By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 11, 2006

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ATLANTA -- You could say that Bill Belichick and Jim Mora had a gentlemen's agreement that Friday night would be strictly an offensive affair.

Neither side played very good defense. Both teams were able to eclipse the 400-yard mark in total team offense, very unusual for a preseason opener. The Falcons had terrific performances from their third and fourth string quarterbacks. This game turned into a very competitive affair, again not normal for early August.

What it came down to was the kickers, but not in the way you might expect. There were zero missed field goals in the game, as both Martin Gramatica and Stephen Gostkowski were perfect and thus forestalling all the Adam Vinatieri paeans for now. But Michael Koenen, the Falcon punter, boomed four long field goals, one of them with 4 seconds left to give Atlanta a 26-23 exhibition win over the Patriots.

While no loss feels particularly good, not even in the preseason, Belichick has to feel good about some of his offensive players and the chance they may have to contribute this year. The Patriots may have unearthed a surprise running back prospect, their tight end draft strategy may have hit paydirt, and Matt Cassel was able to shake off a moribund start to show everyone that he indeed can come in if Tom Brady goes down.

Friday night's game definitely belonged to the offense. Nobody on defense did much to get anyone's attention at all. Asante Samuel did have an end zone interception in the second quarter, but other than that there was nothing to scream about. The Falcons averaged just under six yards per rush as a team, and their third string quarterback, Bryan Randall, had a rating of 123.4. These are not the kind of numbers Belichick will be happy about.

But then, it didn't matter. Richard Seymour joined Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison on the shelf for the evening. The starting middle linebackers were Don Davis and Barry Gardner. Eugene Wilson saw action tonight at cornerback. The team's leading tackler was rookie Jeremy Mincey. Belichick and Dean Pees played a defense more vanilla than anything you'll find at Friendly's.

The Falcons more than returned the favor with terrible defense of their own. The nice thing here is that the Falcons have severe run stoppage issues, while the Patriots simply had key players missing. When Cassel finally found his range in the second half, the game then simply came down to who had the ball last.

All that said, if you had to make up a Patriot honor roll, it would read something like this.

Laurence Maroney enjoyed a terrific coming-out party (nine carries, 66 yards, most of that in the first quarter alone). Corey Dillon was a wrecking ball, moving piles of five and six tacklers with ease. But the man everyone will be talking about is rookie free agent Patrick Cobbs (that's Patrick, not Cedric). You expect Maroney and Dillon to do what they did. But Cobbs dazzled everyone with his work in the second half, against albeit substandard defensive resistance.

Cobbs startled everyone in the third quarter by taking a screen toss from Cassel from the Patriot 43. Into the left flat he scampered, then thanks to seal blocks from Wesly Britt and Nick Steitz, he was off and running down the left sideline. He then sidestepped a tackler at the five and ran in for a 57-yard scoring pass which made it 16-13 Atlanta. Patriot Nation went scrambling to their computers or their media guides with one question in mind: Who is Patrick Cobbs?

You know now. Cobbs, from North Texas State, finished with three catches for 80 yards, and five rushes for 25 yards. It might not bump him up far on the depth chart, but Belichick noticed, you can be sure.

The leading Patriot receiver was Garrett Mills, one of the tight end draftees. Mills, who is being groomed at fullback, caught five passes for 75 yards, including a nifty 31-yard screen toss which set up a Heath Evans one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to make it 23-20 Atlanta. Mills did have a drop later on, but his speed, hands and moves were a delight to see.

Then there was Cassel. Brady played only the first series (as did counterpart Michael Vick), then handed off to the career backup quarterback. Cassel was only 2 of 6 passing for 48 yards in the first half, and he looked completely off kilter with numerous misfires. But the scoring toss to Cobbs invigorated him, and he finished with 13 of 26 passing for 229 yards and a 93.3 rating. He also scrambled well, rushing for 32 yards on six carries and an average per carry over five.

But the most impressive non-quarterback offensive star of the night was Maroney. He racked up most of his big numbers in the first quarter, and made some spectacular runs along the way. He showed both power and quickness, and in most cases was not tackled until the third or fourth hit. Granted, Atlanta has a weak run defense, but Maroney's rushing talents were obvious and fun to watch. If he and Dillon can both stay healthy, the Patriots could contend for the top rushing team in the conference, if not the entire league.

And if the kicking game worried you, fear not, for now. All of Gostkowski's kickoffs sailed into the end zone, one for a touchback. Gramatica nearly duplicated this feat, as one of his kicks came down at the six. If there was a difference between the two, Gramatica's field goals were nailed right down the middle, where Gostkowski's was pushed right (from 34 yards out) and barely made it inside the upright. But neither man could match Koenen, who was perfect from 44, 50, 45 and 40. His 50-yarder at the end of the first half was a line drive which would have been good from 60.

So while losses aren't much fun, the Patriots aren't in any big trouble right now. The wide receiver issue continues to be a problem, but was no factor Friday night because the running backs did so well. When the injured defenders return, and when Belichick and Pees decide to get more intricate on defense, you won't see someone like Randall and D.J. Shockley (the fourth string quarterback and local favorite) have big nights. Belichick can be somewhat satisfied with what he saw (we did say somewhat) of the offense, and the team can head back to Foxborough for more work and be in a good frame of mind.

Chew on this one for a second: How many yards would Maroney have gotten if he had been allowed to play more than just one quarter? Tasty, no?


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