FOXBORO -- We’ll let Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod handle the superlatives.
Asked what he thought about Patriots’ rookie defensive end Chandler Jones after going against the first-round pick in New England’s preseason opener on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, Bushrod gave a simple answer.
“He’s a specimen, man,” Bushrod said of the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jones. “I don’t have too much else to say.”
Jones and fellow rookie Dont’a Hightower were the story in Thursday’s preseason game against the Saints at Gillette, a game where the Patriots hung on for a 7-6 win (click here for the complete recap). It was a contest that was dominated more by sloppy, ineffectual offense than shutdown defense, but the two youngsters were the dominant storyline for the Patriots.
Jones started at left defensive end and finished with two tackles, but there were several sequences throughout the game that showed you the immense potential that he has when it comes to wreaking havoc in the NFL. In the first quarter, he drew two straight holding calls on Bushrod that left the tackle shaking his head. Later, on the same drive, he showed great acceleration after fighting off Bushrod’s block to get back downfield and get after New Orleans backup quarterback Chase Daniel, forcing a Saints’ punt. He ended up playing 27 snaps (excluding special teams work), and did nothing to dampen the buzz that has started to grow around the long, lean defensive end.
Hightower also started for the Patriots and also looked good, creating disruption and showing an ability to fight through defenders and make a play on the ball fairly consistency. He even managed to show off some versatility -- after an injury to linebacker Dane Fletcher, Hightower moved from strong-side linebacker to middle linebacker.
And while Hightower didn’t have a particular signature play on the night, he was almost always around the ball. On back-to-back plays in the second quarter, he was able to fight off blockers and meet New Orleans running back Chris Ivory in the hole, but couldn’t wrap him up. On the next play, he was able to get into the backfield quickly and get to New Orleans quarterback Sean Canfield, forcing a bad throw. In the end, he finished with 37 snaps, four tackles and one quarterback hit.
That’s not to say that it was all sunshine and lollipops. They will watch the film on Friday, and there will be some negative to go along with the positive, including the very obvious fact that Hightower was taken out of a first-quarter run play completely, opening a sizable hole in the defense that led to a 13-yard gain for New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas. But more often than not, Jones and Hightower were around the ball, making an impact and generally showing why the Patriots decided to move up to get them last April.
“Having a bunch of young, athletic guys out there is definitely good; guys that want to learn and they’re learning fast,” said veteran safety Patrick Chung. “[The] first game, first preseason game, [they] just have to build on it, get better and see how the season goes. But it’s good to have guys like that. They’re working hard out there so it’s good to see them having some success.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Thursday night:
STEVAN RIDLEY GOT MOST OF THE SNAPS AT RUNNING BACK, BUT SHANE VEREEN SHOWED US SOMETHING INTERESTING
Stevan Ridley started the game for the Patriots and got the majority of snaps at running back in the first half, finishing with eight carries for 40 yards. (In a weird statistical coincidence, the five yards per carry was almost exactly the same yards per carry he averaged last season, when he finished at 5.1 for the year.) Ridley finished with 17 snaps, and continued to distinguish himself as the lead back.
However, on New England’s only touchdown drive of the night, Shane Vereen accounted for 73 of the 97 yards, ripping off 63 yards on the ground (including an 18-yard run off left guard), as well as 10 yards through the air in that sequence. (After watching that series, it was small wonder that Vereen’s college coach compared him to Marshall Faulk. Hyperbole, sure, but there’s a comparable skill set.)
Vereen finished the evening with 11 carries for 64 yards and two catches for 17 yards, and while some of it should be taken with the grain of salt because he was facing second- and third-team guys, he made the most of his reps and did a good job competing. It will be interesting to see how he’s handled this week in practice -- he was losing reps to undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden in the days leading up to the Saints’ game -- as well as when he gets his reps in the second preseason game against Philly.
Vereen said it was a “good” feeling to contribute, an understandable sentiment for someone who was injured at the start of his rookie season and never really managed to get on track.
“It felt good. It was the first time to finally strap it on and go live. I think everybody felt really good out there,” said the second-year back out of Cal. “Any time you get to strap it on and go play with the team, it’s a great thing. It felt really good to be out there with the fellas.”
BRIAN HOYER HELMED THE PATRIOTS’ BEST OFFENSIVE SEQUENCE OF THE NIGHT
He had a lot of help from Vereen, but after Brady took his 19 snaps and left for the night, Brian Hoyer was at the controls of the Patriots’ best offensive sequence of the evening. It was a 14-play drive at the start of the third quarter that went for 97 yards and ended with New England’s only touchdown of the evening, a three-yard connection to wide receiver Britt Davis. On the sequence, the Patriots didn’t have any negative plays. In addition, Hoyer had good protection, made nice decisions and moved the chains effectively -- he faced only two third downs on the drive.
Hoyer finished 8-for-15 for 45 yards and a touchdown pass in 31 total snaps on the evening, the most of any of the three Patriots’ quarterbacks. He declared the evening to be a mixed bag.
“Right now, I haven’t watched the film yet, but I can tell there’re definitely some things I wish I would have done better,” he said. “Getting the ball batted isn’t something that usually happens, so you’ve got to find a way to get it through, and some of the throws that you’ve got to get on the same page as some of the guys. To go out in the second half and [have] a 97-yard drive, that was definitely a positive. But you’ve got to do that more often.”
Hoyer said it took time to feel comfortable out there, but part of that uneven feeling comes from the fact that this is his first game action of the year.
“That first one out, you always kind of have got to get your feet underneath you and get a few throws in and get feeling comfortable,” he said of the opener. “I didn’t feel like I did a good job in that [Thursday]; I’ve got to do a better job of taking a few easy throws in the beginning and get a good rhythm.”
RYAN MALLETT WAS UNEVEN
The second-year quarterback out of Arkansas had an up-and-down evening. There were some very good throws, including a nice 20-yard pickup to tight end Tyler Urban in the second quarter and a well-executed 23-yard connection with Julian Edelman later in the same quarter. He also had the opportunity to conduct the hurry-up offense at the end of the first half, and managed to get the Patriots to the New Orleans’ 34-yard-line, only to see a 53-yard field-goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski sail wide left just before the gun.
However, there was also some bad: He struggled with his accuracy for a large portion of the evening, missing badly on some throws and finishing 8-for-19 for 89 yards (a team-high) with one interception on a ball where he was hit as he delivered.
If there’s a positional battle at backup quarterback, right now, Hoyer is still the No. 2.
“There’s always competition. I mean, I’m always trying to compete with Tom [Brady] so, and you know, obviously Ryan’s a good player too, so we’re competing at the same time,” Hoyer said of Mallett, who took 27 snaps on the night.
“I think the competition always brings out the best in everyone. You never want to lag off or anything like that, so there’s always competition and you’re always trying to improve and I think me trying to chase Tom and trying to be as good as he is, that obviously sets a pretty high standard and I try to strive to get to his level every day.”
THE PATRIOTS PLAYED SOME GOOD TEAM DEFENSE
While the Patriots weren’t able to get much of a push up front against the Saints at the start of the game, New England’s team defense was up to the challenge early. Brees did have some time to throw, but his receivers’ found it tough going -- consequently, he had no one to throw to on three of his four dropbacks. The Patriots did yield a first down reception off a third-and-22, but overall, the pass coverage was better than what we saw last year from this team.
In the second half, New England’s second- and third-team defense finished strong. The Saints were held to a pair of field goals, had to punt the ball seven times and managed 3.2 yards per carry while the New Orleans quarterbacks’ averaged 48.0 when it came to their overall rating.
In all, the Patriots had five quarterback hits on the night and two sacks. Defensive end Trevor Scott saw his first action of the night in the second half, and finished with three quarterback hits and one sack for eight yards, while rookie defensive end Jake Bequette had one quarterback hit and a one-yard sack and rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower had one quarterback hit.
“It’s huge. It all ties in together,” said safety Steve Gregory of the importance of good team defense. “When we can get pressure on the quarterback, it helps us in the back end. When we can cover and stay in tight coverage, it helps those guys to get pressure in the front end. It all works together.”
IT WAS A FORGETTABLE NIGHT FOR THE PATRIOTS’ OFFENSIVE LINE
Where do you start? With a pair of holding calls on left tackle Nate Solder? Maybe the sack allowed by Marcus Cannon, one that was compounded by a false start call? Or the nearly botched snap between Brady and Dan Koppen (the latter of who played well into the second half with the second- and third-stringers). In one first half sequence, Brady was strip-sacked, losing the ball in New England territory, and after, he flung his helmet down in anger when he came to the sidelines.
The inability of the offensive line to adequately protect the quarterback led to the struggles of the New England offense over most of the first two quarters. Three of the five penalties that were called against the Patriots went against the line, and they had problems early on against the New Orleans first- and second-team defense.
It remains to be seen whether the problem lies in the fact that they are simply missing three of their usual starters (left guard Logan Mankins, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer), the fact that with all the shuffling, it’s tough to create any continuity, or if the struggles of the line are part of some bigger problem, but it’s a problem the Patriots need to fix before the start of the regular season.
“I want to continue to improve. I know that it’s a whole group effort, so I want to be a part of that,” Solder said after the game. “I think we need to get better and continue to work hard -- and by no means are we there -- but we need to keep working towards that.”
“We’ve played a lot of people at each position,” said Belichick when asked if the problems on the offensive line are the result of trying some different combinations. “I don’t think there was any position we didn’t play a lot of people. That’s what these games are for: to evaluate the players.”
THE SAFETIES STARTED THE PRESEASON ON A GOOD NOTE
Last season, safety was one of the most inconsistent areas on the team, with several players shuttling through -- mostly while Chung tried to get healthy -- while the Patriots tried to find the right combination of players along the back line.
But through the first two weeks of camp and into Thursday’s preseason opener, it’s become increasingly clear that the team likes the safety combination of Chung and Steve Gregory. The two have been working together and getting the bulk of the reps at the spot throughout camp, and that was the case again on Thursday as they started and both came away with important interceptions that stopped Saints’ drives in New England territory.
First, New Orleans was driving early in the second quarter with the ball at the Patriots’ 24-yard line. That’s when Jerod Mayo tipped a Chase Daniel pass, which was juggled and then caught neatly by Gregory. The second pick came later in the second when the Saints were again in New England territory, with the ball at the Patriots’ 47.That’s when Chung stepped in front of a Sean Canfield pass, forcing the second turnover of the evening. New England was unable to cash in on either turnover, but to see the Patriots’ safeties force a pair of picks is a good sign.
“It always feels good to get an interception. It feels good,” said Chung, who had four tackles, an interception and a pass defensed. “It’s just preseason, [but] we still have to make plays. It’s just practice for regular season, so when it comes around, you’re not surprised. I’m taking any interception – easy, hard, kind of hard – I’m taking all of them. It felt good.”
“Yeah, [I] definitely felt comfortable. Obviously [with] those things that we can get better at, we’ll go back and watch the film and try to correct the things that we can and learn from it and keep getting better,” said Gregory, who had two tackles, an interception and a pass defensed in his preseason debut with the Patriots. “I think it was great getting the turnovers. That was good. Other than that, we’ll have to watch the film and see where we’re at.”
DANE FLETCHER’S INJURY WILL OPEN THE DOOR FOR SOMEONE
The linebacker, who is an integral part of New England’s special teams (he was in on the opening kickoff) and linebacker rotation (he started the game at linebacker, presumably in place of Brandon Spikes), reportedly suffered a torn ACL in the first quarter. The former undrafted free agent out of Montana State limped to the locker room, and was not around when the media was allowed in after the game.
“It’s unfortunate,” said fellow linebacker Rob Ninkovich. “You hope for the best. You don’t know what it is right now. I’ve been through some knee injuries and I know kind of how that goes. You don’t really know until you see a specialist or get an MRI. I don’t want to jump to conclusions on anything. It’s always tough to have injuries in the preseason. I know Dane. He’s a fighter, so whatever it is, he’s going to work hard and he’ll be back.”
It’s not know how long he’ll be sidelined, but the loss of Fletcher will like give players like Bobby Carpenter more reps. The Patriots moved Hightower into Fletcher’s spot, while others filled in around Hightower for much of the rest of the evening. Long-term, his absence will also create the need for more depth at the back end of the roster. That means lower-level linebackers like Mike Rivera and Jeff Tarpinian -- both of who played major snaps in the second half on Thursday -- could ultimately end up sticking on the roster if they have a good camp.
WHEN IT COMES TO DETERMINING WHO HAS THE EDGE AT KICK RETURNER, THURSDAY WAS NO HELP AT ALL
There was a hope that Thursday night could help bring some clarity to the position of kick returner, as the Patriots have shuffled several faces in and out of the spot throughout camp with little difference. However, the Saints kicked off just three times on Thursday night with one touchback. Danny Woodhead got the only two chances, and averaged 12 yards on his two returns.
As for the rest of the special teamers, it was a big night for punter Zoltan Mesko, who punted eight times on the night and averaged 47.8 yards per punt, dropping four of them inside the New Orleans’ 20-yard line. Meanwhile, kickers Stephen Gostkowski and Chris Koepplin split duties. Gostkowski handled the extra point (successful), a 53-yard field goal attempt (wide left at the end of the first half) and the opening kickoff (touchback). Meanwhile, Koepplin kicked off after the Patriots’ only touchdown of the night in the third quarter, which ended as another touchback.
BILL BELICHICK SHOULD EXPECT A NOTE FROM THE LEAGUE
As was the case throughout the league, replacement referees handled Thursday night’s game, and there were more than a few slip-ups along the way. One of the ones that really stood out came late in the third quarter -- that's when New England cornerback Sterling Moore was in coverage on a deep ball from quarterback Luke McCown to wide receiver Joe Morgan. Moore went crashing into Morgan, but it was fellow defensive back Tavon Wilson -- who was a good 3-5 yards away from the play -- who was called for the 46-yard pass interference penalty.
After the game, Belichick was asked about the work of the replacement officials, and he deferred to former V.P. of officiating Mike Pereira, who has been quite vocal in his dislike about the NFL’s use of replacement referees.
“I think Mike Pereira has made his comments on the officials,” Belichick said. “I don’t know who knows more about NFL officiating than Mike Pereira, so we’ll leave it to him. I’m just trying to coach our team and get our team better. I’m not worried about what everybody else is doing; it’s not my job.”