The Patriots were still in striking distance at the half on Thursday night against the Lions, trailing 16-3 as both teams went to the locker room.
That relatively small deficit grew quickly as the first-team defense left the field and the second-teamers entered, though. There’s a clear divide between the starters and the reserves on the Patriots’ defense — especially along the defensive line and secondary.
Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Devin McCourty, Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard can sit back in their Jordan’s — or Bernie & Phyl’s — easy chairs. No one is coming close to competing for their starting roles on this defense.
The starters played very well Thursday, despite repeatedly being put in tough situations by the Patriots’ offense. There were two glaring plays given up by the starters, one a 67-yard reception by Reggie Bush where Mayo bit too hard and the Lions’ shifty running back slid through the New England defensive backfield. The other was on Matthew Stafford‘s touchdown pass to Tony Scheffler, when it looked like Steve Gregory might have blown his coverage.
Outside of those two drives, the Patriots came up with six three-and-outs and a field goal to end the first half as many reserves had already come into the game. After that, it got a little ugly, and Detroit backup Kellen Moore can’t totally be credited for the Lions’ offensive resurgence.
To start, the Patriots’ second-teamers appeared to lose any semblance of tackling ability. Joique Bell was running through New England defensive backs like he was on star mode in a Mario game. Patriots were left flailing at Bell’s legs as he carried the ball five times for 52 yards.
It didn’t help that the Patriots were having trouble setting the edge with Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette on the edge. Bequette finally made some high-energy plays late, but there are times when the second-year player’s motor has to be questioned. At least he wasn’t being forced to play five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 this game. He was at his more comfortable seven-tech in the 4-3.
Buchanan shows promise, but it’s apparent he needs to bulk up to add value in the run game and in pass rush. Bequette and Buchanan failed to pressure Moore or third-stringer Thad Lewis.
Marcus Benard has shown flashes in practice, but he’s mostly being used as a defensive tackle on third down. Justin Francis hasn’t had an especially solid summer, but he’s shown an ability to step into a starting role in the past and should have no problem against the run.
At defensive tackle, Marcus Forston, Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano show promise, as does nose tackle Anthony Reshad White, but all four of those players were undrafted free agents, and the latter three are rookies.
All four players are fine developmental prospects, but only Forston would likely be able to hold up as a starter if Wilfork or Kelly went down with an injury. None have been breakout stars like Kenbrell Thompkins or Zach Sudfeld on offense, but it seems the team is content with those players since they haven’t attempted to bring in any veterans throughout training camp.
In the secondary, no one has really stood out at safety next to McCourty. Gregory still has his issues, Adrian Wilson has his limitations, and the youngins, Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson, have really struggled the past two games, which is to be expected out of first- and second-team players, but there’s probably a starting role to be had, and they’re not grabbing it.
Harmon was late helping out Justin Green on a touchdown reception, and he missed multiple tackles. Wilson almost didn’t get many opportunities after a rough game against the Buccaneers, as the elder Wilson took many of the snaps next to Harmon.
The Patriots appear to be set at cornerback with Talib and Arrington as starters until Dennard comes back and Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole as the reserves. Justin Green had a rough game, but he’s a long shot for the roster and will likely only catch on with the practice squad.
The Patriots are fine at linebacker even though Jamie Collins had a rough game compared to his performance at Gillette Stadium last week against the Bucs. He, Dane Fletcher and Steve Beauharnais are solid reserves.
But if Jones, Ninkovich, Kelly, Wilfork, McCourty or Adrian Wilson go down, a player will be thrust into valuable reps much too early. Those players will need to develop fast, or the Patriots will have to hope for complete health along the defensive line and at safety.