Commentary

Brandon Spikes impresses in debut

Updated: August 13, 2010, 12:38 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Before the New England Patriots' preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, one viewpoint of 10 key areas to watch for the Pats was offered.

Now that the game is over, how did those 10 things turn out?

1. Wes Welker's participation. The shifty slot receiver did not dress for the game. When asked afterwards if it was a case of playing it safe with Welker, coach Bill Belichick spoke in general terms for all of the Pats' injured players. "We just didn't feel they were ready to play," he said.

2. Tom Brady's playing time. The starting quarterback was on the field for two drives and a total of 17 offensive snaps. He finished 5-for-8 for 67 yards. The Brady-led offense started slow despite opening with great field position at the Saints' 19-yard line, eventually putting together an impressive 93-yard touchdown marc on another drive.

3. Brandon Spikes in the middle. It looks as though the Patriots have a find in Spikes, the second-round draft choice (62nd overall) out of Florida who slipped because of a slow 40-yard dash. He played as much as any defender, led the team in tackles (eight), and has a presence about him.

4. Where is the pass rush coming from? It was a disappointment that outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham out of Florida, one of the team's second-round draft choices, did not dress. He was shaken up in Wednesday's practice with what looked like an ankle injury. The Patriots worked on a variety of blitzes, bringing extra pressure 44 percent of the time. Outside linebacker Marques Murrell got the headlines for a strong rush against Saints starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb on the opening series, which was aided by Tully Banta-Cain's strong inside rush. Overall, the Patriots pressured the Saints effectively.

5. Strength of depleted offensive and defensive lines. It didn't seem to be an issue with the first units. The Patriots' top offensive line kept Brady clean and opened holes in the running game. Both second units did not look as sharp.

6. Tight ends in the red zone. Bill Belichick couldn't have written a much better script, with the offense opening at the Saints' 19-yard line. That led to him calling on the package with three tight ends -- veteran Alge Crumpler and rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The opening drive stalled, but the tight ends helped pave running lanes the rest of the way in the red zone.

7. Brandon Tate off the jam. There was nothing definitive to see in this regard. Tate played 29 snaps and had one catch for 20 yards, which came on third-and-14 during the team's first touchdown march. The grab happened along the sideline and Tate did a nice job to get his feet down.

8. Young cornerbacks face big test. First-round draft choice Devin McCourty out of Rutgers had the type of game that a corner wants -- quiet. The same can't be said for Darius Butler on the right side, as his illegal contact penalty on fourth down was costly. Third-year cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley also made plays; Wheatley is making a late charge to earn a roster spot with strong on-field performances of late.

9. Running back rotation. In a surprise, it was third-year back BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the top runner; he played 21 of the 31 first-half snaps. Veteran Fred Taylor didn't play, and said after the game that he was aware that would be the case. The plan, Taylor said, is to feature different running backs at various points during the preseason.

10. Improvements in the return game. This was one of the big positives for the Patriots. Julian Edelman had a 40-yard punt return and McCourty had kickoff returns of 52 and 50 yards.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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