The Patriots opened the preseason with an impressive defensive performance and came away with a 34-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints thanks in large part to a pair of defensive touchdowns.
Here are some random thoughts from the win.
Jimmy gets the start –All eyes were on Jimmy Garoppolo in his first game as the Patriots "starting" quarterback and the results were mixed. He seemed a bit unsettled at the start, taking a sack on the first third down of the game. He also was off-target on a few of his early throws, missing Martellus Bennett, James White and James Develin. He later made a horrific decision to throw the ball across his body into traffic and was fortunate he wasn't intercepted. But he also settled down and finished 11-for-18 for 168 yards, establishing a nice connection specifically with rookie Malcolm Mitchell. He also showed nice poise on a fourth-and-two scramble in which he picked up a first down. Overall the performance was adequate but the concern moving forward would be the improvements came once the Saints began to substitute liberally on defense in the second quarter. Most of his production came at that point and most of the starters were out. At that point the game seemed to slow down for him and his performance picked up, but the fear is once the regular season arrives in a month he won't have the luxury of taking advantage of wholesale substitutions aiding his improvement.
Veteran newcomers show up –Rob Ninkovich went down with a torn triceps muscle earlier in the week and that absence could create the need for additional contributions from one of the veteran free agents additions. Chris Long and Shea McClellin spent most of camp filling in on the edges but on Thursday night both saw extensive action and each had some positive moments. Long showed great burst on an early pass rush, using a terrific inside move to force Saints tackle Andrus Peatto grab him, which drew a flag for holding. McClellin did a great job on an early screen pass, recognizing the play and showing the athleticism to disrupt it. Conversely, both also seemed to struggle trying to set the edge in the run game. Mark Ingram ran through a huge hole on the first rushing attempt, an opening created when Long was pushed back and McClellin failed to set the edge. So it wasn't all positive, but both showed the ability to contribute, and they'll need to with Ninkovich on the shelf.
Corner market –Justin Coleman got the start at corner along with Malcolm Butler and rookie Cyrus Jones. Coleman was beaten for a big 37-yard gain by Brandin Cooks on the first play of the game and had some other struggles at times. He also did a nice job of playing physical at times, delivering a nice on Tim Hightower that helped force and incomplete pass. Jones didn't get many passes thrown in his direction despite receiving plenty of playing time. He did make a solid open-field tackle in the first quarter and handled his punt return opportunities without incident. In the second half the competition for depth spots continued as Jonathan Jones, Darryl Roberts and CreVon LeBlanc entered the fray. Jonathan Jones came up with a nice play when he deflected a pass in the end zone and LeBlance turned in a terrific one-handed interception in the end zone as well. Roberts struggled, however. He missed on an attempted bump at the line and was fortunate when Michael Thomas wasn't targeted on the play and later picked up a pass interference penalty that resulted in a big play. It's obviously early so the competition still is a long way from unfolded.
Tight end Derby –AJ Derby has been impressive at times during camp and on Thursday night he brought that momentum to the preseason game field. He caught three balls from Jacoby Brissett for 47 yards, two of which came in traffic on plays where he showed the ability to be physical. The tight end depth chart is obviously stacked at the top with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett but there is a possible opening for a spot or two from there. Derby spent all of last season on injured reserve but to this point he's been the most impressive of the potential backups in terms of catching the ball. Veteran Bear Pascoe would likely be the top option as a blocker, but Derby's continued development will be worth monitoring.
Trey bien –Defensive end Trey Flowers had a strong night, finishing with four tackles and a strip sack that he scooped up and returned for a touchdown. Flowers enjoyed a strong start to the preseason as a rookie a year ago when he sacked Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers before getting injured and winding up on injured reserve after playing in just one game. Flowers has shown the ability to rush the passer and could be carving a role in that department in sub packages. With Ninkovich out it's possible that Bill Belichick will look to add pieces to the pass rush schemes and based on the ay Flowers has performed he could definitely be in line to earn one. At times during camp we've seen him included in smaller fronts with smaller rushers inside, and Flowers might be one.
Well received –Belichick spoke earlier in camp about the competition level at wide receiver being as strong as he's ever had. Mitchell enjoyed a strong debut with four catches for 55 yards before leaving with a left elbow injury. Aaron Dobson also got plenty of action, grabbing three passes for 27 yards as he attempts to finally shake off the inconsistency that has plagued him thus far in his career. Veteran Nate Washington hasn't practiced much but he suiting up against the Saints. He did not have a ball thrown in his direction, however. DeAndre Carter caught two passes for just 6 yards while Chris Harper and Devin Lucien failed to register a catch. Keshawn Martin did not dress after sustaining and injury and missing the last several days of practice but he remains in the picture as well. Based on the early returns it would seem Dobson and Washington could be fighting for a final spot while Carter and Harper could be fighting for another depending on how Belichick opts to play it. Mitchell's injury also factors into this, and reports indicated he may miss four weeks. Overall the results were modest in this tight battle.