The New England Patriots kicked off their preseason schedule with a 7-6 win against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night. The final score holds no long-term value, but the X's and O's certainly do.
After two days of Pats-Saints joint practices outside Gillette Stadium, each side knew what was up their opponent's sleeve. That familiarity made executing preconceived knowledge all the more important.
But with the regular season still nearly a month away, Week 1 of the preseason also proved to be critical for the progression of past draft picks, longshots and bubble players.
Here are some Patriot-minded observations from the first live football of the 2012 campaign.
Chandler Jones Is as Good as Advertised
New England's 2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones made a impact early and often against New Orleans' blockers. He carried his pads well and looked like a serious weapon on the right side of the defensive line.
Jones managed to put pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees by beating starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod on several occasions. He also played with good acceleration, hunting down second-string QB Chase Daniel for a scrambling tackle.
Tavon Wilson Seeing the Field
Rookie defensive back Tavon Wilson was subbed in when the team was in a dime package. Head coach Bill Belichick was confident in unleashing the Illinois product, who has experience at both safety and cornerback.
Donald Thomas a Pleasant Surprise at Left Guard
Second-year Patriot Donald Thomas secured his blocking assignments and didn't skip a beat versus the Saints defensive front. He made a nice block on a screen pass that netted a nice gain. He's not a Pro Bowler like Logan Mankins, but few men are.
Nate Solder Is Overmatched at Left Tackle
The star-studded left tackle of the future and present wasn't impressive against the Saints. He got called for penalties on two consecutive series and allowed a sack—in the first quarter alone.
He's got to regroup because Tom Brady won't last long without a steady blindside protector.
Marcus Cannon Beaten at Right Tackle
With Sebastian Vollmer still out due to injury, 2011 draft pick Marcus Cannon was filling the void at right tackle. Unfortunately, he was bull-rushed out of position on multiple occasions.
Tom Brady Gets Hit
Quarterback Tom Brady fumbled after he was throttled by the Saints pass rush in the first quarter. He couldn't get much going in his limited action, but the thin offensive line couldn't hold their blocks in pass protection either.
Dane Fletcher Suffers Devastating Blow
Linebacker Dane Fletcher was helped off the field after injuring his knee early in the first quarter. He's been a dependable backup at inside linebacker, yet the news appears grim.
Sorry for the confusion. Bad service. Tough break for #Patriots linebacking depth: I'm told LB Dane Fletcher has suffered a torn ACL— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 10, 2012
Kick Returners in the Fold
Running backs Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead manned the return game for the Patriots in the first half. Interestingly, Vereen did not return a kick last season.
In the second half, wideout Julian Edelman muffed a return and decided to bring the ball out of the end zone—falling short of the 5-yard line.
This will be an area to watch, as the Patriots finished last season 29th in kick-return average, according to NFL.com.
Dont'a Hightower Gets His Share of Reps
Pats first-rounder Dont'a Hightower saw plenty of work at linebacker against New Orleans. He didn't make any jaw-dropping plays, but fits the bill as a thumper who can start right away.
The Reemergence of the Screen Pass
With offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels back in Foxborough, so is the screen pass. Tailback Danny Woodhead moved like Kevin Faulk and fullback Eric Kettani occupied the flats like he was Patrick Pass.
Both caught some short passes for big gains. That should continue through the regular season.
Stevan Ridley Gets the Starting Nod
Last year's third-round draft choice Stevan Ridley ran powerfully against the Saints linemen in the first half. He looked great in space and wasn't afraid to get the tough yards.
Shane Vereen Flashes
Last season's second-round selection Shane Vereen looks like untapped talent.
Vereen broke several runs outside for respectable gains. He jump-started the offense in the third quarter and was too shifty for tacklers. He could be a contender for the No. 1 gig at halfback.
Brandon Bolden Shines in Spurts
Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden ran downhill for the short yards and also shook some defenders out of their cleats later in the game. But he hit walls more often than you'd like to see.
Nate Ebner Does His Duty
Ohio State alum Nate Ebner is raw as a safety, but he's a polished special-teams talent. He showed that on Thursday night, seeing time right off the bat on the kickoff coverage unit. He even lined up in the secondary in the later part of the game.
That is a good sign for the 2012 sixth-round pick, as he's missed significant practice time due to injury.
Ryan Mallett Not Sharp
Second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett replaced Brian Hoyer in the first half and was very inconsistent. He missed plenty of targets, got picked off and took too long to find the open man. That said, he also had a couple nice, timely roll-outs met by laser passes.
For right now, he doesn't look like a true threat to Brian Hoyer's job security. Hoyer re-entered the game after a couple unsuccessful drives from Mallett before subbing back out.
Safety Steve Gregory Makes Play of Night
Free-agent acquisition Steve Gregory made a beautiful interception following a deflection by linebacker Jerod Mayo. Gregory bobbled the ball for several seconds before finally reeling it in. Hopefully that's a sign of things to come for the ex-San Diego Charger.
Undrafted D-Lineman Stand Out
Defensive end Justin Francis and defensive tackle Marcus Forston looked strong in their preseason debuts. Both big men have an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster, but they show quick reaction off the line of scrimmage. A few more games like this one would surely help their chances.
Trevor Scott Gets Pressure
Former Oakland Raider Trevor Scott may be just what the Pats D-line needs. He's flexible, quick and has a knack for the ball. He recorded a strip-sack as the fourth quarter reached its final minutes.
Jake Bequette Shows Positional Savvy
New England's third-round pick played defensive end for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Preparing for the NFL, he started familiarizing with outside linebacker. Against the Saints, he even set up shop at inside linebacker. The more ways he can be used, the more ways he will be on the field.
Inactives Who Didn't Help Themselves
For some Patriots who didn't suit up, their future with the team just got murkier.
Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, fullback Spencer Larsen, tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe and Daniel Fells, wide receiver Deion Branch as well as defensive tackles Myron Pryor and Ron Brace were among those not spotted at pregame warm-ups, per Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com.
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