The Patriots head into their second preseason game of 2013, and although many point to game three as THE game of the preseason, that isn’t necessarily true when it comes to younger players. Undrafted free agents and late round picks are battling to remain on the roster, and every play of the preseason matters for them. Not only are the young unknowns battling for their professional lives, so are some veterans. Here is what to watch for tonight:
1. Tom Brady- After a scare in practice on Wednesday, the Patriots are saying Brady will play and he simply suffered a bruise. Anytime you are talking about your franchise player, it must be watched. From and X’s and O’s standpoint, don’t be surprised to see Brady run a couple screens and a few play action passes. New England will open it up this year, but the core of this offense is changing.
2. Progress from Mallett and Tebow- When Brady went down, the first thought was “can Mallett handle the load and will Tebow have a shot?” Mallett has been very inconsistent in the preseason and needs to have a good game. Tebow has improved in practice and it should be interesting to watch him play tonight.
3. Consistency in the running game- The Patriots unleashed their five-headed monster on the Eagles last week, and we saw exactly what I expected from the 2013 offense. Tonight is a good test for the offensive line; Tampa Bay isn’t the ’02 Bucs, but they have a better front than Philly.
4. Young receivers continue steady improvement- Again, facing the Eagles is one thing, but the Bucs are a different story. Can Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce continue to consistently improve? The young trio will get plenty of playing time tonight. Quentin Sims will get his fair share of targets when Tebow enters the game. I still see Sims as a long-shot for the 53-man roster and a definite for practice squad assuming he clears waivers.
5. Depth on the defensive line- Armond Armstead missed the entire training camp and has now reached the point where he is significantly behind. Tommy Kelly has looked very good and has shown the ability to rush the passer from the interior, something New England has lacked. Marcus Bernard has been a pleasant surprise and Justin Francis has shown the flexibility to play tackle and end, but the loss of Armstead is still hurting their overall depth.
6. Battle at safety- This is going to get interesting. Nate Ebner is strong on special teams, but is there room for him on this roster? Steve Gregory is still listed as the number one on the depth chart, but he isn’t a lock to make the team either. Competition leads to good, aggressive play, so I am looking forward to watching the Patriots safeties battle for jobs these next three weeks.
7. Rookie defenders need to contribute- Linebacker Jamie Collins has shown flashes in practice and against the Eagles last week, but he was also badly burned multiple times and clearly needs work. Tonight is another chance for him to build consistency in his game. Cornerback Logan Ryan had a good week of practice against the Bucs. The Patriots need him to step up with the looming Dennard suspension. Safety Duron Harmon was a surprise pick and has been just as surprising in camp, showing speed to cover the hash to the sideline and a nose for the ball. Harmon is also a thumper, something the New England secondary has lacked for some time. He should play most of the game tonight.
8. Battle for the punter position- Zoltan Mesko does all the little things right and is a solid punter. Ryan Allen makes rookie mistakes but absolutely booms the ball on most of his punts. Allen’ upside is high and he will be on an NFL roster. Although this battle hasn’t been pumped up by the media, it is a real battle and tonight will help decide who will eventually win the spot.
9. Is Gostkowski still an All-Pro Kicker? The proof is in the numbers, and the numbers show that Gostkowski was below average in 2012. I wanted the Patriots to restructure his contract or go after Caleb Sturgis, but it didn’t happen. The Dolphins drafted Sturgis and cut starter Dan Carpenter to give him the job. Hope I’m wrong, but it appears Gostkowski, who makes just over three million dollars per year, may be playing his final season in New England. If he is inconsistent to begin the year, he may see his Patriot career end before the season does.
10. Aggressiveness of the defense- The Patriots have been accused of being too passive and giving teams too many yards. They appear to have the personnel to get after the quarterback more. Will they finally commit to staying aggressive defensively? It all comes down to trust. Does BB trust them to not give up big plays? This is a significant step for the defense and is something to watch for.
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