New England Patriots: Observations from the Team's First Preseason Game
While many of the players on the 90-man roster got an opportunity to prove their worth, several players stood out for reasons good and bad.
With the starters playing limited snaps, most of the players on the roster bubble got an extended audition. Here are some of my observations from the Pats-Saints matchup.
Based on training camp and the first preseason game, it looks like Stevan Ridley will be the Patriots' starting running back for this season.
After being left off the game-day roster in the playoffs due to fumbling issues, Ridley committed to his "high and tight" running style, and he is reaping the rewards. Ridley showed the same explosiveness and one-cut ability that he flashed in his rookie season.
A balanced attack will be key for New England this season, and Ridley will shoulder much of that burden.
One of the Pats' first-round picks, Hightower had an up-and-down game against the Saints. He was beaten twice in the first quarter on running plays in which he was completely overpowered by Saints linemen.
While he did lay down a few big hits later on in the game, Hightower clearly has to work on his tackling technique when wrapping up offensive players. The big hits will make the highlight reels, but making the safe play is what Hightower needs to do.
If Patriots fans weren't excited by the drafting of Jones already, they most definitely will be now, as Chandler Jones was arguably the best player on the field.
From the get-go, Jones was relentless in applying pressure on Drew Brees and Chase Daniels, routinely beating Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod. Bushrod, a Pro-Bowler two years ago, looked like the rookie against Jones, as he was beaten by Jones' combination of speed and power.
Jones also made some impressive plays in the run game, especially one where he beat Bushrod and then came back to take out the running back.
One of the more underrated moves this offseason was the Patriots' acquisition of Steve Gregory from the Chargers.
Gregory, who has built a reputation as a solid, if not spectacular player, has shown great playmaking ability both in camp and now in games.
After picking off several passes during camp, Gregory made a terrific play on a tip drill deep in the Patriots territory for an interception.
Safety was far and away the Patriots' worst position last year, but with Gregory and a healthy Pat Chung back, the safety play this year should be far better.
Last year's third-round pick had a rough game against the Saints' second-stringers Thursday night. While he did show off his cannon of a right arm, Mallett's slow delivery and accuracy left a lot to be desired.
Mallett, who hasn't had the best of training camps, seems to have regressed slightly from his play last year.
For a while, it seemed as if the backup quarterback job was open, but with a solid showing from Brian Hoyer, it seems likely that Mallett will remain the third option.
The man who has seemingly been forgotten by some Pats fans, Vereen showed of the impressive footwork and quickness that he displayed at Cal in an extended run in the second half.
With the Patriots struggling to move the ball in the first half, Vereen got things going for the offense with a series of runs.
Stevan Ridley remains the starting running back, but Vereen could make a serious bid for the starting gig if he continues to run well.
Edelman hasn't had an extended run at receiver in a long time, so it was refreshing to see he still has it. Edelman led the Patriots with four receptions, and displayed the same quickness and agility that he showed during his impressive rookie campaign.
Should Wes Welker ever miss significant time, it's good to know that Edelman can always step in when needed.
Offensive Line Play
The biggest worry the Patriots have right now is definitely the play of the offensive line. With the line crippled from a rash of injuries and retirements, the backups did not do a good job at all of protecting Tom Brady.
Brady barely had time to throw and was rushed out of his spot several times, culminating in a jarring hit at the end of the first quarter.
With Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon both penalized for holding and Dan Koppen struggling in the middle, things aren't looking good for what is usually a dominant unit.
On the bright side for the line, Donald Thomas started at left guard and had a good game. Thomas excelled both in pass protection and when kicking out on screen plays.
Bringing Back the Fullback and Screen Game
After spending the majority of last season without a fullback on the roster, the Patriots went out and signed three during the offseason. And from the first series, the Pats featured the fullback heavily.
With the Patriots recommitting to the run game, having a fullback clear the way for Ridley and Vereen proved to be a very effective weapon. The Patriots teams of the early 2000s regularly featured fullbacks like Heath Evans, and a return to those old days is what Bill Belichick wants.
In another blast from the past, the screen pass also made a reemergence in the match. With the Patriots emphasizing the screen game in practice, it came as no surprise when we saw Brady throwing screen passes to Woodhead.
While the screen game didn't work that well, it's good to see some diversity in the Patriots attack, something that they lacked last year.
Other Players of Note
Rookies Tavon Wilson, Jake Bequette and Justin Francis all showed up to play and flashed some potential. Francis, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, has been active in camp and could be a surprise addition to the roster.
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