by Scott Benson
You know, I might tend to agree with folks who say the NFL pre-season is too long.
I’m good with the first week, when the starters take a bow early and we see the rookies and free agents that are trying to make the team. The starters stretch it out a bit in week two, playing most if not all of the first half. The third week is the full dress rehearsal, and by now, the rookies and free agents are either stepping up, or stepping out.
Doesn’t it seem like it ought to end right there?
Well, the league evidently feels otherwise, and so last night the Patriots passed their way to a 27-20 win over the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium to finish out their pre-season at 2-2.
Matt Cassel, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Gutierrez combined to go 24-34-246 and a touchdown, a late Gutierrez to Bam Childress score that put the game away for the Pats.
Kelvin Kight, Marcellus Rivers and CJ Jones combined to catch 13 passes for 167 yards to lead the New England passing game.
The Patriots defense sacked New York’s quarterbacks eight times, including three from LeKevin Smith, who moved from end to nose in a test of his backup skills there, and two by outside linebacker hopeful Pierre Woods, who also forced two fumbles. Eric Alexander, who has probably made the team already, led all Patriots with 13 tackles (eight unassisted) anyway.
The only real justification for the fourth pre-season game is the final chance to look at the players, young and old, that are still competing for the final few spots on the Patriots roster. New England’s regulars dressed but did not play, save for staring fullback Health Evans, who took a turn at tailback and scored a touchdown.
The Patriots did not escape unscathed, as they lost rookie linebacker Oscar Lua to what appeared to be a serious right leg injury in the early going. After a week in which even his bilingual skills were touted, Lua was over and out before he could even get started. Further proof of our theory that the NFL really sucks sometimes.
Yet there were a few players that were able to make their case before the final roster cutdown tomorrow.
Rivers, primarily known as a blocker throughout his spotty pro career, continued to show some receiving skills (5 catches for 47 yards) to likely cement a role as New England’s third tight end. Not bad for a guy that got a late start. Rivers may find a way to stick even after David Thomas returns, as Kyle Brady has done little this August to offer guarantee that he can fill the faux Daniel Graham role when the bell rings.
Chris Hanson, the former Jacksonville punter signed after the surprise cut of Danny Baugher earlier in the day, hit the ball reasonably well and even dropped one inside the Giants five with the help of veteran special teamer Dante Wesley. There’s still more than a week before the Pats travel to the Meadowlands to open the season, but Hanson may have done enough last night to survive the ax until then.
Sorry Chris, that one was just sitting there.
Wesley may have grabbed a spot with a late interception of Tim Hasselbeck deep in Giants territory to set up the Childress touchdown that provided the margin of victory. He knocked away two other passes and also impressed with his hustling charity-hop putdown of Hanson’s directional punt. He clearly outdistanced Tory James, the other corner, who did little to establish his value with New England as the two battled to grab one of the final roster spots.
Receiver CJ Jones, however, returned kicks with elan and took in an impressive catch and run for 28 yards. Where were you last year, CJ? Your timing isn’t great, nor is Kight’s, who seems to be developing at a time when the Patriots have more receivers than they have spots.
Speaking of receivers, Garrett Mills worked himself open for four catches of his own, lining up as a tight end and fullback and showing some of the versatility he’ll need to hang on. But with the running backs set and Rivers gaining control of the open tight end spot, where will he go?
Other players with more certain futures with the team also had their moments.
Cassel had his most impressive turn of the pre-season, directing two scores and hitting a few accurate throws to in-stride receivers. He gave way to Testaverde in the second quarter, and Vinny had a up and down performance in his first extended action of the pre-season. He led the Pats to a score in the third with crisp timing throws before throwing a bad interception while trying to force a ball in to a well covered Mills. Gutierrez did everything he could this August to win a spot with the team, and the Pats can only hope to sneak him to the practice squad this weekend.
Woods showed some burst off the edge as a pass rusher (and a knack for dislodging the ball), but in early action against the Giants first team, he was bowled over in goal line defense, giving way to a short Brandon Jacobs touchdown plunge. Still, he could get the nod over rookie Justin Rogers, who wasn’t able to finish the pre-season as strongly as he started it, and veteran Chad Brown, was has been a non-factor to the naked eye.
Brandon Meriweather started at safety with Willie Andrews, and showed good range despite occasionally yielding some ground in coverage. Not surprising as he was seeing his first time at his most natural position. One thing is certain about Meriweather – he can tackle. He finished with nine. Andrews, another developing player who is likely to stick, had six of his own.
Smith has been a revelation this month, showing versatility across the defensive front with a strong start at the nose last night. He’ll join rookie Kareem Brown (who didn’t even play, giving way to folks like Santonio Thomas and Zach West) to give the Pats perhaps their deepest defensive line of the Belichick era.
Speaking of versatility, the game closed with Bam Childress playing halfback (another young receiver that is coming on at the wrong time for the Pats) and Gutierrez covering kicks, which was probably indication it was time, mercifully, to end the pre-season and complete the construction of New England’s final roster.