By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 13, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH -- It was the culmination of a rare feel-good week between two of the NFL's best franchises.

Being good friends to begin with, head coaches Bill Belichick and Sean Payton conspired to bring their teams together early this week for some combined practices at Foxborough before playing their 2010 preseason opener Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. Payton is one of those "Belichick guys", men who Belichick feels a special kinship to and likes to exchange ideas and insights with them. The combined practices drew a lot of attention this week, with Belichick going as far as to call them some of the finest practices he has ever seen as a head coach.

It's too bad that these teams had to eventually play a game and call off all this unusual NFL fellowship. The last time the Patriots hosted a team for practice like this was 2001, a year where the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl. That is exactly what the Saints did last year, so practicing against the defending champs can only help the Patriots regain that lofty perch in 2010.

Preseason openers don't offer much as far as Super Bowl fitness for either team goes. Starters play perhaps a quarter, then in come the guys who won't survive the first set of cuts. Football casuals only pay attention to when the first units are in there, but the true junkies watch the game from start to finish and stress out over the 52nd and 53rd players to make the team, just like the coaching staff does.

So what to make of this preseason opener, which the Patriots won, 27-24 on a last-minute field goal by Stephen Gostkowski?

It appears that the first units had two areas of particular interest, that being an outside pass rush and red zone rushing offense. All three Patriot touchdowns were scored on short runs, and Super Bowl MVP was harassed well by the Patriot front seven, even during Brees' final drive, a stunning 20-play, 86-yard drive which resulted in a Reggie Bush 2-yard run for a touchdown. Other than that, there wasn't much to take from this game other than some standout individual performances which Belichick had to be happy with.

One such individual performance that might make Belichick happy was outside linebacker Marques Murrell, who spent the last three years in spot duty with the Jets. He sacked Brees for an 11-yard loss during the first series of the game, beating right tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb on a nice speed move. Murrell had just the one play, but it symbolized the early aggressiveness the Patriots had in the first two series before the 20-play drive.

Julian Edelman, the second-year slot receiver, also had a terrific night. He had six catches for 90 yards and a 40-yard punt return early in the game. He ran crisp routes and was able to get lots of yards after the catch with darting moves. Edelman was thrust into the spotlight at the end of last year thanks to the season-ending injury to Wes Welker, but with Welker coming back earlier than expected, he and Edelman working in tandem give the Patriots a nice set of inside targets for Tom Brady to throw to.

Running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Lawrence Maroney didn't put up eye-popping numbers, but their touchdowns were nice to see. Green-Ellis scored on a six-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, while Maroney added touchdown runs of five yards and one yard later in the game. With a patchwork offensive line in place, they pass protected better than run blocked, but the fact that the offensive line was able to generate three short touchdown runs was something that went against the grain of previous Patriot teams.

Devin McCourty, the top draft pick of this year, had two long kickoff returns in his Patriot debut. He ripped off a 52-yard return to open the second half, then later on he galloped for 50 yards halfway through the third quarter. He didn't have any standout plays in the secondary, but he showed everyone why Belichick likes him for his special teams prowess.

Brandon Spikes, the highly touted rookie linebacker, led the team with eight tackles and helped solidify the middle of the Patriot defense. Much of New Orleans' gains in the 20-play drive were to the outside, and Bush and Pierre Thomas were not able to gouge the Patriots with runs up the middle. Linebacker remains one of the biggest question marks on the team, but if Spikes and Jerod Mayo can click together as a team at inside linebacker, it will give the Patriots two young studs at that spot for quite some time.

Belichick will have plenty of things to gnaw at this week. One of those things will be third down defense, which was blatantly exposed on the 20-play drive for the Saints in the first half. On that drive, the Saints converted five third downs and one fourth down. The longest play on the drive was only 12 yards, and the second longest was 11 yards, both of them passes to tight end Jeremy Shockey. It was a case of the Saints repeatedly getting exactly what they needed for a first down, a show of methodical offensive football you don't see very often.

Special team coverage will also get a look-see. Larry Beavers had a 97-yard kickoff return for the Saints for a touchdown in the third quarter. Punt coverage was no problem thanks to rookie punter Zoltan Mesko and his 43.8 yard average per punt. But kickoff coverage yielded 196 total yards.

Brady was 5 of 8 passing for 67 yards. At times he looked out of sync and things were kept really conservative, as is usually the case in the early preseason. He was able to hit Randy Moss for some sideline passes, and 20-yard strikes to Edelman and rookie Brandon Tate. But Brady survived two drives which both resulted in scores, though the first drive was a field goal after gaining only three yards.

The Patriots will travel to Atlanta next week for a nationally televised tilt against the Falcons, then return home to play the St. Louis Rams. The Rams game is the "dress rehearsal", where you will see more of what the 2010 Patriots will look like when things get real on September 12.

The champs leave town, and it may be that the Patriots will be sorry for the first time ever to see that happen. Goodness knows that you cannot have enough "greatest practices ever". If the Patriots make it back to the Super Bowl, how nice it would be that it would be largely thanks to the current champs.

Unless their Super opponent is the Saints.


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