The Patriots wrap up the 2010 preseason tonight when they visit the New York Giants. The fourth preseason game traditionally is a game where the starters play little-to-no snaps and the players still battling for roster spots make their push for a job. I say “traditionally” because tonight we could see the Pats veer away from that formula after last week’s poor performance against the St. Louis Rams. That, and the roster battles, round out this week’s “5 to Watch.”
1. How long, if at all, will the starters play? Earlier this week on his weekly radio appearance on WEEI Sports Radio, QB Tom Brady stated that he expected to play. In fact, Coach Belichick told everyone on the team to, “Get ready to play.” That is likely in response to last week’s poor performance. Overall, the team wants to get the bad taste of last week out of its mouth. LT Matt Light has said that, “The starters will go out there and we’ll fire it up.” If Brady and the starters play at all, it will likely be for only one series. Injuries have already done enough damage to this team. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the defensive starters see more action, as they were the group that stunk it up the most last week.
2. Corner back bounce-back. Veteran Leigh Bodden has been lost to IR, giving the Patriots the youngest, and least-experienced, starting CB tandem in the NFL. Last week was the roughest week thus far for Darius Butler and Devin McCourty. One of the biggest strengths of a CB is the ability to have a short memory and if beaten, come back the very next play without trepidation or fear. Can this duo return to the form we saw during the first two preseason games? This also ties into the previous note about playing time. Butler and McCourty may see limited time due to the injury bug already biting the position hard. They need to make the most out of whatever time they see tonight.
3. Wherefore art thou, Maroney-io? We have been waiting somewhat impatiently for Laurence Maroney to get his shot at significant playing time, kind of just like we have been waiting for him to show that talent that made him a first round pick. Is tonight finally the night? Do they rest him yet again for the regular season? Do they give extended looks to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Chris Taylor and Thomas Clayton, who are all on the roster bubble? Maroney’s future with the team is exactly a given at this point, so it will be interesting to see what the team will do with him tonight.
4. Underneath coverage. The Patriots have gotten eaten up on defense this preseason on underneath routes and check-downs. Can the team improve in this area? The check-downs are mostly on the linebackers in coverage and the nickel corner (WILHIIIIIITE!!! <shakes fist>). If the team cannot improve this area, it doesn’t matter how good Butler and McCourty are. They will get dinked and dunked to death by teams, which will also serve to keep Tom Brady off the field. Teams like the Jets, where Mark Sanchez is most effective on the shorter routes, will methodically work their way down the field all season if this isn’t corrected. Let’s see if there’s any improvement in that area tonight.
5. The final push for a roster spot. As I mentioned earlier, tonight is the last night where players on the bubble can show that they deserve a roster spot, if not on the Patriots then with another NFL club. One of the major areas of competition is back-up offensive line. No one has really stood out and distinguished themselves as being worthy of sticking as a back-up. Tonight should help clarify that area. Keep a careful eye on who plays on the various special teams units, and who makes plays on those units, for an idea of who could stick on the team. A solid performance with the offensive and defensive units will also go a long way to showing the team a player is worthy of roster spot. Aside from offensive line, areas to watch are any position on the defensive side of the ball, running back, and wide receiver, particularly Sam Aiken. Another strong performance by Aiken will put to rest any doubt about his spot on the roster.