On Saturday night, the Saints played their first home preseason game of the season, falling to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots 26-24. The NFL preseason mostly exists as a money grab by owners and an opportunity to gouge an additional 2 home games out of season ticket holders. Pay full price for half price entertainment! (And you wonder why NFL franchises are valued in the billions of dollars.) And Saturday night’s game was no exception. Saints quarterback Drew Bress played for the most of the first quarter before giving way to backup Luke McCown, who then was replaced by Ryan Griffin, who was finally supplanted by 3rd round pick Garret Grayson. Similarly, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played 3 series before yielding to backup Jimmy Garoppolo. NFL coaches, meanwhile, use the preseason as an opportunity to evaluate the back end of their rosters. Drafted and undrafted rookies, veterans, rehabilitating players all have an opportunity to play and demonstrate their worthiness to make the 53 man roster. With those limitations in mind, let’s take a look about what we can reasonably take away from the Saints-Patriots game for both teams.
Brees-Brandin Cooks—The Saints paid a heavy price on draft day in 2014 to move up and select Cooks (giving up a 3rd rounder to move up in the 1st round). Cooks played only 10 games in 2014 before suffering a broken thumb in Week 11 and missing the remainder of the season. On Saturday night Cooks caught four passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came as the result of a 45 yard pass play after Cooks beat Patriots safety Devin McCourty, playing at right corner, down the field. Safety Duron Harmon who was providing additional coverage down the field misplayed the ball allowing the speedy Cooks to get past McCourty and into the open field. If he can remain healthy, Cooks could emerge as the number one option in the Saints receiving game and lessen the loss of tight end Jimmy Graham. After the game Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitted after the game that “I’m glad we don’t have to play him twice a year.”
New England’s 1st team offense/Saints run defense—Brady played only 3 series, all of which ended with a three-and out. Without wide receivers Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson and tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady was left with few receiving options. The Saints played the same without their entire starting defensive secondary as cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd continue to work their way back from injuries. It was a game of backups vs. backups in the passing game, with neither side really coming out on top. The Saints starting front seven kept the Patriots run game mostly in check two of the three drives opened with -5 and -3 yard runs on 1st down. For a team that finished last season 32nd in rushing defense DVOA, it represented a necessary and needed improvement.
Jimmy Garoppolo—The Patriots backup quarterback eased some concerns in case he needs to open the season as the team’s starter (that will only happen if Judge Richard Berman somehow finds that the NFL process that led to Brady’s suspension somewhat met the burden of fairness). Garoppolo went 28 of 33 for 269 yards with a touchdown and a pick. He engineered a five play, 80 yard touchdown drive inside the 2 minute warning in the first half. During a 24 yard touchdown pass to undrafted free agent wide receiver Chris Harper, Garoppolo escaped the collapsing pocket, shook off a Saints defender who nearly dragged him down for a sack, and connected with the wide open Harper.
All in all, the game offered brief glimpses of the stars and what the regular season may hold for these two teams, and that’s about all you can hope for.