The New England Patriots and New York Giants are set to face off in the fourth and final preseason game, with the Patriots defending Gillette with a 2-1 record in meaningless exhibition games and the Giants entering the most meaningless game of them all at 1-2. Well, the games look meaningless to most neutral fans who couldn’t care less about a bunch of backups fighting it out, but this game is very meaningful to those bubble guys. For the ones who survived the cut-down to 75, this is the final opportunity for them to impress before the cut-down to 53.
Tonight’s game will start in Foxboro at 7:30 p.m. ET in front of 68,756 fans at Gillette, and this game will be broadcasted on WBZ-TV CBS Boston. For those of you who don’t live in the New York or Boston markets (or Honolulu), you can watch this game on the NFL Network with the great Mike Mayock on the call. This game, however, will not be broadcasted to a national audience on radio, so only those tuning in locally on 98.5 can catch the game via radio.
Below are five assorted things I will be watching for in this game.
Tom Brady says that he expects to play today against the Giants in order to continue building up a rapport with his rookie receivers, and he knows how important it is to build chemistry in game situations. If the Patriots decide to sit Brady out, then we are going to see a lot of Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow, and that will be even more interesting. Mallett needs to finish this preseason strong if he wants a prayer at a starting gig with another team via a trade, while Tim Tebow needs to make huge strides in order to secure a spot on the 53-man roster. Tebow should be on the outside looking in, because project QBs who have shown up as little as he has don’t deserve to take up a spot on the final 53.
The New England Patriots decided to release Ras-I Dowling yesterday, and that puts more of a focus on the cornerbacks. Rookie Logan Ryan is the most interesting one to watch, but I am also plenty intrigued by a pair of UDFAs on the roster. Whenever a team releases a player as talented as Dowling (even if his injuries have completely undermined his 33rd-pick ability to this point), it always makes me wonder if the team is high on the players deeper on the depth chart. Those players are UDFAs Justin Green and Stephon Morris, who re-joined the Patriots on Monday upon health. Morris hasn’t played in a preseason game yet, so he could be a diamond in the rough if he shines tonight.
3. Jake Bequette vs. Michael Buchanan
There are some great position battles on this roster, and one of the best and most underrated ones is at defensive end. Jake Bequette was a third-round pick last year who spent the season on the 53-man roster but was inactive during games due to his rawness. Bequette has plenty of upside as a pass rusher, but he has been largely anonymous and blocked out of plays this preseason. Michael Buchanan inexplicably fell to the seventh round of the draft this year, and the athletic Illinois product should have been picked in the fourth or fifth. He has been just as bad as Bequette to this point, and whoever has the better day should make the roster. The other? Let’s just hope they slip through waivers and join the practice squad.
4. Jake Ballard
I don’t think Jake Ballard is out of the woods, and by that I mean this: Ballard still isn’t a lock to make the roster. Nothing has changed to make me believe that Ballard is in a better position than he was two weeks ago to crack the final 53. I believe that Ballard is a near-lock to make the roster and should make it over Daniel Fells (cost is a big issue in favor of Ballard), but Ballard needs to have a good game tonight against his former team. I came away thoroughly unimpressed with Ballard’s play against the Detroit Lions, and he looked horrible as a blocker. I hear people rave about Ballard’s blocking, but I haven’t seen anything in his career to this point that convinces me that Ballard is a good blocker. Fells has him in that regard, and blocking is extremely important for a backup tight end. This is especially true for Ballard, whose pass-catching skills (what made him a highly effective player in 2011 for the Giants) have most likely deteriorated significantly post-injury. While Ballard’s roster spot should be safe, it isn’t a lock and he needs to show more positives than negatives tonight.
5. Gilbert Pena
The New England Patriots decided to drop offensive lineman Brice Schwab, who played well in the first and third preseason games, in order to make room for an addition off of waivers in Gilbert Pena. A UDFA out of Ole Miss, Pena was recently cut by the Green Bay Packers, and he has a shot at making the Patriots roster. While I don’t anticipate him beating out both Marcus Forston and Joe Vellano, Pena has a fair shot, as he replaces Cory Grissom at DT on this roster. I viewed Grissom as a player well-worth keeping on the 53-man before his addition to the injured reserve list, and the fact that Armond Armstead was officially placed on the NFI serves to show that the Patriots still have a competition at DT for Pena, Vellano, and Forston to hash out in Week 4. This is a big opportunity for Pena, who could be the second Ole Miss UDFA to latch onto the Patriots roster (Brandon Bolden did it last year).