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Sun., Feb. 25, 2018 12:00 AM to 11:59 PM EST
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Game Observations: Early offensive explosion keys victory
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After 10 long days stewing about their opening night loss to Kansas City, the Patriots were eager to get back at it in New Orleans. Thanks to an explosive afternoon on offense, New England broke into the win column in decisive fashion with a 36-20 victory over the Saints
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots first victory of the season.
-After listening to some strange concerns about the offense all week, Tom Brady & Co. eviscerated the dismal Saints defense from start to finish. The Patriots were undermanned at the receiver position without Danny Amendola (concussion/knee) and entered the game with just three wideouts – Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. With few options available on the outside, Brady looked to Rob Gronkowski and his backs and that group got the job done. Gronkowski had several big plays early and finished with six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Rex Burkhead opened the scoring with a 19-yard touchdown catch, beating rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone. He finished with three catches for 41 yards. Unfortunately both Gronk and Burkhead left the game with injuries and did not return. James White was also his usual productive self, catching eight passes (on eight targets) for 85 yards. In the end the Patriots finished with 555 yards of offense and racked up 36 points.
-According to ESPNBoston.com, Dont’a Hightower sought a second opinion on his injured knee from the renowned Dr. James Andrews. The report said Hightower didn’t confirm or deny the visit, saying only, “I’m OK” when asked about it. Hightower initially was thought to have escaped serious injury when he remained on the sideline during the Chiefs game and was seen riding a stationary bike. Reports indicated he suffered a sprained MCL, but he didn’t practice at all during the week and sat out the Saints game.
-Hightower’s absence left a void in the front seven. In the opener he played exclusively on the edge as an end while Kyle Van Noy donned the green dot helmet and played wire to wire at middle linebacker. On Sunday in New Orleans, Van Noy joined Elandon Roberts at linebacker but there were some changes up front. Trey Flowers moved from the right side to the left and Lawrence Guy took Alan Branch’s spot at defensive tackle next to Malcom Brown with rookie Adam Butler at right end. Cassius Marsh also saw action at end, rotating with Butler.
-The changes in personnel on defense did not stop there. Malcolm Butler did not start and instead served as the nickel corner. Eric Rowe opened with Stephon Gilmore and safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. The Saints have a pair of bigger receivers in Michael Thomas (6-3) and Brandon Coleman (6-6) and perhaps that led to Bill Belichick’s decision to use Rowe on a full-time basis. Butler continued to see plenty of action, however, and was basically a full-time player albeit in a slightly different role.
-In coverage things weren’t always great. The Saints continued the early-season struggles the Patriots have had surrendering big plays. New Orleans finished with five plays of 25 yards or more including catches of 42, 38 and 33 yards to Coleman, Alvin Kamara and Thomas. Some of the problems are coming from sets that involve twin receivers with some confusion resulting. Tommylee Lewis got free for a 16-yard gain early when Rowe and Chung weren’t on the same page and neither took Lewis. Judging from Rowe’s reaction he seemed to be the guilty party. The same thing happened later on Coleman’s touchdown when Butler and Chung got tangled up and neither took the receiver to the outside.
-Kamara also was a going problem in the passing game, although not nearly as bad as it could have been. Kamara caught a 38-yarder behind Chung and had the safety beat deep on two other occasions but appeared to stop his route, preventing the connections from happening. The rookie finished with three catches for 51 yards but it could have been worse.
-Saints coach Sean Payton did some curious things in the first half. On New Orleans’ opening possession the Saints drove easily into field goal range using Drew Brees and the passing game, but Payton decided to go with consecutive runs on first-and-10 and the drive subsequently stalled. That led to a Will Lutz field goal. Later in the half Lutz booted another field goal but the Patriots were called for offside. The kick came on fourth-and-eight and the penalty did not result in a first down, but Payton accepted the penalty to set up a fourth-and-three. The curious nature of that decision was exacerbated further when he had Brees simply try to draw the Patriots offside, and when it didn’t work Lutz was forced to kick the field goal again. He later passed up a field goal on another fourth-and-three from the 25 and came away empty when Brees missed an open Ted Ginn in the end zone.
-Injuries continue to be a problem and they also continue to mount. In addition to losing Gronkowski and Burkhead, the offense had to do without Hogan at times as well as Dorsett. Hogan seemed to be dealing with an injured right knee and was hobbling throughout the second half. He showed some toughness by hanging in the game, even recovering a Saints onside kick with about five minutes left. Dorsett had three catches 68 yards but appeared to hurt his left knee on his last reception.
-On defense, Rowe left the game and was replaced by Jonathan Jones and the second-year corner made an impact. He came up with three notable plays, the first two on pass defenses and the last on a nice tackle short of the first down. Jones was in coverage on Brandon Coleman in the end zone in the first half when Coleman appeared to catch a touchdown but Jones resembled Malcolm Butler and stuck with the play, wrestling the ball loose before the play was complete. He did the same thing to Coleman later in the game on a third down in the second half. His key tackle came on third-and-15 when he corralled Josh Hill after a 10-yard gain, well short of the sticks.
-Rookie Deatrich Wise enjoyed a solid game, providing timely pressure at key times. Wise came up with a sack in the red zone and also forced Brees to unload the ball on two other occasions while the Saints were in scoring position. Wise doesn’t always seemed to be the tackle off the edge with pure pass rushing ability but his long arms put him in position to still disrupt the pocket and that was case several times on Brees. One of the plays in particularly saw him grab Brees as he was being effectively blocked wide but still managed to take the quarterback down.
-The Patriots improved to 43-6 following a loss since 2003 and 49-12 against the NFC since 2002. … Brady tossed three first-quarter touchdown passes for the first time of his career. He finished 30 of 39 for 447 and three TDs. It was the third-highest total of his career, trailing only the 517 he threw for in Miami in 2011 and the 466 he racked up at Buffalo in 2015. … Gronkowski’s 100-yard game was the 24th of his career, tying him with San Diego’s Kellen Winslow for the second-most in NFL history behind Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez’ 31. … Burkhead’s 41 receiving yards set a career high. … Jacob Hollister recorded the first catch of his career.