The Patriots wrapped up their final practice of training camp today, with a low-intensity, walk-through type of session with the Bucs. This now brings up the second preseason contest of the year for New England, as they will take on the Buccaneers in a game setting on Friday night in Foxboro. The preseason presents a great opportunity for us to evaluate the team, specifically the new faces that are being incorporated into the program. Here are five things to be watching for on Friday night.
1. Brady’s Knee
Obviously, this is the story of the week for the NFL world. Brady left practice early on Wednesday due to a left knee injury, and for a couple of hours, the sports world held it’s breath. Luckily, Brady emerged with only a minor knee sprain, and has returned to practice. The big question now is will he play against Tampa, and if he does, how long will Belichick and company choose to leave him in there. Regardless of what happens, Brady will be the number one story-line heading into the game, and it will be interesting to see how the Patriots choose to use him.
2. Secondary Combinations
Coming into training camp, one of the strengths of this team was believed to be their depth in the defensive backfield. But there have been a multitude of injuries as training camp has progressed, and that leaves the Pats with a shortage of bodies in the back end. Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling have both been out for the majority of camp, and this has forced the Patriots to come up with some interesting combinations at cornerback, and at safety. It has forced rookie Logan Ryan into getting a lot of starting reps, and at times during this last week of practice, safety Devin McCourty moved down to play a little corner, leaving an already struggling safety group without its mainstay leader. If Dennard, Dowling or McCourty don’t play again on Friday, the Pats will have to continue its rotating group at safety, and corners like Ryan, and Kyle Arrington will be getting a lot of work with the first team defense. It will be fun to see how Belichick manages his secondary, and then see how the group performs.
3. Pass Rushing Group
Over the last few years, one of the many weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball for New England has been it’s inability to rush the passer. Last year, the Pats finished with 37 sacks, which was good for 15th in the league. That is not bad, but it certainly is not great either. I think the Patriots have the talent to really make some noise in this department in 2013, and this group of players should definitely be held under close watch throughout the remainder of the preseason. This group includes: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Marcus Benard, Jamie Collins, and Justin Francis. Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork are both capable pass rushers, but they rush from the inside, while for the most part, this group rushes from the edge.
Out of this group, I will be watching Collins and Benard the closest tomorrow night. Benard has been very impressive throughout this offseason, and he possess all the skills needed to become a good pass rusher in the NFL. Now, it is just a matter of seeing if he can produce, and make an impact on the playing field. As for Collins, he is freakishly athletic, and his potential is limitless. He just needs time to adjust to the NFL, and learn the ropes of being a pass rusher. Collins is a very versatile athlete, and because of this, Belichick will most likely move him all around the field. But I think Collins is best suited as a pass rusher, and watching him get a lot of reps throughout the preseason will give us an ample amount of time to begin our analysis of his play in the big leagues.
4. Aaron Dobson
At the start of training camp, the talk of the town had been regarding rookie receiver Aaron Dobson. He hit the ground running, and according to local reports, he was dominating the early portions of camp. But he has not finished quite as strong as he started. Dobson is big and athletic, and while he still is making those unbelievable catches that make you think twice about what you just saw, he has been making a lot of dumb mistakes, that include bad route running, and a good amount of drops. Doug Kyed, who covers the Patriots for NESN.com, detailed Dobson’s inconsistency in this well done piece. I want to see Dobson rebound from his sub-par performance against the Eagles, and show the Patriots organization that he can not only make some impressive catches on the outside, but he can perform in a consistent manner as the games commence. Dobson has a world of potential and right now, he must focus on doing the little things, to produce on the field, and earn his quarterback’s trust.
5. The Punting Battle
Rookie Ryan Allen, and proven veteran Zoltan Mesko have been locked in a punting battle ever since training camp kicked off. From what I have gathered, Allen has out-kicked Mesko badly over the last two weeks, while Mesko has shown better hang-time, and he has gotten the ball off much quicker (Nick Underhill of masslive.com provides great insight into that aspect of this battle in this piece). Allen is also a much cheaper option for New England, and that does give him a distinct edge in terms of who gets the job. However, I think at the end of the day Mesko will retain his position as ‘New England Patriots Damage Controller’ (that’s what he describes himself as) due to his “touch punting”, and his ability to get the punt off quicker than his counter-part. But I have been wrong before, and I am sure that Allen will use this preseason as a perfect opportunity to show the public his skills, and maybe land himself a job in Foxboro.