Tom Brady’s numbers don’t really tell the story.
They were good -- 10-for-15 for 100 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. But that's not why we’re here, right? It’s all about the left knee. And by those standards, it’s all good, especially after 11 months away from the football field.
“I think there’s no place I’d rather be,” Brady said after the game. “That about sums it up.”
During his 24 snaps in Thursday night’s win over the Eagles (the recap of the game can be found here), he did not face serious pressure in the pocket, but was able to deftly avoid the rush on a few occasions. He was never in any real danger, thanks to an offensive line that kept him out of harm's way much of the night. (“The offensive line did a great job,” he said.) Playing with his sizable brace on the knee, he did not appear to be moving uncharacteristically. He engineered a pair of scoring drives -- both capped by scoring tosses to new Patriots’ tight end Chris Baker -- and didn’t appear all that rusty.
There were a few misfires, and he certainly wasn’t in midseason form. But for an August night in Philadelphia, roughly 11 months since Bernard Pollard collided with his knee, it’s good enough.
“He looked great,” said Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Highlights included a six-play, 72-yard drive that opened the scoring (helped by a 46-yard pass interference call on ex-Pats cornerback Asante Samuel) and a 10-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter that made it 21-6 right before the half. There was some bad: Brady’s second-quarter interception was a badly underthrown deep ball to Moss that was picked off by Philadelphia cornerback Sheldon Brown and left the quarterback fuming on the sideline.
“I missed some throws that I wish I would have made,” explained Brady, who tossed his helmet in anger after heading to the bench.
But in the end, it was clear the quarterback could successfully say he had passed another test in the rehab process.
“[A] preseason game doesn’t have quite the feel of a regular-season game,” he said. “But to be out there on the field with my teammates and celebrate after a win, and the bus ride home ... those are the things you probably enjoy the most.”
Here are nine other things we learned last night:
2. Other than Brady, no one had themselves a better night that rookie Julian Edelman.
The versatile seventh-round pick out of Kent State was likely drafted as an investment with anticipated dividends a year or two down the road. But if he can replicate the performance he put on Thursday night again next Thursday against the Bengals, there’s no way the Patriots will be able to hide him when the regular season rolls around. In fact, there’s the very real possibility he’s playing himself into the role of No. 4 receiver.
Running with the No. 1 offense -- veteran Wes Welker didn’t dress for the game – the mighty-mite of a wide receiver had a team-high five catches for 37 yards, working in the slot as well as split wide. But what will be remembered most about the night was his work in the return game. After an illegal formation call negated his first return attempt of the quarter, he made the most of his next play when he executed a textbook-perfect 75-yard punt return, using his blockers perfectly and racing to daylight to make it 14-3 with just over 10 minutes to go in the second quarter.
“Julian’s been a guy who’s good with the ball in his hands,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “It was a nice play -- it was good to get those points out of the kicking game.”
In the end, Edelman accounted for 136 yards on the night: 75 yards on punt returns, 37 yards receiving and 24 yards on one kick return.
3. Look for lots of different defensive fronts this year.
The Patriots’ defense played an awful lot of 4-3, which isn’t a shocker to anyone who has been paying attention over the course of the 22 training camp sessions. New England opened with Le Kevin Smith and Richard Seymour at defensive ends, with Vince Wilfork and rookie Myron Pryor at defensive tackle. At linebacker, it was Pierre Woods and Adalius Thomas on the outside and Jerod Mayo inside. Mayo was making the defensive calls and directing the defense while he was in the game.
The Patriots shuffled plenty of players along their defensive front, with Pryor and fellow rookie Ron Brace seeing a lot of snaps in front. (Brace in particular played late into the contest.) In the passing game, Pryor and veteran Vince Wilfork were able to get some serious pressure on McNabb early. Their pressure changed the game -- the Eagles were flagged for two holding calls in the first half, while the Patriots also picked up a pair of sacks, one from Pryor and another from outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.
4. The Patriots pass defense did well. The run defense needs to play catch-up.
As stated in the previous entry, when the starters were in the game, New England was able to get a good sustained push up the middle and flush McNabb from the pocket, forcing him to throw on the run. Wilfork and Pryor got after him nicely, disrupting the pass coverage. (Wilfork pushed his blocker straight into the backfield on more than one occasion.) When McNabb did get his passes off, more often than not, there was some good coverage on the part of the secondary -- Jonathan Wilhite and Leigh Bodden got the start at cornerback, and were impressive early.
When the starters were in the game, the run defense had some issues. The Eagles were able to control the clock early with some sustained drives on the ground (Philly had a 10-minute edge in time of possession in the first half), thanks in large part to the work of running back LeSean McCoy. He had 10 rushes for 55 yards, and accounted for three first downs (two rushing, one receiving) on Philadelphia’s best drive of the first half, which culminated in a 38-yard field goal from David Akers that ate up 5:39 and cut New England’s lead to 7-3. Nothing overly worrisome, but it certainly bears watching.
5. Ben Watson has to be feeling a little nervous.
Against the Eagles -- and playing without Watson -- the Patriots got great production out of the tight end position. Baker played every snap in the first half, and had three catches for 22 yards, including a pair of TD receptions in the first half, a four-yard reception and a nine-yard grab. Dave Thomas was flexed all over the field, lining up at the fullback spot on several occasions. Alex Smith got some run with the No. 1 offense when the Patriots went to a power set with three tight ends. And Tyson DeVree had an active night on special teams.
Brady was particularly impressed by the job that Baker did. The two have spent time after practice working on timing patterns, and that work appeared to pay off Thursday night.
“There were a couple of challenging reads that came up for him tonight and I was excited about how he reacted,” Brady said of Baker. “He’s been doing that all camp, and if he can keep doing that, it’ll be a huge asset to this offense.”
It is only one preseason game, but all of this leaves you wondering about Watson’s future. The veteran tight end had seniority in the New England system, but he has struggled mightily to stay on the field this summer, and another good week out of Baker (and another handful of missed practices by Watson) could mean a greatly reduced role for him going forward as the regular-season draws closer.
6. We don’t know much more about the Patriots’ backup quarterback position than we did earlier this week.
Kevin O’Connell started training camp as the No. 2 quarterback, but Andrew Walter appeared to have supplanted him on the depth chart. However, in his quarter and a half Thursday night, Walter looked like someone who might still be struggling with the playbook.
Thanks in large part to Sammy Morris, Walter was able to put together one good drive, a third-quarter sequence that led to a 37-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski and made it 24-6 midway through the quarter. (Morris accounted for 33 of the 61 yards on the drive.) The rest of the time, he was underwhelming. There were a couple of botched plays, including what looked to be an unscripted toss to Morris and a miscommunication with wide receiver Terrence Nunn that left Walter passing to an empty spot on the field.
The former Oakland quarterback finished 5-for-9 for 62 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. For his part, O’Connell was 1-for-1 for six yards in less than a quarter of action.
7. Scott O’Brien is doing something right.
There were some missteps, but when you compare the work of the New England special teamers with the work put in by Philadelphia, you have to be impressed with the direction the Patriots’ are headed in. Overall, it was a crisp night for the Patriots’ special teams unit. There was the 75-yard punt return by Edelman. Gostkowski made his two field goals (compared to a pair of misses for Philadelphia kicker David Akers, one of which was blocked by Pats’ rookie Pat Chung) and put two of his six kickoffs into the end zone. And Chris Hanson averaged 46.7 yards on his three punts. Rookie Terrence Nunn bobbled a kick return and DeVree got lit up on a block he didn’t see coming on a Philadelphia return, but other than that, it was a very good night for New England’s special teamers.
8. Pat Chung will be an important part somewhere this year.
The Patriots started James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather at safety Thursday night -- barring injury, that’s where they should be for the bulk of the season. But that doesn’t mean that the rookie out of Oregon isn’t going to do his best to try and make things interesting.
In his first preseason game, Chung had an eventful night. The two-time special teams player of the year during his collegiate career at Oregon, he blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt by Akers in the second quarter. In addition, when he did get on the field with the defense, he didn’t look overwhelmed. Operating mostly with the second teamers, he played deep into the contest. He tied for a team-high in tackles with five, had a pass defensed, rang up impressive hits on Philly’s Danny Amendola and Eugene Bright and nearly had a sack on Philadelphia backup quarterback A.J. Feeley late in the fourth.
As for the rest of New England’s young secondary, there was some good and some bad. Wilhite got some nice coverage of Philadelphia rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin, and added an impressive open-field tackle on McCoy. Terrence Wheatley missed badly on an attempted tackle of Maclin, allowing the rookie to break into the open field for extra yardage. (He did have a nice special teams tackle.) And rookie defensive back Darius Butler took a bad pass interference penalty late in the third trying to cover Maclin, but bounced back later when he broke up the Eagles’ two-point conversion attempt at the end of the same quarter.
9. Sammy Morris will not yield his ground without a fight.
Based on a strong training camp, Laurence Maroney got the start with the No. 1 offense, and submitted a six-carry, 14-yard performance in very limited action. (To be fair, while No. 39 was in the game, the focus was on the passing game, not the running game.)
But Morris -- who saw the bulk of the carries last year after Maroney went down with a shoulder injury -- did well working with the No. 2 offense, providing backup QB Andrew Walter with his only semi-reliable option in the running game (12 carries for 45 yards, one catch for 14 yards) in the third and fourth quarter. He accounted for most of the offense on the only sustained drive New England had in the second half (the previously mentioned 61-yard drive), and ran well.
As for the rest of the Patriots’ running backs, Fred Taylor dressed but did not play, Kevin Faulk had one carry for nine yards and BenJarvus Green-Ellis had four rushes for 31 yards, most of which came in garbage time. The battle for carries will continue to play out over the course of the preseason, but Morris made a good opening argument Thursday night for his case to be a regular part of the running game.
10. At the start of the evening, Brady’s return was the biggest NFL story out there. But by the end of the night, it wasn’t even the biggest quarterback comeback in the city of Philadelphia.
The news that Michael Vick signed a two-year deal with the Eagles broke during the first half, and quickly overshadowed the return of No. 12. Vick, who was convicted in August 2007 of conspiracy and running a dogfighting operation, served 18 months in federal prison, but will get his chance to return to the NFL with Philadelphia. The Eagles will introduce him at a press conference Friday.
Philadelphia initially said they were not interested in pursuing Vick. However, a series of injuries over the course of training camp may have changed their mind when backup Kevin Kolb suffered a knee injury. On Thursday, Eagles coach Andy Reid said Vick -- who has been counseled by former Indy coach Tony Dungy -- deserved a second chance.
“He’s got great people on his side; there isn’t a finer person than Tony Dungy,” Reid said. “He’s proven he’s on the right track.
"There won't be a quarterback controversy," Reid added. “We have to make sure he gets back in football shape. He comes into a good, stable unit here. Donovan and Michael are very close.”
Reid made sure he spoke with McNabb before signing Vick.
“I pretty much lobbied to get him here,” McNabb said. “I believe in second chances and what better place to get a second chance than here with this group of guys? ... He’s no threat to me, not for Kolb. We had the opportunity to add another weapon to our offense.”