FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – On Wednesday, New Orleans Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt proclaimed that his team got everything out of joint practices with the New England Patriots he was looking for.
And it’s a good thing he felt that way Wednesday.
Because Thursday night in Gillette Stadium, the only thing the teams left their preseason game with was a lack of major injuries to important players.
Drew Brees and Tom Brady saw very little game time and the first-team defense’s played long enough to break a sweat.
But no key player left the game with a serious season-ending injury and when you’re a month away from the season opener, that’s all you can really ask to take away from a game such as Thursday night’s.
1.) The Saints drafted defensive tackle Akiem Hicks as a little bit of a gamble. He was recruited by LSU, so he had SEC talent. But after getting embroiled in an NCAA investigation, he never played for the Tigers and ended up at a Direct TV call center before college at the University of Regina in Canada. In other words, there was question as to not just how quickly he would adapt to the NFL, but if he would adapt.
Thursday night, Hicks impressed. He was active up front and caused havoc up in the middle. On cornerback Marquis Johnson’s interception, Hicks pushed his blocker far enough back that Mallett couldn’t step into his throw. That made it easy for Johnson to pick up the interception.
“I was coming across to the B gap and then I saw him starting to set soft,” Hicks said as he described the play. “I turned speed into power and took him back to Mallett and put him down. It was a good feeling.”
If he continues with what he showed Thursday night, he could become a key contributor for the Saints’ defense. And that doesn’t bode well for Tom Johnson, who mysteriously wasn’t with the Saints in Boston this week. Hicks has earned more playing time and trust and his arrow could be pointing way up.
Vitt wouldn’t comment specifically on Thursday night’s game, but he did say it was “fun to watch.”
But Vitt paid him the ultimate compliment.
“I know what we have in the player,” Vitt said. “We have a big, athletic, passionate player who wants to get better every day. Guys like that, to a degree, are rare. I don’t know that this player knows how good he can be.”
2.) Receiver Adrian Arrington was having a brilliant training camp until he injured his knee a week ago Friday.
That just opened the door enough for Courtney Roby to burst through.
He has had a good camp and against Arizona, he caught four passes for 54 yards.
It’s what he did against the Patriots, however, that have some wondering if he has passed Arrington for the No. 4 spot in the rotation.
Roby, already the special teams captain, finished with five catches for 85 yards, a game-high. He was easily the best receiver on the field for most of the game with the starters sitting for much of the night.
But don’t ask him to react to what people are saying or answer questions about his position in the rotation.
“I don’t pay attention to what people say (about) I’m locked in at what position,” Roby said after Thursday night’s loss. “I just try to do what I’m coached, to do what the team needs me to be and just continue to work.”
There’s one player, however, who seems to think Roby is doing exactly what he needs to do.
“Roby over the past five years has done whatever we’ve asked him to do here with the Saints,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He has taken advantage of every opportunity he has ever gotten. I’m just glad to see he’s getting those opportunities during this preseason and he’s certainly making the most of it.”
3.) The defense has got to be giving fans goose bumps and in a good way.
In two games, the first unit has played well and against the Patriots, they took another step forward.
Regardless of whether the Patriots were playing base offense of not, the Saints weren’t exactly putting anything crazy forward.
We saw on the first series exactly what can happen when defensive linemen drop and linebackers don’t and defensive backs plays zones.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was forced out of the pocket by Saints defensive end Junior Galette. Defensive end Will Smith chased Brady from behind, sacking him for an eight-yard loss and stripping the ball away for a turnover.
Steve Spagnuolo’s defense has four takeaways in two games, a seemingly insane statistic considering how few and far between turnovers were a season ago.
By no means are the Saints there. There are still mistakes. But they like the direction they’re heading in.
“I feel like the last two games within a five-day period, we’ve really gotten a lot of good snaps in our base defense and it has been good, because I think we’re getting a lot better at that,” Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There are so many other pieces of the puzzle that we haven’t gotten to work on a lot just because it’s preseason, that I think are going to be great wrinkles for the regular season.”