It was hard not to like what the New England Patriots did tonight against the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, defeating the champs 27-24 on a late Stephen Gostkowski field goal. When the first unit was done for the night, the score was 10-0 Pats and at the half, the score was 17-7. The starting defense, the unit that receives the most criticism, did fairly well, holding the Saints starting offense to two three-and-outs before surrendering a touchdown on a 20-play drive that should have stalled if not for a Darius Butler illegal contact penalty. There was even a pass rush, with OLB (yes, OLB!) Marques Murrell sacking Drew Brees on third down on the Saints’ first offensive series. The running game, behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, looked efficient and provided balance to the offense. The Patriots’ 3 touchdowns all came on running plays in the red zone, an area the team struggled with last year.
The player of the game unquestionably was WR Julian Edelman. Edelman, doing his best Wes Welker impression, was explosive and shifty leading the team with 6 catches for 90 yards. He also excelled returning punts, taking the first punt of the game 40 yards down to the 19-yd line to set up the Pats’ first field goal. Rookie first-rounder Devin McCourty also had a great night on special teams returning kicks, taking two past the 50-yd line. Zoltan Mesko had a solid night punting, dropping two inside the 15. Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 2-2 in field goals and had his usual night on kick-offs, booming them into or around the opposite end zone.
While there was a lot to like, there were also plenty of areas that need work (here come the Belichick side of looking at the game). As good as special teams was when it was receiving the ball, it was at times as bad when defending returns. The kick-off unit gave up a 97-yd touchdown return to Larry Beavers. Darius Butler had a tough night, getting flagged for an illegal contact penalty on what would have been a 4th down stop and then getting beat around the corner for a rushing touchdown by Reggie Bush. Both James Sanders and Jonathon Wilhite missed tackles on Saints WR Adrian Arrington, which turned his moderate gain into a 51-yd gain which set up a Saints touchdown. Sanders and Wilhite missing tackles in the open field have been common sights for Patriots fans over the past few years. On that same drive, the defensive line was simply muscled backwards into the end zone by the Saints offensive line (especially DL Myron Pryor who was pushed waaay back) for a touchdown. The third (fourth) string offensive linemen also got pushed around a little by the Saints, getting to or putting pressure on 3rd string QB Zac Robinson. Rookie tackle Ted Larsen in particular was beaten badly twice for a sack, one which resulted in a fumble that was luckily negated by a Saints penalty.
Overall, it was a positive night for the Patriots. Considering the fact that it was the starting and top back-up units that did the most damage was a good sign. Add on to that the fact that it was against the defending Super Bowl champs. There were no big injuries that I’m aware of, and there were few penalties for a preseason game (5 for 37 yards). The Pats didn’t commit any turnovers, and forced one to end the game. Before we book our hotels in Dallas, keep in mind that this was preseason game #1. There’s a long way to go just to get to Week One, let alone Dallas. However, there were many positives to build on and the team, even if it won’t admit it, has to like what they saw tonight.