Rarely has the first pre-season game, normally a boring
affair, held this much intrigue in New England. My first thought is
that we’d probably have to go back to the 2007 pre-season, right after
the acquisitions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker,
and Donte Stallworth. As memorable (and ultimately
horrific and psychologically damaging) the 2007 campaign was, it’s
probably the case that trying to compare any off-season to the one the
Patriots and their fans just experienced is a pointless endeavor. In
the wake of the defection by Welker, the “duping” by Aaron Hernandez, and the circus that is Rob Gronkowski,
several large holes have been left in this offense.
This first live action game against the Philadelphia Eagles
was the first chance to catch a glimpse of how Bill Belichick
might try to fill some of these holes. I thought I’d take a deliberate
and thorough look at how the skill position players were used in the
the first team reps, and see if there are any conclusions or inferences
we can draw from that information. I really don’t want to write “but of
course, it’s one preseason game” over and over throughout this
article, so try and keep that phrase in the back of your mind as you
read because I certainly do understand that, of course, i’s just one
With that in mind, we’ll start off by taking a look at the
running backs. with the running backs.
In addition to counting how many snaps each player took, I’ve
categorized what role or position they lined up in during each play,
and laid that information out in a simple table:
There was not much suspense about how the running backs would
be used heading into this game, and indeed there were no surprises. Stevan
Ridley was the early-down workhorse, and was relieved by LeGarrette
Blount when he needed a breather, most notably after his
62-yard run on the first play of the game. Ridley looked very good, but seeing him
get run down from behind on that play, reminded us that his
lack of breakaway speed will likely prevent him from making the leap
from “very good” to “great.”
Shane Vereen got on the field in passing
situations with the first team offense, and lined up as an outside
receiver on two of his four snaps. The second time he did so resulted
in a 13-yard touchdown reception that put his special receiving ability
on full display. Later in the game after Brady exited, Vereen was used
a more traditional fashion and got a few carries, but it’s safe to say
that his versatility is what is going to get him on the field when the
real games begin.
Brandon Bolden only saw two snaps with the
first team, and ran a passing route from the backfield on both them,
though he was not targeted.
All of the running backs continued to play well after Brady
left the game, which was consistent with almost all of the other
offensive skill position players. It’s reasonable to infer that the
Patriots wanted to allow Ryan Mallet to play with
a full and complete arsenal to give him every opportunity to succeed.
There’s been no shortage of positive buzz out of camp
surrounding Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins, and I was very much looking forward to seeing how
these three receivers would look in a live action game, as well what
kind of roles they would play in offensive packages.
(For our purposes here, I’ve lumped together the X
and Z receiver spots into the “Outside” category)
The first thing that stands out to me when looking at the
table above is the fact that Dobson is the only receiver of the three
that was not experimented with in the slot. He played strictly on the
outside, though he did rotate some between the X and Z spots. It seems
likely, both from how he was used in this game and from the reports out
of camp, that Dobson is viewed strictly as an outside player by the
It may surprise many to learn that Amendola played most of his
12 snaps not lined up in the slot. As the
presumptive “Welker replacement,” many assumed that he would make his
living in the same way that his predecessor did, but Amendola played
both in the slot and on the outside in St. Louis, so it makes sense
that the Patriots are experimenting with him in different roles early
in the pre-season.
Similarly, Thompkins was moved around some, and played both
out of the slot and on the outside. This trend continued for Thompkins
after Brady handed the reigns over to Mallet late in the first quarter.
Another interesting angle of the snap distribution amongst the
wide receivers was the fact that while Amendola had the highest number
of snaps with Brady (12 total), he was also the only skill position
player that came out of the game at the same time Brady did. All of the
other receivers, tight ends, and running backs logged playing time with
at least Mallet, but Amendola was essentially replaced by Julian Edelman as soon as Brady exited.
This indicates that while the Patriots want to continue to
build chemistry between Brady and Amendola, they don’t feel that they
need to see Amendola getting reps just for the sake of watching him
play. It’s reasonable to infer that they feel confident in what they
have in Amendola, and thus see no point in taking away reps from the
younger players and, let’s face it, unnecessarily expose Amendola to
additional opportunities to get injured.
Like Thompkins and Amendola, Josh Boyce
was moved around to different positions in the formation as well.
Despite being on the field for almost 50% of the offensive snaps on the
evening, Boyce was only targeted once (and targeted poorly) by Mallet,
who overthrew him, missing out on an easy touchdown catch. Boyce didn’t
get as much opportunity to shine as Dobson and Thompkins did, but he’s
definitely a player I’m looking forward to seeing more of this
The Patriots’ tight end situation is nearly as intriguing as
the wide receiver situation, with both positions seeing extraordinarily
high impact off-season turnover, along with Gronkowski’s absence due to
injury. I was very interested to see how much the tight end position
would be used, and in what way, and I think Belichick sent us some
pretty clear signals along those lines. Whether or not the implications
of those signals carry over into the regular season is another
question, but for now, it’s all we can go on.
First off, despite not having the top two tight ends from the
2012 Patriots available (for very different reasons, of course) the
first team offensive game plan still heavily featured the tight end
position. Of the 16 Brady-lead offensive plays, 12 of them included at
least two tight ends, and on only two plays was there no tight end at
all. This is certainly due in large part to the run-heavy approach that
the first team offense had on the night.
A total of four tight ends played with the first team offense,
and each of them lined up at different positions in the formation. Jake
Ballard registered the highest number of first team snaps
with 12, and played every single one of them as an in-line tight end.
Ballard looked effective as a blocker during his time on the field,
which was a good sign after all of the negative reports coming out of
camp about Ballard’s mobility still being hampered by his knee issues.
We’ll have to wait for Ballard to get some targets in the passing game
to get a better idea of how much speed and dexterity he has retained.
Zach Sudfield had the second highest tight
end snap count with the first team offense with nine, and was the only
tight end to move around in the formation even a little bit. That said,
seven of his nine snaps were played from the wing back position. For
anyone who is not familiar with this term, the wing back is a player,
usually a running back or tight end, who is positioned one yard behind
and outside of the tight end.
illustration of typical alignment
It’s a versatile role, as the wing back is in position to do
pretty much anything: carry, block, or run a route. Sudfield did plenty
of the latter two activities throughout the game, and continued lining
up primarily in the wing back position after Mallet and Tim
Tebow came in to run the offense. His lone reception
came from a route that he ran from the wing back position, a 22-yard
grab on a play action pass from Tebow. He also showed flashes of being
a high-effort blocker, and even made the final downfield block that
iced Blount’s 52 yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter.
Michael Hoomanawanui lined up exclusively
in the backfield as a fullback, and was very effective as a lead
blocker for both Ridley and Blount. I didn’t tabulate the formations
after Brady left the game, but I can tell you that Hoomanawanui pretty
much stayed lined up in this position for the majority of the game. He
did run some dump-off routes from the backfield as well, but did not
register a reception.
Daniel Fells was more or less used as the
second in-line TE behind Ballard. He got more playing time with the
backups and ran some routes, but with the first team, he was used
strictly as a run blocker in three different short-yardage situations.
It was almost as if Belichick took all of the things that
Hernandez was versatile enough to do, and distributed each role to
individual players to take on (although Hernandez lined up in the
backfield as a ball carrier, not as a lead blocker as Hoomanawanui
did). Overall, at least for this first pre-season game, despite the
ignominious exit of Hernandez and the absence of Gronkowski, the tight
end position and its role in the offense appears to be alive and well
in New England.
Bonus: A Quick Look at Kenbrell Thompkins
More than any other player, I came away from this game feeling
very good about Kenbrell Thompkins. There’s a few things Thompkins did
that contribute to this optimism, but the one that I found the most
encouraging came with around nine minutes left in the first quarter
with the Patriots facing a 3rd and 4. Brady hit Thompkins on a six yard
comeback route that was good for a 1st down.
What stands out to me about this seemingly routine play is
that it contains some evidence that there is some positive chemistry
already existing between Brady and Thompkins. That word, chemistry,
gets used sometimes as a vague and lazy term used to discuss the
on-field relationship between a quarterback and his receivers, but I do
think it’s a real concept that can be identified and examined at times
This play offers a simple, but significant example of what chemistry
In the snapshot below, Brady’s arm has already started moving
up to deliver the ball. Brady’s eyes are locked in on Thompkins, who,
at this point, had not begun his break back towards Brady. This is the
nature of a comeback route; the goal is for the ball to be almost at
the receiver as he changes direction and breaks back towards the
quarterback, so the throw has to be made before that break has begun.
In the screenshot below, you can see Brady’s arm coming up, in
the early stages of his delivery, while Thompkins is still running
As Thompkins is coming out of his break, the ball is already
well on its way to him.
Unsurprisingly, Brady’s throw is perfectly placed on
Thompkins’ back shoulder, who manages to reel in the contested ball for
the 1st down.
This play is a great example of Brady throwing the ball before
his receiver is open, anticipating that the Thompkins would get to
where he was supposed when he was supposed to. That trust was rewarded
with a drive-sustaining catch, which I believe contributes to a
confidence level, and represents a tangible example of what building
If this pass were completed to Welker, there wouldn’t be
anything here worth taking note of. But this season, with this almost
entirely new surrounding cast, Brady establishing a rapport with his
targets is going to be critical to the Patriots’ success, so there’s
good reason to take solace in even small positive signs like this.
Image 01 - Brady sees WR ready to break
Image 02 - Brady throws to spot before the break
Image 03 - WR turns to find ball already in his hands at spot
Michael Reardon is a Fantasy Football writer and Patriots Insider columnist who has followed the New England Patriots for years. An amateur football player himself, Michael uses his knowledge and experience to illustrate the finer points of the game. You can follow him on twitter @mjreardon
[Disclaimer: Images courtesy screen shots of game replay and are copyright of their respective owners including (but not limited to) the NFL, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Images used for illustration purposes only.]