FOXBOROUGH -- Before the final Patriots’ preseason game at Gillette Stadium a few years ago, the captains were at midfield before the game for the coin toss joking with each other about how little they were going to play. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi flashed the opposing captains the bottoms of his shoes -- no cleats.
We probably won’t see the same sort of pregame hilarity Thursday night when the Patriots take the field against the Giants in the fourth preseason game of 2009. And the game won’t have the same level of drama and passion we’ll see next Monday in the season opener against the Bills. But there will still be a few things worth looking out for -- here are five we’ll be keeping an eye on Thursday night:
Andrew Walter. Here’s your shot, son. With Kevin O’Connell headed for Detroit, Walter will get every shot Thursday night to really put a hammerlock on the No. 2 job -- expect him to play deep into the contest. (We’ll also see some of rookie undrafted free agent Brian Hoyer.)
But if Walter does stink up the joint, it doesn’t sound like the Patriots are in any rush to get rid of him. Coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that Walter came into the process later than most, having been acquired on Aug. 3, and has faced an uphill battle when it came to getting up to speed on the New England offense. Belichick sounds like he’ll give Walter some more time to try and get things down than some other players in his situation.
“I think that we want to give him a fair opportunity to pick things up,” Belichick said. “He’s improved in a lot of areas. It’s a new offense for him and he’s worked to get those things down and try to execute our offense. There’s some new learning going on there.
“There’re some things that we’ve asked him to do that he hasn’t had a chance to do yet or he’s only had a chance to do them one or two times and maybe -- certainly -- not in all the situations that he could see given all the coverages that we face. We want to continue to work with him.”
Derrick Burgess. He’s in the same boat at Walter -- he got in late (the trade with Oakland went down on Aug. 6) and is playing catch-up as the regular-season looms. He is clearly still working to get up to speed in the New England system. Like Walter, in a lot of ways, he’s been forced to re-learn how to play football -- a stretch in Oakland will do that to you.
“It’s going good. They’re helping me with it, so it’s working out fine so far,” Burgess said. “Whatever situation coach puts me in, I’ll react to and try to do my best to learn. I’m still working. It’s still a work in progress.”
With New England, he has yet to really display his pass-rushing skills -- he has one quarterback hit over the first three weeks of the preseason. But as long as he keeps trending upward, based on his performance over the course of the preseason, he still projects to play defensive end on passing downs in New England’s 4-3 defensive scheme.
“I think Derrick has come in here and has done a real good job of picking up our system,” Belichick said of the former Raiders’ defensive end. “I think what we do, in some ways, [is] quite a bit different from what he’s done the last few years out in Oakland or even in Philadelphia before that. He’s done a good job with that from an assignment standpoint and to some degree from a technique standpoint, too. I think he’s coming along well.”
Burgess will likely be the exception instead of the rule Thursday night -- you won’t see many guys at his age and with his skill level playing against the Giants. But in the interest of getting him as many game reps as possible, look for him to see some time in the preseason finale.
The No. 3 receivers job. To this point, the expected battle between Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis for the job of third receiver has turned out to be underwhelming. With the understanding that you can’t measure overall ability based solely on game action -- instead, it’s a single piece in the overall evaluation of a player -- Galloway and Lewis have been sadly lacking: Galloway has six catches for 49 yards and Lewis has two catches for 26 yards.
It’s not like neither one of them has been given the opportunity to take control of the situation -- through three preseason games, Galloway has had 12 passes thrown in his direction, second only to the 14 passes thrown toward Randy Moss. (Lewis has been targeted seven times.)
To be fair, they are new faces in a new system, and so -- like Walter and Burgess -- the learning curve is different. It’s going to take a while to get the intricacies of the Patriots’ passing game down. But with the regular-season right around the corner, New England might not be able to afford to wait on these two much longer. After all, there’s a reason people are openly speculating about the possible return of Deion Branch to New England.
The starters won’t see a whole lot of time Thursday night, but these two might see more action than most veterans because once you get past Moss and Wes Welker, the overall wide receiver hierarchy is yet to be settled.
Tight end. The best position battle in camp will continue to be a fight until the very last moment on cutdown day. It appears Benjamin Watson may have been able to do enough to save his job, but Chris Baker has almost certainly passed him on the overall depth chart at this point in the preseason -- Baker has been able to post some quality receptions, especially in the red zone.
In the preseason, Dave Thomas has shown a willingness to be moved all over the field, including fullback, which helps his chances because the Patriots don’t have a traditional fullback on the roster. All this means veteran Alex Smith may be the odd man out. (This story seems to indicate that New England could deal Smith to the Eagles.) But a strong performance in the preseason finale could convince New England to carry an extra tight end, perhaps at the expense of one of the running backs (BenJarvus Green-Ellis?).
The defensive backs. The starting defensive backs appear pretty well entrenched -- at corner, it’s Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite, and at safety, it’s James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. Behind them, it’s still a bit of an uncertain situation, and a solid performance by the second- or third-teamers Thursday could go a long way toward securing a spot on the final 53.
At corner, veteran Shawn Springs has struggled to see the field, but if he’s been able to get over whatever it is that’s ailed him, he will also figure into the mix, possibly as a starter. Second-year corner Terrence Wheatley has been ineffective in the preseason and has slid down the depth chart as a result, while rookie Darius Butler remains a wild card -- he’s made some big plays, but could still be a year or so away from being able to contribute on a regular basis.
At safety, rookie Pat Chung has looked steady, and could be the sort of player who has an impact on the New England defense this season if the Patriots choose to use some personnel packages that feature an extra defensive back or two. Matthew Slater could also offer depth at the safety spot, although his real value probably lies more on special teams. The rest of the DBs -- Herana-Daze Jones, Roderick Rogers, Jamar Love and Ray Ventrone -- are all fighting for a final roster spot or two.