5 Thoughts from Patriots Preseason Halfway Point

Dane Fletcher may prove to be a valuable part of the Patriots' revamped and explosive pass rush. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Two Patriots preseason games, two blowout victories, including 28-0 first half by New Englands’ starters against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday.

So what have we learned about the Boys in Blue and Grey? Here are five observations:

1) This defense is much faster. The Patriots ranked last in the NFL last season in opponent passing yardage, due in large part to their league-worst 47.1 opponent third down conversion percentage. They were also a middle-of-the-road sacking defense, tied for 14th with 36.0. In two preseason games, this defense has become far more aggressive, combing for seven sacks, three non-sack tackles for losses and 11 quarterback hits. This Patriots defense attacked the Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterbacks, forcing the, to unload the ball faster. The result: just five converted third downs out of 25. My sleeper defensive player is second-year linebacker Dane Fletcher, who was unstoppable last week against the Jaguars, recording two TFLs and hitting the quarterback once. He’s great at fighting through blocks and killing runs at the line of scrimmage. Look for him to back up Jerod Mayo, whose two sacks, two defensed passes and three QB hits Thursday show how well-suited he is to the Patriots’ new 4-3 defense.

2) Steven Ridley is a keeper. Stevan Ridley‘s put up some big numbers in two preseason games, recording 219 all-purpose yards (148 rushing, 71 receiving) and three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving). I’ve been particularly impressed with his football instincts. He’s unafraid to go up the middle, but also knows when to hold for a split-second, then shoot the gap. He also has yet to show the lateral-motion tendencies that made Laurence Maroney so infuriating. When he’s not running vertically, he keeps himself on a diagonal, making it easier for him to turn upfield while still getting around pursuing defenders. The Patriots typically keep four or five running backs on the 53-man roster. Two spots are locked up with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, which leaves six RBs and 2-3 spots. Kevin Faulk, a great third-down back, deserves a third, and then I’d say give Ridley the fourth. Richard Medlin has shown enough promise to be worth a spot on the practice squad, but it may be time to say goodbye to Sammy Morris, who was barely used last season after hurting his knee in 2009.

3) Aaron Hernandez is outplaying Rob Gronkowski. Media members with more access to Patriots practices have raved all camp about Rob Gronkowski, who last year was part of the Patriots’ rookie tight end dynamic duo. Gronkowski may practice better, but so far Aaron Hernandez has been the far shinier tight end in actual games. Hernandez has caught all nine passes thrown to him, totaling 110 yards and a touchdown. He’s looked as good on short-yardage downs as he has on red-zone plays. Gronkwoski was known last year for his size and strength (6’6″, 265 lbs.), which let him out-muscle defensive backs and out-reach linebackers. Hernandez might be quicker, however, which would prove more valuable on blitzes. Look for Hernandez on third-and-long plays: with his speed, he can get open faster on plays in which Tom Brady won’t have as long to throw. On short-yardage passing plays, giant Gronkowski is still the better option.

4) The new kickoff rules may mean the end for Brandon Tate. With the ball now kicked off from the 35-yard line, touchbacks may become the norm. If that’s the case, Bill Belichick may have to think long and hard about cutting Brandon Tate. He hasn’t played at all in the first two preseason games, and Taylor Price is quickly making a name for himself at wide receiver (five catches, 105 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars). He’s also shown brief glimpses of specials teams talent. Coupled with Matthew Slater (24.3 yards per catch in two games), the two might squeeze Tate out of a roster loaded at wide receiver. Without as many opportunities to show off that kick-return speed, Tate might have a hard time distinguishing himself.

5) Will we really keep two placekickers? Stephen Gostkowski has been Belichick’s go-to kicker for points (3/3 on field goals, 9/9 on extra points) so far, but it’s rookie and former UMass kicker Chris Koepplin who’s handled all the kickoffs. Koepplin is averaging 67.5 yards per kick, five times kicking touchbacks. Belichick may want to preserve the leg strength of the most accurate kicker in Patriots history by letting Koepplin handle kickoffs, but doesn’t having two placekickers on a team seem kind of redundant? Wouldn’t that spot be more useful carrying a lineman, linebacker or receiver?