Ugly at times, the Patriots showed life in the second half of a 26-17 victory over Washington in the preseason opener for both teams Thursday night.
It was a game in which neither Tom Brady nor Rob Gronkowski played for the Patriots on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive stalwart Devin McCourty didn’t see the field, either.
Brady, whose contract is reportedly being reworked to add $5 million in incentives, didn't play Thursday night because he is dealing with a sore back, according to the Boston Globe's Jim McBride, who cited a league source.
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Save for a few promising bursts from newcomer Jeremy Hill out of the backfield and a few encouraging moments from rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley and second-year player Derek Rivers on the defensive side of the ball, reasons for optimism didn’t jump off the page for New England in its preseason opener.
Perhaps the most significant development among those fighting for a roster spot came in the offensive backfield for the Patriots, where Hill shined and Mike Gillislee struggled to find any sort of consistency during the game – particularly in short yardage situations.
Hill, meanwhile, carried the ball 11 times for 51 yards – a solid 4.6 yards per rush – while adding two catches for 14 yards and demonstrating the ability to pass block on more occasion than one. Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run with 4:44 left in the third quarter produced New England’s first touchdown of the game.
Should Sony Michel, the No. 31 overall pick in the draft for the Patriots, not be fully healthy to begin the regular season, there’s likely room for both Hill and Gillislee on the 53-man roster. But if Michel’s knee is good to go by the Sept. 9 opener, advantage Hill through one preseason game. Undrafted rookie Ralph Webb came on in the second half with 14 carries for 46 yards and two touchdowns as well. His first score preceded a catch on a two-point conversion play with 9:05 left to give the Patriots an 18-17 lead.
No one made a name for themselves at wide receiver in the game, unless you want to count Devin Lucien’s four catches for 71 yards. Cordarrelle Patterson had two catches for 38 yards in his Patriots debut, while Eric Decker – signed just last week – wasn’t targeted.
Julian Edelman, playing for the first time since tearing his ACL in New England’s third preseason game in 2017, wasn’t targeted despite playing on each of the team’s first four series.
Rivers, a third-round pick of the Patriots in 2017, missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. As such, tonight was his NFL debut, and on New England’s very first play from scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, he wrapped up Washington tailback Rob Kelley and limited him to a 1-yard gain.
Rivers was later flagged for roughing-the-passer on what appeared to be a borderline call at best.
Bentley, a fifth-round pick out of Purdue in April for the Patriots, had six total tackles – the same number as Elandon Roberts, who was curiously still in the game with many projected backups and eventual roster cuts late in the third quarter.
Brian Hoyer took every offensive snap under center for New England sans Brady until mid-way through the fourth quarter, when the Danny Etling era got underway.
Hoyer struggled in the first half, as the team went three-and-out on each of its first two possessions and picked up only four total first downs – Washington had 13 – but showed why he’s still likely the best option to backup No. 12 should something go awry with his second half performance.
Hoyer, who finished the game 16 for 23 passing for 144 yards, engineered consecutive lengthy scoring drives to begin the second half for New England. A 19-play, 84-yard drive resulted in Hill’s touchdown after 10:16 of game clock expired, and a 16-play, 90-yard drive produced Webb’s touchdown and two-point conversion after chewing up 8:05.
The first pass of Etling’s career went for 18 yards to Lucien up the left sideline. His first drive ended abruptly, however, after he botched a handoff to Gillislee five plays later that wound up in Washington’s possession. Etling’s pass to Lucien was his lone completion in three attempts.
A Trent Harris strip-sack of Kevin Hogan in the fourth quarter enabled Geneo Grissom to scoop and nearly score running 53 yards before being tracked down at the 1-yard line. Webb added his second touchdown and two-point conversion to close out scoring for the Patriots.
New England escaped the game with its collective health largely intact. Safety Jordan Richards left the game in the second quarter with an apparent leg injury, though not after whiffing on a tackle on Cam Sims near the end of a 57-yard gain that also included a poorly-timed jump by Keion Crossen that enabled Sims to break free in the first place.
Stephen Gostkowski also nailed a 52-yard field goal with 4 seconds left in the first half, proving he still has plenty of power in his right leg. The 13-year veteran made all four of his kicks from 50 or more yards in 2017.
The Patriots have a scheduled off-day Friday. Next up is a rematch of Super Bowl LII, when the Philadelphia Eagles pay a visit to Foxboro next Thursday at 7:30 p.m. There just might be some additional buzz around that one.