One could easily make the case that this is the most important, or at least most intriguing, pre-season in the history of the New England Patriots.
Most pre-season games in the Bill Belichick era have been snooze-fests, as the team runs vanilla plays against vanilla defenses. The main takeaways from most of these games have revolved around injuries and the potential for injuries. The biggest debate after most Pats pre-season games in the past 14 years has been, “Did Belichick leave Brady in too long?”
All that changes Thursday night in Foxboro when the Patriots host the New Orleans Saints (7:30 p.m., WBZ). It will be absolutely fascinating to see how Jimmy Garoppolo – who will start the first four games of the 2016 regular season due to Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension – plays when there are true repercussions. If Garoppolo lays a dud against what was statistically the worst defense in the NFL last season (New Orleans allowed a whopping 29.8 points per game in 2015), there will be panic in the streets.
Here are three things to watch for Thursday:
The guy under center (duh)
Garoppolo hasn’t looked great in training camp by most indications and he was picked off in a two-minute drill in a practice session against the Saints on Wednesday. (To be fair, Brady was picked off in 11-on-11 work as well).
If there has been a trend surrounding Garoppolo in his previous two NFL pre-seasons however, it’s that he has often looked shaky during practices but he steps up when the lights are on. In the first pre-season game against the Packers last year, Garoppolo hit on 20-of-30 passes for 159 yards, zero TDs and one interception. In the next 2015 pre-season game, Garoppolo went 28-of-33 for 269 yards, one touchdown and one TD. In pre-season game No. 3 against Carolina, he went 13-of-17 for 126 yards, one TD and zero INTs. He did not throw a ball in the fourth pre-season game against the Giants.
In the 2014 pre-season, Garoppolo completed 46-of-79 passes total for 618 yards, five touchdowns and one INT. He finished that pre-season with a 99.0 passer rating.
Brady, the backup
Brady and Garoppolo have more or less split reps in training camp, so it will be interesting to see how Belichick uses No. 12 in this game and the three pre-season games that follow. Knowing Belichick, he’ll do something odd like play Brady the entire game – or sit him the entire game. If Brady does play, however, don’t expect him to light the world on fire. He is never himself in these pre-season games as evidenced by last year’s performances during the height of Deflategate. Remember, that was a time when people thought he was going to go all scorched earth and run up scores during exhibitions. Instead, he had a miserable 37.5 passer rating in the three pre-season games played.
It will be the first chance for Patriots fans to see new tight end Martellus Bennett line up with Rob Gronkowski in something resembling game action. The duo has the potential to be one of the most formidable tight end duos in league history, so it would be fun to see a sneak preview of the damage they can cause.
New running back Donald Brown could open some eyes as well. The 29-year-old Brown is just three seasons removed from a campaign with the Colts in which he found the end zone six times and rushed for 537 yards on 102 carries. Brown has rushed for 2,829 yards in his seven-year NFL career.