The 2011 NFL preseason finally comes to a close tonight for the New England Patriots as they take on the New York Giants. This game takes on a twist because these two teams will meet again Week 9 of the regular season. That could play into how the Patriots approach this game (see below). The Pats have widdled down their roster to 80 players, and on Sept. 3 will make their final cuts down to 53. This is the last chance for players on the bubble to make an impression in a game situation before that stressful day.
With all that in mind, here are 5 things I’ll be watching for tonight:
1. Do the starters suit up and play? If so, how long are they in? Tom Brady and the rest of New England’s first unit wants to get the taste out of their mouths of last week’s thumping at the hands of the Detroit Lions. It would be nice to cap the preseason off with a good drive or two from the starting offense and a couple of stops by the starting defense. Another reason to play the starters would be to see how they match up against the Giants’ starters, assuming they play. This game will not feature scheme and game planning, so just seeing how your guy matches up against the other guy is a good gauge as to where you might need to scheme come Week 9.
2. Bounce back from the Detroit loss. I’m not necessarily looking for a win here, but an improved performance from the team. This goes beyond the starting unit as well because the entire team did not play well last week. Even if the starters do not play, I’d like to see the backups put forth a solid performance.
3. Safety rotation. With James Sanders officially gone, it will be interesting to see who starts the game at the safety spots and what combinations are used. With the lack of depth and the question marks at the position, it’s unlikely Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather, the projected starters, sit this game out, even if the rest of the first unit does. Chung and Meriweather are locks to make the roster at this point, and Sergio Brown is pretty close to a lock, so Josh Barrett, James Ihedigbo, and Ross Ventrone are battling for the fourth spot in the rotation. Special teams will play a big factor in settling that fourth spot.
4. Who will step up and snag a roster spot? As I mentioned earlier, this is the last chance to make an impression in a game situation, so anyone who’s not a starter needs to step up to secure a job this season. That may not necessarily be with the Patriots. These preseason games are tryouts for their team and 31 other NFL clubs who will be looking for quality castaways. TE Will Yeatman is an undrafted rookie who may have overtaken fifth-rounder Lee Smith. The back end of the corner position is still in flux and it’s unclear how many wide receivers will be kept by the team. There are jobs to be won, and lost, so who can create that last impression?
5. Field goal operation. This is my usual special teams spot, but I’m going to be more specific this time. The Patriots signed a new long snapper in James Dearth, so his ability to snap accurately and block will be under the microscope. Any bad snaps could lead to him being replaced.