Woohoo, Patriots football is back!

Alright, it’s just a preseason game, but it’s still a significant moment; we’re getting close to real NFL football. Even though it’s not a Sunday afternoon game after labor day, and even though you’ll barely see the starters play, it’s still Pats football and for people like me – and the tens of thousands that have attended practices – practices – it’s something to look forward to. Preseason games are completely different from regular season games. Rather than keys to win it’s more like key players to look at regardless of what the final score ends up being.

 

When: Thursday August 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough MA

TV: WBZ in the Boston area, and eight other stations

Replay: Saturday August 11 at 3 p.m., and Monday August 13 at midnight on the NFL Network

Radio: 98.5 FM in the Boston area, and 39 other stations

Not Expected To Play: LG Logan Mankins (knee), RT Sebastian Vollmer (back), OT Markus Zusevics (unknown), TE Daniel Fells (shoulder), TE Jake Ballard (knee), DT Myron Pryor (shoulder) are all still on the PUP list; RG Brian Waters is on the Reserve/Did Not Report list; FB Tony Fiammetta is on the Exempt/Left Team list; none will play Thursday.

In addition CB Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring), LB Tracy White, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, DT Jonathan Fanene, FB Spencer Larsen, OT Matt Kopa (leg), DT Ron Brace, OT Kyle Hix (right shoulder) and LB Brandon Spikes did not practice Wednesday, so I would think that it is likely that many of them will not play Thursday either.

 

 

So why should you watch, and what should you watch for? For me I have five areas which I find compelling and worth focusing on.

 

Offensive Line

There has been a lot of hand wringing from a segment of Patriots Nation over the state of the offensive line. The logic is that the success of the team is directly correlated to Tom Brady, and if he is not well protected then the team is doomed. And since nobody on the o-line is currently playing in the same position that they played at last year then well, the Pats are doomed. Or something like that.

I haven’t been in that camp, but on the other hand I can understand the theory that the offensive line is the elephant in the room. I have complete confidence that Brian Waters will return, and just like last year when he showed up a few days before the first game of the season he will perform very well. Dan Connolly has proven to be more than adequate the last two years whether it be at center or guard. Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer will play and play well this year – though not necessarily in week one. That is why I want to see their potential replacements in game situations, especially against starting quality opponents.

Marcus Cannon was drafted a year ago and considered to be a steal. I still have high hopes for him but training camp reports have said that he has struggled with his footwork and has had some difficulty in pass blocking; that’s not going to cut it on this team, even with quick releases by Brady on short routes.

Nate Solder was drafted a year ago as the heir apparent to Matt Light and played as well as could be expected last year, primarily at RT. Reports from training camp are that he’s not been awful, but has been beat more often than we would like to hear. We’ll all rest a lot easier if the guy responsible for protecting Brady’s blindside has a good game Thursday.

Teams have figured out that the best way to stop the Patriots is with pressure up the middle. The problem for those teams is that has proven to be much more easily said than done. Other than Connolly, only diehards recognize the names of Ryan Wendell, Nick McDonald and Daniel Thomas, but from what I saw of them last year I have plenty of faith that they can get the job done if or when called upon. Dan Koppen has struggled in camp and is making too much money to be a backup. If Koppen doesn’t show enough to make the roster then one of those three will be starting if Mankins is not ready to play in week one at Tennessee. Before training camp began I would have guessed that McDonald had the best shot, but he just came off PUP and has been practicing with the second unit. Thomas has had the best camp, while Wendell has the most experience in the system. I want to get an idea for which one of these will be called upon as the first off the bench for the interior line. It’s an important role: think how much playing time Connolly has had the last two years, or how much playing time Russ Hochstein got a few years ago before him.

Then there are the backup tackles. If Vollmer can’t play at the start of the season, who is the RT? Cannon would still be my first choice, but I want to see him get it done against NFL starters first. Who else is going to make the roster as a backup tackle: Kyle Hix, Matt Kopa, or maybe the new guy, Darrion Weems? Between Vollmer’s back and Cannon’s footwork, my interest in these three has grown.

 

Cornerbacks

Everybody knows how bad the Pats pass defense was last year; we were reminded about it every time we watched, listened or read anything football related last fall and winter. In my opinion a great deal of the blame goes to the safeties, so it’s not as if I will be completely ignoring them. However, corners are still the primary defenders responsible for coverage, and let’s not kid ourselves – they had a sub par year in 2011. The Saints have one of the best, if not the best passing game in the NFL, so this will be a great test for the Pats corners. The Saints got the best of them in practice on Tuesday; I’d like to see some improvement from Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington in coverage Thursday night. And even though they won’t be facing starters, I still want to see how Will Allen does, especially in comparison to a player like Sterling Moore.

 

Running Backs

We saw next to nothing from Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen last year. I would like to see how they are utilized, maybe some screen passes, how they do in blitz pickup. Newcomers Brandon Bolden and FB Spencer Larsen are two players to keep an eye on as well. How often will the Pats use a formation including a fullback or two running backs, and how will they utilize that other back?

 

Return Game

We know Julian Edelman can return punts, but who is his competition? Who is going to be returning kickoffs? Maybe a player like Jeremy Ebert can make a name for himself as a return man? How is the blocking in the kick return game? Does the decision making in when to run it out and when to settle for a touchback get any better?

 

Special Teams

That leads right into special teams. The bottom of the roster guys, the last six or so players on the 53-man roster will make the squad because of how they perform on special teams more than how they perform at their position on offense or defense. Who’s getting downfield, shedding blocks, making blocks, and making tackles? Does a special teams ace like Marquice Cole or Nate Ebner stand out and deserve a roster spot?

 

 

There are certainly plenty of other reasons to watch and things to look for: the progression of backup quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett; the new receivers, Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney; the roster battle between Deion Branch and Donte’ Stallworth; the new veterans on defense (Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Bobby Carpenter and Steve Gregory); the early draft picks on defense (Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Jake Bequette), but those topics above are my top things to look for; what are yours?

 

 

 

 

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