Saturday, August 29, 2015

Patriots Look Ready For Season In Defeating Carolina

It took a while for Tom Brady to find his stride, but when he did he looked like the Brady of old.

Brady of old, as in eight months ago against the Baltimore Ravens, raining a perfect ball into the hands of a blanketed receiver on the left sideline for six - only this time, it was a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers in 80 degree weather instead of a freezing AFC Divisional round playoff game, and it was into the hands of tight end Scott Chandler instead of wide receiver Brandon LaFell...

...helping the New England Patriots stage a 17-16 come-from-behind victory on Friday evening at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Of course, the pitch and catch with LaFell in New England's Super Bowl run was in the most dire of circumstances as Brady led the Patriots back from two 14 point deficits, while the connection with Chandler was just a struggling Brady trying to find his game, but there is little doubt in the minds of Patriots' fans that both moments - and both throws - were of the epic variety.
Chandler hauls in a perfect strike from Brady.

Up until that point deep in the first half at Carolina, the certain first-ballot hall of fame quarterback actually had more rushing yards (18) than passing yards (13) and just as many interceptions as completions - but knowing that he was looking at his last series of the game, Brady went to his bread and butter, isolating the towering Chandler on the final drive of the half, finding the 6' 7" tight end three times for 40 yards and the 18 yard bucket throw for a touchdown...

...followed by another strong performance by backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, bolstered by a sensational demonstration from passing back Dion Lewis and an encouraging effort from the Patriots' defense.

Brady struggled to find his rhythm early, which seems to be his typical method of operation late in his career, needing a few series under his belt to get the creaking old joints to respond like they did when he was the young fire pisser of yesterday - but once he gets going, he's nearly impossible to stop.

Twice throwing behind wide receiver Aaron Dobson, first on a seam route with a ball that eventually ended up in the hands of Panthers' greybeard corner Peanut Tillman, then on a crosser that safety Kurt Coleman jumped for the easy pick - Brady responded by hitting Chandler for 15 yards over the middle on the first play of the series, then for seven to get the offense rolling...

...reverting to the no huddle and hitting rookie Chris Harper for a short gain, then Danny Amendola for 25 to get the ball into Carolina's red zone, lofting a perfect bucket toss to a well-covered Chandler on a fade in the left corner of the end zone to end Brady's night on a high note, the Patriots taking a one point lead into the room at halftime.

Despite the early offensive struggles and the two picks that gave the Panthers excellent field position time and again, the Patriots defense held tough, relinquishing only two Graham Gano field goals in the first half, Brady's perfect touchdown toss the only paydirt found by either team.

After the Panthers took the opening kickoff of the second half 80 yards in nine plays to regain a six point lead at 13-7, back up Jimmy Garroppolo took the reigns from Brady and immediately threatened to equal his interception total with two ill-advised throws, starting cornerback Josh Norman dropping a sure pick six when he stepped in front of Jonathan Kraus on the left sidelines, then dropping another after undercutting a hitch route by Chris Harper.

But after another Gano field goal put the Panthers up by a score of 16-7, Garoppolo settled down and connected on 13 of his next 15 passes, finding Lewis, for a short scoring toss just into the final frame, then driving the Patriots into field goal range for Stephen Gostkowski's eventual game-winner with just over nine minutes remaining in the game.

The slant to Lewis went for nine yards, the elusive scatback lining up split wide in isolation on a linebacker who had no chance against the quicker Pitt product, and Gostkowski's three pointer came from 53 yards, though it would have been good from ten yards longer or more.

Like with the Patriots first two opponents, the Panthers moved the ball effectively in the first half against the Patriots first team defense, but could only muster the two Gano field goals on the scoreboard as Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown solidified their grip on the starting cornerback spots with timely pass breakups and the New England rush defense held Carolina's powerful running game to just 3.1 yards per carry.

Butler again flashed a physical presence and stayed in the hip pocket of his mirror all night, though speedster Corey Brown helped out the second-year corner's cause by dropping a sure touchdown throw from Carolina starting quarterback Cam Newton after cleanly beating Butler off the line. In fact, Brown helped out the Patriots defense a couple of other times with drops in crucial situations...

...and it wasn't until Panthers' backup Derek Anderson targeted the maligned Brown with a short toss in the third quarter that he had his only reception of the evening, a five-yard hitch that brought a mock ovation from the crowd and plenty of knowing laughter from his teammates in the huddle.

The New England run defense was stout, allowing 84 yards on 27 carries while Newton went 17 of 28 for 160 yards and a touchdown strike to fullback Mike Tolbert to start the second half before being relieved by Anderson. Tight end Greg Olsen caught six of nine targets to lead Carolina in receiving yards while reserve running back Fozzy Whitaker paced the running game with three carries for 19 yards.

Dominique Easley and Chandler Jones recorded sacks on Newton, but the most heat on Carolina quarterbacks came courtesy of bubble biter Rufus Johnson, who registered three consecutive pressures on third string quarterback Joe Webb, who failed to complete any of his six pass attempts in limited action.

But most of Webb's issues stemmed from blanketing Patriots coverage in the secondary, often scrambling to get away from Johnson, with little-known corner Dax Swanson making a late charge for a roster spot by knocking down three of Webb's offerings in tight coverage.

The Patriots running game found some operating room in the second half paced by LeGarrette Blount's 29 yards on seven carries and Garoppolo's scrambles for an additional 18. Starting backs Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden had a rough time against the Panthers' front seven, however, the former limited to 11 yards on five carries and the latter 12 yards on the same number of touches...

...with Lewis replacing Bolden in the second half as he put a death grip on a roster spot - and perhaps ending injured running back Travaris Cadet's bid - with another impressive performance, rushing three times for 12 yards and catching all four of his targets for 20 yards and the rifle shot for a touchdown from Garoppolo, who had another compelling effort, going 13 of 17 for 126 yards and a touchdown working with the second unit.

Of course, neither quarterback had the benefit of working with any of the Patriots' regular pass catchers, as Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were held out of their thrid staright preseason game as a precautionary measure, while Brandon LaFell remains on the PUP list recovering from offseason surgery - leaving Brady and Garoppolo with a handful of rookies to go along with Danny Amednola, Chandler and Dobson...

...who neither had much luck connecting with in stride both Brady and Garoppolo throwing behind him down the field, though Garoppolo found him on a go route in which Dobson again had to adjust after leaving his mirror in the dust after a sweet double move, hauling in a 40 yard strike to up the touchdown to Lewis the next play.

Edelman and Gronkowski will no doubt be ready for the regular season opener, giving the Patriots' offense firepower similar to last season's championship unit - the only question being who will be throwing to them, as Brady still faces a four-game suspension over the "Deflategate" mess, but given the performances by Garoppolo, the passing backs and the defense as a whole, the prospect of starting the season without Brady isn't as daunting as it previously seemed.

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