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Plenty of room for improvement for Patriots

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff  August 10, 2012 10:25 AM

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Bill Belichick might have called it ugly, downright gruesome, though that would be only half the story. Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitted his team "obviously [has] a lot of things to work on" in the wake of Thursday's preseason opener. And as usual, the coach was right.

Circling back on the five things we wanted to assess in the start of the preseason schedule:

* The offensive line. As we all know left tackle Nate Solder was quite possible the only Week 1 starter on the field when quarterback Tom Brady led the offense on the field for the first time. Regardless, the offensive line was a train wreck, at least as it pertained to pass blocking, and it felt like Solder made more mistakes in the first quarter than Matt Light did all of last year.

In the first 10 minutes of play, Solder was called for two holding penalties (one of which negated a first down) and allowed a strip sack of Brady, who got blindsided by New Orleans defensive end Will Smith. (Yikes.) Bravely, Belichick re-inserted Brady for the next series, though the Patriots called three runs and a screen pass on six plays from scrimmage.

On one of the other two pass plays -- a 17-yard completion to Brandon Lloyd -- Solder committed a holding penalty.

* Personnel on defense. With Brandon Spikes out, Dane Fletcher (later injured) started between Jerod Mayo at linebacker. Beyond that there were no major surprises.

Without question, the biggest bright spot for the Patriots was the play of defensive end Chandler Jones, who pressured New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees on the second play of the game and later drew a holding penalty on Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound three-year veteran who has started 14, 16 and 16 games over the last three seasons.

Late in the first quarter, on a third-and-10 near midfield, Jones reversed pursuit and chased down backup quarterback Chase Daniel from behind. As Bill Parcells might say, let's not put the kid in Canton just yet. But Jones looked like a beast at times, which is a very, very good sign.

* Brandon Lloyd. Officially speaking, Lloyd was targeted one time in this game, an incompletion along the right sideline on a back-shoulder throw from Brady. In reality, the Patriots threw to Lloyd two more times, both attempts negated by holding calls on Solder. The first was a deep post that Brady underthrew. The second was a 17-yard completion for a first down over the middle that was erased.

Did Lloyd look breathtakingly great? No. But he looked clued in and relatively sharp, the one potentially legitimate criticism the drop on the back-shoulder throw. Purely for comparison's sake, Chad Ochocinco was targeted four times in his first preseason game for the Patriots last year, catching two passes (one for a touchdown). But it's hard to remember Ochocinco ever looking like Lloyd looked last night, which is another good sign.

* Running back. Those who have been clamoring for Patriots running game in recent years got more than a sniff of one on Tuesday, both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen demonstrating quickness and good vision. Ridley played exclusively in the first half and carried eight times for 40 yards; Vereen played exclusively in the second adding another 64 yards on 11 carries.

Add it all up and you get 19 rushes for 104 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. Vereen also caught two passes.

Undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden also carried eight times for 23 yards, but looked slow against front-end competition in the first half. Still, the running game was one of the few bright spots for the Patriots offense, Ridley clearly earning the more desirable reps with the starters early in the game.

* Backup quarterback and kickoff returns. The offensive line was an obvious problem for the Patriots in this game, so it should come as no surprise that the New England passing game, on the whole, looked rather wretched. Brian Hoyer was the best of the lot, but even Brady did not look particularly good. So let's take everything with a grain of salt.

Still, second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett was atrocious, completing just 8 of 19 passes for 89 yards with one interception. His rating was 34.8. Mallett missed some throws and demonstrated little touch. Two of his completions came on nearly identical plays on which the quarterback stepped up and slid to his right, dumping the ball off to his right.

On most all other throws, Mallett looked awful during a preseason that is critical for him.

As for the kick returns, the Patriots had only two of them -- both by Danny Woodhead and both in the second half. Woodhead averaged a dreadful 12 yards per return, hardly an encouraging sign for a Patriots team that ranked 29th in kickoff returns last season. Nobody is suggesting that kickoff returns will be this team's undoing, but it remains an area with considerable room for improvement.

But then, in this game, there were plenty.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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