After a tough loss in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants back in February, the 2012 New England Patriots are eager to get back on the field to get back to the promised land. The road to that goal starts Thursday night as the Patriots will play their first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. How will the new draft picks fare in the first game? How long will Tom Brady and the first teamers play in this game? That remains to be seen, but it is just great to talk about NFL Football again. I am sure even Saints’ fans can echo this same sentiment.
The New Orleans Saints have had an offseason full of turmoil and turbulence. It all started when BountyGate came into the revelation of the public eye. They gave a mega contract to their star quarterback Drew Brees, but lose their sideline general Sean Payton for the whole season. Now, there is debate as to whether or not middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma will be suspended for his alleged role in BountyGate. But, this team still has a lot of talent on the roster and will be a threat to repeat as NFC South champions.
With that being said, here are some keys to watch for in this first preseason game:
A Rebel Running Back Emerging: With the Patriots looking for more balance in their offense this season, they will need a new running back to emerge after losing BenJarvus Green-Ellis to free agency. Stevan Ridley is determined to step up and become the starter after being benched in the postseason. Shane Vereen is expected to take the next step in his development as well. However, I want to focus on another former Ole Miss running back that could get significant playing time in the second half.
Brandon Bolden is an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss. He has been impressive in camp and really only dropped out of the draft because of injury issues. With Joseph Addai failing his conditioning test, Bolden will see a lot of carries throughout the preseason. The question will be whether or not he can impress the coaching staff to be able to move up on the depth chart. Hopefully, he can hang onto the ball just as good as Green-Ellis did.
A Pursuing Pass Defense: Even though the Patriots stepped up in the secondary during the playoffs last year, they still gave up the second more passing yards in the NFL. Has this defense improved? We find out a little bit tonight when they try to stop Brees and the prolific Saints’ pass offense. The main position I will be looking at is the safety spots.
Pat Chung is having a good start to camp and is looking for a breakout season in a contract year. However, the rest of the safety spots are up in the air. Steve Gregory was brought in to fix that problem, but has not stood out so far with the first team. The player who has stepped up is the guy that everyone questioned Coach Belichick about drafting. Second round pick Tavon Wilson has been impressive in camp and he has a chance to grab that free safety spot. Also, with the injury at the cornerback position to rookie Alfonzo Dennard and the rehab of second year Ras-I Dowling, who will help out Sterling Moore at the cornerback position?
O-Line Determines Brady’s Time?: The Patriots brought in a lot of wide receivers and tight ends during the offseason, but in the end, Brady needs to find a way to get rid of the football. That falls on the protection from the offensive line. The front seven has taken some hits in training camp from the health of Logan Mankins to the retirements of Matt Light and Robert Gallery. They also are missing Sebastian Vollmer (injury) and Brian Waters hasn’t been in camp. The depth of this O-Line is a huge concern because Nate Solder is only in his second year at left tackle and Marcus Cannon has not had many starting reps. Brady had 24 snaps in the first preseason game last year and 17 in 2010. If I had to take a guess for tonight, I say he takes closer to 17 snaps because of the concern on the offensive line.
PLAYER TO WATCH: DE Chandler Jones
There’s an old saying that goes you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This holds true for both of the Patriots’ first round draft picks (DE Chandler Jones and LB Don’t’a Hightower). For this game, I want to keep the focus on Jones. The 21st pick out of Syracuse has actually seen some first team reps in camp. The highlight of the joint practices was seeing Jones break up a Brees screen pass on Tuesday. However, I am interested to see if Jones can’t just break up passes, but also sack some quarterbacks. Getting to Brees would be an excellent start to Jones’ rookie campaign.