by Scott Benson
Okay, first week was oppressive heat, second week monsoon…..what’s next week? A towering inferno? A runaway airliner? An avalanche?
The Patriots lost their second straight pre-season game last night – again on a late field goal – as intense thunderstorms pounded away at the first crowds to pass through the Gillette Stadium turnstiles for the much-anticipated 2007 season.
The Tennessee Titans grabbed a 27-24 decision over the Pats as rookie kicker John Vaughn (was I the only one who did a double take, wondering if the diminutive Wolverine – and former Patriot – was making a miraculous comeback?) pounded through a 22 yard field goal off a bad snap to break a late tie and cap a 20 point Tennessee second half run over New England’s backup defense.
Nothing much of real consequence happened in that second half though, unless you count quarterback Matt Gutierrez again outplaying backup Matt Cassel. The real story last night was a rollicking first half that featured starters from both teams hammering away at each other in a brand of football – though often extremely sloppy – that fairly resembled the product that will hit shelves early next month.
Consumer fraud? I think the only fraud around here is the smarmy, splay footed ‘consumer’ himself. Granted, I didn’t have to sit through the rain last night, but even if I had, I would have enjoyed the hell out of that first half. No NFL fan has the right to expect more from the second practice game of any pre-season.
It began with the visitors returning a wayward Tom Brady pass for a touchdown, and ended with a cranked-up New England defense stopping no less a runner than 2006 Rookie of the Year Vince Young with a wild goal-line stand as time expired in the half. The Patriots took a decisive decision (albeit with the help of a rash of Titans penalties) in the battle of the starters as they carried a 17-7 lead through the pouring rain to the shelter of the New England locker room.
In between, we saw:
Undeniable evidence that the heartbeat of the Patriots defense – the incredible Rodney Harrison – is back and beating stronger than ever. Hey, it’s pre-season, so one’s mind tends to wander even as the action plays out before us. But when Harrison flew in from the right side to blitz Young completely off his feet on a second quarter pass play, he got my attention but good.
It wasn’t just that. The comebacking veteran glided through the secondary all night, arriving in the nick of time on a couple of occasions to tip Young passes away from waiting Tennessee receivers. It’s almost too good to be true, Harrison’s game last night, and all we can do now is cross our fingers that the fates will allow his continuing presence in the center of Patriots defense for the first time in three seasons.
The whole defense was seemingly in regular season form, particularly backup defensive linemen Jarvis Green and LeKevin Smith (is he becoming a player? Be still my heart), who provided solid backside run support and steady pocket pressure on Young throughout. The former Texas standout – who has completely taken over a few games in his time – could do nothing with either his powerful arm or his nimble feet. His only chance for points ended when Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi stacked him up on a fourth down try just inches away from the Patriots goal line. What is it Ted Sarandis used to say? Wow!
New England’s starting secondary had a few ‘wow!’ moments itself – Randall Gay, Ellis Hobbs and Eugene Wilson all joined Harrison with acrobatic breakups of Tennessee aerials. Look, the Titans don’t exactly have Jerry Rice and John Taylor out there running patterns, and Young for all his powers is still a young quarterback, but the Patriots secondary had themselves an impressive night nonetheless.
How I wish we could say that about the Patriots offensive line.
They were awful. Bloody awful. In protecting Brady’s blindside against the Titans’ Kyle Vanden Bosch, Matt Light was about as effective as one of those orange cones they put out to ‘protect’ road crews. You’re killing me, Matt, and what’s worse, you’re killing the guy who might as well be signing your checks. Come on.
The left tackle, whose quickness now seems limited to his quips, was not alone in his culpability. I’m not enough of a technician to know whether some of this comes from their new zone blocking schemes, but some guy named Antwan Odom kept running untouched through the heart of the Pats line to drape himself all over Brady, like an angry supermodel demanding attention. I am honestly amazed that we’re not reading an obit on the Pats dashed 07 hopes this morning after that display.
THAT’s how awful they were.
Brady wasn’t a whole lot better (he was picked twice), but as I say, there were extenuating circumstances. Under a heavy rush, he sailed one over Donte Stallworth on the Pats’ first possession, and Cortland Finnegan (these guys talk tough all week, and then they come at the Pats led by a kid named Cortland?) grabbed it on the fly and raced 51 yards undeterred for the early Tennessee lead.
To his credit, though, Brady then led the Pats right back in five plays to tie the game. On the decisive snap, Brady pump faked an approaching Vander Bosch off his feet before ducking under the rusher to find Wes Welker for a 28 yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the Tennessee end zone. By the way, Wes – YOU ARE TRYING TOO HARD. What a fidgety little bugger. It’s almost painful to watch him earnestly try to earn his spot all at once with the three-time champs. Calm down, Wes – it’s like they used to say to Bobby Hamilton; you’re going to have a heart attack!
Anyway, Brady later returned to convert a Green fumble recovery to another six points for New England, as Josh McDaniels finally sobered up enough to call a few running plays to take the heat off New England’s two-time Super Bowl MVP. Sammy Morris showed again an effective north-south style on the 23 yard drive, and Heath Evans took it in behind a Russ Hochstein block to give the Patriots a touchdown lead.
Hochstein, who was lined up as a fullback, was hurt on the play, and we’ll watch nervously over the next few days to see if the valuable backup can escape this brush with the injury list unscathed.
After years of abject fanboyism, I finally threw in the towel on Kevin Faulk after that awful night (and playoff exit) in Denver a year and a half ago. Kevin is unfazed; no Patriot is having a better pre-season than the ninth year man from LSU. He piled up over 100 yards in total offense last night, much of it on expertly turned screen passes in the teeth of the Titans’ jailbreak pass rush. You can’t kill Kevin Faulk – you can knock him ass over teakettle and send the ball flying into next week, but you can’t kill him. Even with the additions of Randy Moss, Stallworth and Welker, Faulk remains an incredibly valuable piece of the Patriots offensive puzzle.
Speaking of Stallworth, he had an auspicious Patriots debut, opening with a slick 15 yard gain on the Pats’ first offensive play. The display of impeccable timing between the new arrival and Brady was an eye opener; but later, the unfamilarity between the two showed as missed connections led to the two Brady picks. Stallworth was quick to take the blame after the game, but whoever was at fault, it’s clear that much work is still to be done before New England’s passing game fulfills the its lofty expectations.
There’s work to be done all around, as the Pats showed when, with a 14-7 lead, Stallworth drew a PI on Kelly Herndon off a long pass up the near sideline, setting up a New England first down at the Tennessee 1. Morris failed twice to punch it in, and after an incomplete Brady pass on third down, Stephen Gostkowski shanked a 33 yard attempt and the Patriots left with no points off a sure thing. Ouch.
Sure Tom Malone, we haven’t made a decision yet, we want to see plenty of both of you new punters……..Baugher, get in there! As far as sure things go, the first-year punter is seemingly one, as he drilled a 70 yard kick to drive Tennessee back underneath its own goalposts after it had stopped New England deep in its own territory. It further proves my groundbreaking new theory – Danny Baugher is killing the goddam ball.
All in all, though, not a bad night. Unless you were directing the telecast for Boston’s WCVB, the anchor of the Patriots Television Network. If this is the anchor, I’d hate to see the affiliates. A more amateurish broadcast you could not imagine. It was all they could do to find the freaking ball. Half the time we at home had no idea what the hell was going on, and game callers Don Criqui and Randy Cross were no help. Hey – what exactly happened on that first half play, when the Titans called for a replay on what appeared to be a Brady fumble? Didn’t the ref come back and say it was a fumble recovered by the Titans? Next thing I know the Pats are lining up in a 2nd and 14 situation, and Tennessee is charged a timeout. Wha? Is this is scrimmage or something? The Pats got a do-over?
I turned my lonely eyes to Criqui and Cross to straighten me out (maybe I was just hammered), but Cross was blathering on about how highly touted Matt Cassel is or something. He must have been hammered (he would HAVE to be hammered to say something like that; another nice game by Matt last night).
Anyway, compared to the WCVB crew, the Patriots offensive line didn’t have that bad of a game.
Lodge your broadcast complaints here.