The New Orleans Saints have been in Massachusetts for a few days now as they held two joint practices with the New England Patriots before locking up in Thursday night’s preseason opener. The final score looks like a misprint as these teams represent two of the best offenses in the league, but such is the NFL in August. Anything can happen.
Defense won the day and it was defense that made the first (and longer-lasting) impression on me.
New England Patriots – Three Things of Note
1) Versatile Rookies
The Patriots spent nearly their entire lot of draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, and if the first preseason game was any indication, they targeted versatile players. First-round defensive end Chandler Jones has been the talk of training camp and he didn’t disappoint. He picked up three pressures, the second of which led to a hold on left tackle Jermon Bushrod. He followed that up on the next play by forcing another hold on Bushrod, this time while playing the run. Though he lined up exclusively at defensive right end, Jones did so in both a two- and three-point stance, giving the Patriots a slightly different wrinkle to their basic look up front.
New England’s second first-round pick was linebacker Dont’a Hightower and he showed his versatility by lining up all over the field. After starting the game on the strong side, Hightower moved to the middle, before finishing up on the weak side. It was a mixed bag against the run, as he showed some tentativeness on a 13-yard run in the first quarter, but he followed it up by eluding second-level defenders and attacking gaps with more aggressiveness as the game progressed.
Finally, second-round pick safety Tavon Wilson played multiple positions as well, including dime linebacker. Head coach Bill Belichick likes to find an in-the-box safety to man that linebacker position, and Wilson may have been drafted just for that purpose. He held his own while tracking the Saints’ tight ends, though he did show up a bit late on a 3rd-and-8 conversion to WR Courtney Roby. Wilson played a more traditional safety role with the second team.
2) Second-Year Offensive Tackles
With left tackle Matt Light retired and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on the PUP list, the Patriots had a pair of second-year offensive tackles starting tonight. OT Nate Solder will play LT this year, while Marcus Cannon will be battling for playing time when Vollmer returns. Both players had their struggles in this game. Solder got beaten to the inside by DE Will Smith on back-to-back plays, the first of which led to a holding penalty. He picked up another holding penalty later in the quarter before surrendering a hurry to DE Martez Wilson. On the other side, Cannon had his hands full with DE Junior Galette, and one of his surrendered hurries led to quarterback Tom Brady getting sandwiched by two Saints for a fumble. Throw in a false start for good measure and it was a long day for the young tackles. If the Patriots want to take more shots down the field, the offensive line has to do a much better job in pass protection.
3) Running Attack
After losing dependable running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis to free agency, the Patriots are still figuring out their running back rotation. If this game is any indication, the battle for carries will be fierce. Second-year running backs Stevan Ridley (40 yards on eight carries) and Shane Vereen (64 yards on 11 carries) both played well, althoughVereen saw his action in the second half. Ridley already showed some nice potential running the ball last season, and as long as he holds on to the football he’ll see his fair share of carries. Patriots fans have been waiting for Vereen to get his shot and he showed nice speed to get to the edge and good quickness to get through small creases. He also showed nice route running ability on an out route from the slot to pick up a first down. When you throw in Danny Woodhead and undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, the Patriots will have plenty of options in their backfield this season.
New Orleans Saints – Three Things of Note
1) Replacing Vilma
A lot has been made about linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s season-long suspension, but here at PFF, we’ve been touting the upgrade at middle linebacker with the signing of Curtis Lofton. His skills were on display as he picked up three stops, two of which came against the run. Lofton showed his speed and instincts before laying a big hit on Ridley for a two-yard gain and later displayed his agility in avoiding a second-level block for another stop. Along with the signing of DT Brodrick Bunkley up front, the Saints appear to have some pieces in place to shore up the middle of their run defense.
2) Akiem Hicks
The Saints first draft pick didn’t come until the third round, as they plucked DT Akiem Hicks out of Canada. Hicks was expected to take time to develop, but he showed some impressive ability in this game. He blew past center Ryan Wendell to force a run outside for a loss and later did the same while making the tackle himself. His first step quickness was too much in the passing game as well, as Hicks mixed in a hurry and a hit, the second of which led to an interception from QB Ryan Mallett. When he couldn’t get to the QB, he showed good awareness by batting a pass as well. It was an impressive game for the third-rounder who may see the field earlier than expected, particularly in a pass rushing role.
3) Junior Galette and Martez Wilson
As mentioned, Galette made life miserable for Cannon. Just as he did last season, he showed impressive quickness around the edge and he should be called upon to provide even more of a pass rush this season. Increased snaps are a must for Galette, particularly on a team that was very inconsistent off the edge in 2011. Because of last year’s woes, Wilson has tried his hand at DE and he has fared well in two preseason games. He showed well as a blitzer last year and in this game he looked like he has been expanding his repertoire on the way to the QB. As the Saints defense moves from Gregg Williams’ aggressive, all-out-blitz style to Steve Spagnuolo’s reliance on the four-man rush, players like Galette and Wilson will be crucial to make sure the transition is a successful one.