Bill Belichick showed his hand on Thursday night when he elected to sit half of the New England Patriots starters in their preseason opener against the Washington Redskins.
There was a clear divide between players who the Patriots head coach decided still needed work and who had earned the game off. Quarterback Tom Brady clearly has nothing to prove, so he didn’t see a single snap. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are coming off injuries, so they did need the playing time.
Brady, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, left guard Logan Mankins, defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo, cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Devin McCourty got the night off. Wilfork, Kelly, cornerback Brandon Browner, running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, guard Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell weren’t so lucky.
Based on who played and who sat, it appears the starting strong safety role and the starting center/right guard spots still are up for grabs. Wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Brandon LaFell were auditioning to start at “X” receiver with Aaron Dobson still out with a broken foot.
Check out the rest of NESN.com’s observations from our first glimpse at the 2014 Patriots in a game situation:
-The Patriots ran a 3-4 “regular defense,” rather than the 4-3 that they have primarily lined up in since 2011. Wilfork was playing nose tackle, Kelly and Chris Jones started at defensive end, Michael Buchanan and Darius Fleming started at outside linebacker and Steven Beauharnais and James Anderson started at inside linebacker. If the rest of the starters were in, Chandler Jones would have taken Chris Jones’ spot, Hightower and Ninkovich would have played outside linebacker and Collins and Mayo would have played on the inside.
-After Sealver Siliga suffered a serious hand injury during joint practices, the Patriots have to be hoping that Chris Jones’ ankle injury isn’t serious. He was questionable to return to the game, but he wasn’t spotted on the sidelines for the Patriots. Fellow defensive lineman Marcus Forston rolled up on Jones’ left knee/ankle.
-The Patriots ran a two-running back set on third down, with Vereen and James White on the field at the same time. It’s an interesting look for a team that doesn’t have two starting-caliber tight ends. For the fantasy folks, White’s presence on the field could take away from Vereen’s value.
-Rookie tight ends Justin Jones and Asa Watson had a chance to shine with D.J. Williams, Michael Hoomanawanui and Rob Gronkowski out. Jones was targeted and dropped Jimmy Garoppolo’s pass, while Watson didn’t see a target come his way in four quarters.
-Veteran Will Smith was viewed by the New Orleans Saints as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and he tore his ACL last preseason. The Patriots — wisely — see him as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4. Smith’s best fit is as a defensive end in a 4-3, but the Patriots will see if they can fit a round peg in a square hole.
-The Patriots’ offensive line struggled mightily, but some forget that the front five also didn’t play well last preseason, so this might have nothing to do with the change in offensive line coaches from Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo. Still, it’s concerning to see a group that included starters Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer struggle so much. Solder gave up a sack, and he was called for holding.
-White, running back Roy Finch and defensive back Travis Swanson handled kick return duties while Finch brought back punts. Finch fumbled a kick return and bobbled a punt. He has great agility and quickness, but he looked scattered on the field on Thursday night.
-Rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and cornerback Malcolm Butler were among five stars of the Patriots’ first preseason game.