This is it. Friday night in Washington is the third preseason game of the year for the Patriots -- traditionally, it’s the preseason game where the starters play the most. It’s the last chance to see a reasonable facsimile of New England’s starting offense and defense in game action before Opening Night against Buffalo Sept. 14.
All week in Foxborough, it’s felt less like preseason and more like a regular-season week. There’s less big picture stuff and more film work, game-planning and situational football.
“When you’re out there in the third preseason game, you’re through those early phases of training camp where you made a lot of those mistakes,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “We’re not in a two-a-day schedule anymore, so you actually have time to watch film on the opponent you’re playing. It’s very much like a normal week for us here, in terms of the schedule and film study.”
Here are five things we’ll be keeping an eye on:
Game shape. You can only do so much to replicate game action in practice, and with the starters likely set to play well into the second half Friday night against the Redskins -- in what will likely be typically steamy August conditions in the D.C. suburbs -- it’ll be a good test for both the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense to see if they are both ready to handle regular-season conditions.
“It’s going to be our first time playing a number of snaps,” said veteran safety James Sanders. “It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of shape we really are in, because game shape and practice shape are totally different.”
As is always the case this preseason, Brady will bear watching. He played 24 snaps in the preseason opener against the Eagles, and 13 a week later against the Bengals. If form holds, look for him to get up into the thirties on Friday. Thus far, he has been able to pass every test in the rehab process, and Friday presents another challenge for his surgically repaired left knee. If he does take that many snaps, it’ll mark the first time since his surgery that he’s played at least two consecutive quarters, and it would mark the most football he’s played at one time in just over 18 months.
The cornerbacks. Unless veteran Leigh Bodden does something spectacularly awful over the next two weeks, he’s pretty much played himself into one of the starting cornerback positions with a very good camp and two solid preseason games. And now that second-year corner Jonathan Wilhite is out of the red non-contact jersey, he’s got the inside track on the other starting cornerback job. Look for both to go deep into Friday’s game.
But how will the rest of the field shake out? Rookie Darius Butler had a strong night against the Bengals, while second-year corner Terrence Wheatley -- who looked brilliant at times last season -- appeared a step behind on several occasions. What to think of veteran Shawn Springs, who has struggled at times to see the field and was a mixed bag last Thursday against Cincinnati?
Wheatley’s performance has been the most troubling. Before he was injured midway through last season, he was clearly playing very well -- before getting hurt against the Colts in November, he made a sensational play to break up a Peyton Manning pass for Marvin Harrison. And at the start of training camp, he appeared ready to challenge for a starting job.
But running with the second-team defense last week against the Bengals, he was clearly being targeted by the Cincinnati offense.
“I have to go back and look at the technique,” Wheatley said. “I’m not sure what more I could do technique-wise. I have to go back and look at the film. But I have to get better than that.”
Tight ends. This has been a great position battle. Just when we were ready to write off Benjamin Watson, he returns to what appears to be a regular practice schedule, which means he looks like he’s in line to play Friday night against the Redskins. Chris Baker, who caught a pair of touchdown passes in the preseason opener against the Eagles, will also see plenty of snaps. Dave Thomas and Alex Smith will also be looking to make their mark in the biggest preseason game of the four.
Handicapping the race is difficult, but it was interesting to hear Belichick single out Baker this week, saying, “Chris, in particular, has come in and done a good job in all areas that we’ve asked him to work in.” Those words make me think that Baker is the leader in the clubhouse in a pitched position battle the likes of which Belichick has never seen before in New England.
“I would say it’s the best we’ve had. I think it’s been good,” Belichick said when asked about this year’s tight end battle. “I think Chris [Baker] has really shown that he can adapt to our system and he's done a good job, really, in all the areas. Benjamin [Watson] has missed a little bit of time, but he’s performed in the opportunities that he's had and we’ve certainly seen him over the last few years.
“Dave [Thomas], even though he was here last year, I think he still is improving, over the course of last year and this year combined. Athletically, he looks more like he did his rookie year in terms of quickness, speed, explosiveness out of breaks and things like that. Alex [Smith] is a kind of combination of a couple different guys. He’s a bigger guy. He's more of a presence on the line of scrimmage. He’s a pretty athletic guy that can run and be a factor down the field in the passing game, too.”
The running game. So much of the focus of the Patriots offense through the first two games has been about Brady’s return and re-establishing No. 12 in the passing game, so the running game can be excused for not getting a lot of pub. But when it’s counted in the first two games, the running game hasn’t looked crisp at all.
Fred Taylor drew his first start Thursday night against the Bengals, and the veteran running back finished with seven carries for 26 yards. Laurence Maroney’s preseason line: Two games, nine carries, 20 yards. Meh. Sammy Morris ran for 45 yards on 12 carries in the preseason opener, but much of that came in the second half against backups. (Morris didn’t play against the Bengals.) And as is usually the case, Kevin Faulk has been more of a presence in the passing game than the running game. (37 yards receiving, 14 yards rushing in two preseason games.)
The only running back who has looked consistently good has been BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but much of his good work has come long after the starters have departed, so his numbers (14 rushes, 75 yards over two games) must be taken with a grain of salt.
Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk have been absent from the stretching portion of practice recently, which is a sign they might not dress for the game. That could mean more touches for Maroney, Green-Ellis and Taylor.
“As a game, I really don’t care if it's preseason or regular season. It’s a game. I treat every game the same -- go out there and go hard,” Maroney said. “I really don’t know how long I’m going to play. I just know that whenever I do play, just be ready.”
Communication and chemistry. In the first half of last Thursday’s game against the Bengals, Brady was flattened by Cincinnati’s Robert Geathers, leaving Gillette Stadium awfully quiet. On the play, it appeared right tackle Nick Kaczur was beaten badly by the Bengals’ lineman, who looked like he simply raced around the slower Kaczur on the way to a frightening hit on the quarterback.
But it turns out the negative play was Brady’s fault -- it was supposed to be a draw to Taylor. However, Brady held on to the ball, and Taylor ran by him. Geathers raced past Kaczur -- who actually pushed him upfield, as you are supposed to in a run-blocking situation -- and Brady was hammered.
“That was my fault, and I certainly deserve that,” Brady told WEEI this week. “I made a poor decision and I’m the one who paid for it. We learned from it, and we’re moving on. … He certainly shouldn’t have been looked poorly upon for that play.”
The preseason is for ironing out problems with overthrows, blown coverage and miscommunication. In the final meaningful preseason contest of the year -- the last preseason game where the starters are going to see meaningful minutes anyway -- Friday will be as good a time as any to take care of those sorts of glitches.