Five storylines to track during Patriots-Panthers
CHARLOTTE — It’s that time. The cliches have sprouted like weeds. “It’s the all-important third preseason game,” you’ll hear. “It’s a dress-rehearsal for the real deal,” they’ll say.
And they’re not wrong. This is a team’s opportunity to play its regulars through the first half, have them go into the locker room, cool down, make adjustments, warm up, and play again. Hard to simulate that elsewhere.
So conditioning will be worth keeping an eye on Friday night, particularly in the third quarter. Here are five more storylines to track when the Patriots take on the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
Patriots Preseason What to Watch For: Defense vs. Panthers
Patriots Preseason What to Watch For: Offense vs Panthers
TOM BRADY...STILL “RUSTY”...?
Tom Brady shredded the Eagles in preseason game No. 2 and looked every bit the player who finished last season as the NFL’s MVP. Yet he said in the days following the game that he felt a little bit of rust. Friday provides Brady with yet another opportunity to get back to where he thinks he should be, and there’s a good chance he sees significant playing time. A few days ago it sounded like he felt as though he’d benefit from more live snaps. “Yeah, I think the thing when you get in the games is just the timing is different,” he said, “because they can actually hit you and in practice, you know rushers come and they stop. So you get a false sense of security of how long you can hold onto the ball and when they don’t stop, you got to get rid of the ball quicker, you got to make faster decisions, your footwork has to be better, your pre-snap reads have to be better. So all those things time up and I like to be someone that can really anticipate things and be really efficient with what I’m doing and the more time you have actually doing it, the better. And there’s only one way to simulate it, that’s to play.” Brady’s body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero made the trip to Carolina with the Patriots, but Guerrero isn’t expected to be on the sidelines before or during the game.
WHICH WIDEOUT WILL EMERGE?
Or maybe the better question is: Will a wideout emerge? Kenny Britt and his abs are no longer in the picture, so which receiver might step up and let it be known that he deserves consideration as the team’s No. 4 (or maybe even No. 3) in the rotation with Julian Edelman suspended the first month? Eric Decker is staring an opportunity in the face. He seems like the favorite to complement Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson, but he’s shown very little since his arrival. Decker was thrown two passes last week against the Eagles — neither from Brady. He dropped one and had the other broken up. Riley McCarron could emerge thanks in part to his punt-return ability, as could Devin Lucien with a handful of plays. Braxton Berrios has been limited lately and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to play.
TIME TO GO HEAVY?
If the Patriots plan on leaning on their backs and tight ends in September, due in part to their depth at receiver, it might be a good idea to get a good long look at what those 12 and 21-personnel groupings look like against the Panthers. If Jacob Hollister is going to be a big part of the plan, as he was in hurry-up situations last week, give him some more run. There might not be a better test than the one he’ll see against these linebackers. If James Develin is going to be a frequently-used battering ram through the season’s first month, this may be a good opportunity for some in-game conditioning. And if “Pony” sets will be en vogue with Edelman out, then maybe we’ll see some James White paired with Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee. If this is a true dress rehearsal, then maybe this will be an opportunity for us to get a quick preview of whatever the plan will be for the first month of the season.
When it comes to the Patriots defense, how could you not be intrigued by how Brian Flores attacks Cam Newton? Last week the Patriots racked up eight sacks. Some came via second-level rushers. Some came via big bodies up front winning their matchups. The Patriots will always be a game-plan defense under Bill Belichick, but their speed to the ball and their aggressiveness getting into the backfield will be worth following. Because Newton is an athletic target the Patriots may take more of a keep-him-in-the-pocket approach. If they’re able to generate some pressure without bringing extra bodies, that will be a good sign for their front headed into the regular season.
Over the course of camp, the corner group has turned into a relatively deep unit. Stephon Gilmore is the clear No. 1. Eric Rowe looks like the No. 2. After that? You could make the argument for five or six other players are deserving of roster spots. Those we’ll be watching Friday are the youngsters. Rookies JC Jackson and Keion Crossen have flashed at different points in camp, but a nice night in game No. 3 could go a long way for them. Jackson, in particular, seems to have a good shot at the 53 thanks to his special teams work. Ryan Lewis, a second-year player who spent last season on the Patriots practice squad, is also worth a close look. At the moment he’s known by some as the guy who didn’t block for Geneo Grissom’s would-be scoop-and-score in Week 1 of the preseason. But his athleticism and physicality will give him a chance to stick.