Saturday, August 27, 2011

Patriots vs. Lions -- what to watch for

If you live in Patriots country, Hurricane Irene will probably force you inside for the evening, so here are four things to watch in tonight’s preseason game against the Lions.

1.  Injuries at running back make it difficult to predict who might play, but no matter who is on the field, there will be something to watch for. Impressive rookie Stevan Ridley makes quick cuts and has excellent burst and down field moves. But if he plays, watch how he does in pass protection. If he learns his role in protecting Tom Brady well, he could be your opening day starter.

Fellow rookie Shane Vereen appears nearly recovered enough from a hamstring injury and he could play against Detroit. If he gets on the field, watch how quickly he cuts and reaches full speed, both would be problems if the hamstring isn’t ready. Also, if he plays with the starting unit, he should average over five yards a carry, because the Patriots offensive line has been tearing it up this preseason.

If Danny Woodhead gets to play, keep an eye on him in pass protection or blocking down field. After his concussion last week, he might shy away from contact instinctively, though one would not expect that, given his well-known toughness. Also, he has averaged eight yards per carry this preseason, so track that closely and you’ll know whether or not he’s a step slow.

2.  The defensive secondary has to perform well, and the Lions should be a good test. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill torched the Patriots in the first half of last year’s Thanksgiving game: 15 for 22, 126 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions. And this time, it will be starter Matthew Stafford under center, and both teams should play starters for most of the first half.

The main question is whether or not cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden can recapture the skills of their best years with the Patriots (2010 and 2009, respectively). Both saw their first preseason action last week against the Buccaneers, and neither got beaten for anything big. However, the Patriots defensive line dominated that game, so the corners didn’t have to extend themselves much at all.

One other question in the secondary is the status of the safety position.. Beyond Patrick Chung, the competition for the second spot is wide open, with sometime starter James Sanders nursing a hamstring injury and annual disappointment Brandon Meriweather living up (or down) to his reputation. Undrafted free agent Sergio Brown got more reps a practice this week, and it might be telling who gets more time with the first team against the Lions -- since the third preseason game is often considered a warm-up for the regular season.

3. At receiver, Chad Ochocino looked lost on the field last week, and he needs to show progress, if not play perfectly. He is not as central to the Patriots success as some have said, but he has to prove he’s getting the hang of the Patriots complex passing game, or the team might not keep him around. And missing routes and then looking dumbfounded on the sideline again won’t help his cause.

Taylor Price is reportedly healthy again, and if he can duplicate his game against Jacksonville, he might get himself a roster spot in a very competitive receiver race. And that would give him the chance to show his speed and become the deep threat the Patriots really need. (Just don’t expect much of that tonight -- the Lions pass rush will probably dictate a short passing game.)

4. On the defensive line, slight injuries and typical Patriots sleight of hand make it very tough to know who will play from week to week. Expect either Albert Haynesworth and/or Shaun Ellis to make an appearance tonight, and watch specifically if they can move the line back toward the quarterback (assuming they get in the game). Also monitor the progress of Andre Carter -- do the Lions game plan specifically to contain him, or will he get single coverage again.

Perhaps the biggest problem on defensive line is the numbers game, especially for veteran Mike Wright and recent signee Ellis. Expect Albert Haynesworth to make the team, based solely on potential even if he skips the entire preseason. But if Ellis or Wright can’t get on the field, it will be tough to keep them and let Carter or Eric Moore go based on performance so far. And also expect the team to keep improving Myron Pryor and second-year pro Jermaine Cunningham.

Beyond any injuries, those are a few things I’ll be watching tonight. Enjoy the game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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