New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) looks to throw a pass during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Real football finally returned to Foxborough on Thursday night, when the New England Patriots hosted the Houston Texans in their preseason opener and lone home game before the Week 1 regular season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles in exactly a month. The Patriots lost this game 20-9 – but it’s the preseason so let’s put the score aside. Instead, let’s take a look at what we learned – and didn’t learn – about the Patriots in this game.

For the past three weeks of training camp, all of the observations have come with one of a handful of caveats about either the lack of full contact, lack of live tackling, or other general acknowledgement that a modern NFL practice setting cannot replicate the intensity of game action. Now, we have 60 minutes of football that provides the best chance yet to analyze the current roster.

With this added benefit of live action, what can we take away from the Patriots’ performance? Let’s take a look…


  • The good and bad news on the offensive line

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots guard Sidy Sow (61) blocks Houston Texans defensive end Will Anderson Jr. (51) away from quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots guard Sidy Sow (61) blocks Houston Texans defensive end Will Anderson Jr. (51) away from quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    There was one promising note about the Patriots’ offensive line on Thursday night but let’s start with the bad – which was most of it. From start to finish the Patriots’ front five failed to open up any holes in the running game, and quarterbacks rarely had more than a breath after the end of their drop to throw the ball.

    That lack of impact from the offensive line made some of the evaluations from this game difficult. Should there be more concern about the running back position, or would Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong have shown more with even replacement-level blocking? Sure targets were limited for certain wide receivers, but it did look like they were getting open – the quarterbacks just didn’t have time to find them.

    As rough as that all sounds, where is the good news in that performance? Well, the silver lining here is that none of the offensive linemen who played on Thursday night are expected to see regular time for the Patriots this season. They were down either four or all five of their starters, depending on what happens with the right tackle battle between Conor McDermott (who had a rough game) and Riley Reiff (who didn’t play).

    But even within this silver lining there’s a caveat – the offensive line is already banged up and the season hasn’t even started. If injuries continue to be an issue into the regular season, depth up front will be a major concern.

  • Bailey Zappe’s night

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) looks to make a pass during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) looks to make a pass during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Again, most of these offensive observations are going to come with the qualifier of the offensive line. Bailey Zappe rarely had time to throw to any developed route patters and didn’t have any running game threat to aid him.

    Zappe finished the game completing 12-of-14 passes for 79 yards – mostly on short completions. On his one deep ball, a high throw was bailed bout by a highlight catch from Tyquan Thornton. He had no touchdowns and no interceptions, and was sacked twice.

    The most notable thing about Zappe’s night was how much he played. Not only did he play the entire first half, but well into the third quarter as well. It was the workload of a true backup quarterback and a developmental player – a window into how the Patriots’ view him after his brief-but-headline-making time in the spotlight as a rookie.

  • RPOs

    Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive coordinator / quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien works with the team at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive coordinator / quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien works with the team at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Want a good sign from the Patriots’ offense that has nothing to do with the offensive line play (or lack thereof)? Our first look at Bill O’Brien’s new system showed a scheme that heavily featured RPOs – or run-pass options. Despite Mac Jones’ significant success with RPO plays in college, the Patriots have had one of the lowest RPO rates in the league since drafting him. Based off Thursday night, it looks like those numbers are in line to increase this year.

  • Wide receiver usage

    Jun 12, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (60) runs after making a catch at the Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas runs after making a catch at 2023 minicamp in Foxboro. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    We’ll get to the overall picture of who played and who didn’t in a bit, but the wide receiver usage in this game certainly stood out. With the top three receivers getting a ‘veteran’s day off,’ rookies Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte got the start while second-year wideout Tyquan Thornton initially rotated in as the third wide receiver in ’11’ personnel.

    Seeing both rookies rep over Thornton was somewhat notable, but also not an entire surprise given it was their first game reps. What was surprising was that Douglas quickly subbed out of the rotation midway through the first quarter in favor of Tre Nixon, while Thornton remained in the game. That could be taken as a sign that the team is more comfortable in what they’ve seen from Douglas – who has been one of the stars of camp – that those other two receivers. With a projected roster crunch coming at the position, that stands out.

    Asked about the usage after the game, Bill Belichick told reporters that “the play time is kind of based on how the practices have gone. So, guys that have gotten more work in practice got less time in the game. Guys that got less work in practice got more time in the game so we could evaluate everybody.” As mentioned above, Douglas’ reps had increased in recent practices leading up to Thursday night’s game.

  • The Malik Cunningham show

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16) runs with the ball against the Houston Texans during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Malik Cunningham (16) runs with the ball against the Houston Texans during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots offense dragged on four three quarters – until UDFA Malik Cunningham took over. Cunningham saw time as a wide receiver early in the game, but got the reps as the team’s quarterback in the fourth quarter. A college quarterback converting to wide receiver, Cunningham has repped at both spots this summer but started focusing more on quarterback leading up to Thursday’s game.

    In his lone drive at QB, Cunningham led a 14-play, 75-yard sequence that took 7:58 off the clock. He capped it with a touchdown run that had him juke Texans linebacker Jake Hansen so bad, Hansen is probably still looking for his cleats. Cunningham’s electric speed and ball carrying ability he showed in four years as a starter at Louisville was on full display as he moved the ball down the field.

    What does that all mean? While Cunningham may not be pushing for the starting job, he showed that he has what it takes to be both a capable scout team QB and emergency option behind Jones and Zappe. If he continues to show what he did on Thursday night – and there’s not much reason to think he can’t – he’ll easily bump Trace McSorley for the practice squad QB spot and potentially push for a spot on the back end of the 53-man roster as he develops as a wide receiver.

  • Rookie of the night

    While Cunningham flashed at the end of the game, the most impressive Patriots rookie on the night was second-round pick defensive end Keion White. White displayed his impressive combination of play strength and non-stop motor and lived in the Texans backfield.

    While he didn’t record a sack he was in C.J. Stroud’s face constantly, and earned a couple of run stuffs as well. He was constantly around the ball – but most notably when he delivered a major hit to running back Dare Ogunbowale to force a fumble early in the game.

  • Christian Gonzalez looks the part

    Cornerback Christian Gonzalez runs through a resistance-band drill at Patriots training camp.

    Cornerback Christian Gonzalez runs through a resistance-band drill at Patriots training camp. (Alex Barth/98.5 The Sports Hub)

    As for the Patriots’ top draft pick Christian Gonzalez? He had his moments as well. Mainly, a forced fumble along the sideline (although it came after he allowed a completion). For the most part though, he had tight coverage on his assignments.

    The most notable part of Gonzalez’s night though was his special teams usage. He was on both kickoff and punt coverage, playing near the boundary. That’s not something you see everyday from a team’s top draft pick, but the Patriots seem poised to give him a role in the kicking game. Given he also projects to be 90-plus percent usage rate player on defense, it could be a very busy year for him.

  • Rookie moments

    While Gonzalez and White both were net positives on the night, they had their teachable moments as well. That’s to be expected from rookies.

    For Gonzalez, that came on his first play. Trying to force 6-foot-4, 216-pound Texans receiver Nico Collins out of bounds near the sideline, Gonzalez instead had Collins put his shoulder in his chest and run right through him. After the game, veteran defensive back Jalen Mills shared Gonzalez told the other members of the secondary he saw it as a teachable moment.

    As for White, he picked up an early pressure on Stroud getting in without contest on a simple side-step pass rush move. However, he got a little too eager and over-pursued, which allowed Stroud to escape to the outside and scramble for a small gain.

  • A natural fit for Jalen Mills

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) runs after intercepting the ball during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) runs after intercepting the ball during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Speaking of Mills, this was his first game action back at safety after spending the majority of his first two years in New England. Prior to signing with the Patriots as a free agent prior to the 2021 season, he’d had most of his success as a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Back at the safety position, Mills thrived. Not only did he have a read-and-react interception, but he was also a regular feature defending the run, playing downhill to collapse rushing lanes along with the Patriots’ linebackers. It’s not like the Patriots have a shortage of talent at the safety position or anything, but it’s looking like Mills will be another player the team can use as a chess piece from multiple alignments.

  • Who sat?

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches game action against the Houston Texans during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches game action against the Houston Texans during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    There was also some notable news in terms of the players who didn’t play. While some more engrained veteran starters sitting out isn’t a surprise, the biggest takeaway here is tackle Riley Reiff didn’t play in the game. Based on the money the Patriots’ paid the 34-year-old this offseason (a one-year, $5 million contract with $4.1 million guaranteed) it seems like the plan is for him to start at right tackle. He’s struggled to hold onto that job in camp battling Conor McDermott, yet he was given a ‘veteran’s night off’ on Thursday. That could be a sign that his job is more secure than initially believed.

    Outside of players on PUP and NFI, Jonathan Jones, Ty Montgomery, Cole Strange, and Bill Murray weren’t in uniform. Jones’ status there stands out – he hasn’t practiced since last Thursday, but was never seen suffering any apparent injury. His absence could be a sign that that is in fact the case.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.

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