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Keon White shines, the offensive line is struggling

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Patriots-Texans takeaway: Keon White shines, offensive line grapples appeared in the original NBC Sports Boston

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

Results? The Houston Texans were victorious, 20-9, at Gillette Stadium.

Mack Jones didn’t play, so the Patriots’ Billy Zabe started at quarterback. He played until the third quarter and completed 12 of 14 pass attempts for 79 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Overall, the offense gained only 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) was even more impressive on the night for the Patriots offense.

The Patriots offensive line didn’t do well in training camp, and those struggles continued into this game. Zappe and Trace McSorley didn’t have much protection, and their backs didn’t have many lanes to run.

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

Here are three notes from the first pre-season game.

1. KEON WHITE LOOKED LIKE A FIRST ROUND CHOICE

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

There was one sequence during the first half when White ran onto the field and hit Stroud on one play, then chased the Texans QB down before a first down on the next play to force a punt. White made three tackles, one QB hit and assisted forced a fumble before exiting the game late in the second quarter. Houston’s offensive line had a lot of trouble trying to stop him.

Much of White’s action has come against the backups, but if he shows that kind of drive, strength and awareness on a consistent basis, he will have a powerful impact during his rookie campaign.

The Patriots’ pass rush featuring Matthew Goodon, Josh O’Shea and White has the potential to wreak havoc on the court all season.

Thornton struggled in camp, but his efforts against Texas were promising.

He didn’t play much on Thursday, but the Baylor product took advantage of his chances. Thornton made one of the plays of the night with a 27-yard pickup on a great catch near the sideline. Stephen Nelson is a Texas starting quarterback who was beaten by Thornton on a bunch of snaps, including this amazing grab in the first quarter. Positive reps against primary caliber players is exactly what the Patriots need to see from Thornton.

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

Thornton will probably get every chance of success even if he continues to struggle in camp. He has tremendous speed, which is very valuable in the position and could lead to a team claiming him if the Patriots ever try to get him into the practice squad. Thornton was also a second round pick (54th overall) and ahead of George Pickens (Steelers) and Ski Moore (Chiefs). It’s hard to give up second rounds before a 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 on Thursday and showed the kinds of plays he can make if he’s healthy.

3. The offensive line is fighting hard

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-five inside their own 20-yard line. Zappe was pressured from multiple angles and couldn’t escape the middle of the pocket. A lack of quality protection and blocking a run resulted in three consecutive runs to end the inning.

The Patriots also ran for just 78 yards on 25 carries (3.1 yards per attempt). The o-line could not block or open enough running lanes for Pierre Strong Jr., Kevin Harris, JJ Taylor and others. Without Cunningham’s 34 yards late in the game, those rushing stats will 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 play a fairly important role this season, McDermott’s performance wasn’t very encouraging.

It should be noted that McDermott was the only offensive line prospect to play 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 due to injuries to starters — a real possibility considering the positions of Trent Brown and Michael Onuino — that could be a real problem because there is very little quality depth between the second and third offensive lines.

Check out more instant reactions 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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