Patriots who popped in preseason Game No. 1

FOXBORO — One preseason game is in the books for the New England Patriots, which means it’s time to overreact to 60 minutes of football that didn’t count.

Thursday night’s 20-9 loss to the Texans was not great football. It was, for the most part, a pretty boring game. New England starters didn’t play and a few of the more exciting players from camp — most notably receiver Demario Douglas — barely played. Add in the fact that the Patriots were playing with an offensive line held together by duct tape, a few paperclips, and chewing gum, and it was a tough watch.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a handful of players that popped for the Patriots during the contest, especially on defense. Someone had to make some plays, and a few players made the most of their time on the field.

Here are the New England players that shined in their 2023 debuts Thursday night against Houston.

Keion White

The second-round pick was an absolute beast in his preseason debut. White played the majority of the first half — 27 snaps on defense, according to Mike Reiss — and made his presence felt throughout. 

White was consistently in the Houston backfield and setting the edge for New England. He logged two solo tackles, an assist, and a QB hit on C.J. Stroud. When Stroud tried to run for a first down on a third-and-4, White was there to stop him a few yards short and forced a Texans punt.

On Houston’s next drive, the Texans fumbled a handoff and White was there to keep Dare Ogunbowale from recovering the ball. He blew up the running back as he went for the ball, which allowed Calvin Munson to recover for the Patriots. 

White is an absolute monster and it looks like this rookie going to be a destructive force on the Patriots defense.

Jalen Mills

The veteran defensive back played safety on Thursday night and he looked right at home in his old position. Mills made a handful plays in the first quarter, including an interception of Stroud where he read the rookie perfectly. He also had a couple of nice tackles against the Houston run game.

Mills was an outside corner his first two years with the Patriots, but after being released and re-sign this offseason, he’ll be making the move back to safety. It looked like a seamless transition back to that spot, which should help the Patriots fill the Devin McCourty-sized void in their secondary this season.

Tyquan Thornton

The second-year receiver only played 14 snaps according to Reiss, but he made the most of that playing time. And he needed that after a slow start to camp.

Thornton made a wonderful high-point grab between a pair of defenders for a 27-yard gain in the first quarter. It was exactly what you want to see out of the 2022 second-round pick.

Thornton finished with a pair of catches in his preseason debut. With Douglas and Kayshon Boutte making things very interesting on the wide receiver depth chart, it was nice to see Thornton build a little personal momentum on Thursday night.

Daniel Ekuale

Ekuale popped early with a sack on the fourth play of the game, dropping Stroud for a 15-yard loss. He also had a nice run stuff as he competes for a backup tackle role.

Malik Cunningham

We saved the best for last. The undrafted quarterback/receiver was easily the most exciting player on the field Thursday night. Granted, he played in the fourth quarter against defensive players that likely won’t make the Houston roster, but Cunningham certainly popped and provided the most entertainment from anyone in a New England uniform.

After getting some reps at receiver early in the game, Cunningham got to play some QB in the final quarter. In his only drive under center, Cunningham completed three of his four passes for 19 yards and ran for another 34 yards on five rushes. One of those rushes was a touchdown run where Cunningham juked linebacker Jake Hansen into oblivion.

Cunningham’s only drive at center was a beauty, as the Pats covered 75 yards on 14 players for the team’s only touchdown drive of the contest.

It was brief and, again, it was at the end of a preseason game against the Texans. But Cunningham showed off some electricity on Thursday night, and gave the Patriots something to think about with their quarterback room going forward.

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