FOXBORO — For 17 snaps on Thursday night, there was no talk about of a contract, about a “growing disconnect” or the possible impact that four hours of golf might have on a negotiation. No speculation about working out on the West Coast vs. the East Coast, the influence of growing labor uncertainty or how one deal might influence the other.
Instead, there was only Tom Brady, quarterback.
In the midst of an offseason of rampant speculation about his future with the franchise, the prospect of returning the focus to the field — even for 17 snaps — must have been a welcome change for Brady. Even in the most serene of times, the quarterback views the field as a sanctuary, and that’s exactly what he must have been feeling Thursday night in the Patriots' preseason opener against New Orleans.
He finished 5-for-8 for 67 yards in the Patriots 27-24 preseason victory over the Saints (click here for the story), and in his quarter and a half of action, Brady (who did not speak with reporters after the game) looked about as good as expected for a preseason opener. He missed some throws but made some good connections on others. He showed a real proficiency with the deep ball, hitting on three passes as least 20 yards or more.
In addition, he did an excellent job engineering an impressive 14-play drive that came midway through the first quarter, a sequence that traveled 93 yards and consumed 6:19. It was on that drive where he hit on his three deepest passes — a 23-yarder to Randy Moss, a 20-yarder to Brandon Tate and a 21-yarder to Julian Edelman. (Click here for more on Edelman's night.) It was a crisp, well-executed and efficient offensive sequence that came against the defending Super Bowl champions.
“We moved the ball down the field, got in and out of the huddle, had time on the play clock when we were snapping the football,” said tight end Alge Crumpler. “We were playing a good rhythm and a good flow.”
Of course, Brady isn’t just another football player. The questions will continue about his contract situation, his relationship with the franchise and whether or not he should be in Foxboro more often between February and July. But for one night — 17 snaps — Brady was able to return the focus to the field.
Here are nine other things we learned in Thursday’s preseason opener:
If Dan Connolly is going to be the starting left guard, his season opened on a mostly positive note.
With Logan Mankins locked in a contract stalemate with the team and Nick Kaczur out with an undisclosed injury, the left guard spot has been left to Connolly, a Southeast Missouri State product who has started four games since he came into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2005. And after spending most of his time at left guard over the last week in training camp, he was the one who got the call against the Saints.
Through the first two quarters, he had some good moments and some bad. He was dominated on a pair of back-to-back plays midway through the first quarter — one, where he was tossed aside by New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, and a second where he swung and missed on a block on Al Woods.
But he bounced back on that same drive, delivering a pair of key blocks — the first on a five-yard run by Kevin Faulk and the second on a six-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green Ellis where he took Jonathan Vilma out of the play. After 30 snaps, Connolly came out of the game just over halfway through the second, giving way to Ryan Wendell.
If the Patriots don’t acquire someone in a trade or as a free agent, Marques Murrell is the leader in the clubhouse to start opposite Tully Banta-Cain at outside linebacker in Week 1.
Murrell, a free agent acquisition from the Jets in the offseason, was brought in with a rep as a good special teams player who could provide depth at the outside linebacker spot. But as the Patriots have continued to search for an answer at OLB, it has been Murrell who has done more and more to assert himself over the last week or so. He has been running with the first team defense on a fairly consistent basis, and so it was no surprise that he got the call to start at that spot against the Saints, a spot that was manned by Derrick Burgess last season.
Three plays into the game, he announced his presence, getting a good hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees for an 11-yard sack. It was a good start to the game for the New England defense, which put together back-to-back three-and-out series against the Saints’ offense. The tone was set by Murrell, who beat right tackle Jon Stinchcomb around the outside for the sack of Brees.
“It felt really good because last year he was a little elusive for me at the time, but this year, I really [got] him,” Murrell said. “I started film study two weeks ahead of time and I just made sure I wanted to get to the quarterback.
“What I take out of this game is that defensively we started off good with two series of three-and-outs, and we just want to continue to build on that defensively going into the season,” he added. “We want to be able to be that defense who ca stop the run and get to the quarterback on third down.”
Ultimately, he finished with two tackles, leaving the game after a quarter and a half with the rest of the starting defense. If the Patriots do not decide to go after a Greg Ellis, Chike Okeafor or Adewale Ogunleye (and league sources indicate they are currently not in play for all three of them at this point) or make a trade, then Murrell has an excellent shot at being the starting outside linebacker in Week 1 against the Bengals. (Click here for more on Murrell's night.)
(And in the context of this conversation, it’s worth mentioning here that Derrick Burgess still has a locker in the New England locker room. It doesn’t look like it’s been disturbed in a long time, but he’s still got the same spot he had last season — Tedy Bruschi’s old locker, right next to the door.)
Of the players on the theoretical bubble, BenJarvus Green-Ellis probably did the most to help his cause.
This year’s edition of Green-Ellis’ roster drive begun in earnest Thursday night against the Saints when he started at running back. It was a mild surprise but he did well, finishing with 34 yards and a rushing touchdown. While it’s a safe bet that the New England running game will remain a collective effort in 2010, Green-Ellis made a case for sticking around after cutdown day (as he has done the last two years) with a solid performance.
“Every time we go out there, whether it’s practice or not, we have opportunities,” Green-Ellis said after the game. “We just have to go out there and execute as an offense.”
Another player who helped himself was Terrence Wheatley who dropped New Orleans quarterback Chase Daniel for a four-yard loss late in the fourth quarter, a smart, aggressive play that kept New Orleans out of the end zone and forced them to settle for a field goal. It was the latest play in the midst of a good stretch of action for Wheatley, who impressed while the Saints were in town with a renewed aggressiveness.
Devin McCourty had as good a start to a professional career as you could have asked for.
Thanks to a nagging injury that sidelined starting cornerback Leigh Bodden, McCourty was on the field at the start of the game with the No. 1 defense, and held up well against the New Orleans starting offense. The Rutgers product was on the field for the first 27 defensive snaps of the evening, and looked comfortable, coming away with two tackles and a forced fumble.
“He looked good,” said Butler, who started opposite McCourty. “I’ll see more on film, but he looked good. When I was out there and he was out there, he looked good.”
But McCourty really showed an impact on special teams, returning second-half kicks for 52 and 50 yards. In the end, he returned three kicks for 111 yards, an average of 37 yards a return. The sample size is absurdly small, but when you consider the Patriots averaged just 22.7 yards per kick return last year, it’s a good start.
“He got a couple of opportunities tonight,” Belichick said of McCourty’s work on special teams. “I’m sure he’ll get some later in the preseason and I’m sure other players will too. In the end, we’ll try to put — whoever it is — somebody back there — or whether it’s a group of people — that will be productive in the return game. That’s certainly something we can improve on from last season.
In fact, other than an electric punt return from the Saints’ Larry Beavers, it was a good evening for New England’s special teams.
The Beavers’ return was maybe the most impressive play of the night, and it ended up going for 97 yards and a touchdown against New England’s backup kick coverage unit. But the rest of the evening graded out as a positive experience for the Patriots’ special teams crew.
McCourty had a pair of really impressive kick returns where he wasted no time in getting up the middle, finding a seam and taking off into the stratosphere. Edelman gave the offense a colossal gift in the first quarter when he delivered a 40-yard punt return (New England couldn’t finish off the drive, instead settling for a field goal.) In all, the returners gave the Patriots an average starting position of their own 35-yard line.
The kicker and punter also had good nights. Stephen Gostkowski had a 35-yard and 28-yard field goal, and was 3-for-3 on extra points, while Zoltan Mesko had five punts for a 43.8 average, to go along with three punts downed inside the 20. In all, it was a good beginning for a group that needs to have better production across the board this season.
The Patriots tight ends will have an impact this year … probably.
Of course, we all thought it would be a new era for the tight ends in New England after last year’s preseason opener when Chris Baker (remember him?) caught two touchdown passes against the Eagles and Benjamin Watson did the same thing in the regular-season opener against the Bills. And we all know how that worked out. So the performance of the tight ends in Thursday’s preseason opener must be taken with a grain of salt.
But at the same time, there were signs that things could be different. The first came on the first play from scrimmage when the Patriots rolled all three tight ends — Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — out in an attempt to try and grind out some yards on the ground. New England couldn’t have done that last season — they didn’t have three game-ready tight ends on the active roster.
There was also a concerted effort to include them in the passing game. In all, the Patriots targeted the tight ends seven times on Thursday night (Hernandez six times and Crumpler once), with Hernandez coming away with three catches for 26 yards, including a 21-yarder from Brian Hoyer on New England’s first drive of the second half. Again, expectations must be tempered because tight ends in New England usually have the shelf life of your average American Idol judge, but it was a good start.
“The biggest thing for us is that we’re a new group here, so every opportunity we get on the field we have to make the best of it,” Crumpler said.
“[Offensively], I don’t know what our identity is going to initially be, but there are things that we have to work on, and the things we’re working on, we have to get better. We’re trying to establish whatever identity we are going to move into.”
In the best position battle in camp, Brandon Spikes has the edge.
Since the start of training camp, Spikes, Gary Guyton and Tyrone McKenzie have all waged an impressive battle for the inside linebacker spot opposite Jerod Mayo. But with the recent knee woes suffered by Guyton, Spikes got the start against the Saints, and played well into the second quarter.
But what was interesting was that while most of the starting defense came off the field midway through the second quarter, Spikes remained out there with the second defense, paired with Dane Fletcher on the inside instead of McKenzie. (McKenzie, who was predominantly a special teamer early on, did line up on the inside by the time the end of the third quarter rolled around.) It looked like the Florida product was running the huddle at that point, which should tell you just how far the rookie has come in his short time in New England. Ultimately, Spikes ended up playing 25 defensive snaps and led the team with eight tackles
“We felt like Spikes needed to play a little but more than some of the other guys in that group,” Belichick said. “I don’t know how many snaps he got — probably 25, 30, somewhere in there. We just felt like he needed more snaps than some of the guys he was out there with in the opening group.”
Matt Patricia was promoted this offseason.
Despite the fact that he wouldn’t cop to it this past week, Matt Patricia really is the de facto defensive coordinator of this team. Patricia, who has been wearing the headset throughout camp to communicate with the defensive players, is listed on the masthead as the linebackers coach, was wearing a red jersey on the sidelines for Thursday’s preseason opener. And like the Scarlet Letter, the red jersey is the go-to color of choice for the defensive coordinator on the Patriots. (As we’ve stated previously, look for any game day picture of any former New England defensive coordinator, and chances are good they are wearing red.)
And so it will probably be Patricia who will be fretting over the unquestioned defensive low point of the night, a 20-play drive from the Saints that started late in the first quarter and rolled, mostly unabated, well into the second quarter. It went 86 yards and consumed 10:01, and ended with a two-yard run around left end by Reggie Bush.
“It was a long drive — you’ve got to get off the field,” said cornerback Darius Butler. “I had a penalty on fourth down that kept us on the field, but we’ve got to get off the field when you can on third and fourth down.”
Even beyond the upcoming sessions with the Falcons in Atlanta, look for more joint practices in the Patriots’ future.
Now that the three-day experiment is behind them, all parties agreed that the three practices and preseason game with the Saints was beneficial from the big-picture perspective when it comes to preparing for the regular season.
“I thought it was good,” Brees said after the game. “Obviously with training camp, it gets kind of old going up against the same looks and defenses, as they probably feel that way about us. Anytime you can mix it up, by going up against another team, you are getting a whole new set of personnel and a whole new scheme, and it’s competitive.
“You go up against a team like the Patriots for three practices, you almost get those game-type jitters, just in regards to preparing for each practice trying to study their personnel and the looks they are going to give you.”
“That was a live game plan right there. A live game plan,” said New England safety Pat Chung. “It was good for both teams. It’s a good way to get a different speed of another team and get you ready for the game.”
“We learned a lot about ourselves just in the two days we had a chance to work with New Orleans and their fine ball club,” Crumpler said. “We’re just trying to establish an identity for this team and not worry about anything else.”