Saints vs. Patriots: Hours Before Kickoff Preseason Game 1 Preview

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Saints vs. Patriots: Hours Before Kickoff Preseason Game 1 Preview
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Coaches Matt Patricia (left) and Bill Belichick (right) will be watching Jones (center) very closely in his preseason debut.

All the New England Patriots have to do is replace 20 sacks. That shouldn’t be hard, right?

After years of saying sacks are overrated, it seems like head coach Bill Belichick has finally caved in to the value of bringing the quarterback down. Two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants and their elite defensive line can change even the most stubborn minds.

While there is truth to Belichick’s belief that pressure is what really matters, there are a lot of quarterbacks that throw the ball very well while under pressure or escape it entirely with elusiveness. For those passers, the best way to stop them is sack ‘em.

New England’s defense is without their sack leaders from last year, as DE Mark Anderson left for Buffalo as a free agent and DE Andre Carter remains unsigned after surgery to repair a torn quadriceps.

There’s an outside possibility the Patriots are just allowing the veteran Carter to have training camp off like G Brian Waters, who still hasn’t reported to camp. But until a deal with Carter is announced, don’t count on Carter’s return.

New England had at least 40 sacks for the first time since their last trip to the Super Bowl in 2007. Forty isn’t a magic number or a threshold between Super Bowl appearances, but 30 in 2008, 31 in 2009 and 36 in 2010 contributed to the Patriots falling well short of Super Bowl appearances.

One thing Belichick does believe is rushing the passer is a team thing, and not just reserved for the bookends. It’s why one of the first free-agent signings was DT Jonathan Fanene from Cincinnati.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Jonathan Fanene was signed from Cincinnati to collapse the pocket from the inside.

For years the role of inside pass-rusher was fulfilled by Mike Wright. But New England released him in February (concussions ended Wright’s season for the past two years).

If Fanene can duplicate his 2011 season for the Patriots in 2012, that subtracts 6.5 sacks from the 20-sack total split evenly by Carter and Anderson.

The latest veteran reclamation project is Trevor Scott, a former Oakland Raider. If he can bounce back like Anderson and Carter did, Scott could approach his career-best seven sacks in 2009. Just to handicap Scott, the average of his 2008 and 2009 seasons will be applied, crediting him with six sacks for 2012.

That leaves just 7.5 sacks to go to reach 20.  But from who? More realistically, which players will combine to make up the difference? Veteran D-linemen Tim Bulman, Marcus Harrison and linebacker Bobby Carpenter combined for zero sacks last season.

The remaining weight falls on the rookies by default. Whether they can answer the bell is to be seen.

Between DLs Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Marcus Fortson, Darrion Weems and LB Dont’a Hightower, it’s on them to fill the 7.5-sack void.

At least the numbers are in their favor. One sack each and they’re almost there.

Not all the players named will make the team, whether they are veterans or first-year players. Even harder is to place expectations on a few green players without a single snap at the pro level.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Dont'a Hightower has seen time as a linebacker and defensive end during training camp.

Expectations couldn’t be higher for Jones. He’s the first defensive end drafted in the first round by Belichick. With New England’s success with first-round selections during Belichick’s tenure, it’s understandable.

Jones is already being compared to Giants’ All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul. That’s a lot to ask from Jones. But if that’s the expectation for Jones, then keep in mind that Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks in his rookie year.

The optimism sounds justified. Reports from training camp indicate that Jones and Hightower are getting a majority of their repetitions with the first- and second-team defenses. Francis has turned heads as well.

But that’s only practice. How will they do when the games get real? They get their first test against New Orleans. The Saints have a big, physical O-line considered one of the best in the NFL. If the rookies are to find out if they’re ready, they will find out against the best.

When split between six players, 7.5 sacks isn’t much. It’s the least they could do. But there’s also no limit on what they could do.

A few things I’m looking for:

Small Claims: RB Brandon Bolden follows in the footsteps of Old Miss alum BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aka Law Firm. Bolden could be better because he has better speed and hands.

Two First Names: Justin Francis is his name. Francis Justin is the evil one from a parallel universe playing for the New York Jets. New England has a knack for finding rookie free agents and Justin Francis could be the next one.

Woe Line: How well the unit fares without Matt Light (retired) and Logan Mankins (physically unable to perform) could influence how soon New England brings back Waters.

 

Questions? Comments? Send to randolphc82@comcast.net.

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