FOXBOROUGH — In general, there isn’t a lot of excitement during an NFL exhibition game, since by its nature it is meant for teams to work out the kinks as they prepare for the regular season.
But anyone who missed Usain Bolt’s domination in the 200 meters in the Olympics to watch Thursday night’s Patriots-Saints exhibition had every right to be annoyed.
New England held on for a 7-6 win over New Orleans, a game so void of offense coach Bill Belichick drolly noted after “I wouldn’t say we lit it up offensively at any point in any aspect of the game.”
There were a couple of bright spots, mostly the play of rookie defensive end Chandler Jones against Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod in the first half. Jones drew back-to-back holding penalties against Bushrod in the opening quarter, as his speed was a bit much for the veteran to handle; he was credited with three tackles in the first half.
On Tuesday after the joint full-pads practice for New England and New Orleans, Bushrod praised the first-round pick, saying he looked the part as a pass-rusher.
“When you see him, he’s a tall guy who’s got long arms, long legs,” Bushrod said. “Going up against him he has good power, obviously he has the speed to get around the edge, just a very shifty player. I think he’s going to have a very promising future in this league.”
Obviously it’s far too early to declare Jones a rising star after just one game, and Belichick was quick to put the brakes on the Jones love train.
Asked specifically about Jones’s play, Belichick said, “I think really all the players that I saw — especially the rookies — some of them did some good things. There’s a long way to go. We have a lot of work to do. I don’t want to get too up or too down on anything. We just want to keep working and getting better.”
Another bright spot was the play of second-year running back Shane Vereen, though he did not step onto the field until the second half and faced second- and third-string defensive players.
On the Patriots’ 14-play, 97-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter, Vereen got the ball eight times — seven rushes for 63 yards and a reception for 10. He showed good speed, which he hasn’t flashed much during training camp.
And Zoltan Mesko also had a good night punting — but the fact that he had so many chances points to the big issue of the game: the New England offense did not look good.
Typically, defenses look stronger early in the preseason than offenses, though in New England, with the offense it has fielded in recent seasons, it was still surprising to see the unit struggle regardless of the quarterback — Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, or Ryan Mallett.
Brady started (he didn’t play in last year’s exhibition opener) behind an offensive line of Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, and Marcus Cannon, the unit he’s been working behind for most of camp.
But the line didn’t offer Brady the protection it is supposed to. Solder was flagged twice for holding in the first quarter, and Cannon was called for a false start.
Even more egregious, Cannon got beat by Cameron Jordan and Will Smith got away from Solder on a third-and-long play during the Patriots’ first possession, and Smith drilled Brady, causing a strip-sack that was recovered by Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Brady played two series, completing 4 of 7 passes for 30 yards.
When he went to the bench, he removed his helmet and slammed it to the turf twice in frustration — something he also did Tuesday afternoon when the Saints’ defense got the best of the Patriots’ offense during their joint practice.
While it is easy to point the finger at the line, which is missing three likely starters in Logan Mankins, Brian Waters, and Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Koppen called it a work in progress, just like it always is this time of year.
“Even with the same five guys we had every year it was still a work in progress early on,” Koppen said.
Hoyer took over when Brady sat down, though he was only in for one-plus series before ceding to Mallett.
In Hoyer’s first go-round, the Patriots went three-and-out then gained 17 yards on six plays before being forced to punt. But Mesko’s punt was negated when Martez Wilson ran into the kicker, giving the Patriots a fresh set of downs.
That’s when Mallett took over. He was picked off on second-and-10 during his first full drive, though safety Patrick Chung got the ball back when he intercepted Saints third-stringer Sean Canfield.
“Always feels good to get an interception,” Chung said. “It’s just preseason, but you’ve still got to make plays. It’s just practice for the regular season, so when it comes around, you’re not surprised. I’m taking any interception. Easy, hard, kind of hard, I’m taking all of them.”
Chung’s new backfield mate, Steve Gregory, also had a first-half interception, making a heads-up play on a ball tipped by Jerod Mayo.
“I think it was great getting the turnovers. That was good. Other than that, we’ll have to watch the film and see where we’re at,” Gregory said.
Stephen Gostkowski missed a 53-yard field goal attempt wide left, and the Patriots went into halftime down, 3-0.
Hoyer provided the Patriots’ only points when he capped that 17-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to receiver Britt Davis.
“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,” Hoyer said.
Patriots players will have Friday and Saturday off, and the team does not play its second preseason game until Aug. 20, against Philadelphia.