By: Steve Balestrieri
With the focus on many in New England on the unwelcome and untimely arrival of Irene, the New England Patriots are in Michigan to play their third pre-season game against the Detroit Lions. This is an important one as this is as close as a ‘dress rehearsal’ as most teams get in their preparation for Opening Day. Of course in regards to dress rehearsals I like to go by Willie Nelson’s motto that we used to use in the US Army Special Forces; “There are no dress rehearsals, we are professionals and this is the big time.”
While Bill Belichick is a more Bon Jovi man than Willie, I think this will fit his description as well. But a couple of questions remain about tonight’s game and these are 5 Keys to Watch For in Tonight’s Game.
Last week the Buccaneers were supposed to give the Pats a stern test but they came out flat and were demolished 31-14. The Lions are much improved and Matthew Stafford and the passing game should provide a nice measuring stick for the Patriots improving defense.
Will they continue to bring the heat on defense?: Forget about the alignments, 3-4, 4-3 whatever. Bill can call it a 7-0 for all I care, besides it’s all a media fabrication anyway…right?
But the short answer is I believe yes. They will continue to bring pressure and I will try to give a good reason why. The game is continually evolving; it wasn’t long ago that QBs’ goals were to complete 60% of their passes. Now they routinely complete 65% of their throws. With the improved accuracy in the short/medium passing game, sitting back in coverage is not going to get the job done.
For proof look at the Patriots 3rd down defense last year, one of the worst statistically in the modern game. To combat this, you need to attack the offense at its point of attack, the QB and disrupt the timing of the receivers and not allow them to run the play called. It also forces the QBs to audible or make a hot read. When forced to do this, inexperienced QBs tend to make mistakes.
As one NFL executive said, “Belichick isn’t reacting, he’s dictating” and in a nutshell that what he is doing. He’s dictating to the offense what they are going to do and take away what the opposition does best. Of course by doing this it also puts more pressure on the defensive backs and puts them in more man-to-man coverage. Devin McCourty aced his test last year and should only get better. With the return of a healthy Leigh Bodden, the Patriots have two good corners in place to play more man coverage.
Injured players, who plays? : With Matt Light, Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, James Sanders, Brandon Tate and Shane Vereen all coming back from injuries, will they play and how much and how effective.
In regards to the first three, to me it’s not important if they play at all, it is more important that they be ready to go in the opener in Miami. But I will admit, I am intrigued by the DL play when Haynesworth, Wilfork, Ellis and Carter get on the field together. But we may have to wait for that for a couple of more weeks.
It’s much more important however, that the latter three get on the field. Vereen was a high draft choice and supposed to be the eventual replacement for Kevin Faulk on third downs. But he’s been limited and at training camp we saw him only once, so he is a question mark at this point until we can see something.
Tate and Sanders at this point may very well be playing for their jobs. Tate started off last year strong on kick returns but faded badly down the stretch. He never truly amounted to the deep threat receiver they hoped for, catching only 24 passes last year.
Sanders isn’t flashy, but he’s effective and tough and the calming veteran presence in the secondary. He is best at communication, a point that still seems lacking in the Patriots so far. If he is healthy, he adds a lot to the secondary.
Brady to Ochocinco: We expect to hear that a lot this season, but by his own admission, Chad Ochocinco hasn’t gotten all the way on-board with the Patriots offense. I would hope that he and Tom Brady find some more chemistry this week against a very improved Lions team. Neither will play much if at all next week, so this week, look for them to try to hook up.
Offensive line play against the Lions: With Suh, he wreaked havoc on the Pats in the early going of the Thanksgiving Day game, and if anything, he’s only gotten better, so the big question is how will they handle him? The other question would be, will the Pats line up big Nate Solder at guard again or was it simply Belichick wanting to see what the rookie was made of. Either way, the Patriots face a much stiffer test this week against the Lions. Brady was sacked and harassed badly in the first half last Thanksgiving, and the Pats OL will want a much better performance.
And finally, who steps up this week from the bubble players: We all like to root for the underdog, its ingrained in us as Americans. The Pats have plenty of bubble players who may be getting close to being cut, so which one of them steps up this week? It seems every year the Patriots have at least one undrafted free agent make the team and contribute. This year, my money is on TE Will Yeatman, but there are a couple of more players who can still catch the eye of the coaches this week. Another dark horse candidate could be WR Jeremy Ross on offense or DL Aaron Levarias on defense.
We’ll bring you as much post-game coverage as time allows, with Hurricane Irene bearing down on us, (as of this writing at 2:30 a.m.) so we may be faced with lack of power or internet access.
Stay safe along the East Coast, batten down the hatches and don’t go out if you don’t have to. Why is it, they name the most destructive storms after women?
Follow me on Twitter @ SteveB7SFG