The New England Patriots will host the St. Louis Rams tonight for their third game of the preseason. The third game of the preseason is traditionally the game where the starters play at least an entire half, if not into the third quarter. All indications are that the Patriots’ starters will play a full half and at least one series after halftime. The purpose for this being that it prepares the players and coaches to making halftime adjustments and then showing it on the field. WR Julian Edelman, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, TE Aaron Hernandez, ILB Eric Alexander, T/G Nick Kaczur, WR Darnell Jenkins, WR/S Matthew Slater, S Josh Barrett and S Bret Lockett haven’t participated in practice all week and will likely not suit up for tonight’s game. Here are 5 things I’ll be looking for in tonight’s game:
1. Laurence Maroney. After patiently waiting, Maroney should finally get his chance with some significant reps in extended time for the starters. Bill Belichick has been rotation who starts at RB each preseason game, and it appears to now be Maroney’s turn. He got some playing time in the first preseason game at the goal line but we haven’t seen if “Voltron” can carry the team down the field. The team has made a commitment to the running game, so it’s time to see if Maroney has improved and has what it takes to be the primary back in the rotation.
2. Performance of the defensive line. This was one of my 5 items last week as well, and with 2 out of 3 players relatively new to starting on the Patriots’ d-line, their development is key to the Pats’ success this season. They will be facing a great back in the Rams’ Steven Jackson, so they will have a tough test, despite facing a relatively green offensive line. It will be particularly interesting to see if Ron Brace rotates in on the starting line after a strong showing last week.
3. Performance of the OLBs. As Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston points out, this game will mark the third combination of outside linebackers as Tully Banta-Cain (who missed Week 2) and Derrick Burgess (who missed Week 1) will likely start. This is also expected to be the starting combination once the regular season starts, so for all intents and purposes, this will be the defense, and this will be the pass rush. Aside from the pass rush, I will also be watching how these (and the others) OLBs set the edge in the running game and make plays. Both Banta-Cain and Burgess are primarily considered to be pass rushers, so it will be interesting to see how they hold up against the run.
4. Offensive success after halftime. As previously mentioned, the starting units will likely play after halftime at least one series. One of the major problems last season was the lack of success on offense in the second half which cost the Pats some games. It will be a big boost to the team to come out after the half and go down the field and score. Even a long drive that may not end in a score would be a slight victory, as the team couldn’t even eat up clock last season.
5. Special teams. Who plays and who makes plays on special teams will help round out the back end of the roster come cut-down time. Back-up position battles that are tight may not come down to how they play on offense or defense but if they have value on special teams and can be useful on game day. It’s not the most glamorous thing to watch, but there will be guys fighting for the NFL careers on special teams.