Thursday, the Patriots will play their first road game of the season in Atlanta against the Falcons. The Pats and the Falcons wrapped up two joint practices yesterday in Flowery Branch, Georgia, and will look to build on and apply what they did on the practice field to the game field. It has been kind of a topsy-turvy week since the last preseason game with the Saints. The Pats welcomed back Derrick Burgess but lost Ty Warren and Torry Holt to IR (Holt has also reached an injury settlement and has been released). The Pats have also taken hits on the injury front with rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham still out and DE Damione Lewis and OLB Tully Banta-Cain also injured and will not play Thursday. Most recently, DL and back-up NT Myron Pryor left practice with a hand injury and his status is unknown. Bearing all of this in mind along with looking at the team as a whole, here are 5 items I’ll be specifically watching for Thursday against the Falcons:
1. Performance of the defensive line. Players like Mike Wright and Gerard Warren, who are more rotational players than every-down players, will likely see more playing time. How will they hold up. We know that Wright is a pretty good pass rusher but can get pushed back against the run. I will specifically be looking at him on running plays. The back-ups will also get extended playing time due to the lack of depth. How have they progressed. Ron Brace, who was just recently activated, will likely see his first action of the preseason. If he can show progress from his disappointing rookie campaign, he may squeak his way into the starting line-up, at least on early downs.
2. Performance of the outside linebackers. The depth at OLB is paper thin and there are only 4 true OLBs that traveled with the team. That means lots of playing time for Derrick Burgess, Marques Murrell, Rob Ninkovich, and Pierre Woods. Burgess, due to just returning to the team, I would suspect to see the least amount of time as he is still getting his legs under him. I will pay special attention to Murrell, who had a strong game against the Saints.
3. Offensive performance on the road. With this being the Pats’ first road game, the team will be facing its first loud and hostile crowd of the year. Last year, the team was 2-6 on the road. We can all recall the odd-looking coaches on the sidelines of the Jets game in the Meadowlands trying to communicate plays with boards and the offensive suffering miscommunication after miscommunication. While this game will not have near the level of intensity (or noise), communication on the offense will be something to watch for. False starts and play clocks running down to one second (or a delay-of-game penalty) are tell-tale signs of poor communication. Also, look for receivers making the right adjustments on routes, which are sometimes called by the QB at the line of scrimmage. If the WR goes one way and the pass another, there could be some communication problems. The Pats will look to get any kinks out now so they can improve on their 2-6 road record.
4. Running backs. Last week, I was looking specifically at Laurence Maroney’s performance. Now it appears that Bill Belichick will feature a different back each preseason game, so there’s no telling who will start this week. Therefore, this time I’ll be looking at the stable of backs as a whole. Who starts? Who gets the majority of snaps? Does anyone’s performance stand out? This position will likely be the target of a tough cut come roster trim-down time, so these backs are competing for their jobs. Last week, BenJarvus Green-Ellis started and looked pretty good while Maroney got the majority of the goal line snaps and looked OK. Who will step up this game?
5. Special teams stand-outs. The back-end of the roster will likely be determined by those players who can stand out and contribute on special teams. Who starts on special teams is one area to key in on as well as who makes/misses key blocks and tackles. The returners are pretty much set so the guys that make those returns happen (or stop the other team’s returners) will likely have a stronger chance of sticking on the final 53-man roster. One particular player who stood out last game both in special teams and while playing with the back-up defense is S Sergio Brown (#38), so he will be one player to keep a special eye on. If a safety-needy team makes an offer, James Sanders will likely be on his way out and Brown could make the final cut.