NFL Preseason Week 1 Preview: Saints @ Patriots
After having our hearts ripped out once again in February, we can now turn the page. Another chapter in the Belichick/Brady era is unfolding upon us. Last year, the duo became the winningest coach/quarterback tandem in the regular season and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Brady, 35, has recently expressed interest in playing football for a “long time.” Unfortunately for Patriots fans, he won’t be tonight. Fresh off two joint team practices, the New Orleans Saints will come into Gillette Stadium looking to put an end to their controversial offseason. You know both squads are itching to get back on the field for week one; even if it is only the preseason.
There’s a lot to look forward to, but here are five key areas to focus on:
1) First look at rookie LB Dont’a Hightower: Let’s start with the fact that #45 hasn’t missed a single practice this training camp. Hightower has earned high praises from BB and you can bet that competing against Jimmy Graham will help Hightower adjust to NFL speeds quickly. With Brandon Spikes brawling, missing the past few sessions, and tweeting like an immature college grad, expect Belichick to get a nice long look at his 25th overall selection. Dont’a Hightower is listed as 15 pounds heavier than Spikes and his strength will be on full display tonight. A consensus first team All-American by the AP, Hightower was the ringleader of the National Champion and No. 1 defensive unit in the nation – University of Alabama. The Patriots are counting on him and fellow first-round pick Chandler Jones to make an immediate impact on the field in 2012. Look for Hightower to flash signs of versatility early and often.
2) The Offensive Line: Need I say more? If Patriot fans should be nervous about anything this season, it’s keeping Tom Brady on his feet. New England will always be a pass first offense with ridiculous amounts of talent including Gronk, Welker, A-Hern, Lloyd, Branch, Gaffney, yea you get it… But what most fail to realize is how bad of shape the O-Line is actually in. The return of center Dan Koppen from IR will be huge, there is no doubt. But with Pro Bowlers Logan Mankins (knee) and Brian Waters (personal) out, there are still some glaring holes. Koppen will be joined by LT Nate Solder and G/C/FB Dan Connolly. It’s worth joking about because after that it really falls off. Marcus Cannon has seen limited action going into his second year. Vollmer is still out, leaving serious question marks. Dante Scarnecchia will be learning the answers to those questions soon enough.
3) Defensive Backs & Ras-I Dowling: While Kyle Arrington ended up c0-leading the NFL with 7 interceptions in 2011, that’s about the one positive the Patriot defensive backs can claim. They were horrendous and at times flat out embarrassing, giving up nearly 300 yards passing per game. Devin McCourty took two steps backwards, leading the league in yards allowed per catch. Sterling Moore emerged out of nowhere to make one of the biggest defensive plays of the season and has shown similar ball skills in camp. All the meanwhile, an injury plagued career has haunted Ras-I Dowling as he looks to break that trend in 2012. Ras-I is showing positive signs this training camp but that’s not his number one priority; it’s staying on the field. This is his first full camp. The fact that Julian Edelman was a regular on defense truly illustrates the need for an athletic CB like Dowling, he only played in two games last year. On another note, Rookie Tavon Wilson has displayed encouraging blitzing skills out of the safety position. Be on the lookout for an interesting first test for these New England Patriot defensive backs.
4) Running Backs & Shane Vereen: The departure of the law offices of BenJarvus Green-Ellis opens up the door for a new lead prosecutor to take the judge and jury by storm. The analogy is actually quite accurate, as Stevan Ridley is the favorites to tote the rock on first and second down. The unbreakable Danny Woodhead will still be handling change-of-pace duties and some special teams work but let’s circle back to Ridley and Shane Vereen. We have seen Ridley produce last year and with BJGE gone, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be able to punch in at least six touchdowns in 2012. Have we seen Ridley’s best? Possibly. But what we don’t know is the upside of Vereen. He has appeared to emerge in training camp after a slow start to his sophomore campaign and will get some serious burn in multiple situations tonight. Even though Vereen periodically runs with kick-return teams, the game tonight will give him the opportunity to highlight his ball carrying skills. Having a three headed monster wouldn’t be the worst option at RB. There has already been a “fantasy sleeper alert” issued by NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi on undrafted rookie RB Brandon Bolden from Mississippi a couple days back. He’s been displaying explosive capabilities between the tackles since the start of camp and we’ll be keeping an eye on the 22 year old.
5) Linebackers & Defensive Ends: Rob Ninkovich is the new Mike Vrabel and has been for a couple years now. Mayo’s move to the OLB position has made room for Spikes to emerge as a primary run stopper and he was solid in eight games last year, recording 12 of his 47 tackles in Pittsburgh. We also know where Dont’a Hightower fits into this equation, but a lot of other new names have been flying around training camp. Syracuse Rookie DL Chandler Jones was recently compared to Jason Pieree-Paul by a Saints OT. Veteran Trevor Scott showed early signs of success. Undrafted rookie Justin Francis as well as Jake Bequette have been making some noise. DL Kyle Love and Ron Brace are up to their usual selves, mini-vince and injured (respectively). LBs Dane Fletcher and Niko Koutovides will be sure to see some time tonight and oh, can’t forget about Aaron Lavarias. The defense is poised to make a strong rebound this year and tonight is step one of solving the puzzle.
There are a ton of moving cogs to the engine that is the New England Patriots, who do you think is worth watching tonight?