Curran: Already, Patriots are gaining separation

Curran: Already, Patriots are gaining separation
August 12, 2011, 5:39 am
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By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - Which teams might actually benefit from the lockout? One of them was on the field at Gillette Stadium Thursday night. And it wasn't the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Patriots beat the bejeesus out of Jacksonville. Of the Pats' presumed 2011 starters, only Aaron Hernandez, Gary Guyton, Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather were on the field at the start of the game. Throw in Kyle Arrington, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham as guys who'll have big roles, and that's 7 regulars out of 22. The Jags played every player but backup quarterback Luke McCown and center John Estes. And they lost by 35. And the Patriots played poorly for most of the first quarter. This is not a league doormat. The Jaguars are a middle-class NFL team, as last season's 8-8 record will attest. Yet, after stopping the Patriots on their first two drives - an Aaron Hernandez fumble ended the first; the second was a three-and-out - New England scored on its next eight possessions. Asked what his biggest concern was after the game, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said, "We aren't going to play our backend people that much again this preseason. That is more of a relief than a concern because that was pretty ugly out there at the end."Actually, the final 50 minutes were pretty ugly for the Jags. If the Patriots' backend people are that much better than the Jaguars' - and I will allow the fact rookie Blaine Gabbert was running the Jacksonville show and that counts for something - than what would the starters look like?The point is this: bad or middle-class teams benefit from offseason work. OTAs, minicamps, passing camps and meetings. All are opportunities to coach up the backend guys Del Rio refers to. Without that, those players are left to their own devices. Which, in the case of the Jaguars, appears to have been XBox. The Patriots have an established program with arguably the most talented coach and teacher in the NFL. Bill Belichick stuck the green dot on the back of Dane Fletcher's helmet and the second-year, undrafted player set the defense. He went with a three-man line of Darryl Richard, Kyle Love and Eric Moore. Their defense came up with four sacks, allowed 120 passing yards and held Jacksonville to 3-of-13 on third down. On the offensive line, he went with rookie Nate Solder, Thomas Austin, Rich Ohrnberger, Mark Levoir and Steve Maneri. The Patriots put up 475 yards of offense behind those guys. Belichick's plan is to figure out the bottom of the roster first, then fine tune the starters and regulars in later preseason games. He was notably pleased with the result. "We looked at a lot of people here tonight, a lot of young players," he explained. "That was kind of the idea - to get them in there and let them play - and we let them play against some better people there in the beginning of the game, so we'll get a good evaluation of them."It was far from perfect. Two Hernandez fumbles, one by running back Danny Woodhead, a delay-of-game penalty, a formation penalty, a PAT snap that sailed over the holder's head, some missed tackles early in the game; there will be plenty of teaching points. But the difference between the Patriots' scrubs and a mix of the Jacksonville starters and scrubs was jaw-dropping. Jacksonville looked positively unschooled. In each of the past 13 seasons, the 12-team playoff field has had at least five teams qualify that didn't qualify the year before. I'm not sure you're going to see that kind of turnover this year. Some of the bad teams - the eight that got new head coaches - may be even worse because they haven't had necessary prep time in a new system. And middle-class teams like Jacksonville may not have stable enough situations at positions like quarterback or established programs that often equal success. The lockout hurt everybody. But because of the continuity and organization of the Patriots, it hurt them less. And that was obvious Thursday night. Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran.