As training camp ends and teams begin to construct their 53-man rosters, the potential contributors start to separate themselves. Players have about a month's worth of practices under their belts, dating back to spring, providing a fairly solid sample size of their abilities.
Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld solidified themselves as this year's undrafted surprises, Chandler Jones showed why he is a prime breakout candidate, and Tom Brady diffused the Great Panic of 2013.
The third preseason game, this year against the Detroit Lions is traditionally the dress rehearsal, a final chance for the starters to round into form before the wins and losses start to count. So in that sense, Friday may have been the last best chance for a few Patriots to prove their worth on the roster.
Here's a breakdown of the players who rose up to that opportunity, as well as those who fell short.
Brady to Amendola
As if in retaliation against all the hubbub over his bruised knee, Tom Brady was nothing short of clinical Friday night. Brady finished 11-of-12 for 107 yards, including an impressive 15-play, 80-yard opening march.
Patriots fans were not unaccustomed to anything Brady did.
On the other hand, it was reassuring to see tangible validation of his quick rapport with Danny Amendola. After a quiet, one-catch performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, Amendola dominated the Tampa defense with precise route-running and his quick-twitch change-of-direction ability.
The 26-yard touchdown that ended the first drive was beautiful execution, both on Amendola's post route and Brady's throw.
On the play, the Patriots were lined up in "Ace" personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) with Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins lined up on the weak side:
Though the Bucs show blitz, they actually only rush four on the play, making it critical for the linebackers to drop quickly. Amendola and Thompkins are running a "Dino" route combination (double posts), but notice how Thompkins delays his break a little bit.
That quick little outside stem is important to hold Bucs safety Ahmad Black (No. 43, not pictured) away from the middle for just a hair longer:
Sure enough, Black is too late rotating to the middle, and the middle linebacker doesn't quite get deep enough.
That leaves a pocket of space for Brady to place to ball, the kind of touch pass he excels at:
When the Patriots play the Bucs again in Week 3, Darrelle Revis will be back to cover Amendola. If the Pats offense is to crack the league's best corner, this kind of execution is vital to its success.
1st-String Front 7
The Patriots front seven is the strength of their defense, with a combination of reliable veteran leaders and young, high-ceiling talent. From the very first play, the defensive linemen and linebackers set the tone, greeting Josh Freeman with this unpleasant sight immediately after a play-action fake:
Brandon Spikes picked up the sack on that play, one of four New England's first-stringers piled up. Their performance was dominating, as the Bucs starters compiled a grand total of eight yards on two drives.
And it's not as if the Tampa linemen are slouches, as the Bucs return all five starters from a line that finished as the sixth-best pass-protection unit, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. But Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were dominating as the bookends, constantly collapsing the pocket and forcing Freeman to step up into interior pressure.
Ninkovich's sack embodied how effective New England's pressure was throughout.
On this play, the Pats blitzed Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, one of several linebacker blitzes on the night. Spikes and Marcus Benard almost instantly penetrate six yards into the backfield, forcing Tampa backup Mike Glennon to step into Ninkovich's waiting arms:
Blitzing isn't always the answer to generating better pressure, but the Patriots' execution clicked on all cylinders against the Bucs. That play in particular had a couple neat things going on, with Hightower coming on a delayed blitz and a stunt by Jones and Tommy Kelly.
With better athletes in the front seven than the Pats have had in quite some time, it will be interesting to see what kind of blitz schemes they dial up throughout the season.
2nd-String '11' Personnel
Some have speculated that the Patriots will run more "11" personnel this season (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), and if Friday night was any indication, that package could be deadly in an up-tempo setting.
On the last two drives of the first half, the Patriots went almost exclusively no-huddle with the same personnel: Aaron Dobson as the weak-side X, Julian Edelman in the slot and Josh Boyce on the strong side, with Shane Vereen in the backfield and Zach Sudfeld on the line.
Lining up in shotgun on all 14 plays, the formation looked like this:
The wide receivers occasionally lined up in different spots (for instance, the above picture shows Dobson in a reduced split), but the package was the same. The results were extremely impressive, with Mallett going 8-of-12 for 102 yards, producing a touchdown and a would-be field goal, if not for two consecutive penalties on the kick-protection unit.
Most of the plays were quick timing routes that allowed the receivers to rack up YAC (yards after the catch), as Mallett only attempted one pass beyond 10 yards.
Still, it was a bit reminiscent of how effectively Brady runs the two-minute drill, and particularly encouraging after a rough preseason to date for the third-year quarterback.
Moreover, all the skill-position players on the drive figure to become regular contributors, so it was promising to see them perform well at a no-huddle pace.
Sudfeld's concentration on his 22-yard touchdown up the seam was especially impressive. The 6'7" rookie has a Gronkowskian catch radius and appears to possess more athleticism than most undrafted rookies.
At this point, Sudfeld is probably the best option to replicate Aaron Hernandez's old F-tight end role.
There's little point in rehashing what most Pats followers already know, but in discussing the worst performances from Friday, Tim Tebow's tops the list. Anytime a quarterback's interception total tops his passing-yardage total, that is generally a bad sign.
Once again, Tebow was effective running the ball, averaging five yards per carry on six rushes. His running instincts are actually quite impressive, to the point where he might not be a bad goal-line or short-yardage option.
But when a quarterback makes throws like this, you can only hope he never has to play the position in a game that counts.
Unlike Tebow, the Patriots' kick coverage is supposedly one of their strengths. In fact, Football Outsiders ranked New England's kick-coverage unit the best in the league last season.
However, the coverage has been more shoddy than sterling thus far.
After conceding a 62-yard punt return against the Eagles, the unit gave up 63- and 40-yard returns last Friday. It was nice to see the punt returns shored up, as the Bucs averaged just 6.5 yards on three returns, but the former two numbers are simply not acceptable.
It is probably much ado about nothing, as Bill Belichick's special-teams roots have caused the Patriots to be one of the league's most consistent units in his tenure. Per Pro-Football-Reference, the Pats have given up multiple punt- or kick-return touchdowns just twice since Belichick took over in 2000 and just one return touchdown the past four seasons.
Still, with a relatively young defense trying to grow into an elite unit, hemorrhaging field position isn't a great way to help them out.
First, the one positive: Logan Ryan's pick-six was a brilliant read, as the rookie pounced on the out route for what was likely one of the easiest touchdowns of his life. Ryan again received extensive reps at outside corner and figures to be a fixture in the dime defense this season.
But even he was not exempt from struggling, as the Patriots' backup defensive backs looked lost at times, giving up big plays and blowing assignments in untimely situations.
Kevin Ogletree's 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter was particularly bizarre. On the play, notice how Ryan and Marquice Cole both have Ogletree blanketed. That should leave one to help out Spikes in the middle or Steve Gregory in the flat:
But in a telltale sign of miscommunication, both pass off Ogletree, leaving the Bucs receiver uncovered in the end zone. Field Yates of ESPN Boston speculates the two might have mixed up their assignments in some sort of combination coverage.
Regardless, when a blown assignment leads to this, it's unacceptable:
Besides that play, sophomore safety Tavon Wilson had a particularly rough night. One sequence saw Wilson called for defensive holding, nullifying a fourth-down stop near the goal line.
Two plays later, Wilson was simply beaten in one-on-one coverage on a back-shoulder touchdown throw to David Douglas. In a sight all too familiar to Pats fans, Wilson was late getting his head turned around, preventing him from making a play on the ball:
The night underscores what has been a rough training camp for Wilson, who might be as low as fifth on the safety depth chart.
On paper, the Patriots secondary looks fairly solid. But based on the play of their backups, starters like Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty might need to stay out of the trainer's room to keep the unit afloat. McCourty has even taken reps at cornerback, perhaps signaling the lack of faith in other outside options.
It is folly to expect perfect health throughout the season, so some of these players will get important reps at some point.
The Patriots are probably stuck with what they have, so unlike last season, depth players in the secondary will have to step up when called upon in 2013.
All photo stills courtesy NFL.com