Keion White shines; offensive line struggles

Patriots-Texans takeaways: Keion White shines; offensive line struggles originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The first preseason game for the New England Patriots looked a lot like the 2022 season: A pretty good performance from the defense and a lackluster showing from the offense.

The result? A 20-9 win for the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.

Mac Jones didn’t play, so the Patriots started Bailey Zappe at quarterback. He played into the third quarter and completed 12 of 14 pass attempts for 79 yards with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. Overall, the offense gained just 180 yards and failed to find the end zone until late in the fourth quarter when rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham ran for a 9-yard touchdown. Cunningham’s 53 total yards (19 passing, 34 rushing) provided the most excitement of the night for the Patriots offense.

The Patriots’ offensive line hasn’t fared well in training camp, and those struggles carried into this game. Zappe and Trace McSorley didn’t have a ton of protection, and the running backs didn’t have many lanes to run through.

The defense mostly played well, especially in the first half when a few starters and some key backups were on the field. The Patriots’ first two picks in the 2023 NFL Draft — cornerback Christian Gonzalez and defensive end Keion White — were among the top performers on that side of the ball. Jalen Mills also impressed with an interception in the first quarter. The defense forced two turnovers and gave up just 283 total yards.

Here are three takeaways from the first preseason game.

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1. Keion White looked like a first-round pick

The Patriots’ second-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft enjoyed a fantastic debut. He made life miserable for Texans starting quarterback C.J. Stroud, who was constantly running for his life and had very little time to throw the football.

There was one sequence during the first half when White got into the backfield and hit Stroud on one play, then he chased down the Texans QB down short of a first down on the next play to force a punt. White tallied three tackles, one QB hit and helped force a fumble before exiting the game late in the second quarter. Houston’s offensive line had loads of trouble trying to block him.

A lot of White’s action came against backups, but if he shows that kind of motor, power and awareness on a consistent basis, he’s going to make a strong impact during his rookie campaign.

The Patriots’ pass rush featuring Matthew Judon, Josh Uche and White has the potential to wreak havoc in the backfield all season long.

Thornton has struggled in camp, but his effort against the Texans was promising.

He didn’t play a ton Thursday, but the Baylor product took advantage of his opportunities. Thornton made one of the plays of the night with a 27-yard pickup on an awesome catch near the sideline. Steven Nelson is one of the Texans’ starting quarterbacks and he was beaten by Thornton on a bunch of snaps, including this spectacular grab in the first quarter. Positive reps against starting-caliber players is exactly what the Patriots needed to see from Thornton.

The 23-year-old wideout finished with two receptions for 31 yards on two targets in limited action.

Thornton will probably get every chance to succeed even if he continues to struggle in camp. He has tremendous speed, which is so valuable at the position and could result in a team claiming him if the Patriots ever tried to get him onto the practice squad. Thornton also was a second-round pick (54th overall) and taken ahead of George Pickens (Steelers) and Skyy Moore (Chiefs). It’s hard to give up on second-rounders before the player completes his second season.

Thornton still has a ways to go, but it was definitely a good sign for the Patriots that he took a step in the right direction Thursday and showed the kinds of plays he’s capable of making if healthy.

3. Offensive line struggles mightily

The first half wasn’t great for the o-line. This unit allowed a sack on a third down during the first series. New England’s final drive of the first half ended with a sack on third-and-5 inside the 20-yard line. Zappe was pressured from multiple angles and couldn’t escape up the middle of the pocket. A lack of quality pass protection and run blocking resulted in three consecutive 3-and-outs to end the half.

The Patriots also ran for just 78 yards on 25 carries (3.1 yards per attempt). The o-line couldn’t block or open up enough running lanes for Pierre Strong Jr., Kevin Harris, J.J. Taylor and others. Without Cunningham’s 34 yards late in the game, those rushing stats would look even worse.

Conor McDermott had a rough night, too. He started at left tackle after playing right tackle for most of training camp. McDermott was penalized for a false start in the first half and looked shaky throughout the evening. For a player who could fill a fairly significant role this season, McDermott’s performance wasn’t very encouraging.

It should be noted that McDermott was the only likely offensive line starter who played Thursday, so this unit should look a lot better when most or all of the starters are on the field. But at the same time, if the Patriots have to rely on some of these backups because of injuries to starters — which is a real possibility given Trent Brown and Michael Onwenu’s situations — that could be a real problem because there’s very little quality depth among the second and third string offensive linemen.

Check out more instant reaction from Patriots Insiders Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry, former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson and host Tom Giles on “Patriots Pregame Live” in the video below.

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