Come September, this isn’t something any opponent would ever say, considering the quarterback set the NFL’s single-season passing yardage record last year, is the only player in league history to pass for 5,000 yards twice, and is a perennial MVP candidate with a talented cadre of offensive weapons.
But in their preseason opener tonight at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots should be hoping the Saints leave Drew Brees on the field as long as possible.
It could potentially be painful, and perhaps ugly. Though at this point in the process, New England’s defense — it’s defensive backs, in particular — can only benefit from the challenge of going up against one of the most productive and precise attacks in the game, not only for the chance it presents coaches to evaluate the talent therein, but for the opportunity it gives players to improve at the start of what is an important season for most of the secondary.
“Look at what New Orleans did last year and they have kind of those 11 players back — setting NFL records and passing yardage and Drew in completion percentage and all that,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “The top scoring offense in the league; (they) move the ball. It’s a big challenge playing against that group. They’re different — they do different things than what we do and they’re very good at it.
“It’s good for our defense to see the best and compete against the best.”
Belichick’s Patriots were at the near-opposite end of the spectrum last season, second-worst in passing yardage yielded, and surrendering their opponents a healthy passer rating of 86.1. But by bringing back most of the same players, New England’s brass has effectively given a vote of confidence to the level of talent within its backs, while also creating a situation where the entire unit has something to prove.
Chief among those is Devin McCourty, whose precipitous dip after a sensational rookie season will be all the more disconcerting if it carries into year three, and therefore needs a good start to reestablish himself as the team’s top cornerback moving forward. Along those same lines it’s a big year for Patrick Chung, too, as the safety tries to assert his credentials as a cornerstone-type player with his contract expiring at season’s end.
But it’s not just the big names who need to step up. Kyle Arrington must show his ball skills and strength translate to covering the slot. Ras-I Dowling must stay healthy enough to use his physical tools. Sterling Moore must build on his strong playoff performance. Free-agent Steve Gregory must solidify the safety spot alongside Chung. Rookie Tavon Wilson must assimilate quickly. The rest must be ready to provide depth.
And tonight, against Brees and the boys, marks a big chance to begin making progress.
“I think we’re really trying to give ourselves a chance to get better out there,” McCourty said after the Patriots and Saints held their first joint practice together on Tuesday. “You know, going against our offense, you start to see the same things, and to see a new offense and a good offense with a lot of different weapons, I just felt like it was a good opportunity for us to come out and try to play well.”
Going up against Tom Brady and his talented targets is itself an everyday opportunity for a young group to make improvements. But patterns develop. Preferences are detected. Plays become familiar.
Thus the challenge of facing somebody new should be a truer test, as well as a better chance to gain perspective on what needs to happen next, and to have the opportunity to make those evaluations in an exhibition environment — inconsequential of the standings — is nice. To have the opportunity to do it against arguably the top passing attack the Patriots will face all season just makes it all the better.
And so, bumpy as it may be, to have an extended, substantial opportunity to do it against Brees would be for the best.
“You try to be perfect on every play but when you go against quarterbacks of that caliber, you really do, because you know 90 percent of the time they’re going to be perfect,” McCourty said. “The ball is going to be where it has to be and you really have to play very well on defense to try and compete with those guys.”
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As for their own quarterback, the Patriots don’t typically let Brady play much of the first preseason game. And this year they may have reasons to play him even less than normal.
With Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer both still physically unable to perform, and Brian Waters having not yet reported to training camp, Brady would be playing behind an offensive line consisting of at least three players who are expected to be backups once the season begins and Dan Koppen, who is returning from an injury that cost him the final 18 games of last season.
Those are risky circumstances to put their franchise player in — especially with replacement referees on the field — and the risks seem even less worthwhile when considering the value of this time for the two backup quarterbacks. This preseason is likely to factor heavily into future decisions on both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, so there is certainly long-term value in letting them take most of the snaps until the line situation is more settled.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.