by Scott Benson
Just kidding. Made you look!
The New England Patriots officially (sort of) opened their 2007 season on Friday night with a last-second 13-10 loss to the Bucs in hot and sticky Tampa.
With starters and key reserves on both sides long departed, rookie runner Kenneth Darby led the Buccaneers through a collection of New England’s fringe defenders to set up Matt Bryant’s 32 yard field goal as time expired.
What is it they say on SoSH? It’s On!
That’s really what I came away with, as my wife and I settled down on the couch to watch the Pats – one of our most Favorite Things – for the first time since last January’s stunning loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship. As Willie Andrews returned the game’s opening kickoff through the kind of humidity that is uncomfortable even to watch on television, I turned and said, “here we go – now, it’s every week from here on out.”
Which is really the most important thing that happened all night. Football, and the Patriots, are truly back. If being happy about that – even on an August Friday night, with summer still in bloom – makes us yahoos, so be it. Let the intelligencia maintain their all-important detached affectations; we’ll be on the couch, smiles on our faces.
The results are largely irrelevent, unless you’re trying to make the team. I’m not, but I do have a few random thoughts:
The game wasn’t as much sloppy as it was awkward. Penalties were at a minimum (that Walt Coleman does a hell of a job, doesn’t he?), which is a victory of sorts, but the action was jittery for the most part. Everything looked kind of frenetic and out of sync on both sides, which is to be expected.
Tom Brady and the Patriots first team offense (some of it, anyway) hung in there for about a dozen snaps over two possessions before taking their leave. They put together a few first downs and drove into Tampa territory once, but a hurried Brady badly overthrew a wide open Wes Welker to keep the first-stringers off the board. Kevin Faulk looked like the best player on offense, taking delayed handoffs and grabbing his signature dumpoffs to account for the intital first downs of the Patriots’ season.
Laurence Maroney, Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Ben Watson (among others) were inactive. Fans will have to wait at least another week (maybe longer) for their first real glimpse of New England’s wildly hyped offensive juggernaut.
The offensive line was tested by the rush of Monte Kiffin’s small and quick Cover Two defense (not a bad matchup, considering the AFC competition), and while Brady wasn’t sacked, he was forced to move around the pocket and even took a couple of whacks after he delivered a pass.
On the other side of the ball, the Pats defense (whole for the most part, minus Richard Seymour and of course Asante Samuel) hung in for a slightly longer spell than the offense, and initially ushered Jeff Garcia and the Bucs the hell out of there in short order, with no first downs in their first two possessions.
Later, after idling on the sidelines while backup quarterback Matt Cassel led the Pats on a nine-minute touchdown drive, the first stringers returned and got pushed around a bit (nearly 50 yards worth) by the Tampa running game. Back-to-back sacks by Jarvis Green and Mike Wright inside their own 20 finally stalled the drive and forced Tampa to settle for a Bryant field goal and a 7-3 New England lead.
Like most everyone, I was most interested to see Adalius Thomas in his Patriots debut, and we caught a couple of flashes of the player that is expected to be a centerpiece of this year’s New England defense. Lining up next to Tedy Bruschi, he dropped smoothly dropped into coverage on pass plays and ranged sideline to sideline against the run. Most impressive was one bull rush from the middle that instantly collapsed the Tampa pocket.
Cassel took over for Brady with about 5 minutes left in the first quarter and, as noted above, was at the controls for the first sustained drive of the Pats season. Now in his third year, it seems time for Cassel to assert himself as an established player, yet there was nothing (even with the drive) that jumped off the page last night. Matt Gutierrez actually threw the most impressive balls of the night, a couple of lasers in the 15-20 yard range.
Sammy Morris, who finished off the team’s first touchdown drive with authority, runs with the right attitude, if last night was any indication. He squares his shoulders right up and pounds it in there, keeping his legs moving through the pile. There’s hope that he can fill some of the void left by the departure of old favorite Corey Dillon.
Heath Evans also got a few carries and notched the team’s longest run by a back (11 yards). He also drew a fourth quarter pass interference penalty on a lob by the goal line, setting up the Pats final points (a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that tied the game at 10 with eleven minutes to play). I think the future Dunkin Donuts franchisee missed a hell of a product placement opportunity, though, by not immediately downing a Coolata while the cameras were on him.
Jabar Gaffney continued his solid August with a couple of first down catches, but I was most impressed by newcomer Kelley Washington, who grabbed another third down pass and left a Tampa defender (no less than Ronde Barber, according to the Globe) in the dust with a nifty cut. With his special teams versatility, Washington could be a real factor in the Patriots crowded receiver picture, which frankly, I wasn’t expecting.
Defensively, it was nice to see Randall Gay end his prolonged absence with a couple of textbook tackles while defending the run. My biggest celebration of the night was when Gay got up both times, newfound health intact.
Rookie Brandon Meriweather got plenty of snaps as a corner, and while he wasn’t immediately impressive in pass defense, he didn’t hesitate to throw himself headlong at a couple of Tampa ballcarriers. For whatever its worth, I have to agree with Wes Welker’s assessment – he looks like a ballplayer out there.
Is it too optimistic to say that Mike Richardson does too? I perked right up when Richardson defended a long pass up the far sideline with blanket coverage, and later, he (like Gay) showed toughness in holding the edge in run defense. I’m going to try to contain myself here, but is there any chance the Pats may have unearthed a player in the sixth-round last April?
Fellow sixth-round pick Justin Rogers showed some real burst off the edge as a pass rushing linebacker, gathering up his first sack as a pro. Maybe I’ve missed it, but Rogers hasn’t generated a ton of attention so far in camp. Second year man Pierre Woods (who didn’t play, for reasons not detailed) and rookie Oscar Lua have gotten the ink, but when the action started last night, it was Rogers who stood out. Lua led the team in tackles, but was at the center of the Pats defense that yielded the winning points when it couldn’t stop the run.
Second year man Le Kevin Smith made a nice play when he ran down Lionel Gates from behind and punched the ball free. The Patriots defense had its first turnover of the season when the fumble was recovered by – wait for it – Justin Rogers.
Here we go – it’s every week from here on out. How do we feel about that?
What did you see last night? Drop your comments here.