The Patriots can return to New England feeling good about their 28-10 preseason victory against the Falcons. A few trends have developed over the course of the Pats' two summer wins, and they came into focus during Thursday's game.
Quarterback Tom Brady has led the first-team offense to three touchdowns in five preseason possessions. (Oddly enough, the two failed drives were three-and-outs.) Brady was on point in Atlanta, completing 10 of 12 passes for 85 yards and one touchdown, and he had it going for much of his three series and 26 snaps. New England's passing attack has been dynamite all summer, and it's shaping up to be a big year for Brady.
Running Back Focus
Fred Taylor might have regained his spot ahead of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the race for a roster spot, presuming the Patriots only keep four running backs. Taylor ran hard Thursday, accumulating 54 yards and one touchdown over 11 carries, and he leveled safety Thomas DeCoud on his way to a show-stopping, 28-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Taylor hasn’t exactly stuck out in training camp, but he put his stamp on the preseason against the Falcons.
Through two games, it's clear Bill Belichick wants to give his running backs a chance to get into a rhythm during their preseason reps. Green-Ellis got his shot in the opener, with a little side action for Laurence Maroney. Thursday was the night for Taylor and Sammy Morris (six carries, 52 yards, one touchdown). We're guessing this could mean Maroney gets the start next week against the Rams.
Rookie Tight Ends
It's been so easy to sing the praises of rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski is the prototypical starter, and he hauled in four catches for 38 yards and one touchdown — a really nice 24-yard score — against the Falcons. Gronkowski's size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) make it nearly impossible for defensive backs to shield him, and his receiving ability — body control, good hands, speed — is tough on linebackers. He's a matchup nightmare.
Hernandez had four catches for 46 yards and a four-yard touchdown snag in Atlanta, and he's been an athletically gifted, fast receiving option for Brady. Hernandez caught the scoring strike off his back hip in a play that can only be executed when the quarterback and receiver are on the same page. Hernandez isn’t big enough to take on primary blocking responsibilities, but he's overly talented in other areas. He's a great complement to Gronkowski.
Atlanta's running backs had 24 carries for 97 yards (4.0 yards per carry), but the average dwindled as the game wore on. In the first half, Atlanta's backs had 11 carries for 49 yards (4.5), and they had some good runs through the front seven. That’s going to be an issue without Ty Warren, and the Patriots need to figure out how to counter that problem over the next two weeks.
Vince Wilfork started the game at defensive end, which gives the Patriots a few different advantages. One in particular, they'll basically force the opposing offense to run away from his side, and that will help the linebackers and safeties anticipate the play. When Wilfork is on the nose, it's exponentially more important for him to make a strong push off the ball, or the Patriots will be at an instant disadvantage. Simply, he's far and away the best run stuffer they've got.
Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty had another good showing in place of Leigh Bodden, who has missed both preseason games with a knee injury. McCourty is a very strong tackler, and he attacked the line of scrimmage in the running game and stopped receivers along the sideline. McCourty was tied for the team lead with five total tackles and four solo stops. He also blanketed Atlanta's best receiver, Roddy White, on a slant route. McCourty has continued to display some good signs early in his career, and he'll be an asset as a top-three corner for the New England defense.