the Panthers in particular. Cam Newton quickly made them pay on the Panthers’ second possession, starting off with 28-yard strikes on consecutive plays. No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore lost both matchups.
The first catch came off a practically indefensible back-shoulder throw to Devin Funchess that had Gilmore reasonably tight in coverage. The second play was way less excusable for Gilmore, who lost second-year wideout Curtis Samuel big-time for a wide-open 28-yard catch-and-run. Gilmore later broke up a pass in the end zone intended for rookie D.J. Moore, so it wasn’t all bad for the Pats’ undisputed No. 1 corner.
Carolina also got tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffrey into favorable matchups at times. Duron Harmon lost a 1-on-1 against Olsen on one reception, while Patrick Chung couldn’t keep up with McCaffrey on a seven-yard catch over the middle that moved the chains.
Pressure? Some of it. But without question a step back from the relentless disruption the Patriots showed against the Eagles. Dont’a Hightower pressured Newton twice. Adam Butler, Danny Shelton, and Geneo Grissom each had a pressure of their own. But even when they got close to Newton, they couldn’t keep him in the pocket.
Newton’s mobility showed that the real problem the Patriots had up front was on the edge. When Butler was bearing down on him up the middle, the Patriots were trying a stunt with Deatrich Wise. This gave Newton an easily sealed edge to the right, where he could’ve run and slid for a breezy first down. You may remember it as the play where Newton dove on his own neck.
Even with Newton out for a few plays on that near-10-minute opening drive, the Panthers leaned on McCaffrey in the running game, the Patriots stacked the box, and still had trouble slowing him down. Deatrich Wise lost the edge on multiple runs, with Kyle Van Noy also getting blocked out. McCaffrey had more trouble running up the middle against Shelton and Lawrence Guy. But keeping contain on the edge looks like something the Patriots will have to improve before the start of the season.
The Panthers offense appears to just have the Patriots’ number right now with their combination of passing schemes and Newton’s elusiveness in the pocket. Even when pressured, the 2015 league MVP showed how tough he is to contain. It could also simply be a case of lighter preparation as compared to the regular season, although the Patriots’ game-planning took a step in that direction this week.
It’s important not to read too much into the starting defense on Friday, either way. But it definitely wasn’t an airtight performance and not nearly enough to impress Bill Belichick.
“We have a lot of work to do, it really wasn’t any part of the game that was very competitive,” said Belichick. “We just have to go back to work, and see if we can find a way to do a few things better that we did them tonight.”
Judging by what they’ve showed in camp and the preseason, the starting defense is absolutely better and deeper in terms of front-seven personnel. There should ultimately be enough in the secondary for them to have an overall improvement on the end of last season. They just need to be more consistent moving forward.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.