By NFL running back standards, Rex Burkhead joined the Patriots this off-season with minimal tread on his 27-year-old tires.
The former Cincinnati Bengal has just 87 carries and 34 receptions to his name thus far in his career, but Burkhead showed in the first half tonight a ramped up workload won’t be an issue.
He carried the ball seven times for just 20 yards, with a long run of 8, but added three catches for 50 yards in the passing game – including a 22-yard touchdown reception out of the backfield from Tom Brady – making it clear that at the very least, he can succeed as a security blanket for the quarterback.
“He had a one-on-one match up with the linebacker, he made a really good move to the out and then broke across his face,” Brady said of Burkhead’s score. “It was a big play.”
Brady played the first two series for New England, which fell to 0-2 in the preseason with a 27-23 loss to the Houston Texans. Brady completed 6 of his 9 passes for 67 yards and the touchdown pass to Burkhead.
Brady wasn’t the only notable Patriot making his preseason debut on the offensive side of the ball. Rob Gronkowski also started, making for a much more recognizable unit than last week’s outfit vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gronk was a non-factor, by design, as he played in the preseason for the first time since 2012. He played 15 snaps but was not targeted once in his first taste of live game action since Week 13 of last season.
“I’m just happy he’s out there healthy and playing and building his confidence,” Brady said of Gronkowski.
Mission accomplished in terms of getting Gronkowski out of the game without any dings, but the Patriots did lose a pair of second-year defenders in Vincent Valentine and Elandon Roberts to injuries. Valentine, a third round pick in 2016, left with a leg injury and later returned to the game.
Roberts was not as fortunate. He collided with teammate Jonathan Freeney on a broken play for the New England defense, a 63-yard catch and run for D’Onta Freeman in the third quarter. Numerous Patriots laid in the wake of Freeman’s scamper, but Roberts was down with an apparent rib injury. He slowly walked off the field under his own power and was later carted off to the locker room and did not return.
Defensive ends Harvey Langi and Kony Ealy each had encouraging games for New England, particularly in the aftermath of Derek Rivers’ season-ending knee injury which left an already-thin Patriot pass rush unit in further peril.
Langi played 35 snaps for New England in the first half – 11 more than the next-closest defender for the Patriots, which happened to be Ealy. Langi, an undrafted free agent out of BYU, showed a good understanding of cutting down angles after an early mistake. He whiffed on a sack of Texans quarterback Tom Savage on Houston’s first series, redeeming himself with four total tackles and several instances of jamming runners coming out of the backfield.
Clearly, Bill Belichick wanted an extended look at Langi. He’s still no lock for the roster, but considering the lack of depth at his position – as well as his special teams prowess – it feels more than 50-50 he’ll be there on Sept. 7 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
Ealy atoned for jumping off-sides on Houston’s third play from scrimmage by simply doing his job along the edge, not allowing any big plays to his side. Like Langi, it’s getting harder and harder to see a scenario in which Ealy is not with the Patriots come opening week.
Jimmy Garoppolo was having a solid game up until a horrendous turnover in the fourth quarter. He’d connected with D.J. Foster for a 25-yard touchdown pass on New England’s previous possession, but an ill-advised throw on his next passing attempt ended his night on a sour note.
On first-and-10 from the Patriots 38-yard line, Garoppolo rolled out to his right for a play-action pass. Jacob Hollister was well-covered in the flats, but rather than throwing the ball away, Garoppolo attempted to force the ball through two Texans defenders. Denzel Rice took the ball away and returned it 38 yards for Houston, enabling Freeman to score from 4 yards out on the Texans’ first play of their drive.
Garoppolo also lost a fumble and finished 15 for 23 for 145 yards. His chemistry with Austin Carr carried over at least a little bit from last week, as Carr hauled in three passes for 31 yards from Garoppolo.
Jacoby Brissett finished 5 of 10 passing for 36 yards, coming up short in a two-minute drill at the end of the game for the second week in a row. Brissett completed three passes on a drive that began on the New England 49-yard line with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, showing much better accuracy compared to last week. But on third-and-goal from the 8, Brissett’s lack of awareness resulted in a game-ending turnover. Texans end Ufomba Kamalu got to Brissett’s arm as he prepared to throw, his pressure resulting in a fumble – the play was initially ruled an incomplete pass – that sailed through the back of the end zone for a touchback, effectively handing the game to Houston.
James O’Shaugnessy, one of three players vying for the No. 3 spot on New England’s depth chart at tight end, led the Patriots with five catches (for 40 yards) but also fumbled. Hollister, who led New England in both receptions and receiving yards vs. Jacksonville, came back to earth with just one catch for four yards.
Cyrus Jones was more a positive than a negative, which is certainly a step in the right direction after last week’s debacle. He wasn’t involved much defensively, although he was one of several Patriots with a missed tackle on Freeman’s run. Jones’ contributions tonight came as a punt returner once again, returning four kicks for 58 yards – with one excellent return for 32 yards. He did field a ball he had no business being in the same area code as, collecting it over his shoulder and going down at his own 9-yard line. Jones didn’t fumble for the second week in a row, meaning he’s likely on the right side of the bubble, at least for now.
After missing one of his two field goal attempts last week – granted, from 56 yards out – Stephen Gostkowski was dynamite tonight, connecting on all five of his kicks (three FGAs, two PATs).
The Patriots play the Texans again in week three of the regular season, on Sunday, Sept. 24 in Foxboro at 1 p.m. Their next preseason game is on Friday at Detroit at 7 p.m.