Patriots

What to look for: Patriots vs. Lions

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What to look for: Patriots vs. Lions

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran The Patriots have allowed one offensive touchdown in two preseason games and that was against their scrubs. They've scored 88 points. They look really good. One can say "it's only preseason" but what else have we got to go on, hmmmm? Nothing. Saturday night in Detroit, the Patriots will play preseason media darling Detroit. The Lions have gone 2-0 in this preseason themselves. With both teams figuring to give an effort that approximates what we'd see in the regular season, this should be a nice pre-Irene appetizer.What to look for in no particular order. 1. Uncle Albert's Unveiling Two preseason games in and we haven't seen whether Albert Haynesworth poses a bigger threat to the opposition or the team he joined.This has led toSmarmageddon.Haynesworth represents low-hanging fruit to columnists like the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy and radio shriek shows like Tony Massarotti. Shaughnessy burped out a 950-word column - 250 of whichcame in the form of quotes -that concluded Haynesworthin a Patriots uniform represents the greatest threat to New England since the Pilgrims landed nearly 400 years ago.Anyone who doesn't see that is either dense, in denial or on the take. Sports fans who like sports understand that Haynesworth isn't going to be their friend and stop by the house for dinner. They don't have to buy his jersey. They can tell their kids that Haynesworth's been kind of a donkey in the past and they can then guide those innocent children away from building shrines to Haynesworth and direct them to Deion Branch or Jerod Mayo if they want a Patriot to claim as their "favorite."Sportswriters covering teamsunderstand that players with spotty pasts will be employed. Themost measuredway to proceed is to reconcile yourself to that fact and be vigilant for signs of recidivism so that then you can, you know, absolutely eviscerate the player, the team and the owner. Unless you need a column. Now, where were we? Right. Football. Keep an eye peeled to see how Haynesworth is deployed. Is he out there with Vince Wilfork and Shaun Ellis? That's a lot of beef. And what's his conditioning look like? Can hemake it to third down? Will he play at all?Last week in Tampa was all positive for the Patriots' front and the question was how daunting they'd appear with Haynesworth and Ellis. We maysee in Detroit. 2. How's Woodhead's Head?Smushed last week by Tampa's Devin Holland, the Patriots running back staggered off the field with an addled mind. He recovered quickly and, in the locker room after the game, he scoffed at the notion he'd be anything but fine. He returned to practice earlier this week. Despite his quick recovery, Woodhead suffered a concussion last January as well. At his size, he's not built to last. With his style, he'll be his own worst enemy. It wouldn't be a bad idea to sit the little fella down for now. 3. Which Means Vereen?If Woodhead doesn't go, this may mean Shane Vereen can get some extra reps. The rookie second-rounder from Cal just began practicing again this week after suffering a hamstring injury. Stevan Ridley has established himself a bit with the extra reps available. Now it should be Vereen's turn. Look for him later in the game, though, because blitz pickup is Job One for Patriots backs and he probably hasn't shown enough to be trusted yet. 4. Wideout WondermentBetween Taylor Price, Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate, are there enough roster spots at wide receiver? One would have to think Price has established himself during camp. Edelman to a lesser extent. Tate? He's got catching up to do since missing a huge chunk of camp with an injury. With new kickoff rules lessening the need for a guy whose got value in that area, Tate needs to show he's a valuable, reliable player. I'm not sure he has the time to do it. 5. Welcome Back, Carter? The star of stars in last week's preseason game was Jerod Mayo. Close second? Andre Carter. The defensive end was a nuisance off the edge in a way we haven't seen since... ummm... really, in a way we haven't seen. Bill Belichick said some of it was attributable to Tampa's offensive line mistakes. If Carter can back up last week's performance with a similar one this week, it will be hard to dismiss his impact. 6. Last Gasp Before Cutdown DayTeams are going to trim to 80 players from their current 90 on Tuesday. That means the guys in logjam positions - defensive line, secondary, wide receiver - who think they may be in trouble probably are. It's a big night, most likely, for corners Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite, players with ability who just don't seem to ever make plays. The clock's been ticking on both of them. 7. Tight End MaelstromRob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are set. But rookies Will Yeatman and Lee Smith continue to battle for the third tight end spot. Yeatman, an undrafted guy, has the edge on Smith, a fifth-rounder. The Patriots will certainly try to get the guy who loses the battle onto their practice squad. Gronk, meanwhile,hasn't caught a preseason football. Aaron Hernandez has nine receptions. 8. Ocho DramaLotta navel-gazing from Chad Ochocinco last week in Tampa. So much frustration and urgency that you wonder if the guy can keep it to himself and immerse himself in the offense without having to be in everyone's ear about it all the time. It will be interesting to see how often Tom Brady goes to him. Brady doesn't do needy well. 9. Left Tackle QuestionsMatt Light returned to the field this week as well. Does that bounce Nate Solder from the starting spot at left tackle? If so, are the Patriots planning to use a guy they signed to a two-year, 7 million contract as a backup?
Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.