FOXBORO – Let’s get one thing straight. These are not the 2007 Patriots. Why? Because these Patriots will go as far as their young defense takes them.
Consider that the defense has looked significantly ahead of the offense so far in camp. The defense has been pushing around the offensive line. NFL defenses appear ready more than ever to take the attack to Tom Brady, not the other way around.
These Patriots are built much differently than they were in 2007, and that’s a good thing. One preseason game in and you can already sense that. They are younger and more athletic on defense and they are in big-time transition on the offensive line.
The 2007 defense featured Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green on the line with linebackers Tedy Brushchi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau and Adalius Thomas. The secondary consisted of corners Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs with Rodney Harrison and James Sanders at safety.
That was a veteran group that knew it could ride the coattails of Brady’s historic offensive season. The Pats were up big in games early and the defense could pin their ears back and take chances. They had veterans like Seau, Bruschi, Vrabel (team sack leader with 12.5) and Harrison.
The defense has been instilled with fresh faces like Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is entering just his fifth season and is clearly in his prime, calling signals and showing terrific pass coverage skills on Thursday night. In just his third season, Brandon Spikes has become a huge force as a middle linebacker if he can stay on the field. Safety Patrick Chung is the unquestioned leader of the secondary now.
“I felt like we played good,” said Chung, who had one of two interceptions during a 7-6 win Thursday night in the preseason opener against the Saints. “We played good. We have to watch some film obviously. I can’t really give you a full explanation on that but for the most part, we playedgood. We held them to six points so that’s always good.
Then came a very telling comment from Chung about the makeup of this group on defense.
“Having a bunch of young, athletic guys out there is definitely good, guys that want to learn and they’re learning fast," he said. "First game, first preseason game [and we] 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.”
Success is something that has been assumed for the offense.
Tom Brady threw the ball 578 times in 2007. The Patriots ran the ball 451 times. Last season, it was nearly identical as Brady became just one of four quarterbacks with over 5,000 yards in a season, passing 611 times while running it on only 438 snaps. It’s a near certainty that Brady -- if he stays upright for the entire season -- will again throw for 5,000 yards.
With Brandon Lloyd and likely Donte’ Stallworth added to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, they have as deep a receiving corps as they’ve ever had but five years later, NFL defenses are even more aware of and prepared for spread formations and empty backfields. And they didn’t bring in Lloyd and Stallworth to turn the offense into a run-first game
But there’s a big gamble the Patriots are taking. The gamble is the offensive line.
Will it jell?
Will left tackle Nate Solder be as effective as Matt Light was for a decade in protecting Tom Brady’s blindside? Will left guard Donald Thomas be as effective as Logan Mankins while the four-time Pro Bowler rehabs his ACL injury? Will Brian Waters return? Will he continue to be a rock of consistency at the age of 36? Will Ryan Wendell supplant Dan Koppen as starting center?
These are huge questions that weren’t there five years ago when the Patriots had three Pro Bowl linemen protecting Brady during the 16-0 season.
It was pretty clear from Thursday night’s game that they have a ways to go. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia spent most of thefirst half on one knee preaching to his men that the protection and communication has to be better. Solder spent most of that time nodding in agreement.
"I've got to do better than that," Solder said. "It's just learn and move on, you know? It's all about getting better, building off of it and continuing to work hard."
Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon collided in the pocket as protection broke down on another play, a strip sack of Brady that led to a turnover and a New Orleans field goal.
"I think it's always a building process, always tryingto get better, always trying hard to work better together, be more efficient and make a lot of plays," Solder said. "I think we've gotten real used to spending a lot of time with a lot of different people. So, no matter who's in there we're going to work hard and do the best we can."
If their best isn’t good enough, the run game actually may reappear in New England.
Stevan Ridley has been asked time and time again in camp if he feels he can be a “feature back” of this offense. He has been polite in his response, “I just want to show the coaches that I can handle the load,” he says.
Ridley carried the ball eight times for 40 yards Thursday, a 5.0 yards per carry average. Shane Vereen carried the ball seven times for 63 yards on a 14-play, 97-yard TD drive to open the second half. He finished with 64 yards on 11 carries, good for a 5.8 average.
The irony of Thursday was that the best offense the Patriots showed came on the ground. The Patriots were 20-of-41 for 164 yards through the air.
One more thing, forget the results of the preseason games. The ’07 Patriots lost their first two preseason games. Before Brady got hurt in the opener there were Super Bowl expectations again in ’08, when they lost all four contests.
The results mean nothing. The one-on-one battles mean everything. That’s why Thursday night felt like a loss on the offensive side of the ball because the Patriots lost a lot of battles in the trenches.
Everyone has penciled the Patriots down for 12 wins at the very least. Prognosticators like Pete Prisco have them repeating the ’07 Patriots. After what we’ve seen so far -- and like Bill Belichick likes to say -- the Patriots have a long ways to go.
What did tweeps think of the Patriots preseason opener? Let’s hit the TragsBag and find out.
@nesports247 If only they did that on the 1st possession of the Super Bowl. RT @Trags Patriots go 97 yards in 14 plays in 5:21
@nathanbrodeur so when does [Matt] Light come out of retirement?
@0_LayDX Watched it. It seems Brady needs to keep practicing with Lloyd. Some of that mix up was definitely on Brady's plate
@drjefflo Looking for McCourty to have a BIG bounce back year. Secondary will be the key for the defense this season. #Patriots
@RaQuanO Dowling for me is key to the Secondary if healthy he's a game changer at right CB. If Dowling and Moore can be 1/2 corners I'm for moving McCourty to safety but I much rather McCourty be a CB best for both