Last night was a great night for Patriots fans. We witnessed a great game where our first and second team looked extremely solid- and even better, no one was injured. The offense seemed to be in control, special teams looked solid (apart from Beaver breaking a couple tackles and ankles) and the first team defense looked well against the Super Bowl winners. One group of players on the Patriots have faced questions the entire off-season and we got a first peek at how they responded.
The Linebackers have faced numerous questions, a continuous stream starting in 2008. Who will play next to Mayo? Where will the pass rush come from? Is there enough depth? Is there enough experience? Is Tully Banta-Cain the real deal? How will the OLBs perform? Will they be able to generate pressure without blitzing the inside linebackers? I believe the Patriots did a solid job of answering most of those questions in one pre-season game.
From a positive standpoint, it appears that Gary Guyton's starting spot next to Jerod Mayo is in jeopardy. Brandon Spikes played like a first rounder and silenced a lot of his critics. Is Spikes too slow to play ILB in the NFL? With a fantastic premier, Spikes showed speed, instincts and aggression and is now a step closer to being a Week 1 starter next to Mayo. Should Spikes have another couple great pre-season games, he could definitely cement his spot as a legitimate starter.
On the subject of Spikes, a lot of people expressed concern that Tyrone McKenzie, 2009's 3rd round pick, wasn't the first guy off the bench. UDFA Dane Fletcher came on and split time with Spikes, leaving McKenzie to sit on the bench until the 4th quarter. Should McKenzie be worried about his spot on the team, especially if an undrafted player has jumped him in the depth chart?
Nah. Remember, McKenzie hasn't played football since he was in the Senior Bowl. That's a year and a half ago. That's a long time to not play a down. In his first game back, McKenzie performed well (and he should) against the 3rd team Saints' offense. That's a great place for him to start. It's been clear to everyone that Spikes is the top player primed to start with Mayo down the road- McKenzie is playing for top back-up. My guess is that a combination of wanting to see Spikes against top competition and wanted to ease McKenzie back on the field is what led the coaches to play McKenzie little and play him late.
However, you should expect McKenzie to see the field earlier as the pre-season games wear on. Once McKenzie gains his field legs back, he should rack up play time. This game was just a preview of McKenzie. We'll start seeing the real deal over the next few weeks. Don't worry about his roster spot just yet- he has 3 more weeks to regain his form. The new questions that are being asked: Where does Dane Fletcher fit in? Where does Gary Guyton return to?
Outside Linebacker talk after the Jump
Looking at the OLB position, it's clear that the Patriots are no worse than they were last year- which is, in a twisted sense, not a bad thing. Tully Banta-Cain didn't do anything spectacular during his time on the field, but he did help provide pressure and open lanes for other players on the few defensive downs he played. Opposite to TBC, newcomer Marques Murrell, who I definitely had resigned to being a pure special teams player, had a monster first series, generating tremendous pressure. However, Murrell showed that he's just a couple steps too slow to catch up with tight ends and running backs in coverage. Rob Ninkovich came on the field and created pressure at OLB against the 2nd team offense of the Saints and played an overall solid game. Finally, Pierre Woods came on with the 2nd team ("sigh") and was a solid tackler.
And let's not forget that Jermaine Cunningham didn't play a down.
So there wasn't much of a drop off from last year- and I might argue that Murrell made the Patriots pressure better than last year. The big holes in the outside linebackers' game is that they are not consistent with their pressure and that there isn't a player who has really emerged (and yes, it's still early) as a strong running back and tight end defender.
So how do we answer the questions?
Who will play next to Mayo? Brandon Spikes.
Where will the pass rush come from? A combination of inside and outside linebackers creating pressure- inside linebackers are going to have to help out. The fact that Matt Patricia (the linebacker coach) appears to be calling the shots means that the plays will be designing knowing full well the strengths and weaknesses of the linebackers.
Is there enough depth? On inside, absolutely. On outside, it's no worse than last year. The inside linebackers need to step up and help the outside linebackers.
Is there enough experience? Mayo is a monster and TBC knows how to play. Spikes plays like a veteran. There's enough experience and skill in the linebackers to make up for most inexperience.
Is Tully Banta-Cain the real deal? Jury's still out. He's still not a monster, but he's solid and does well in the "bend, don't break" defense. I'd still like to see him break into the backfield more.
How will the OLBs perform? Average. In fact, I would say they exceeded expectations, but that's more of a sign of how low I had thought of the OLBs. If Murrell can continue to improve and if Cunningham is a solid player, I would say our OLBs are better off than last season- which would mean a lot for the defense.
Will they be able to generate pressure without blitzing the inside linebackers? Jury's still out. The OLBs did much better when an ILB ran up the gut, but the OLBs seemed able to crash the pocket on their own, without as much ILB help. I'll wait another game before answering this.
New Questions to be Asked
Where does Dane Fletcher fit into the linebacker depth chart? Can he help out at OLB? Will Spikes step up at OLB down the road (note: I expect to see Spikes take some snaps at OLB with McKenzie and Mayo at ILB so Spikes can cover the RB and TE)? What position is left for Guyton? What player, if any, gets cut from ILB? How will Cunningham impact the OLBs? Is Murrell the real deal? Will they ever be consistent at getting into the backfield?
Overall, it was a great first game and a lot of questions were partially answered. I hope all these questions are solved by the end of the pre-season.