Before the Patriots/Saints preseason game, I gave you 5 things to watch for that would be key to the Patriots and their development as they head towards the regular season. After last night’s overall look at the game, let’s re-visit those 5 items and see how they played out in last night’s game.
1. The quality of play at left guard and the offensive line as a whole. This area was a mixed bag for the team. Dan Connolly started the game and had a solid but unspectacular night, which is really all you could hope for out of him at this point. Connolly held his own in the game and provided the key block on the Pats’ first touchdown of the game. Connolly pulled to the right and blocked Jonathon Vilma, springing BenJarvus Green-Ellis free for the score. The rest of the starting line was solid and provided generally good protection for Brady. The back-up offensive line, however, did not play quite so well. Quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Zac Robinson were under constant pressure. T Thomas Welch, in particular, had a rough night. He gave up two sacks, one in which resulted in a fumble that was called back due to a defensive penalty. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia did not look happy at all on the sidelines in the second half.
2. Can the Pats provide a pass rush? The Patriots did a good job providing pressure throughout the night, but namely in the first half. The Pats rushed only 4 on a majority of their defensive snaps, which is a good sign. Getting pressure with only 4 was the real missing piece last season. OLB Marques Murrell was able to sack Drew Brees on the Saints first drive on 3rd down with a little help from Tully Banta-Cain on the other side. That was the Pats’ only sack of the night, but they did bring some pressure on a consistent basis. Rob Ninkovich, another player to watch as a potential starter, had a quick first step but struggled getting off blocks. I’m not sure he has the build to be a consistent contributor to the defense, though it is only the first preseason game. Rookie OLB Jermain Cunningham did not play after tweaking his ankle at practice Wednesday.
3. The inexperienced secondary will be tested- can they hold up? The secondary did a pretty good job last night against stiff competition. Rookie CB Devin McCourty had a solid night and while Darius Butler overall had a decent night, he made two glaring and costly errors. On 4th and 6, he got flagged for illegal contact on what seemed an un-catchable ball, which extended the Saints’ drive. At the conclusion of the drive, he took a bad angle and was beaten by Reggie Bush around the corner for the Saints’ first touchdown. Patrick Chung looked like he belonged after seeing spot duty last season at safety. On the Saints’ second drive, he made a key tackle on WR Lance Moore, stopping him short on 3rd down, forcing 4th-and-1 and a punt. S Sergio Brown also had a good night, delivering some hits while the back-ups were on the field in the second half. BONUS: McCourty also had a spectacular night on special team returning kicks. He ran two past the 50-yard line, and ended the night averaging 37 yards per return with a long of 52 yards.
4. Laurence Maroney. Maroney did not start the game and only carried the ball 8 times, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the primary back of the game. However, Maroney did look decisive running the ball. He made quick cuts and hit the hole, though there was not always a hole to hit. He scored two touchdowns, the first coming off a one-cut-and-go run that was helped by the blocking of rookie TE Rob Gronkowski. Maroney will continue to be someone to keep an eye on, and I’m sure at least one game this preseason, he will be the featured back. Side note: On my initial 53-man roster projection, I have BJGE making the team over Fred Taylor. I’ve seriously re-thought that move, and continue to do so. BJGE’s extended time means one of two things: Belichick wants to see more of him before committing to keeping him or not, or he was showcasing the Law Firm to other running back-needy teams (Denver Broncos?) for a potential trade.
5. Who will line up opposite Moss? The answer to this is easy: Brandon Tate. Tate made one great catch, dragging his feet near the sideline for a 20-yd completion from Tom Brady. The real star receiver of the night was Julian Edelman working out of the slot and at times lining up on the edge. Edelman had 6 catches for 90 yards. At this point, I’m sticking with Tate as “the man” to line up opposite Moss come the regular season. Let’s see over the next 3 games if he gets more involved with the offense, primarily when Brady is under center.