Thursday, August 12, 2010 Updated: August 13, 9:23 AM ET
A positive start for the Patriots
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For preseason openers, the New England Patriots got off to a promising start Thursday night. Maybe it would be wise to hold off on conceding the AFC East division to the New York Jets just yet.
Whoa. Did those words just come off this keyboard?
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Of course that's taking things too far, violating one of the primary journalistic rules when it comes to preseason games: Never read too much into them.
But even a skeptic would have to admit there was plenty to like from a Patriots perspective in their 27-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. For all the chatter about a team in transition, with their whopping 24 draft choices over the past two years, they still looked a lot like the Patriots of old in the sense that they were well-drilled, moved the ball on offense and had replacements deliver when both teams had their top units on the field.
They even mixed in some effective pressure -- something that was missing too often in 2009 -- recording a sack on the third play of the game and blitzing 44 percent of the time. Who said the preseason is all about a vanilla approach?
It wasn't perfect, which Bill Belichick was sure to remind his players of afterward. But Belichick did tell them it was a good start, something positive to build on.
There is no arguing with that.
The star of the night was Julian Edelman, who did his best Wes Welker impersonation as a pass-catcher (6 catches, 90 yards) and punt returner (40-yard return in the first quarter). He wasn't alone.
Devin McCourty proved his worth to skeptics against the Saints.
Remember all the angst about the selection of cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round of the draft? Well, McCourty showed why he was worthy of being the pick: two long kickoff returns to go along with a hold-your-own performance as a starter on defense. He might not sizzle like Dez Bryant, but he's rock solid.
Rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes looked the part, second-year safety Patrick Chung made a big stop to force a punt and set up the team's first touchdown, left guard Dan Connolly delivered a powerful block while pulling on a 6-yard BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown run, punter Zoltan Mesko boomed it, and second-year receiver Brandon Tate kept his feet in bounds for a 20-yard catch on third-and-14 on the team's first touchdown drive.
One of the positive signs for the Patriots is we've made it this far without mentioning the likes of Tom Brady, Randy Moss and some of the other top veterans.
They also were sharp, the highlight on offense coming with a 14-play, 93-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter. Brady, Moss and the top offensive line exited after that march, leaving on a high note.
Meanwhile, the top defense dialed up the pressure and opened the game with two three-and-outs before it was gashed on a 20-play march that was extended on a costly fourth-down illegal contact penalty on cornerback Darius Butler.
"It seemed like a 50-play drive," Belichick said.
That was one of the few downers of the night, right there with spotty backup special teams coverage units and the first-unit offense stalling on its opening drive despite starting on the Saints' 19-yard line.
But to expect an across-the-board, fine-tuned performance at this stage, when polishing up fundamentals is a primary focus, would be unrealistic. After all, this was the first time the Patriots experienced live tackling.
What Belichick seemed to like was that a lot of the team's young players received invaluable experience, such as rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom will be sore Friday morning after playing the entire game. Belichick also touched on how it was good for the coaching staff, sans coordinators, to smooth out their game operation on the sideline.
"For the most part, it was OK," Belichick said.
Belichick said the entire week was productive, and players seemed to agree.
"We learned a lot about ourselves just in the two days we had a chance to work with New Orleans," veteran tight end Alge Crumpler said. "We're just trying to establish an identity for this team."
Some of the first steps were taken Thursday night. By all accounts, it was a positive start.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.