Here are seven things we’re looking for when the Patriots host the Panthers Friday night in Foxboro in the third preseason game for both teams:
How much Tom Brady plays.
If history holds, Brady will play roughly 35-40 snaps over the course of Friday night’s game. Here’s a look at his workload in the third preseason game over the seven years:
2013: 16-for-24 for 185 yards and one pick in 45 snaps.
2012: 13-for-20 for 127 yards with 1 TD, one INT, 2 sacks in 45 snaps.
2011: 12-for-22 for 145 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT in 37 snaps. (In this one, Brady was knocked around pretty good in this game against a physical Lions front — he was sacked twice, fumbled once and was hit seven times.)
2010: 18-for-22 for 273 yards with 3 TDs in 30 snaps.
2009: 12-for-19 for 150 yards with 2 TDs, one sack in 29 snaps,
2007: 17-for-22 for 167 yards with 2 TDs (no snap information available).
Ideally, that would get him through the entirety of the first half and the first offensive series of the second half — it’s important for Brady and the starting offense to do as much as possible to simulate the regular-season experience. That includes finishing off the first half, taking the traditional break at halftime, and then returning to the field for the first series of the second half.
How much Stevan Ridley plays and if he holds on to the ball.
Ridley was in the spotlight again last week after losing the handle in the preseason win over the Eagles. Fair or not, his issues with ball security will continue to dog him until he proves he can hold on to the football for an extended stretch. Against Philly — even though it was a flukish looking fumble — it probably wasn’t entirely coincidental that he didn’t play any more after he put the ball on the ground, ending with 13 snaps. If he can put together a fumble-free outing against the Panthers, it’s an initial step in the right direction.
How the defense adjusts to the new points of emphasis.
We’ve seen a ton of flags over the course of the preseason as every gets used to the new points of emphasis. (According to ESPN Stats & Information, as of Thursday night, there were 116 defensive holding calls through Week 3 of the preseason. In the same stretch last year, there were 27.) While some cornerbacks have fundamentally shrugged their shoulders at the situation, it seems like there will be some sort of happy medium between now and the start of the regular season, as head of officiating Dean Blandino told NFL Network Thursday night, “When the regular season rolls around, everybody will be on the same page. I think you’ll see the foul totals go down.” Whether that means the officials will dial things back or the players will be fully up to speed on what they can and can’t do, no one knows. But the education for both the Patriots and Panthers will continue on Friday in Foxboro.
Who doesn’t play.
At this point, despite the fact that he was in pads and going through what appeared to be limited contact on Monday, it seems like a bit of reach to have Rob Gronkowski play at this point of the summer. (That would mean that recently re-signed rookie Justin Jones, as well as Steve Maneri and tight end/fullback James Develin would presumably get a good look at tight end.) The same is true for receiver Aaron Dobson, who is still working his way back from offseason foot surgery and is clearly not yet at 100 percent — it seems to be a stretch to have him on the field at this point. In addition, even though rookie defensive tackle Dominique Easley was at practice with his teammates in full pads on Monday, it seems a little early to try and throw him into the pool when it comes to playing time. (More of a chance for Joe Vellano, who exhaled again after Marcus Forston was cut loose on Thursday. Between the Forston release and the injury issues to Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, Vellano has moved up the depth chart at defensive tackle without doing much of anything at all.) One question mark at this point is linebacker Jerod Mayo, who returned to practice this week after missing the three joint practices against the Eagles — he was predictably noncommittal when asked if he was going to be good to go this week, but if he doesn’t play, it will give another chance for youngsters like Steve Beauharnais to show what he can do when placed in the middle. And right tackle Sebastian Vollmer wasn’t spotted at practice all week, so it would be a shocker if he was out there with his teammates Friday.
How the guys on the bubble perform.
There are several players who have been around a year or two who need a good performance against the Panthers. With the first round of cuts around the corner (as of Thursday night, the Patriots have 87 players on their roster, but have to get to 75 by Tuesday afternoon), they need to get as much good stuff on film as possible, and are being pushed by either fellow vets or rookies for playing time.
The offensive line.
The Patriots rolled out a series of different combinations along the offensive line over the first two preseason games, and while you have to figure that things are relatively secure at the tackle spots (even though Vollmer has been banged up lately and won’t play Friday, when healthy, he’s the starting right tackle, while Nate Solder starts opposite him at left tackle) and left guard (Logan Mankins), there are still questions about what the Patriots want to do at the right guard and center positions. Dan Connolly has taken snaps at both spots, and figures to be in the mix for one of the jobs. Meanwhile, Jordan Devey has worked as a backup guard, as well as a starting right guard when Connolly moves to center. And veteran incumbent center Ryan Wendell has been yanked in and out of the lineup over the course of the summer. (We haven’t even touched on injured rookie center Bryan Stork, who has missed most of the last week-plus because of an unspecified health issue.) Expect Marcus Cannon to get the bulk of the snaps at right tackle in place of Vollmer, and the rest of the starters to go deep in this one. But with the understanding that the third game is traditionally the domain of the starters for the first two-plus quarters and because protection of Brady remains paramount, this will be one positional grouping we’ll be keeping a very close eye on in the early going.
The rookies — specifically Malcolm Butler, Jimmy Garoppolo, James White and Roy Finch.
Because so many veterans will be involved in the early stages of the game Friday night, this contest figures to be the closest thing to real regular-season reps for rookies as they are going to get before Week 1 against the Dolphins. In many ways, it will be a final exam for many of the rookies who have distinguished themselves over the course of the summer as potential impact players. Butler figures to get another good, long look — he took a team-high 49 snaps last week against the Eagles, according to Pro Football Focus — and could really cement his spot on the roster with another good outing Friday against the Panthers. (Although it remains to be seen how much he would have played if Alfonzo Dennard was healthy, there’s also the fact that you want to get as long a look as possible at an unknown like Butler.) Garoppolo should be relegated to second half duty, although it will be interesting to see when he plays, as Ryan Mallett was at practice all week. White has been underwhelming at times in game action, but has been mostly sharp in practice and both Bill Belichick and Brady speak highly of the fourth-rounder out of Wisconsin. And Finch had 71 yards from scrimmage last week against Philly, and averaged 7.9 yards per offensive touch. (He also averaged 26 yards on his two chances as a kick returner.) He should get a chance to build on that Friday against Carolina.