After digesting the television copy of Thursday night's preseason Patriots opener, here a handful of observations from what we saw in the first quarter:
1. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder was twice flagged for holding on Thursday, but there were positives to take away from his evening as well. On the Patriots' very first run of the evening, Solder generated push alongside tight end Rob Gronkowski, helping to spring Stevan Ridley for an 8-yard gain. On a second-and-10 just a handful of plays later, Solder pulled to his left to lead the way on a toss to Ridley, which although ended up as a minimal gainer for the team, was an impressive display of athleticism from the towering Solder. Still don't think there's any reason to be concerned about Solder's play going forward.
2. The play that may end up costing linebacker Dane Fletcher his season looked fairly harmless upon replay review. It appeared as though Fletcher planted awkwardly on his right knee before colliding with a Saints player and falling to the ground. Tough to see a guy go down away from the action on a play.
3. Here's what I liked from running back Stevan Ridley, who essentially played the part of lead back in the first quarter: He was an effective one-cut runner, which shows decisivness. He didn't over-think his carries and attempt to dance laterally to wait for a home run crease to appear. He took what his linemen gave him and plunged forward. Additionally, we saw the Patriots use Ridley from a flexed alignment as a receiver. The fact that the coaching staff has enough faith in him to align from said spot is a good sign. It's no mystery that the Patriots would like to use an up-tempo offensive approach, and if Ridley can stay on the field for their empty sets, that will prevent their opponents from being able to as effectively sub personnel groups.
4. On the play that Tom Brady was walloped for a strip sack that ended with a Saints fumble recovery in Patriots territory (at the 9:52 mark of the first quarter), it was defensive end Will Smith who was credited with the forced fumble. It was Solder who had Smith in protection, but it's tough to pin this play solely on Solder as the fall guy. Right tackle Marcus Cannon was beaten off the edge by Junior Gallette, who was effective in using his speed throughout the night, which forced Brady to step up and subsequently scramble away from the pocket. Brady drifted to his right and held on to the ball a hair too long, opening the door for Smith - who had been effectively washed past the pocket by Solder - to close in for the hit. Cannon, Brady and to a degree Solder all played a part in this miscue.
5. The drive that followed the forced fumble of Brady began with the Saints threatening in Patriots territory, but was quickly halted thanks to a pair of exceptional pass coverage plays from Jerod Mayo. It started on second-and-8 with a Mayo pass breakup on a throw from Drew Brees to Pierre Thomas, who was aiming to haul in a throw after leaking out of the backfield. On the following play, Mayo stayed on the hip of the elusive Darren Sproles and corralled him near the sideline a handful of yards shy of a first down. Hard to overstate how difficult of a cover Sproles can be for any linebacker, and Mayo showed why he's one of the better linebackers in all of football. His speed and pass defense flashed all night, including a deflected pass that led to a Steve Gregory interception.
6. The Saints began a drive from their own 18-yard line, and kicked it off with a power run right up the middle. Dont'a Hightower, who was manning the middle linebacker spot at this time, shifted over one gap right before the snap as he adjusted to motion from Saints receiver Lance Moore (across the formation). It looked as though Hightower got caught on the wrong shoulder of center Brian de la Puente, as running back Pierre Thomas streaked up the middle for a 13-yard gain. Hightower didn't show any signs of fear of contact on the evening, but will continue to develop his consistency with more game action. He twice lunged towards tacklers with a shoulder, rather than wrapping up for a form tackle. Some good, some areas of improvement from the rookie in his debut.