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Highs And Lows From Patriots' Preseason Win Over Saints

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots, for the most part, looked good on Thursday night.

They looked like a team playing the first preseason game of the year, sure, but they did a lot more good than bad in their 34-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

As always, no grand proclamations can be made based off the performances of an exhibition football game in early August, or else Zach Sudfeld would already have a bust in Canton. With that being the case, instead of a traditional "Four Ups, Four Downs" from the game, let's go with a more basic look at the highs and lows from this one.


The highs need to start with Jamie Collins. The fourth-year linebacker picked up right where he left off in 2015, as he picked off quarterback Grayson Garrett in the first quarter and returned it 43 yards for the game's opening score. On the next drive, he flew into the backfield and laid the wood on running back Tim Hightower. Collins looks every bit as powerful as he did last year.

Moving along chronologically, running back James White was certainly a bright spot for the Patriots, as he broke off a 56-yard reception on a screen pass in the second quarter. With a crowded backfield, White's spot on the roster has been questioned a bit by outsiders this summer. Plays like that one (and his near-touchdown which was ripped out of his hands) can help keep him in Foxboro.

To get a dosage of special teams in here, Stephen Gostkowski was a high point. Yes, he hit his two field goals and two extra points, but he notably got some work in to try to capitalize on the new touchback rules. With touchbacks now bringing the ball out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20, teams may force the issue and try to get receiving teams to try to actually return the ball. While Gostkowski did kick four touchbacks, he did get the ball just barely into the Saints' end zone on three other kicks. Two of those resulted in the Saints starting inside their 25, with one drive starting on the 12. You know how much Bill Belichick likes to find advantages within the rules, and that may prove to be a useful method going forward.

In terms of newcomers, Chris Long had a decent performance and looked extremely focused on proving he's still a high-caliber NFL player. Terrance Knighton also proved to be a disruptive force on the defensive line.

Second-year defensive lineman Trey Flowers will get a lot of looks in Rob Ninkovich's absence, and he made the most of at least one snap on Thursday when he broke through the line, sacked Luke McCown, then scooped up the football and scampered 17 yards for the defense's second touchdown of the night.

Also, undrafted rookie Cre'von LeBlanc made a very impressive interception in the end zone, catching the ball out of the corner of his eye before twisting his body and making a one-armed pin against his chest, all while falling to the turf. And third-year running back Tyler Gaffney finally got to see action in an NFL game, and he made the most of it, breaking off a 44-yard touchdown run after making a cutback behind the line of scrimmage.

Of course, heading into the game, the story was all about Jimmy Garoppolo. That's how it works with quarterbacks. He'd probably end up somewhere in between the highs and lows, as he had his moments, both good and bad. He completed a couple of passes to Martellus Bennett for first downs, and he later connected with rookie Malcolm Mitchell for a gain of 24 yards up the left sideline. But he also had some bad balls and at least one bad decision, when he threw across his body into traffic over the deep middle of the field while rolling left on a third down in the red zone. He was fortunate to have avoided an interception on that one.


Entering the game, one of the biggest storylines was the offensive line. And the results were .. not spectacular. Running the ball was an issue last year, and that continued to be the case on Thursday. LeGarrette Blount and James White picked up just 32 yards on 12 combined carries, a 2.67-yard average that was largely due to an unsuccessful line. The line also gave up two sacks with Garoppolo under center, one of which involving starting left tackle Nate Solder getting beaten cleanly by Kasim Edebali. There remains work to be done for Dante Scarnecchia.

The starting O-line, presented for the purpose of record-keeping, was Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon.

The biggest blow to the Patriots was definitely the injury of rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell. He was having himself quite the night, hauling in four passes for 55 yards. But it was on that fourth reception that he fell on his left arm as he was bracing himself on his way down to the turf, and he immediately grabbed his left arm in pain. Early reports say it was just a dislocation and not a break, so he could still be able to return in time for the real games. Still, he's going to miss some very valuable practice time as a rookie receiver in a complicated offense.

On special teams, the punt unit was not good. Marcus Murphy broke free for a 48-yard return in the first half, a play on which punter Ryan Allen ended up getting clobbered while pursuing the return man. That return set up the Saints for an easy early score.

This may ultimately be a small issue, but there was a third-and-1 on the New Orleans 8-yard line late in the second quarter, and LeGarrette Blount easily could have picked up the first down if he had just run hard up the middle. Instead he stopped his fight, tried to make a cut, and ended up losing a yard. It wasn't the greatest instance of situational football.

Considering he'll likely be the team's backup once the regular season begins, Jacoby Brissett cannot enjoy a rookie summer without scrutiny. Physically, he was very much up to the task, as he displayed a rocket for an arm and some shifty speed to break free for a couple of decent runs (two rushes, 19 yards). However, as one would expect from a rookie quarterback, there was certainly a lack of command of the game. It's not problematic, because this was his first professional action, but it's just something to be noted in the event that Garoppolo suffers any injury that keeps him off the field for any amount of time in September.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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