Commentary

A little good, a lot bad, mostly ugly

Patriots-Saints preseason action predictably sloppy, but nothing to worry about

Updated: August 10, 2012, 3:35 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The biggest takeaway from the New England Patriots' 7-6 preseason-opening win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday at Gillette Stadium was not to take too much away from it at all.

"I don't want to get too up or too down on anything," coach Bill Belichick said after the uninspiring game that tested even the most die-hard fan to maintain interest from start to finish.

There was some good. There was some bad. And the football was certainly ugly at times.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees and Chandler Jones
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPatriots rookie Chandler Jones, right, was a disruptive force against Drew Brees' Saints.

But if recent history has taught us anything, it's to be careful reading too much of anything into preseason results, so in the spirit of the "don't get too up, don't get too down" mantra of Belichick, let's break down the good, the bad and the ugly.

Good: First-round draft choice Chandler Jones

Starting at right defensive end, Jones drew back-to-back holding penalties on first-string left tackle Jermon Bushrod in the first quarter. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Jones is long and athletic, and he looks like he's ready to contribute from the get-go. He played the first 22 snaps on defense and 27 overall, gaining valuable experience in his first pro game. When the Patriots went to the backups in the second half, Jones stayed on the sidelines.

"He definitely looks the part, a good physical specimen," Bushrod said. "It was a battle out there. I think he has a bright future ahead of him."

Bad: Left tackle Nate Solder and the offensive line

The 2011 first-round draft choice is being called upon to replace veteran Matt Light at left tackle, and his first audition didn't inspire much confidence. He was flagged for two holding penalties in the first quarter as multiple breakdowns up front paralyzed the offense, with quarterback Tom Brady getting driven to the turf and losing the football to end the team's second drive.

"I got to do better than that," said Solder, who played the entire first half (42 snaps). "It's just learn and move on."

Solder wasn't alone. The entire line was spotty.

Ugly: Linebacker Dane Fletcher's injury

Covering a punt in the first quarter, Fletcher crashed to the turf and remained down. He ultimately needed help to get back to the locker room, and it wasn't long before reports surfaced that he had torn his ACL.

What will the Patriots be missing without Fletcher?

The third-year linebacker started Thursday night at middle linebacker in place of Brandon Spikes and projected to a top reserve role during the season, as well as a contributor on special teams. Given Spikes' recent injury history, Fletcher (22 percent of the defensive snaps in 2011) was a reliable insurance policy.

Veteran Bobby Carpenter, second-year player Jeff Tarpinian and first-year man Mike Rivera get bumped up the depth chart. When Fletcher left Thursday's game, rookie Dont'a Hightower moved to middle linebacker and Carpenter came on to play the weak side.

Good: Defense producing two three-and-outs against Saints' top offense

In Sunday's Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, the Saints' first-unit offense marched 77 yards for a touchdown to open the game against the Cardinals, serving a reminder that it can be one of the most lethal attacks in the NFL.

But on Thursday, the new-look Patriots defense produced solid early results with two three-and-outs to open the game before Drew Brees departed.

"It seemed like they were a little more exclusively 4-3 from what we saw out there," Brees said. "They stopped us on two series, and we weren't too happy about that."

Jones and Rob Ninkovich were the starting ends, with tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love on the interior. Fletcher was initially at middle linebacker, flanked by rookie Hightower (strong side) and Jerod Mayo (weak side). The secondary was comprised of cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, and safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory.

In the sub defense, which produced both third-down stops, defensive backs Tavon Wilson and Ras-I Dowling came on for linebackers Fletcher and Hightower.

Bad: Quarterback Ryan Mallett's accuracy

Belichick previously said the second-year quarterback has made "great strides" in terms of learning the system, but this was a rocky start. Mallett's arm strength is well documented, but his accuracy and decision-making remain question marks after he finished 8-of-19 for 89 yards and an interception.

He didn't get much help on the interception -- right guard Dan Connolly got knocked back into him and Mallett might have been hit on the helmet -- but some of the other throws were well off the mark or came in too hot when they required more touch.

In the battle for the backup quarterback job, neither Mallett nor Brian Hoyer separated himself. Hoyer led the game's only touchdown drive, which was aided by the strong running of Shane Vereen, but overall the offense wasn't on its game.

Ugly: Preseason football

Simply put, these games can be tough to watch. And this comes from someone who generally enjoys watching bottom-of-the-roster players attempting to break through, but even when the front-line players were in this one, it was a snooze-fest.

"We probably won't win too many games out there the way we played," receiver Jabar Gaffney said.

The Saints could say the same thing.

"Obviously there are a lot of things we have to work on, but we're under way," Belichick said. "Hopefully we can build on tonight and have a good week next week and start piling things up so we'll be ready to go on opening day."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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