The New England Patriots kicked off their 2023 preseason campaign on Thursday night against the Houston Texans, falling short with a 20-9 defeat while predominantly fielding backup players. The defensive unit continued its momentum from the previous season, as Jalen Mills intercepted rookie C.J. Stroud on the Texans’ first drive – one of the two takeaways during the first half.
Bailey Zappe commanded the field for the entire first half and part of the second, receiving extensive playing time as a second-year quarterback. Regrettably, the offense struggled to amass significant yardage or points, grappling with an offensive line that encountered difficulties in both protection and creating openings.
However, it’s important to note that preseason outcomes are not the current focus; instead, it’s the valuable experience gained by numerous young players. Rookies Christian Gonzalez and Keion White displayed promising debuts, contributing to an atmosphere of optimism.
Below are the key highlights from the initial of three preseason matches scheduled for this summer.
Mills Excels in Intercepting, Rookies Display Defensive Prowess
A consistent strength of the Patriots’ defense is its ability to generate turnovers, and Jalen Mills affirmed this reputation by initiating the game with an interception on the Texans’ inaugural possession. Operating from the safety position – a recent shift from cornerback during training camp – Mills read the play and secured an interception from rookie second overall pick, C.J. Stroud.
However, the offense was unable to capitalize on the turnover, showcasing a lack of complementary play as they merely gained a single yard over three plays and ultimately settled for a 44-yard field goal courtesy of Nick Folk.
Despite this, the defense showcased a strong beginning, including Daniel Ekuale’s sack and notable pressures from Anfernee Jennings and rookie Keion White. Jennings additionally induced a hold penalty during the second quarter, while White disrupted a mishandled handoff, enabling Calvin Munson to recover the loose ball.
The New England Patriots
Rookie Christian Gonzalez, alongside Jack Jones, occupied the cornerback positions. Gonzalez, a first-round draft pick, experienced extended action, demonstrating his potential with a forced fumble (unfortunately, the ball rolled out of bounds). Gonzalez’s first NFL appearance highlighted his budding playmaking skills. Moreover, he contributed to the kickoff team and concluded his participation midway through the second quarter.
Although Mills initiated the playmaking, it was rookies Gonzalez and White who sustained the disruptive trend. This marked a promising debut for both Gonzalez and White in the NFL.
Thornton’s Aerial Acrobatics
One of the standout moments from the offense came courtesy of Tyquan Thornton, who secured a 27-yard reception from Bailey Zappe. In a display of athleticism, Thornton executed a well-timed jump to catch the ball down the sideline, preempting the oncoming safety. Thornton, recovering from an injury sustained during the second week of training camp, exhibited positive rapport with Zappe, a connection that carried over from practice to the actual game.
Thornton managed an additional four-yard catch later in the first half, capping off his performance. Amidst a game relatively devoid of offensive highlights, Thornton’s reception stood out as a positive development.
Offensive Struggles Evident
Bailey Zappe directed the offense during the first half, operating behind an improvised offensive line that included two rookies. Regrettably, the offense struggled both in the air and on the ground, accumulating a mere 65 total net yards in the first half. A 27-yard pass to Thornton constituted a significant portion of this yardage. The offense managed only two first downs during this period, reflecting their challenges in generating momentum.
The New England Patriots – Zappe encountered two sacks and constant pressure throughout his first-half tenure. It’s notable that some members of this makeshift starting line will likely transition to starting roles in the regular season. A case in point is Conor McDermott, who received limited left tackle snaps during camp but played the entire first half in this position before briefly shifting to the right side in the second half.
Pop Douglas played for a single series.
Receivers Kayshon Boutte, Tre Nixon, and Thornton were prominently featured during the initial two quarters.
In the backfield, Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris received early carries but struggled, gaining just two yards on five carries over the initial four drives.
Defensive Hiccups in Situational Plays
Despite an impressive start, including forcing punts and turnovers, the Patriots’ defense faltered during the final moments of the first half. The Texans orchestrated a seven-play, 62-yard touchdown drive, granting them a 7-3 lead at halftime. Quarterback Davis Mills orchestrated this drive, completing all five of his pass attempts. The Patriots’ secondary faced difficulties containing rookie receiver Tank Dell, who accounted for four out of the five receptions during this drive. The Texans exploited the Patriots’ backup slot cornerback, Rodney Randle.
This situational lapse in the defense cast a shadow over an otherwise strong first half.
Zappe Continues into the Second Half
Bailey Zappe returned to the field to commence the second half, leading the offense to exhibit sparks of vitality. A 26-yard kickoff return by Isaiah Bolden injected energy, and a well-executed catch-and-run by Tre Nixon combined with a commendable run by Kevin Harris displayed potential. Unfortunately, momentum dissipated soon after.
Opting for a fourth-and-one attempt at the Houston 44-yard line, the Patriots went for it, but Kevin Harris was tackled for a one-yard loss. This turnover led to Houston regaining possession. Furthermore, Kody Russey’s departure from the field due to injury accentuated the ongoing attrition along the offensive line.
Zappe’s participation extended into the second half, and while he experienced limited snaps, he played a total of 28 snaps across seven drives up until the initial possession of the second half. Trace McSorley relieved Zappe after one second-half possession, with Malik Cunningham stepping in during the fourth quarter. Cunningham introduced some read-option plays, similar to his recent practice performance. Cunningham’s entry sparked a late-game surge, culminating in his nine-yard touchdown run after a 14-play drive.
Embarking on the Season
With the conclusion of the Houston game, the Patriots have officially inaugurated their 2023 game calendar. The upcoming week entails significant joint practices against the Green Bay Packers, followed by direct travel to Tennessee for further practices with the Titans subsequent to the Saturday night Packers game.
Anticipate more substantial insights from the forthcoming joint practices and games. Based on the evaluation of 11 training camp practices and one preseason game, the offense remains a work in progress, striving to establish consistent ball movement. Although flashes of potential were evident in practice sessions, this momentum wasn’t fully translated into the game, primarily due to the presence of backups.
The forthcoming challenges posed by the Packers and Titans will provide an in-depth assessment of the offense’s status. Meanwhile, the starting defense appears poised to sustain its disruptive identity, despite encountering formidable competition in the upcoming weeks.