One preseason game is not going to alter the picture dramatically, but as Bill Belichick said Friday, "It's a start." And when it comes to one of the primary deficiencies the New England Patriots' defense had in 2010, things couldn't have gone much better in Thursday's 47-12 preseason-opening win over the Jaguars.
New England's new-look defense held the Jaguars to 3-of-13 on third down. In the more important first half, which is when the Patriots (without several top starters) were going up against top Jaguars players, it was 2-of-9.
One primary reason for the success was that the Patriots -- who ranked last on third down last season with opponents converting 47 percent of the time -- got their "edge" back.
The defense applied solid pressure on Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the first half, much of it coming from edge rushers. The leader of the charge was six-year veteran Mark Anderson, the former Chicago Bear and Houston Texan who looked like the best pass-rusher on the field.
"He's flashed some good pass rushes through the course of camp in one-on-ones and in our team work, and then again [Thursday] night," Belichick said of Anderson, who signed a one-year, $1.375 million contract with the team Aug. 5. "He's an experienced player who's rushed against a lot of good players in this league, so he has a good set of moves and skill to attack them with.
"I think he got off to a good start [Thursday] night. We'll see where it goes from here, but I'm glad we have him," said Belichick.
Could the unheralded Anderson really be an answer to the Patriots' pass-rush woes? If he plays like he did against the Jaguars, when he looked more like the explosive talent who recorded 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006 than the one who regressed in recent years, the answer is a resounding "yes."
Anderson played a part in ending the Jaguars' first drive, coming on as part of the nickel package (five defensive backs) on third-and-14. Lining up wide of starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, with both hands on the ground, he looked like a sprinter ready to blast out of the starting block. Anderson reacted quickly at the snap, surged into Monroe, then masterfully used his hands to rock Monroe back before lunging toward Gabbert to force a quick throw and incompletion.
The pressure was on, with Anderson credited with a quarterback hit. It was the type of sudden rush -- a combination of speed, power and technique -- that had been missing too often from the 2010 defense; sub rusher Tully Banta-Cain wasn't delivering that type of surge on a consistent basis.
Anderson's work Thursday wasn't done there.
On the Jaguars' next drive, he entered again with the nickel package on third-and-4, and it was almost a carbon copy of what had unfolded before -- lining up wide of Monroe, quick move, expert hand usage, before bearing down on Gabbert once again. The result: an incomplete/dropped pass.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Anderson switched sides on his next rush, lining up wide of right tackle Guy Whimper on a third-and-6 later in the first quarter. He went wide, ripped with his inside right arm to gain solid position, then forced Gabbert to step up into the pocket, where defensive lineman Landon Cohen cleaned up with a sack.
Belichick often makes the point that the sack is overrated because the player collecting it isn't the one who created the initial pressure. Such was the case on that play, as it was all Anderson.
Anderson then tried a different move on his fourth rush, coming onto the field on third-and-3. He again lined up wide of Whimper, starting his rush to the outside, before spinning inside while striking with his hands. The ball was out quickly, negating the impact of the rush, but it did reflect the diversity of his pass-rush repertoire.
"He actually worked some as an inside pass-rusher [in Chicago], so he's pretty adept when he lines up outside and comes inside," Belichick said. "Mark is a versatile player, a real hardworking kid. He competes hard on the practice field, wants to do well, puts a lot into it."
Part of what helped Anderson thrive in his 12-sack rookie season was that the Bears gave him one job -- to get to the quarterback. When they added responsibilities in 2007, Anderson struggled against the run and his overall performance dipped.
It looks like Belichick is going back to the 2006 script with Anderson. Combine him with newly signed veteran Andre Carter as sub rushers and one can see a pass-rush plan coming to life.
The first impression was a good one, with Anderson's presence felt in a big way on third down Thursday.