The Patriots have wrapped up their joint practice sessions with the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints and were what Bill Belichick called, “…one of the most productive practices that I’ve been part of in my career.” There were no fights between the two teams which have been commonplace when other teams practice together. There were also no major injuries for the Pats, which is always good news. OLB Marques Murrell was carted off Tuesday night, but he was merely suffering from overheating and cramps and returned to practice Wednesday morning. The usual cast of characters that have missed practice were still not present and will likely not be playing in the preseason match-up between the two teams Thursday night. With the Pats’ first preseason game on the horizon, here are 5 things to watch for Thursday night when they take the field against the Saints:
1. The quality of play at left guard and the offensive line as a whole. This being the first preseason game, the starting units are likely not going to get much playing time, but while the starting offensive line is in, their play as a unit is something to keep an eye on. It will mark the first time since 2005 that LG Logan Mankins will not be playing, and the line’s cohesiveness will be under close scrutiny. No matter what unit is in, however, you should focus your eyes on the left guard, whomever is playing. Dan Connolly will likely will lining up with the starting unit, but to say he is the definite starter is a stretch. I would imagine he will play longer than the rest of the starters of the offensive line, so he will be a player to focus on, as well as every other player who lines up at left guard.
2. Can the Pats provide a pass rush? The biggest weakness of the defense, if not the team as a whole, is the ability to get to the quarterback, namely with only four rushers. Can the team get pressure on Drew Brees or any of his back-ups? Who will emerge, if anyone, as the man who can rush the passer? Tully Banta-Cain is the only outside linebacker that is a definite starter. Opposite him has been in constant transition. Virtually all of the other OLBs on the team have rotated in with the starting unit. The three leading candidates to start are rookie Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, and Marques Murrell. I will be paying extra special attention on Cunningham, who was drafted in the second round and has seemingly gotten the bulk of the time so far in training camp with the starting unit.
3. The inexperienced secondary will be tested- can they hold up? Last season, Drew Brees led one of the most dangerous and effective passing attacks in the NFL. Brees tore the Patriots defense up during their Week 12 meeting for 371 yards and 5 touchdowns. Now, he will face a secondary where its starting two corners have a combined NFL experience of…one season. With Leigh Bodden likely to sit, second-year CB Darius Butler and rookie CB Devin McCourty will likely get the start. It will certainly be baptism by fire having to face the New Orleans passing attack. The progress of the young secondary as a whole will be on display throughout the game. Two other corners to watch are Terrence Wheatley and Kyle Arrington. They both have had good camps. Wheatley is especially interesting to watch as he has been virtually the forgotten man after being drafted in the second round in 2008. Injuries and poor play have kept him on the sidelines and his roster spot is in jeopardy. If he can take his camp performances and bring them to game conditions, he could save his spot on the roster. Arrington is a very good special teams player, and if he can carve out a role on defense, he increases his value to the team and may save the team a roster spot.
4. Laurence Maroney. The young running back has been flirting and teasing us with his potential skills but something always sets him back. Be it injuries, happy feet, or a case of fumblitis, it’s always something with Maroney. We are constantly being told, “This is the year.” Well, this has to be the year, as it is the last one of his rookie contract. The Pats could really use his athletic ability to help keep the offense balanced and less predictable than it was last season. No matter who starts at RB, make no mistake about it: it’s all about Maroney. He was drafted in the first round for a reason, and he has to be the man now. He has had up and down days at camp, but does seem more decisive in his cuts, picking his lane and hitting it hard. Besides himself, there is one factor that could impede his progress: the play of the offensive line. Their play has to be taken into account as well when analyzing Maroney’s performance.
5. Who will line up opposite Randy Moss? All indications are that second-year man Brandon Tate will start opposite Moss. He has lined up opposite Moss most of camp and has made spectacular catches. It will be a little different now in a game situation though. In camp, he has gotten free releases off the line. In a game situation, he will have to get through jams at the line and still run a crisp, on-time route. His performance will be key to maintaining an effective and diverse passing attack this season.
**Bonus** Bill Belichick is undecided as to whether Wes Welker will play against the Saints. If he does, his performance will be a key to watch. In camp, he has made smooth cuts and does not seem to be favoring his repaired knee. He has also taken some bumps. In an actual game with live tackling, it will be interesting to see if he is hesitant and can take the hits without incident. If he plays.