FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots spent the offseason trying to stabilize their shaky defense.
So far, so good.
Players counted on to play key roles performed well in the Patriots exhibition opener. Their time on the field was limited in Thursday night’s 7-6 win over the New Orleans Saints, but the result was satisfying for a team that allowed the second most yards in the NFL last season.
“We held them to two field goals, so that’s a good thing for the first game,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “A good first step.”
Drew Brees played just two series and completed one of four passes for four yards. The Saints didn’t get a first down while the quarterback, who set an NFL record with 5,476 yards passing last year, was in the game.
On one play, Brees was forced out of the pocket by rookie first-round draft pick Chandler Jones, who figures to see considerable action at defensive end during the regular season. The Patriots took the 6-foot-5 Jones out of Syracuse with the 21st choice. Jones also forced starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod into two holding penalties.
“All the players that I saw, especially the rookies, some of them did some good things,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Only the Green Bay Packers gave up more than the 411.1 yards the Patriots allowed per game last year.
So New England used six of its seven draft picks on defensive players in April. Besides Jones, it took linebacker Dont’a Hightower with the 25th pick, defensive back Tavon Wilson in the second round, defensive end Jake Bequette in the third and defensive backs Nate Ebner (sixth) and Alfonzo Dennard (seventh) later on.
The Patriots also stocked up on veteran free agents — defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene, Marcus Harrison and Tim Bulman, linebackers Trevor Scott and Bobby Carpenter and defensive backs Steve Gregory, Will Allen, Marquice Cole and Derrick Martin.
Safety in numbers, perhaps.
But progress was evident, albeit in a preseason setting. Gregory and Patrick Chung, the starting safeties, each intercepted a pass against the Saints.
“Definitely felt comfortable,” said Gregory, a starter in the last two of his six seasons with San Diego. “Every game is so important and every game you can get out there and play in a live situation like that against another great team is so valuable.”
It was a costly night for linebacker Dane Fletcher, who started five games last season. He started in place of injured Brandon Spikes at inside linebacker but suffered a possible season-ending knee injury covering a punt in the first quarter. Belichick didn’t address specifics, but was hardly optimistic.
“The news on Dane doesn’t look very good. He might be out for a while,” Belichick said during a conference call Friday. “It’s unfortunate. He’s worked hard. He’s had a really good offseason and training camp. We’ve had good competition at that position.”
The Patriots have depth at linebacker with Spikes, Ninkovich, Hightower, Scott, Carpenter and Jerod Mayo. Some of them will get the playing time Fletcher would have had.
“We’ll just have to see how that goes,” Belichick said. “Those players have played multiple positions through training camp and even (Thursday) night.”
The Patriots pass defense — from a poor rush to inconsistent coverage — was a particular problem last season, ranking next to last in the NFL. That didn’t keep them from reaching the Super Bowl, but they lost 21-17 to the New York Giants on a last-minute touchdown set up by Mario Manningham’s excellent 38-yard reception on the left sideline on a pass from Eli Manning.
Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who led the Patriots with 10 sacks each, are gone. But the secondary, battered by injuries last season, appears stronger and healthier. And then, there are the youngsters, who are a major part of Belichick’s plan.
“It’s definitely important for us to be able to get out there and show what we can do,” Wilson, who had three tackles against the Saints, said of the rookies. “But we’ve got to keep going from here.”
The next stretch will be critical for development since the Patriots don’t play again until Aug. 20 when the Philadelphia Eagles visit Gillette Stadium. Players will have plenty of practice time to get better after taking Friday and Saturday off.
“The big thing for us this week,” Belichick said, “is we just have to take advantage of really the only chance we have in the whole preseason now to actually string some practice days together so we get the most out of them and try to improve our team.
“Because when we play again, we play three games right in a row.”
After facing the Eagles, the Patriots go on the road for their final two preseason games, at Tampa Bay Aug. 24 and at the Giants Aug. 29.