NEW ORLEANS — Preseason football games, for the most part, carry two simple goals for NFL teams: Get players some work, and don’t suffer any serious injuries.
The Patriots might have accomplished both, even winning Saturday night’s game with the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 26-24, on a 35-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 14 seconds left. The Patriots came back after spotting the Saints a 21-0 lead.
But despite the victory, there were areas of concern as the team flew back home following the game, after a work trip that took them to West Virginia for two days of joint practices, then to hot, humid Louisiana.
Tom Brady has led the offense for five combined possessions in the Patriots’ two preseason games. The next first down will be the first.
Brady was the quarterback for the first three series on Saturday. Each ended with a punt after three unsuccessful plays. Those nine plays gained just 12 yards, the longest a 7-yard pass. Brady was 2 for 5 for 13 yards against the Saints; add in his two drives from the preseason opener with the Packers, and Brady’s preseason passing numbers are cringe-worthy: 3 for 9, 23 yards.
But if preseason games are played with an asterisk — wins and losses don’t really matter, nor do much of the statistics — then the Patriots might be able to attach a massive disclaimer to these games, at least on offense. That’s because few of the pass-catchers expected to line up with Brady when the Patriots open their season Sept. 10 against the Steelers have played in either of the preseason games.
Assuming Brady plays against the Steelers, that is.
Instead of throwing to Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell, and Scott Chandler, Brady had receivers Brandon Gibson and Chris Harper in the huddle with him when Saturday’s game started. Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms, and Josh Boyce also didn’t play, leaving perhaps seven of the team’s top eight pass-catching threats unavailable to Brady. Danny Amendola was the exception; Brady targeted him twice, with no completions.
That created opportunities for receiver Jonathan Krause and tight ends Asante Cleveland and Jimmay Mundine, who caught the 7-yarder on the opening drive.
Gronkowski’s absence wasn’t unexpected; he hasn’t played in a preseason game since 2012. He took part in an extensive pregame workout at the Superdome, and spent the game in uniform, on the sidelines. Boyce also took part in pregame warmups and dressed, but did not play.
Edelman hasn’t played or practiced since suffering a foot injury early in training camp, and LaFell remains on the physically unable to perform list.
In addition, Brady had three rookie offensive linemen in front of him: center David Andrews, and guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson. Center Bryan Stork has missed both preseason games.
“There’s no concern. Everybody has to do their job, everybody has to get better,” said LeGarrette Blount, who started at tailback and had 13 carries for just 15 yards. “I’ve got to find out what I can do to make productive plays, to make productive runs. I’ve got to look at the film, evaluate it, and see everything I can do to make the runs more productive instead of having negative ones.”
It wasn’t all gloom on offense. Jimmy Garoppolo completed 28 of 33 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown, and led the Patriots to a touchdown in the final seconds of the first half, then two field goals in the final 3½ minutes of the game for the win. Gibson caught eight passes for 68 yards, but came up limping late in the game after his final reception, and walked slowly to the locker room with a knee injury, severity unknown. Harper had five catches, including a 24-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left in the first half.
But those were primarily Patriots backups, playing against Saints backups. The names that hold the most weight for the Patriots on offense — at least the ones who played — didn’t do much.
“We always want to play the best that we can, and I think that we didn’t do all the things that we wanted to do, so that gives us plenty of things to work on. There always are,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “It didn’t matter who was in there. We got some stuff fixed as we went forward through the game, but there’s some things I just wish I had done better.”
Brady & Co. should get another chance on Friday, when the Patriots play the Carolina Panthers. Typically, the third preseason game offers first-teamers the most action, frequently into the second half. If that’s the case, Brady might be able to match the five times his offense has had the ball so far. A first down would be progress.