In preseason football, wins and losses are incidental. Never was this more deftly illustrated than last season, when the Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the preseason -- and 0-16 in the regular season. The lesson? In the preseason, there are far more important things to watch than the scoreboard. To that end, here are five things we’ll be keeping an eye on Thursday night in Philadelphia when the Patriots take the field for the first time in the 2009 preseason.
How Tom Brady moves in the pocket. When it comes to No. 12, they’ll be plenty of stuff worth keeping an eye on -- how he reacts to rushers, his timing with his receivers (old and new) and his ability to keep up with the overall game speed.
But one thing in particular that needs to be noted Thursday is what he does while in the pocket. One of the things that make Brady a truly great quarterback is his ability to sense pressure while in the pocket, and to move subtly from side to side to buy himself that extra second or two in an attempt to find a receiver. On Thursday, after almost a year away from the game, will he still have that same sixth sense when it comes to detecting pressure while in the pocket?
Throughout the spring practices and into training camp this summer, we have seen Brady pass every test in the rehab process, but we haven’t seen him forced to operate under pressure. With the understanding that it is still just the preseason, we’ll get a small taste Thursday night of what to expect when the regular season rolls around.
“There’re a lot of things you can simulate in practice, but in the games they’re just, they’re very different,” Brady said.
Who takes more snaps at the No. 2 quarterback position. After watching most of the 22 training camp practices the Patriots have had, in my opinion, Andrew Walter has moved ahead of Kevin O’Connell on the depth chart. The former Raiders’ signal-caller has appeared more and more confident with each practice, and coach Bill Belichick said Walter is becoming “more comfortable in the huddle each day.”
“[He’s] a talented kid, good arm, accurate with the ball,” Belichick said of the former Raiders’ QB. “A lot of the things we do [are] a little bit different from what he did out in Oakland, but he’s had experience in the spread offense from Arizona State. So it’s not like he hasn’t done it before, but not as much recently. He’s coming along and working hard at it.”
Since Walter arrived, O’Connell has seen reduced reps. And more often than not this camp, when the quarterbacks are working on quarterback-specific drills, it’s Brady and Walter who get the call, while O’Connell and rookie Brian Hoyer are part of some scout team on another part of the field.
Who gets meaningful reps at cornerback. Training camp opened with veteran newcomers Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden as the de facto starting corners. Bodden has had an impressive start, including some really good work in one-on-one coverage against wide receiver Randy Moss, but Springs has struggled to see the field and Terrence Wheatley has had a great training camp.
It’s likely that Bodden and Wheatley will get the call to start Thursday night, but after that, it might be anyone’s guess. The depth chart remains fluid -- Jonathan Wilhite started slowly, but has come on the last few days with some impressive performances. Darius Butler, Mike Richardson and Jamar Love could also still figure into the mix when it comes to adding depth.
The return game. Talk about a fluid position -- last year’s kick returner (Ellis Hobbs, who was second-best returner in the league with an average of 28.5 yards a return) was dealt to Philadelphia. Matthew Slater did a little work as a kick returner last year, but struggled in place of Hobbs. In camp, several players have auditioned for the role, including Slater, Laurence Maroney, Terrence Wheatley, Kevin Faulk and Wes Welker.
There’s the same sort of uncertainty when it comes to punt returns. Faulk and Welker were the primary punt returners last season, but you have to imagine that the Patriots would like to keep both important veterans as far from the return game as possible. That leaves Julian Edelman.
An intriguing possibility -- the seventh-round pick out of Kent State said he’s “about a thousand punts away from where I want to be” -- he’s gotten a TON of experience at the punt return spot in camp, and has impressed new special teams coach Scott O’Brien with his overall dedication.
“We’ve got punt returners working -- everybody knows Wes Welker, everybody knows Kevin Faulk -- but we’ve got Julian Edelman, who is trying to develop into one,” O’Brien said of the collegiate quarterback, who is trying to make the adjustment to wide receiver/returner at the NFL level. “And he’s learning, not only catching the ball, there’s a lot more to it. There’s field awareness; where did you catch it at? Where did you start? What do we have on the field? Are we singling outside?
“There’re a lot of things going through his mind, but he has to understand and we have to teach him situations based on trying to stay a step ahead. There’s nothing more important than catching the football and protecting it, don’t get me wrong, but there’s more to it than that. So we’re kind of bringing him along.”
In addition, O’Brien mentioned both rookies Darius Butler and Pat Chung as possibly seeing time in the return game as well.
What sort of personnel packages the Patriots use along their defensive front. Throughout the first two weeks of training camp, New England has used a wide variety of personnel and a varying array of looks on defense, especially up front, and many of those schemes have incorporated rookie defensive lineman Ron Brace. Alongside veterans like Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, the Boston College product hasn’t looked overwhelmed at all through the first few weeks of his NFL career.
Belichick, who has Brace working at end and defensive tackle, has been impressed with the 6-foot-3, 330-pounders versatility.
“He’s got good height and a good long frame to play end, as opposed to some players who might be big players, 300-pounders that don’t have the length to play out there,” Belichick said of Brace, who played defensive tackle at BC. “I think Ron has that combination of size and power and length.
“When you’re playing against those offensive tackles — those guys that are 6-5, 6-6, with 34-inch arms, 35-inch arms — it’s hard for a 6-1 player to really be able to play against that kind of length. You generally have taller players playing out there, generally speaking.”