The old guard (though not as old as, say, that fellow over in Minnesota) took on the new guard Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. For the 2-0 New England Patriots: Tom Brady, entering his eleventh season, holder of records, winner of MVPs and Super Bowls alike. For the 1-1 St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford, the #1 draft pick from 2010, primed to start his rookie season. Traditionally, the third preseason game of the NFL is the game that best depicts how a team will play in the regular season. If that’s the case, then many of the questions fans had coming into the game remained unanswered at its conclusion.
The game could not have began better for the Patriots. The Rams kicked off to the New England 3-yard line, where it was caught by wide receiver Brandon Tate. Some good blocking up front, and Tate was off to the races. Tate would wind up going 97 yards to the opposing end-zone, easily beating the kicker. A successful point-after-touchdown, and the Patriots were up 7-0 just 12 seconds into the game. Unfortunately, the Patriots’ defense did not respond. They gave up two first downs on the run, then a 32-yard Bradford pass to the New England 18. After short runs and passes moved the ball to the Patriots’ 7-yard line, Bradford completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Michael Hoomanawanui. The point-after was good, and the game was tied. The defense looked out-of-sync against both the run and the pass.
Tate tried to energize the offense again, returning the kickoff to the 41-yard line, but the Patriots went three-and-out, choosing to punt on 4th-and-inches from midfield. The Rams began their drive on the 4-yard line and, despite gaining a couple of first downs, were eventually forced to punt, as the Patriots began to get pressure on Bradford. New England would wind up punting right back to St. Louis after Brady took a 13-yard sack. The final two plays of the quarter featured Bradford beating the blitz on 3rd-and-8, gaining a key first down, then completing 23-yard pass to Hoomanawanui at the New England 10.
After a short gain on first-down, Ron Brace sacked Bradford for -7 yards to the New Englad 15, forcing a 3rd-and-goal from 15 yards out. The Rams would wind up settling for a 25 yard field-goal. A New England touchback led to a three-and-out, and St. Louis returned the punt to the New England 38. Despite some penalties, the Rams would wind up taking advantage of the good starting position. Bradford completed a 12-yd touchdown pass to Hoomanawanui, and the point-after was good. The Patriots defense was starting to have success stopping the run, but they had no luck stopping the pass, as Bradford threw for 189 yards in the first half.
The Patriots finished their next drive punting without gaining a first down, but a stout run defense and a near interception caused the Rams to punt it right back, and the ball was fair-caught at the New England 20. During the ensuing drive, Brady completed a 39-yard catch to wide-receiver Wes Welker, moving the ball to the Rams’ 42-yard line. Then, after falling down in anticipation of a blitz and getting up untouched, Brady threw the ball to tight end Alge Crumpler, who caught it while falling out of bounds at the Rams’ 18-yard line. Though first ruled incomplete, a successful coach’s challenge changed the call to a 24-yard completion. Two plays later, Brady completed a pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who fought tooth-and-nail against his tackler to dive for the end zone. Initially called down inside the 1-yard line, the referees reversed the call and gave Gronkowski the 14-yard touchdown catch. After a successful point-after, the Patriots found themselves down just 3 with 1:55 left in the half. The Patriots looked like they were going to stop the Rams and get the ball back, but a Tully Banta-Cain roughing-the-passer penalty cost the Patriots 15 yards and extended the Rams drive. The Rams finished the half with a 45-yard field goal, leaving the score 20-14 at halftime. The Rams had out-gained the Patriots 241 to 106 in total yards.
The Rams had seen more than enough of Sam Bradford in the first half (15/22, 189 yards, 2 touchdowns), so they began the second half with backup quarterback Thaddeus Lewis. Good open-field tackling looked like it would force St. Louis to punt after a a few meaningless first downs, but illegal contact gave the Rams a fresh set of downs. Lewis would later evade a sack and throw for nine yards and a first down to the the Patriots’ 23-yard line. Lewis would then hit Brandon Gibson for a 20-yard touchdown pass. The drive took 15 plays and ate up 9:19 of clock-time. The New England defense looked completely exhausted, but Tom Brady would not let them rest. Two plays into the Patriots’ next offensive drive, Brady connected on a 65-yard play-action pass to Randy Moss for the touchdown. What had taken the Rams over nine minutes to do, the Patriots had done in 40 seconds, and now they were once again down just six after the successful PAT.
Despite some penalties, including another roughing-the-passer, the New England defense forced a St. Louis punt at midfield, which the Rams’ kicking team downed at the New England 2-yard line. Unfortunately for the Rams, Brady had finally settled into a passing groove and the coaches left him in. After several short-yardage passes got the Patriots out of danger, Brady completed 32-yard strike to Gronkowski up the middle to the Rams’ 42-yard line.
The Patriots started the final quarter down six on the Rams’ 37-yard line, facing 3rd-and-5. Brady completed a first down pass, then threw 20 yards to Gronkowski for the touchdown. A successful PAT gave the Patriots a one-point lead with just under 14 minutes in the game. It was their first lead since the opening kickoff return, and they would add to it soon after. After the Rams returned the kickoff to their 32-yard line, safety Brandon McGowan intercepted Lewis at the St. Louis 48-yard line, returning it 38 yards to the 10. Brian Hoyer then completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Sam Aiken, and the PAT was successful. The Patriots now enjoyed an eight-point lead.
The key play of the next St. Louis drive was a draw play that gave the Rams a first down at the Patriots’ 43-yard line. Lewis then completed a 33 yard pass that was called out at the New England 2-yard line. The Rams would then scored on a Keith Toston 2-yard touchdown run. A false start on the ensuing two-point conversion moved the football back to New England’s 7-yard line, and the ensuing pass fell incomplete. The Patriots got the ball back leading 35-33 and with 4:33 left in the game, but they would punt their possession away, giving the Rams the ball back at the St. Louis 40-yard line with 2:44 to go and two time outs. A holding penalty would back the Rams up to the 20-yard line, but it wouldn’t matter. The overused defense couldn’t stop the Rams’ balanced attack, and their third helmet-to-helmet penalty gave the Rams a free 15 yards that the Patriots defense could ill-afford. The Rams ran the clock down to three seconds and called timeout, then Josh Brown kicked his third field goal of the game, this time from 37 yards as time expired. The game ended St. Louis 36, New England 35.
So, What Did We Learn?
First the good news: we can be very excited about this offense. On top of longstanding Patriots such as Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker, we now have some newcomers to watch with glee. Brandon Tate returned three kicks for 164 yards (181 total). If he can contribute like that with consistency, the Patriots special-teams will be a force to be reckoned with. We also may finally have a reliable tight end in Rob Gronkowski. He averaged 22 yards per catch and caught 2 more touchdowns Thursday night. After years of injured or underachieving tight ends, we now have one who can really complement the Patriots’ dangerous wide receiver corps. Good tight ends can open up both the passing and running games, and I predict great things from Gronkowski this year. The fact that he’s just a rookie, and thus will get better, just excites me more. This offense can score quick and they can eat up clock time when necessary. Scoring points will not be a problem for this Patriots team.
PREVENTING points, however, will be. The defense looked awful Thursday night. It couldn’t stop either the pass (326 yards) or the run (136). Giving up 462 yards will lose you the game, no matter who you’re playing. They also couldn’t hold on third down: the Rams went 11-17 on third down as part of their 30 first-down attack. And McGowan’s interception aside, they couldn’t get much pressure on any of St. Louis’s quarterbacks, sacking just twice. New England’s offense didn’t help out, losing the possession battle 43:46 to 16:14 (almost a 3:1 ratio), but if the defense had managed a few more stops then the offense would’ve had a few more opportunities for long drives. St. Louis ran over twice as many plays as New England (84-38), and frankly the Patriots were fortunate to lose by just one point.
Thanks to an off-season marked by inaction, no one is quite sure what to expect from the Patriots this season. After this game, it seems clear that fans should not expect much. New England’s passing attack will be as strong as ever, but its running game (28 rushing yards against the Rams) looks anemic. And the defense looks incredibly weak against the pass and only slightly less-so against the rush. I predict many high-scoring shootouts in which the offense scores a lot of points, only to see the defense too tired to hold the lead, causing the fans to watch a number of excruciating come-from-behind victories by opposing teams. Perhaps then the Patriots’ front office will see that it’s time to make changes to the defense.