The big story this summer in New England and certainly heading into Thursday's night's preseason opener at Gillette Stadium against the Saints is backup-turned-fill-in-starter Jimmy Garoppolo.
But on this hot, humid August night it was the Patriots defense that stole the show in the New England 34-22 victory over New Orleans.
The defenders scored on their own twice and set up another score. They forced four turnovers and showed the ability to make big plays, none prettier than undrafted rookie cornerback Cre'Von LeBlanc's one-handed grab in the end zone to prevent a would-be Saints score.
Garoppolo had his ups and downs on the night. He finished completing 11 of 18 passes for 168 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He could have had a touchdown on a screen to James White with the back coming up just short of the goal line. Of course he also could have had a couple interceptions, including a dangerous throw to the inside on a sideline route to DeAndre Carter and an even more dangerous flat-footed toss back across the field in the red zone that thankfully fell incomplete.
On the whole, the night was a clear step forward in the development process in the preseason schedule, continuing the work the Patriots have put forth to date that's included practice, intra-squad scrimmages and joint sessions earlier this week with the Saints. But there was also plenty in all three phases of the game that Bill Belichick will look to correct and improve upon in the coming days and weeks.
"It's good to get your first one under your belt," Belichick said. "I feel like we got a good look at a high level of competition and got a good evaluation of things we're kind of doing OK, not great, and other things we need to shore up.
"We played a lot of people. Good to get out there and good to get going."
Before moving on to the upcoming week of joint practices with the Bears in Foxborough leading up to another home preseason affair next Thursday night here are a few individual personnel highs and lows from the exhibition kickoff to the 2016 season.
Tyler Gaffney – The third year could be a charm for the former Stanford star who's spent his first two seasons in New England on injured reserve. Gaffney tied for a game-high with nine carries for 64 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown run off the right side. Gaffney has had a strong summer, showing burst and some power on the practice field. He didn't get onto the field until after LeGarrette Blount did his work against the Saints, but that could change in the coming weeks if the young back continues to stay healthy and produce.
Jamie Collins/Jabaal Sheard – Really there were plenty of playmakers on defense who could be highlighted here. But it was the linebacker and the defensive end who really got things going early. Sheard had a forced fumble early that helped set the ball-hungry tone for the defense. He's expected to fill the void created by the Chandler Jones trade and based on the summer looks more than ready to do so. Collins was in the right place for the deflected interception and impressive return. He, too, has looked impressive this summer as one of the many intriguing, athletic members of the front seven in New England.
Malcolm Mitchell – The rookie receiver got a nice rapport going in the first half with Garoppolo, continuing an upward trend that's bene obvious on the practice field the last week-plus. Mitchell had four catches for 55 yards, showing nice hands and then athleticism after the catch. Mitchell has been impressive on and off the field in his short time in New England.
Malcolm Mitchell – As good as Mitchell looked on the field making plays, the wind was sucked out of his rookie sails when he had to leave the game with an elbow injury. His left arm bent in ways it shouldn't, though postgame reports were probably about as positive as they could be. Even if Mitchell only misses a relatively short time, it comes at the worst time of year in his development. For young players, especially receivers in the Patriots at times difficult passing attack, missing time in camp and the preseason can be something that just can't be made up.
LeGarrette Blount – The big veteran running back took the early reps in the backfield, but wasn't able to make much happen. Blount had nine carries for just 20 yards. At times he certainly had to deal with penetration and defenders in the backfield, but it's hard to argue that Blount ran well. He danced too much and looked to bounce outside on a third-and-short run. If the competition for jobs in the backfield is as wide open as many perceive it to be, Blount didn't get off to a great start on a night when Gaffney made things happen.
Darryl Roberts – The second-year cornerback flashed some ability last summer before an early wrist injury landed him on injured reserve. With an open competition for depth roles at cornerback, many have high hopes for Roberts in his second season. He wasn't at his best in the battle with the Saints, giving up completions and getting called for a blatant pass interference penalty. Justin Coleman took his lumps on the night as well. The young depth at cornerback has work to do.
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