But what does it all mean?
Is the Patriots offensive line doomed to be the team's weakest link this season? Is Chandler Jones destined for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors?
Let's put away the "Jump to Conclusions mat" before someone gets hurt. But here are some things we can conclude from last night's game, and we don't even have to get out of the chair, much less jump.
1. Chandler Jones, the Obvious Patriots MVP in First Outing
The Patriots first first-round pick did not come as advertised. He came better than advertised.
Jones consistently put pressure on Saints quarterbacks, but when he wasn't, he was forcing holding penalties—yes, two of them, in a row, making Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod look bush-league. And that's no small accomplishment, considering the Saints offensive line is one of the best in football.
It wasn't just his efforts as a pass-rusher, either; he was a factor in the running game, holding stout at the point of attack on at least two plays where the run was stuffed for a loss or no gain.
The Patriots have plenty of reason to be excited for what Jones can bring to their front four.
2. Josh McDaniels' Influence Can Already Be Felt
Empty sets and running back screens. Josh McDaniels is back.
The offense we saw on Thursday night is obviously not anywhere near what we'll see in the regular season, but we saw several of the concepts that left with McDaniels and haven't been seen or heard from much since.
3. Optimism in the Front Seven
Along with Jones, defensive end Rob Ninkovich looked serviceable in all situations. He has always been solid setting the edge in run defense, but he got some pass-rush on Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo was his usual self, and even better. He had three tackles and added an assist to go along with two pass deflections, one of which was intercepted by safety Steve Gregory. On another play, Mayo was in coverage on running back Darren Sproles, who is known for his speed and elusiveness. I was impressed with how Mayo stayed with the runner the whole way and brought him down immediately after the reception, short of the third-down marker.
The Will outside linebacker spot is a great place for Mayo to be, because it allows him to put his athleticism on display. He was the best Patriots defender on the field Thursday night.
There were solid performances by Trevor Scott (three tackles, three pressures, sack fumble), Kyle Love (two tackle assists) and Jake Bequette (two tackles, assist, sack) among others. The group as a whole was getting a good push up front, which helped the defense hold the Saints quarterbacks to a 55.56 completion percentage. There's reason for optimism in the front seven.
4. Pessimism on Offensive Front
Patriots fans can't wait to get Logan Mankins, Brian Waters and Sebastian Vollmer back. Throughout training camp, it's been easy to see that the Patriots have struggled on the offensive line without those three.
The question is when they'll get all three back. Will Mankins and Vollmer be healthy for the start of the season? Will Waters emerge from limbo in his transition from the offseason to training camp?
Hopefully all three of those things happen, because there was a heart-stopping moment for Patriots fans, who watched Tom Brady get crushed by two Saints defenders. I don't have to tell you how old he is or how one wrong hit can change the course of a season.
The two weakest links were tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. Each got bullied in pass protection, with Solder getting fooled on more than a couple of double-moves, and Cannon showing overall flat-footedness.
The line as a whole should play better when things get back to normal, but last night's performance was a reminder of what can happen in the meantime.
5. Shane Vereen Might Be Better in Games than Practices
As mentioned above, Thursday night's game was largely a summation of what we've seen in practice.
That's with one major exception: Shane Vereen. The second-year running back has largely been a disappointment in practices thus far, and that spilled over into the game when the other three running backs—Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and even Brandon Bolden—all got touches before Vereen.
But when the California back got his chance, he didn't look back. Vereen ran 11 times for 64 yards and caught two passes for 17 yards, but those stat lines don't do justice to his coming-out party. One of the big knocks on Vereen was that he wouldn't hit holes with authority and that the burst that made him such an intriguing second-round pick had yet to translate to the field.
We saw changes in both of those knocks on Thursday. All night long, the Patriots seemed determined to get their backs to the edge. Vereen carried the ball a few times off left and right tackle, but also made some great reads on inside runs.
Vereen can't afford to be the second coming of Taylor Price, the receiver who broke out against the Jaguars in the first preseason game only to be waived mid-season. Though it was one preseason game, there's reason for optimism about Vereen if he can keep this up. Still, he'll have to win over the coaching staff by proving that he can do it consistently.
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