NFL preseason vibe check: Are Patriots' offensive woes cause for concern?

·7-min read

The NFL’s preseason is in the books.

While it's folly to jump to conclusions based on preseason action, there's legitimate reason for some teams to be encouraged by three-week slate of games. Others, not so much. Here's what stood out after the final week of preseason play.

New England Patriots

Vibe: Unsure

For the first time since 2011, the Patriots offense won’t be run by Josh McDaniels. The longtime offensive coordinator is now the Las Vegas Raiders head coach, leaving New England’s offense in the hands of — well, it’s not exactly clear.

Head coach Bill Belichick declined to name a coordinator. Senior football advisor/offensive line Matt Patricia and offensive assistant/quarterbacks Joe Judge — those are their official titles — split offensive duties during New England’s three preseason games to less-than-stellar results.

Friday’s 23-6 loss to McDaniels’ Raiders raised the most significant flags as New England’s starters led by second-year quarterback Mac Jones produced 74 yards, two punts, a field goal and an interception in four possessions. The turnover was the low point as Jones failed to see linebacker Luke Masterson in zone coverage after scrambling to escape pressure.

Again, it’s the preseason, so take the results with a grain of salt alongside the benefit of the doubt that Belichick’s rightfully earned. At the same time, Patricia and Judge are failed head coaches who have never helmed an NFL offense. Patricia, in fact, is a defensive specialist who previously spent six seasons as New England’s defensive coordinator. The questions are valid, especially considering that Jones’ development is at stake.

Is Matt Patricia a benefit to Mac Jones and the Patriots offense? (Chris Unger/Getty Images)
Is Matt Patricia a benefit to Mac Jones and the Patriots offense? (Chris Unger/Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Vibe: Ailing

The good news for the Bucs is that Tom Brady is back. We still don’t know where he went during his training-camp hiatus. But the seven-time Super Bowl champion made his return to the field in Saturday’s preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts and looked just fine while completing 6 of 8 passes for 44 yards including a 20-yard strike to new teammate Julio Jones.

The bad news is that he’ll play Tampa Bay’s Week 1 showdown against the Dallas Cowboys behind a diminished offensive line and without Pro Bowl target Chris Godwin, whose return date remains uncertain after he tore his ACL late last season. Following Ali Marpet's surprise retirement at 28 years old, guard Aaron Stinnie and Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen are both facing lengthy layoffs with knee injuries. Jensen's replacement Robert Hainsey limped off the field on Saturday with an ankle injury, but reportedly could be ready for Week 1. As could All-Pro left tackle Tristan Wirfs, who's considered day-to-day with an oblique injury.

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Either way, its a suboptimal set of circumstances surrounding a 45-year-old quarterback — even one who’s defied the laws of age decline more than anyone in the history of the league.

But it’s Brady, so there’s more good news than bad. The NFC South projects as one of the poorest divisions in football outside of Tampa Bay. It's the Bucs’ to win as long as they can keep Brady upright.

Carolina Panthers

Vibe: Cautiously optimistic

After Carolina’s training camp kicked off with an alleged quarterback battle between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, head coach Matt Rhule official reached the conclusion we all knew that he would. Mayfield is the obvious starter over Darnold, who’s expected to miss 4-6 weeks with an ankle injury now anyway.

Now the question remains: Is Mayfield capable of quarterbacking a winner in the NFL? His time with the Browns was a mixed bag at best. But he’s flashed some upside, and he’s not past the point of proving his NFL doubters wrong. He left a toxic situation in Cleveland for a fresh start and is coming off a season hampered by an injury to his non-throwing shoulder.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) stands on the sideline during an NFL preseason football game against the Buffalo Bills, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Westerholt)
Baker Mayfield has a second chance to prove himself as an NFL starter. (AP Photo/Brian Westerholt)

His preseason was unspectacular but largely mistake-free as he completed 59.1% of his passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions in limited action across two games. Both of his scores arrived against Buffalo Bills backups on Friday in a 9-of-15 effort for 89 yards. There’s nothing here that says Mayfield looks like a former No. 1 pick. But he has a chance to revive his career as a capable starter for a franchise that’s long lacked one.

Miami Dolphins

Vibe: Hopeful

After being scratched from Week 2 of the preseason, Tyreek Hill made his Dolphins debut alongside Tua Tagovailoa in Saturday’s 48-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. It went as well as could be expected.

Miami’s first play from scrimmage saw Tagovailoa launch a deep ball over the middle for Hill, who beat a pair of Eagles defenders to haul in a 51-yard catch.

Tagovailoa’s next pass was an 11-yard completion to Hill. Two plays later, he found receiver River Cracraft for a touchdown to cap an efficient 75-yard scoring drive. It appeared to be exactly how rookie head coach Mike McDaniel drew things up.

Qualms can be — and were — had with Tagovailoa’s distance on his deep ball that Hill had to adjust to to haul in. But the result of the play and the drive are inarguable. Now Miami just has to replicate it during the regular season. Tagovailoa’s future in Miami and the Dolphins’ blueprint for 2022 depend on it.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Vibe: Indecisive

After weeks of training camp and three preseason games, the Pittsburgh Steelers don't have a starting quarterback. Not one that they're ready to announce, at least.

Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett both saw action in Sunday's preseason finale against the Detroit Lions. Both played well with Trubisky completing 15-of-19 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, while Pickett completed 10-of-14 passes for 90 yards.

After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin declined to name a starter and appeared to take offense at being asked about the position.

"I might, but you guys not gonna have today," Tomlin said when asked if he'd decided on a starter. "We're not gonna make knee-jerk reactions and statements following a performance. We'll go through our proper professional procedure. We'll evaluate the game. We'll meet with our front-office people. We'll have discussions.

"We'll talk internally. We'll talk external possibilities. We'll go through our normal procedure this time of year, and we'll disclose it at our leisure to be quite honest with you."

It's tough to read which way the Steelers will go. They haven't had a quarterback battle since Tomlin took over with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback in 2007. Pickett's obviously the presumed quarterback of the future after the Steelers spent a first-round pick to select him in April's draft. But are they ready to hand the reins to a rookie on a team they hope can compete for the AFC North now?

Trubisky and Pickett both looked outstanding during the preseason. Trubisky, a former No. 2 overall pick, completed 70.6% of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no interceptions in three appearances. Pickett, meanwhile, completed 80.6% of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

It's not an obvious call, for good reasons. But it is a critical one. Tomlin's right to take as much time as necessary to make it.