The regular season is swiftly approaching, as the Patriots are gearing up for their third (and most important) preseason matchup of the year. Generally speaking, the third preseason game is where most coaches keep their first units in the game much longer than they do in the other preseason contests. The 2013 preseason brings the Patriots to Ford Field in Detroit, to take on the high flying Lions. This is shaping up to be a good test for the Patriots defense, specifically the secondary. The Lions finished the 2012 campaign second in passing yards, with quarterback Matthew Stafford and superstar receiver Calvin Johnson leading the charge.
The Patriots have come a long way this summer, as they have integrated a lot of young, new players into their sophisticated system. Thursday night will be a great time to see these new players in the best game situation they will encounter before the actual regular season kicks off.
There will be a lot to watch when these two squads take the field, but here are five things that I think you should keep an attentive eye on, as the game progresses.
1. Amendola’s Health
Newcomer Danny Amendola missed practice on Monday and Tuesday this week, due to an undisclosed reason. Coach Bill Belichick says he is “day to day”. Missing two straight practices is a pretty good indication that he will not participate in Thursday’s contest. Amendola has built an impressive connection with quarterback Tom Brady over the course of this offseason, and that rapport was on full display in the Patriots first two drives in their win over the Buccaneers last Friday night. Amendola is primed for a big season, and I think the Patriots will play it safe against the Lions, so Amendola is 100% for the regular season. However, it is possible that Amendola plays a couple of series’, to further enhance the connection between him and Brady. After all, that is why Brady still played after his injury scare last week. Getting the connection down between Brady and all the receivers, is extremely important, and that will be something to watch come tomorrow night.
2. Starters Playing Time
As I mentioned before, the third preseason game is generally where the starters get much more playing time than other preseason tilts. Belichick usually abides to this thinking, but you never know with him. Belichick has kept Brady in the game well into the fourth quarter in previous years, and he may do the same this year (Christopher Price of of WEEI.com has a terrific breakdown of Brady in the third preseason game over the last few years. You can read this piece here). I think that Bill will let his his starters play a good amount of the game, mainly to see how they may look as a group on September 8th in Buffalo. The offense has looked crisp and explosive over the first two preseason games, and even though Amendola may not play, I expect similar results against Detroit.
3. Wide Receiver Depth Chart
Last week against Tampa Bay, rookie Kenbrell Thompkins was the first rookie receiver that saw the field for New England. I can’t say that this came as a big surprise, because he was extremely impressive the week before in Philadelphia, and all the reports coming out of training spoke highly of Thompkins. But what did come as a surprise, was seeing Josh Boyce on the field before highly touted rookie Aaron Dobson. Dobson didn’t finish training camp nearly as well as he started it, and we saw the results last Friday as he slipped down the depth chart. Part of this reasoning may have been the game-plan for that particular night, but I really think that Thompkins has built such a strong rapport with Brady this summer, that Brady now favors him over the more explosive Dobson. I look forward to seeing how this receiver situation shakes out against the Lions, especially now that Amendola may not see any action.
4. Defensive Tackle Depth
This issue has been widely documented over the last few weeks, because it is one of the biggest issues the Patriots face as the regular season approaches. Behind veterans Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, the Pats do not have any really depth to deploy on the inside. Defensive end Marcus Benard has been forced to play on the inside this preseason, and when he has, the Patriots run defense has suffered. Benard is a solid pass rusher, and if he is used from the edge, I think he can put up some big numbers. But when he is asked to play defensive tackle, that is beginning to reach out of his skill set, and the Pats suffer because of that. Rookies Joe Vellano and Cory Grissom have both had their moments this preseason, and the same can be said for second year player Marcus Forston. But none of these guys have truly proven that they can be solid all around contributors on this Patriots team. Thursday night will present another opportunity for these guys to prove themselves as backups behind Kelly and Wilfork, and we will see if they answer the call.
5. The Secondary
The defensive backfield was one of the areas where the Patriots felt that they improved upon this offseason, and were ready to take the next step in 2013. Thus far this preseason, injuries have hampered this thought, and it may bring another horrid defensive year for New England. Alfonzo Dennard hasn’t been able to get healthy this summer, and he is easily the second best corner on this squad. Dennard’s ability to play solid man coverage allows the Patriots defense to do a lot of aggressive things, and this is where they are at their finest. But if Dennard isn’t able to get healthy, it will force rookie Logan Ryan into action, and while he has been impressive this preseason, he is not the defender that Dennard is. The next guy on the injury list among the DB’s, is Ras-I Dowling. The former second round pick just doesn’t seem to know how to stay healthy. He missed most of his first two seasons with New England, and it doesn’t look good for him to see the playing field in 2013. Dowling was expected to be a guy that could bolster the depth of this secondary, but he cannot do that if he is unable to get healthy. The last guy on this list is Devin McCourty. His issue is not whether or not he will be able to play come September, but rather if he will play on Thursday night. McCourty has worn a red, no-contact jersey throughout training camp due to some shoulder surgery he underwent this offseason, however, he shed the no-contact jersey this week, and that may be a sign that he will return to the lineup against Detroit.
One non-injury related item I want to talk about that has to do with the secondary, is the amount of reps that rookies Logan Ryan, and Justin Green are getting this preseason, and will most likely get again tomorrow night. Because of the injuries that Dennard and Dowling have had, it has forced Ryan and Green into action, and I have been extremely impressed with what I have seen. Both guys have shown an innate ability to play physical man coverage, and while they get beat at times, it is all part of the learning process. Neither of these guys are the corners that Talib and Dennard are, but this experience that they have received this preseason, may come in handy if Dennard and Dowling miss extended time in the regular season. I look forward to watching them again tomorrow night against the Lions.