by Scott Benson
At one point early in last night’s glorious first half, with the Ghost of Woody Hayes fully inhabiting the body and soul of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, my wife turns to me and says, “if they did this (hand off every play) every week all season long, you’d be the happiest person on earth.”
The usually pass-centric New England Patriots instead strapped on the leather helmets and pounded away last night, rolling up nearly 150 rushing yards to key an impressively complete 24-7 win over the Carolina Panthers in the all-important penultimate game of the 2007 pre-season.
Tom Brady passed for two short touchdowns and the Patriots special teams blocked two John Kasey field goal attempts to finish off the Panthers.
Save for one breakdown that resulted in a 48 yard Jake Delhomme-Kerry Colbert touchdown pass through the center of the Patriots first team defense, New England dominated Carolina throughout, collecting its first victory in three starts.
Laurence Maroney shed his ‘don’t touch me’ jersey and was thrown headfirst into the Patriots offense, lugging the rock on New England’s first seven plays from scrimmage (and eight of the first nine; now THAT’S balance, Josh!) in a scripted sequence intended to bust the cherry on the second year man’s comeback from off-season shoulder surgery. He finished with 58 first-half yards on 15 tries before taking his leave at the break.
Heath Evans added 58 of his own yards (and two third-quarter touchdowns, including one from Brady) and Sammy Morris converted an early 4th and 1 deep inside Patriots territory as I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all of it.
Oh, yeah, I guess the quarterback and receivers were pretty good too, particularly in extending New England’s 90 yard, 18 play field goal drive that ate up nearly ten minutes of the first quarter.
The Patriots offensive line, after a horrendous performance against Tennessee last week, fairly pushed the lauded Carolina front seven all over the field while walling off the pocket against one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing defenses. If they were an ‘F’ last week, they were ‘A+’ last night, in the practice game that most observers feel best resembles regular season action.
The Pats defense continued on its even keel, stunting the Panthers rushing attack from the start and rendering inconsequential a decent Delhomme performance, as his 11-18-162-1 line could produce only the six points that came from Colbert’s catch and run past Mike Richardson, James Sanders and the trailing Eugene Wilson.
Linemen Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green overwhelmed the center of the Carolina field goal unit to knock away Kasey’s attempts, each one setting up a short field (and subsequent touchdown drive) for the Patriots offense.
Both starting squads played well into the third quarter, as is the custom for third pre-season tilts, and in all respects the Patriots walked away with the decisive edge as rookies and backups once again ran out the clock to little effect. For the first time this August, the Patriots put together a complete game and looked damn near ready to start the season. Now, only the truly meaningless pre-season finale with the Giants stands between the Patriots and their opening day date with the Man-Genius.
If the Patriots go at the Jets with the same mix of aggressiveness and efficiency as they did the Panthers, I am SO reading all the New York papers on Monday, September 10th.
Some random thoughts:
*Belichick’s 4th and 1 challenge to his offense, issued despite field position at New England’s own 24, was THE highlight at this address. Who says this guy is no fun? The beauty, of course, is that the kick-in-the-ass challenge worked. Morris, coming in to relive Maroney after the latter had carried the ball seven straight times, left no doubt on the 4th down try, surging for five yards behind the right side of the Patriots line. The Pats offense then churned downfield in classic ball control style, settling for the field goal only after Ben Watson couldn’t hang on to a Brady toss in the back of the Carolina end zone. An accurate and catchable throw went for naught, with all due credit going to Chris Gamble, who stripped it as Watson fell to the ground. Small complaint on an otherwise complaint-free night: shouldn’t a tight end known for pass catching be a better receiver?
*Morris, on the other hand, is exceeding expectations. He’s falling right into the ‘power back’ role in a manner so solid and consistent that I can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. Wait – he doesn’t own a ‘kennel’, does he? He also reminded us of his Dolphin days when he grabbed a Brady third-down flip and slashed for a first down. He, with Evans and veteran playmaker Kevin Faulk (who didn’t play after excelling the two weeks previous), seemingly give the Pats the depth and versatility they will need behind Maroney. The Pats running game was tested last night and, ironically, it ‘passed’.
*Maroney was very good, I thought. At first, he hunted and pecked like me on this keyboard, causing him to be stacked up at the line, but he gradually loosened up and began leaning forward for four and five yards at a time as the Pats o-line gave him plenty of room for his quick cuts and darts. His best run came on one he bounced outside, a 12 yarder on the Pats clock-eating first quarter drive. The best news came afterward, when Maroney reported no trouble with his recovering shoulder. Like I said, am I dreaming this?
*The Patriot Most Likely to be Featured on Entertainment Tonight jumped back into the New England lineup after a couple of personal days (I’m still working my sources to nail down the reason for the unplanned absence) and had one of those vintage Brady performances. His direction of that 18 play, 10 minute drive could have just as well come from your Three Games to Glory video library. Though the Pats were intent on grinding it out, Brady went to the air to convert key third downs to Morris and Wes Welker (best night so far), and probably should have gotten six points for his trouble (see above). He later finished another run-based drive with a touchdown pass to a wide-open Marcellus Rivers, and in his final drive of the night (to start the third quarter), he threw seven times in eight plays, completing six, to rip off a bang-bang 77 yard touchdown drive capped with a nifty Brady to Evans check down. On 1st and goal from the Carolina 8, the quarterback dodged and weaved through the pocket before spotting Evans as he worked himself free underneath the Panther coverage. The fullback, who later added a 43 yard cutback run to his full night, was terrific throughout. As was Brady, fresh from the coast.
*As noted, Wes Welker had his best game, taking in three balls from the slot, and looking more comfortable while doing it. He also looked collected in the Troy Brown ‘Fair Catch’ role as a punt returner, safely gathering in a couple of booming Carolina punts. Donte Stallworth made a nice adjustment on Ken Lucas when Brady underthrew him on a deep ball, and you know something? I can see Kelley Washington one day developing into a long-term receiver for the Patriots as he earns his keep on special teams. I don’t know what this guy’s issue has been, but so far, he’s been nothing but competent for New England, including some surprisingly smooth routes and catches. On specials, he’s routinely one of the first on the scene. How can he not make the team? As they say, it’s early, but the Patriots front office seems to be hitting on their mid-tier free agents, don’t they?
*I honestly cannot think of a particular highlight for the Patriots defense, aside from perhaps the continued success of the defensive line despite the absence of stars Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. They stuffed Carolina at the point of attack, led by the formidable Wilfork (if the Pro Bowl has any merit whatsoever, he’ll be there soon), the invaluable veteran Green, and youngsters LeKevin Smith and Kareem Brown. Please allow me to confirm that the Pats d-line is freaking deep.
*They did allow nearly 170 yards through the air, but hey, look at the scoreboard. They did not sack Delhomme, though they largely kept him in the pocket where he could do the least damage. Which seemed to be their intention. The secondary – which may welcome Asante Samuel this week – gave up the one big play but to the good, they didn’t make a habit of it. Mostly, they kept the ball in front of them. Another unfettered night for Harrison, who looks as ready as anyone for September 9th, and Eugene Wilson is moving well, delivering a few hard hits is support of the run. Richardson, the rookie from Notre Dame, took some snaps with the big boys and mixed it up well, though it was he that Colbert first eluded before he raced past a diving Sanders as Wilson chased in vain.
*Oscar Lua had a smooth interception of a David Carr pass that stopped a 4th quarter Carolina drive that had taken the Panthers inside the Patriots 20 yard line. Generally, though, this was a night for the first-string, and Lua and other hopefuls will have to wait until Thursday night for the chance to play their way onto the team.
*Stephen Gostkowski had a great night of kickoffs but went just 1 of 3 on field goals. Both misses were long ones, yet they had plenty of distance and no accuracy. The Patriots had better be as dominant as they were last night if the Ghost is going to struggle from the field.
*Lastly, Matt Cassel directed a 69 yard touchdown drive that was largely the result of Evans’s 43 yard burst, and then went three and out in his only other possession. By the way, welcome back Vinny Testaverde, who went three and out himself, but to be fair, like Jerry’s grandma, he’s on a very fixed income.
Sorry for the late post this morning, but I too am on a very fixed income.