Patriots Preseason Observations: Ryan Mallett Outplays Jimmy Garoppolo

Brandon Graham, Ryan MallettA little competition is all it took for Ryan Mallett to play the best game of his NFL career in the New England Patriots’ preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday night.

It’s official: The Patriots have a backup quarterback controversy, or maybe it’s just a competition — let’s settle on a contro-tition.

The writing was on the wall that Mallett needed to step up when rookie signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo was the Patriots’ first backup QB off the bench on Friday night. Garoppolo played well in his first two series, but the Patriots had trouble moving the ball late in the second quarter. Mallett shined throughout the second half when the Patriots allowed him to show off his rocket arm.

The Patriots have two more games to decide whether they can afford to carry just one backup quarterback this year, and Mallett has two more weeks to showcase his skills for another team. Whether his chance to compete on another roster comes in September or next spring might depend on the play of Garoppolo against the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants as the preseason winds down.

Here are five more takeaways from Friday night’s game against the Eagles:

Patriots have more questions than answers on the offensive line

Head coach Bill Belichick’s offensive line usage has been puzzling so far in the offseason. It’s apparent that he wasn’t happy with last year’s line play, since we haven’t yet seen Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer play together in their usual starting spots yet. That raises a question, though: Why did the Patriots re-sign Wendell? Connolly is taking starting reps in Wendell’s usual center role for now.

Jordan Devey didn’t come off the field on Friday night, and he played right guard and left tackle. The Patriots definitely want to get a good look at Devey, but the 2013 undrafted rookie hasn’t fared too well against the run in the first two preseason games.

Here are all of the Patriots’ offensive line combinations used against the Eagles:

LT: Solder, LG: Mankins, C: Connolly: RG: Devey, RT: Vollmer
LT: Marcus Cannon, LG: Mankins, C: Connolly, RG: Devey, RT: Vollmer, TE: Solder
LT: Solder, LG: Josh Kline, C: Wendell, RG: Devey, RT: Cannon
LT: Solder, LG: Chris Barker, C: Wendell, RG: Devey, RT: Cannon, TE: Kline
LT: Devey, LG: Barker, C: Wendell, RG: Kline, RT: Cameron Fleming
LT: Devey, LG: Barker, C: Braxton Cave, RG: Jon Halapio, RT: Fleming
LT: Barker, LG: Halapio, C: Cave, RG: Devey, RT: Fleming

Kline played well on Friday night, and it’s a good sign that the Patriots were giving him a look as a blocking tight end. Cannon has showcased impressive versatility, and he might still be the Patriots’ best option starting at right guard, either next to Connolly or Wendell at center.

Patriots holding back the pressure

It’s the preseason, so the Patriots aren’t getting very creative with blitzes and pressures, and that’s limiting how often they can get near the opposing quarterback. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano, playing for Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, both of whom are out with injuries, had some success, recording a pressure and a sack at defensive end.

Starting edge defenders Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones also were able to bring some heat against Eagles starting QB Nick Foles in their limited action.

Patriots receivers having trouble with drops

Traditional statistics don’t tell the full story, so I decided to chart Brady, Garoppolo and Mallett’s incompletions. Here are the causes for all three QBs’ miscues:

– Brady overthrew wide receiver Danny Amendola on a deep pass
— Tight end Steve Maneri didn’t run the correct route on Brady’s pick-six to Eagles cornerback Cary Williams

– Garoppolo threw too close to the sideline on a pass to wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins
— Garoppolo’s pass was batted down at the line
— Garoppolo overthrew wide receiver Brian Tyms
— Fullback Taylor McCuller dropped a pass
— Wide receiver Brandon LaFell couldn’t haul in a deep throw after he got hit hard in the middle of the field
— Garoppolo under-threw running back James White while the rookie QB was trying to pass on the run

– Mallett overthrew Tyms on a pass to the sideline
— Tyms appeared to get interfered with on a pass down the sideline
— Tyms had a drop
— Wideout Josh Boyce had a drop

Malcolm Butler continues to make plays

Undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler was able to force two fumbles against the Eagles. In all, he allowed three receptions on four targets for 38 yards.

Safety Duron Harmon made a nice interception on a throw from Eagles QB Mark Sanchez. Harmon looked solid in coverage, as he competes with a slew of defensive backs to start next to Devin McCourty at safety.

Safety Patrick Chung was late on a deep pass to Brent Celek, though he was able to deliver a jarring hit, knocking the tight end’s helmet off in the process. He also couldn’t stop tight end Zach Ertz on a short touchdown pass.

Cornerback Brandon Browner allowed a strange six-yard touchdown reception. Ifeanyi Momah caught a pass in the end zone with Browner in coverage, then the Eagles wide receiver hit the ground and the ball popped into the waiting arms of Arrelious Benn, whom Butler was covering.

The Patriots were allowing the Eagles to roam free in the middle of the field with some off-zone coverage. The Patriots’ reserve linebackers had some trouble covering, and tackling became an issue once the starters left the field. Harmon, linebackers Steve Beauharnais and Chris White and defensive tackle Marcus Forston all had a chance to make a tackle on Eagles running back Henry Josey’s 27-yard scamper into the end zone and couldn’t.

Jonas Gray, Roy Finch shine in mop-up duty

Both Gray and Finch played against their stereotype and proved to be difficult to tackle.

Gray, a 5-foot-10, 225-pound bruiser, showed some nimble footwork on his way to 98 yards on 12 carries. He also had an impressive 20-yard touchdown run called back by a penalty.

Finch, severely undersized at 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, actually had some success running between the tackles. Finch’s shiftiness makes him tough to hit head-on.

Gray and Finch are competing with running back Brandon Bolden — who had an impressive 18-yard run — if the Patriots decide to carry four running backs.

Gray and Finch both outplayed rookie James White, who should be a lock for the roster thanks to his versatility.

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