FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady and the Patriots offense are going to pile up stats and points this season. This is a football truth we hold self-evident. But what is going to determine whether the Patriots return to NFL eminence after a season in abeyance is the development of New England's nascent defense.
One of the most dismaying aspects of last season's Patriots team was their inability to hang on to leads and close out games, a hallmark of the Patriots' Glory Days. From 2001 to 2008, Bill Belichick's team was 69-1 when leading after three quarters. They closed a deal better than Don Draper. When it mattered most they made plays and won games.
Last season they resembled Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in Toronto, as four of New England's six losses came in games they led after three quarters. Gone were several defensive stalwarts and with them went the team's ability to finish off opponents. It was a shocking turn of events for a team that prided itself on prevailing in tight contests and putting opponents away.
The overtime demise in Denver, the collapse against the Colts, Chad Henne's 52-pass attempt field day for the Dolphins and the Houston Texans' three-touchdown fourth quarter were the fateful and frustrating four fourth quarter losses.
Another fourth, fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis, was the biggest indictment of the lack of faith Belichick had in his defense's ability to deliver the finishing touch.
You can't draw any conclusions about the under-development defense after one faux football game, but there were signs of progress and potential, as well as concern, in the Patriots' 27-24 preseason christening victory over the New Orleans Saints last night.
The good news was that when it was first-team offense against first-team defense, the Patriots didn't allow Drew Brees and the Saints to collect chunks of yardage like beads flung freely from a Bourbon Street balcony. In three series, Brees's longest completion was 11 yards, a far cry from last November when New Orleans had four pass plays of 25-yards or more against the hapless Patriots defense that was singed by the Saints for season highs of 371 yards passing and 480 total yards of offense.
The first two times Brees and Co. took the field they barely had time to feel the ersatz grass beneath their feet before they were ushered off the field in a pair of three-and-outs, the first drive ending with a sack by Marques Murrell, who is that rarest of endangered species in Foxborough these days, a 3-4 outside linebacker.
However, the third New Orleans drive, which came right after the Patriots offense found the end zone, raised a red flag and brought back bad memories of last season, when too many times the Patriots couldn't come up with the big stop or any stop at all, really.
Preseason or not, 20-play drives are always ominous for a defense, especially one trying to discover its identity.
The Saints marathon march encompassed 86 yards in 20 plays, sapping more than 10 minutes off the clock. It ended with a Reggie Bush 2-yard touchdown run. It should have ended on fourth and 6 at the Patriots' 39, but second-year cornerback Darius Butler got beat deep by Lance Moore and had to take an illegal contact penalty to prevent a touchdown.
That extended the drive, which turned into an extended drive.
The Patriots had two more third-and-long opportunities to get New Orleans back to the bench, and both times allowed first downs, including a third-and-10 picked up by Bush on a draw play, further drawing out the possession.
"It's a long drive," said Butler. "You got to get off the field. I had a penalty on fourth down that kept us on the field. We got to get off the field when we can on third and fourth down."
It's always dangerous to make any assumptions about a football team based on the preseason. These games don't count and are a watered-down version of the real thing. They're really teachable moments, especially for a defense that started five players with two seasons or less of NFL experience. All you need to know about the youthful state of the Patriots' defense is that Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather, a 2007 first-round pick, is considered one of the veteran players.
So, you don't want to overreact to one elongated drive. However, based on last season's track-record of failing to finish off opponents it was not the way the Patriots wanted to end the varsity vs. varsity portion of the game.
"First team or second team we can't give up plays, so we have a long way to go," said second-year safety Patrick Chung, who was one of the bright spots on the evening and had a big hit on Bush.
Overall, there was more to be encouraged with than discouraged by with the retooled defense. Rookies Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty didn't look a bit out of place starting at inside linebacker and cornerback respectively. Spikes for certain is an upgrade inside. You can see why Belichick loves Spikes. He sniffs out plays like a blood-hound and finds his way to ball as if guided by GPS.
McCourty not only looked solid in coverage, but was physical coming up against the run and forced a fumble late in the game. That's not to mention the pair of 50-yard kickoff returns he had.
All and all it wasn't a bad first step for the developing defense. But as the Patriots defenders learned the hard way last season, it's now how you start, but rather how you finish that really matters.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.