Sunday, August 23, 2015

Patriots Lose The Battles But Win The War In Comeback Over Saints

On one play in the fourth quarter, New England Patriots' quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo reminded all of us that he is just a second year clipboard holder with a lot to learn.

The rest of his night was a confirmation of his enormous potential.

Granted, it was against the New Orleans Saints' second and third string defenders, but Garoppolo completed 28 of 33 pass attempts for 269 yards and a touchdown, while dueling passing back applicants James White and Dion Lewis showed off plenty of fancy footwork and rookie receiver Chris Harper made a big statement for making the Patriots' roster as New England came from behind to defeat the Saints in the Mercedes Benz Superdome on Saturday night.

Being as it was just the second preseason game for both teams, the 26-24 final score is inconsequential - that is, other than the fact that Garoppolo led scoring drives on five of six consecutive series that spanned the final moments of the first half and all of the second, the lone hiccup coming when the Eastern Illinois product hung an off-balance floater into double coverage that was easily picked off at midfield by free safety Pierre Warren...

...while the Patriots' defense that was shredded by Saints' quarterback Drew Brees early in the match settled down in the second half, allowing only a field goal to the New Orleans backups and never letting them get close to the red zone.

Starting signal caller Tom Brady went three-and-out on three straight possessions to start the contest, facing the starting core of the New Orleans defense with a mix-matched offense that was missing nearly all of its proven firepower.

Naturally, the Saints took advantage of the fact that Brady was working with zero experience among his pass catchers by choosing to cover those receivers man-to-man and flooding the Patriots offensive line with a giant wave of humanity, blowing up New England's hapless running game before it got a chance to get going...

...the Patriots posting negative yardage on the ground after three series and only 13 yards through the air on two of five passing - while the Saints' offense was having similar control over the New England defense, quarterback Drew Brees connecting on 8 of 10 passing attempts for 159 yards, a ridiculous average of nearly sixteen yards per attempt, and throwing for two scores in his one quarter of work.

Brees made quick work of the Patriots' pass coverage, which was helter-skelter to begin with as Belichick mixed and matched players out of their comfort zones in the secondary, targeting safety-turned-corner Devin McCourty with speed merchant Brandin Cooks to the tune of 4 connections for 115 yards, including a deep strike touchdown in which McCourty lost inside contain before safety Duron Harmon could get to the play.

Most of the rest of the damage was done by Brees sending everyone deep to clear out the underneath zone and tossing short to his running backs, who combined to haul in five balls for 73 yards, then finishing his night by absolutely abusing depth linebacker Jonathan Freeny on a 12 yard slant to tight end Benjamin Watson for another score.

New Orleans built up a 21-0 lead late in the second quarter when Saints' backup quarterback Luke McCown went after Patriots' corner Logan Ryan on his third (and last) series of the game, finishing it off with a six yard toss to tight end Josh Hill with just a minute left in the first half  - setting the stage for Garoppolo.

Spreading the ball around between his wideouts and backs to move the ball down to the New Orleans 24 yard line with just seconds remaining in the half, Garoppolo made the play that will define his preseason and professional career thus far, escaping the clutches of prone defensive end Bobby Richardson, resetting his feet and delivering a laser to Harper, who had worked himself free in the end zone for the Patriots' first score.

Dion Lewis, who did not play in the first preseason game, scored the only points of the third quarter, a hard-nosed power run right into the teeth of the Saints' run defense for an 11 yard touchdown run. The fourth-year scat back out of Pitt put himself right in the thick of the competition for a roster spot at running back with 5 catches for 36 yards and, even more importantly, by displaying a willingness and ability to pick up the blitz...

...something that fellow back James White showed in abundance for the second game in a row, the sophomore ankle-breaker also hauling in a short pass and weaving through traffic to pick up 20 yards in addition to ending up the leading rusher for either team on the night, three of his 23 yards on the ground accounting for New England's third touchdown of the night just seconds into the final frame.

The ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed, however, leaving the Patriots down a point but with virtually all of the fourth quarter to play - but Garoppolo's ill-advised duck into double-coverage set the Saints up at the New England 15 yard line. The Patriots' defense held New Orleans to a field goal, however, to make the deficit four points.

Garoppolo went right back to work, setting up place kicker Stephen Gostkowski for kicks of 36 and 35 yards on consecutive drives to end the scoring, the latter a game winner with 14 seconds left on the clock.

Lost in the performances of Garoppolo, Lewis, White and Harper - as well as the struggles in run blocking - was the pass protection of the offensive line, keeping both Brady and Garoppolo upright and causing Saints' coach Sean Payton to wonder aloud if his pass rush ever touched the New England signal callers.

They did, but not enough to knock ether off of their spots in the pocket, sans the athletic play from Garoppolo on the first touchdown strike - a glowing contrast from the Patriots' preseason opening loss to Green Bay, when the Packers' pass rush got to Garoppolo for seven sacks, and nailed him another half-dozen times after he had released the ball.

In the end, the Patriots won the game but lost many of the early battles, mostly due to a limited depth chart among the pass catchers, which enabled the Saints to overwhelm the Patriots offensive line with sheer numbers as they keyed on stopping New England's running game and forcing the game onto a handful of inexperienced receivers...

...while on defense the Patriots electing to test the versatility of their secondary while sitting their starting linebacker corps for most of the game, putting the onus on bubble players to stand up and make a case for their inclusion on the final roster - and it was predictably ugly at times, but Belichick has to like the fight his charges showed in outscoring the Saints 26-3 once the team settled down and started playing some good ball.

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