NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots concluded their first preseason game tonight via a 7-6 win over the New Orleans Saints; here are some observations from New England’s first exhibition game of 2012.
Tom Brady looked sharp in his first action of the season, throwing accurate passes to all levels of the field despite his uneventful stat line. Coach Belichick left him in the game for most of the first quarter, pulling Brady with just over one minute left. Brian Hoyer made a brief cameo (4/6 passing, 18 yards) before being replaced with Ryan Mallett; the second-year player struggled with his accuracy throughout the first half of the game. Mallett was yanked in the second half for Brian Hoyer, who connected with Britt Davis for a touchdown pass. Mallett re-entered late in the game and continued to struggle with his ball placement throughout the game.
As expected, Stevan Ridley started for the Patriots at running back, while Dan Koppen made the start at center over Ryan Wendell. Nick McDonald also saw action in the game, playing across the offensive line.
New England opened the game in a five-wide set, with Ridley moving in motion to wide receiver. Ridley was used extensively in the passing game as a receiver both split out wide and out of the backfield. Ridley looked explosive as a runner and should end up as the opening-week starter at the position.
Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen were lined up deep as New England’s starting kick return duo. Vereen looked smooth in the second half and received quite a few carries; on the first drive of the half, Vereen received seven carries and compiled 63 yards. Vereen was featured as a receiver as well.
Brandon Bolden entered the game and broke a nice run at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Bolden saw much more action than Danny Woodhead, although that may be a case of New England giving a veteran some rest during the preseason.
Brandon Lloyd dropped his initial target by Tom Brady down the seam on an excellent throw from Tom Brady. Johnny Patrick broke up a deep pass intended for Lloyd when Brady looked for Lloyd again. Britt Davis was able to get open on what probably should have been a pass interference call; Davis caught a touchdown from Hoyer in the third quarter as well. Jesse Holley dropped a well-placed pass from Hoyer in the third. Davis left the game in the middle of the fourth quarter with an apparent shoulder injury.
On the offensive line, Nate Solder really struggled in pass protection; Will Smith beat him around the edge on one early snap, forcing Brady to throw the ball away. Smith beat Solder around the edge again and blindsided Brady on the next snap, forcing a fumble. New Orleans came away from the following drive with a field goal thanks to their starting field position. Marcus Cannon was called for a false start in the first quarter of the game, and a holding call on Solder negated Brandon Lloyd’s first grab. Donald Thomas was able to pull and make an impressive block on a screen pass.
New England opened the game in a four-man front, with both Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower making starts at right end and linebacker, respectively. Steve Gregory was the starter at free safety. On the second play of the game, Chandler Jones rushed the passer from a two-point stance and beat Jermaine Bushrod to hurry Drew Brees and force an incompletion.
Hightower struggled with his run fits early on but improved as the game continued; Jones had more success in that facet of the game, even forcing a hold on one snap. Jones almost got to Chase Daniel on the next play, and drew another holding call. A few plays later, Jones tackled Daniel after Daniel scrambled for a few yards; his success against an established tackle is encouraging considering the departures of Mark Anderson and Andre Carter via free agency.
Kyle Love shed a double-team to stuff one of New Orleans’ running plays early on.
Jermaine Cunningham saw the field at left end before Trevor Scott; the latter appeared with Justin Francis in the second half. Cunningham was the most explosive of the three players, although Scott rushed effectively on some plays as well and recorded a strip-sack during the final two minutes of the game.
Dane Fletcher injured his left knee while covering a punt on special teams and was helped off of the field by two trainers; NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Fletcher tore his ACL, which will likely land him on injured reserve. New England’s depth at linebacker will be tested; Bobby Carpenter subsequently saw an extensive snap count and did an adequate job. Fletcher’s injury will likely lead to an extra roster spot for a linebacker such as Niko Koutouvides or Jeff Tarpinian; both players saw second-half action.
Jerod Mayo deflected a pass from Chase Daniel into the air which was intercepted by free safety Steve Gregory. Patrick Chung intercepted an overthrown pass in the second quarter.
Courtney Roby burned Sterling Moore in coverage down the outside seam on an impressive throw from Chase Daniel; Moore almost came away with a third-quarter interception. Later, Moore was flagged for pass interference on a throw deep downfield; the penalty ended up costing New England 46 yards.
Ras-I Dowling made a tackle in the third quarter and followed it up with a pass breakup; Dowling lined up on the right side on the third quarter while Sterling Moore handled responsibilities at left cornerback.
Marquice Cole was called for an illegal block in the back on the team’s opening punt return; Cole must avoid costly penalties if he wants to make the roster as a special-teams contributor.
Nate Ebner was in on special teams and also saw some time as a safety in the 4th quarter.
Marcus Forston made some impressive plays late in the game, showing some initial quickness.
Three Up: Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen
Three Down: Patriots Offensive Line, Ryan Mallett, Fletcher’s injury