The New England Patriots erased any bad memories of its embarrassing 38-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints last year by scoring on its first three drives against these Super Bowl champs during the first preseason game of 2010, winning 27-24.
In week two, Pats QB Tom Brady went 10-for-12 for 85 yards and besides fumbling once (which was recovered by teammates), looked good against the Atlanta Falcons, as did his newly healed go-to WR Wes Welker, who came back from his major knee injury from last year to make a couple of catches for six and 14 yards early en route to a Patriots 28-10 victory.
In week three, the Patriots offense struggled in the first half, and its youthful defense got exposed throughout by he St. Louis Rams, whose rookie star QB Sam Bradford and his backup Thaddeus Lewis led a Rams offense that put 36 points on the board to defeat the Patriots by one point on a late field goal.
So how do things stand as the Pats prepare for the final preseason game against the New York “Football” Giants tonight? Offensively, Brady is sharp, as you would expect, and there is more depth now overall than there was last year. How? All the running backs are healthy, including vets Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, and Laurence Maroney (though his fumble troubles of last year may linger and keep his touches limited this year). Third down savior Kevin Faulk is still here, and the tight end position will once again be a big factor in Brady’s offense.
Speaking of tight ends, with the talented but often-injured (and sometimes clumsy hands of) longtime TE Ben Watson gone, as well as TE Chris Baker, coach Bill Belichick has elected to start over, adding veteran Alge Crumpler and two rookies, Aaron Hernandez (Florida) and Rob Gronkowski (Arizona) to the mix. The latter two have already opened some eyes, catching long and short TD passes from Brady and his (likely) backup Brian Hoyer this preseason, But look for Hernandez to do more of the catching duties in the regular season, as Gronkowski, even with his good speed, is known as an excellent blocker in the running game.
On special teams, they are all set in the kicking game, with Stephen Gostkowski being one of the top field goal kickers in the NFL. Second-year receiver Brandon Tate and cornerback Devin McCourty (2010 first round pick) have had impressive games on kickoff returns, with the former scoring on a 97-yard kickoff-return 12 seconds into last week’s game against the Rams, and the latter sporting 50 and 52-yard kickoff returns against the Saints in the first preseason game.
But Julian Edelman and Kevin Faulk should still see some time returning punts (and be occasional key contributors on offense), while Welker should get limited or no punt returns until later in the season, when he has a lot of game action in him. He’s too valuable to throw back into both a full-time receiver and special teams mode at this time.
The only real concerns now are on defense, especially lack of depth at outside linebacker, and the inexperience of the secondary. The Pats can withstand losing vet WR Torry Holt for the season on offense, but it’s going to be tougher to get by without DE Ty Warren and now CB Leigh Bodden, both of whom are also injured for the year already.
So McCourty is going to have to develop into a capable CB in Bodden’s place rather quickly, in addition to possibly being a key special teams contributor. That’s a lot to ask. But Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather should be able to emerge as a leader of this secondary, and Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork the leader of the linemen.
Who knows how many of these starters we will see play tonight at the New Meadowlands Stadium against the Giants. But let’s see if the Patriots can both look as good as they did in the first couple of preseason games, and more importantly, come out of it unscathed by any more key injuries. Between the Pats and the Red Sox, I’ve had enough of the injury bug in the greater Boston area already!
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