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Analysis/reaction: Saints-Patriots

New England gets off to a lackluster start in its first preseason game of 2012.


The final score would be more appropriate for a baseball game, but considering this was only the first preseason game, it was to be expected.

New England's 7-6 triumph over the New Orleans Saints lacked the usual offensive sparks for which the Patriots have become known. Starting quarterback Tom Brady looked a bit rusty in his two first-quarter drives (his only action of the night), while backups Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett couldn't muster much better.

Hoyer, however, was under center for the opening drive of the second half, New England's only scoring march of the game. The 97-yard drive, resulting in a Hoyer to Britt Davis touchdown pass, would not even have come close to succeeding were it not for the exploits of second-year running back Shane Vereen, as Hoyer readily admitted afterward.

"Yeah, he did. He had some great runs, great cuts, and the line really got off the ball really well. We were trying to go fast and they were really doing well with that."

For Vereen, who missed nearly all of his rookie season last year due to a hamstring, Thursday night was essentially his first real opportunity to showcase his talents to Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium.

"I just wanted to go out there and to be best I could for the team. It's as simple as that," said Vereen, admitting he sometimes still feels like a rookie.

"I was excited because it's been so long since I played with the injuries and everything, but I just wanted to go out and perform well as I could with the team. 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."

While Hoyer was quick to assign credit to Vereen, the running back was equally eager to defer to his offensive line.

"It felt good to be out there running. The O-line did a tremendous job. I can't take hardly any credit because they did a tremendous job."

Overall, Hoyer wasn't satisfied with his evening's effort – completing just eight of 15 passes for 45 yards. Even his touchdown toss to Davis wasn't all that pretty (high and slightly behind the receiver), and a couple of his throws were incomplete because Saints defenders deflected the ball at the line of scrimmage.

"Right now, I haven't watched the film yet," Hoyer told reporters, "but I can tell there're definitely some things I wish I would have done better. You know, 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."

Defensively, the starting safety duo of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory came away with New England's two interceptions on the night, but the story of the game on that side of the ball had to be the contributions of the rookies.

It was an impressive debut for first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Both started for the Patriots defense, but Jones in particular made several impressive plays. He chased down Saints QB Drew Brees, forcing a throw-away pass, caused left tackle Jermon Bushrod to draw a pair of holding penalties against him, and notched his first NFL tackles.

Hightower finished with four tackles and a quarterback hit. Meanwhile, third-round pick Jake Bequette, not to be outdone, registered three tackles, including a sack in his first NFL action.

"Chandler is very athletic and big coming in," observed Ninkovich. "He's got all the tools you're going to need to play defensive end in this league. You've got to work hard, and it's different than college because you're going against some really good tackles in the NFL. I think he's coming along well. He's just got to keep working – studying who he's going against and fine-tuning his skills."

"It's tough to tell who's getting the pressure sometimes," noted Carpenter, "but those guys did a good job moving the [Saints] quarterbacks around. Anytime they do that, it makes our job better in the back end."

As good as that was to see, the Patriots endured some bad luck when linebacker Dane Fletcher went down early in the first quarter. The third-year player actually started at middle linebacker in place of injured Brandon Spikes. However, Fletcher's night ended shortly thereafter. While covering a punt following New England's second offensive series, he sustained a left knee injury.

Two members of the team's medical staff had to support Fletcher as he limped off, and the TV broadcast cameras caught him reacting in a way that made it appear that the injury was serious. He did not return to the sideline after being helped to the locker room. Media reports during the game indicated a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

In the post-game locker room, Patriots defenders were understandably upset for their hard-luck teammate, who missed much of 2011 with a thumb injury.

"It's unfortunate.  You hope for the best. You don't know what it is right now," remarked defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "I've been through some knee injuries, so, I know how that goes. You don't really know till you go see somebody tomorrow – you know, a specialist or get an MRI. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but it's always tough to have an injury in the preseason.

"I know Dane, and he's a fighter, so, whatever it is, he's going to work hard and he'll be back."

"You never want to see injuries. I'm not sure of the extent of it," added linebacker Bobby Carpenter, "but Dane's a great guy, works hard, good player. Hopefully, he's OK."

There wasn't a whole lot more to cheer about on special teams, either, aside from the booming punts of Zoltan Mesko. Four of his eight boots landed inside the 20-yard line as well. However, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his lone field goal attempt on the night (a 53-yarder hooked wide left), and the return specialists – Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman, and rookie Jeremy Ebert – managed a total of 40 yards on four kickoff and punt returns combined.

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