Tag Archives: Jabaal Sheard

New England Patriots: Confidence Is Soaring As The Season Winds Down

2015 Ended Poorly

As the 2015 season wound down, Bill Belichick made some decisions that, looking back, turned out to be questionable (I know, that is heresy in New England, but look at the results).  After winning their first eleven games the Patriots started to wilt. With a bunch of walking wounded, a beat up Tom Brady and the play-offs with home field in game-one guaranteed, he rested some key players and went to a non-existent running game against the J-E-Ts and Dolphins. For the 1st time in may years the Patriots seemed to be playing not-to-lose. 

11-29-brady-hit-high-after-releasing-the-ball-no-penalty-on-this-play
2015 Brady got beat up in Denver

Well, as we all know (so why am I reminding you????) the Pats lost both those games and went into the play-offs having lost four of their last six games. They never completely recovered from those decisions. After winning a home play-off game against the Chiefs (27-20) they traveled to Denver and lost to the ultimate Super Bowl Champion Broncos (20-18) in the Conference Championship game.

How Different Is 2016?

Now, with two games remaining in the 2016 regular season, New England faces the same two teams, NY J-E-T-S and Miami, in a similar situation. The J-E-T-S are out of the race, but always give the Patriots a good fight…and the Dolphins continue to fight for a play-off spot.

So…why does it feel so different?  Here are 5 reasons:

  1. The 2016 Patriots are now playing their best football of the season, unlike 2015, when they were unsure if the defense or offense could hold up
  2. Tom Brady won’t be going into these games already bruised & battered thanks to Dante Scarnecchia and a rejuvenated OL (yeah, I know he’s back to limited practice & on the injury list…but he’s still in better shape than last year) 
  3. The running game is at it’s peak, with LeGarrette Blount rushing for 15 TDs and over 1,000 yards…a healthy Dion Lewis..a solid #3 with James White and the impressive blocking of James Develin. Last year neither Blount nor Lewis were playing due to injuries
  4. The defense is #1 in points against in the NFL. I’ll say that again, the defense is #1 in points against in the NFL
  5. Bill Belichick seems completely confident in all aspects of the Pats game. He’s willing to trust his defense (say what?), offense or special teams to make the crucial play at the end of the game. That’s something that has been missing for many years

Same Decision = Different Results

So, that said, what if Belichick makes the same decisions this year that he did in 2015? If he does, the results should be completely different. This team is tough and in no way resembles the 2015 version of the New England Patriots.

malcolm-mitchell-vs-sf
Mitchell vs 49ers courtesy of Boston Herald.com

They don’t have Rob Gronkowski or Danny Amendola and both are big losses. However, they do have a bruiser in Blount, a quick Lewis plus new heroes in Chris Hogan (highest yards-per-catch in the NFL) and the speed of rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell. Add in tough TE Martellis Bennett and, oh yeah, a well rested Tom Brady!

With a defense that is starting to click without Chandler Jones or Jamie Collins…but is lead by Trey Flowers, always reliable Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and, suddenly rejuvenated Jabaal Sheard, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and a host of others…they are a formidable bunch.

NOTES:

  • Congratulations to Brady, Slater, Hightower & McCourty on their selection to the 2016 NFL Pro-Bowl. Hopefully none will be able to play as they prepare for the Super Bowl
  • Condolences to Malcolm Butler, Blount and Marcus Cannon (can’t believe I’m saying this), who all deserved a shot too
  • The NFL is always fair & objective…just look at their recent “punishment” to the Giants & their Head Coach for being caught cheating! #Integrity
  • This has been an outstanding year for Patriot Coaches Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and Scarnecchia
  • Tom Brady is being penalized again! Many are saying he doesn’t deserve the MVP because he has played 4 fewer games than the others in the running. King Goodell strikes again
  • The Patriots are the only team in the NFL who have not lost a road game this year. Despite that, the advantage of playing in Foxborough in the playoffs is huge.

 

Dante Scarnecchia

 

Hard to believe, but, 14 games down (12-2) with just 2 more before the real season begins. This season has flown by.

Follow me on Twitter @SnowdonBob

 

New England Patriots: 2016 – A Season Of Surprises

If nothing else, 2016 has been a season with many surprises for the New England Patriots. Some have been pleasant…and some haven’t turned out too well. Despite all the changes, this year’s team is once again a legitimate Super Bowl contender and are, at 10-2, right where most expected them to be. Here are my 5 biggest surprises as the season progressed.

#1 BRADY ACCEPTS 4 GAME SUSPENSION

tom-brady-accepts-suspensionHe gave it a gallant fight, but TB finally got tired of deflategate and moved on. Many were disappointed, but it was time to play football. He never acknowledged any guilt despite the Brady detractors using his acceptance of the 4 games to claim it a “win” for the NFL. Nothing about deflategate was a win for anyone…the NFL, Brady, the Patriots or fans anywhere.

#2 – DEFENSE

As the season started fans and prognosticators (my $50 word for the day) were saying the 2016 defense would be top 5 caliber. In one way people were right. As of now they are tied with their next opponent (Baltimore) for 2nd in the NFL for least points allowed (17.2 PPG), trailing only the Seahawks.

Well, we now look at the defense and wonder if it is capable of making the big stop once the playoffs come around. Bill Bodell  wrote  back in August ” The Patriots have at least five guys on this defense who could potentially make the Pro Bowl in Malcolm Butler, Jabaal Sheard, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Devin McCourty.” 

The big surprise from that group has been the departure of Collins, benching of Sheard and under performance by all but Butler. Overall the defense has not been as bad as it seems to the naked eye, but it certainly still hasn’t proven itself to be an elite unit.

The team is currently ranked in the top 10 in 4 key categories, but considering the weak offenses they have faced, questions still abound :

  • #2 points allowed (207)
  • #9 total defense
  • #12 passing defense
  • #10 rushing defense
  • #9 yards allowed
  • #14 sacks

It is a must for this unit to improve if the Patriots are to go far in the playoffs, let alone win the Super Bowl. Monday Night vs Baltimore will be a true test

#3 OFFENSIVE LINE

Shock would be the word I use to describe how well the OL has performed. Dante Scarnecchia’s goal coming into the season was to solidify a unified unit of 5 to play most snaps…and he has been highly successful with (LT) Nate Solder, (LG) rookie Joe Thuney, (C) UFA David Andrews, (RG) Shaq Mason, (RT) Marcus Cannon. Just how good has this group been?

  1. Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett have been sacked just 26 times while throwing 417 passes
  2. LeGarrette Blount has rushed for 957 yards and 13 TDs

dante-scarnecchiaAdd in that Marcus Cannon, who I have been known to chastise in the past, just had his contract renewed and is having his best season ever in his 6th year as a Patriot = you have realize just how much of a surprise this unit has been. Thank you “Scar.”

#4 – ROOKIE WR MALCOLM MITCHELL

The Patriots drafting of wide receivers has been beyond bad, but this year they hit a home-run (sorry for the baseball analogy) with 4th round pick (112th overall) Malcolm Mitchell. He has quickly gained Brady’s trust and has grown game-by-game while exhibiting his toughness, route running, speed and sure hands. Just look at what he has done over the past 3 games:

  • 8 receptions/82 yards vs Rams
  • 4 receptions/98 yards/1 TD vs 49ers
  • 5 receptions/42 yards/2 TDs vs J-E-T-S

Malcolm Mitchell.jpgThis young man will only get better. He needs to continue to improve with the loss of Danny Amendola & Rob Gronkowski for the offense to control the game. Mitchell is this year’s Dion Lewis. 

#5 – KICKING GAME

The inconsistency of the kicking game has truly been a surprise. This was consider an area of strength when the season began, but has been erratic throughout the first 12 games.

  • Stephen Gostkowski has been AFC special team player of the week twice, including last week against the Rams, but has missed 4 makeable field goals and 3 extra points…not good enough for the highest paid kicker in the NFL.
  • Ryan Allen (no, not Logan Ryan as identified during the Fox telecast Sunday) has given the Patriots great field position throughout his 4 year career in the NFL. This year he hasn’t been consistent, shanking some and leaving opponents in good shape. His net average is fractionally his highest ever (40.8 vs 40.4 for his career), but of his 52 punts only 17 have been inside the 20 yard line.

Playoff game are usually won and lost by field position (I have no data to prove this, but let’s net let facts get in the way of the story), so both Gostkowski & Allen need to be on-their-game as that part of the season rolls around.

Honorable Mention: LeGarrette Blount – read My Apologies to LeGarrette Blount

Follow me on Twitter @SnowdonBob

 

The Patriots Defense Will Fix Offensive Injuries/Problems in 2016

The Patriots have been the kings of the AFC and the NFL for the past 15 years and will need this young defense to become elite to continue that in 2016.

 

It’s only August and the Patriots already have two major long-term injuries on the offensive side of the ball with news of running back Dion Lewis needing a second knee surgery to clean up his knee after a season-ending torn ACL last season and will stay on the Physically Unable to Perform list to start the season, and with offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer likely going to be placed on the season-ending Injured Reserve list. Both Lewis and Vollmer have been on the PUP list and yet to participate in training camp with the team prior to both these reports that surfaced Sunday.

 

Running back and offensive line were the two biggest issues the Patriots had last season and were still the two biggest issues the team faced heading into training camp, now these issues just got a lot worse before the season has even started. We all remember Marcus Cannon’s disasterous performance in Denver in the AFC Championship game and now it appears that Cannon will be the full-time starter at right tackle for the Patriots with the news of Vollmer likely going to be placed on IR.

lewis bleacher report
via bleacherreport.com

On the surface many people will look to James White, LaGarrette Blount, Marcus Cannon or Cameron Fleming to try fixing these losses, but where you need to look is the defense. The Patriots have one of the youngest defenses in the league with loads of talent and loads of potential, and rather than a Marcus Cannon or James White, they are going to be what carries and powers New England through these injuries and to the top of the NFL yet again.

 

This Patriots defense has now drawn a lot of hype going into the season and is one that people don’t think of when discussing the top defenses in the NFL, and this year that will change. The Patriots have atlas five guys on this defense who could potentially make the Pro Bowl in Malcolm Butler, Jabaal Sheard, Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, and Devin McCourty, the first four who are all in contract years which will give them a little something extra to prove. This is the core of the New England defense and should turn New England into one of the top defenses in the league, then you add second-year man Malcolm Brown who had a very good rookie season, corner Logan Ryan who is also in a contract year and played very well last season as the teams number two corner, Patrick Chung, Rob Ninkovich, Terrance Knighton, Duron Harmon and Cyrus Jones just to name a few guys and this is one of the best and talented defenses in the league with a lot of depth. This is a defense that shouldn’t allow more than 20 points per game at most and that is what will help and allow this offense to be successful, especially the first four weeks with Garoppolo under center.

Jamie Collins
via csnne.com

The Broncos proved it last year, defenses win championships and had in my opinion, one of the best defenses of all-time. I don’t think the Patriots defense will be as good as Denver’s from last season and they don’t need to be. The defense has some questions as well at corner after Butler and Ryan but in my opinion are one of the most complete defenses in the whole NFl. They still have one of the top offenses in the league with Brady under center with Gronkowski, Bennett, Edelman and Amendola, but the losses of Vollmer and Lewis are huge and the way the Patriots will overcome these injuries and issues they face, as well as others that will come throughout the season is through the defense.

 

New England Patriots: What Needs To Happen Before The Play-Offs

The focus on Julian Edelman’s return to the Patriots line-up has rightfully been the center of attention since the season ended with the New England offense looking more like the Cleveland Browns than the juggernaut that started the season. His week 10 broken foot against the Giants crippled not only the player, but the entire Patriots offense.

Why Edelman’s Return Is So Critical

There are many reasons why his return will help rejuvenate a stagnant Patriot offense.

Julian Edelman broke his foot in this game against the Giants (AP Photo/Gary Hershorn)
Julian Edelman broke his foot in this game against the Giants (AP Photo/Gary Hershorn)
  1. He is, by a wide margin, the man Tom Brady trusts most (my apologies to Rob Gronkowski) to be in the right spot at the right time
  2. He seldom drops a pass and often makes the hard catch look easy
  3. When Edelman is in, defenses have to adjust, giving others – like Gronkowski – more space to make the catch
  4. The weakest part of the New England offense, the offensive line, is exposed less with Edelman playing because Brady has that security blanket available for his quick release. No one else filled that role during his absence. Danny Amendola did his best, but it wasn’t quite good enough.

Don’t underestimate the importance of #4. The bye-week does give time for the big guys up front to rest. However, at it’s best, this season it was mediocre…even when rested.

The return of Sebastian Vollmer helps, but even when he was playing Brady was getting hit hard and often. The most consistent players have been perennial back-up Josh Kline (per Mike Reiss 77.4% of offensive snaps) and rookie David Andrews (68.5%), which shows just how bad things have been.

Other Critical Pieces Of The Puzzle

The return of Edelman alone is not a cure-all. Although it should make a huge difference on offense, the defense needs to get back to the dominant group that intimidated QBs throughout the league. The return to health of some key defensive players should take a lot of pressure off the offense, allowing wins while falling short of scoring 30+ points a game.

Dont'a Hightower sacks Cowboy's QB Weeden
Dont’a Hightower sacks Cowboy’s QB Weeden
  • Dont’a Hightower

Remember three years ago when we were all questioning Hightower’s ability to diagnose offenses and actually make the big play? As we’ve seen over the past two seasons, he has dispelled any doubt…he was a great 1st round draft pick (25th overall) in 2012!

Arguably the most valuable player on the defense, Hightower has played injured for a while now…and it has shown with his hesitancy on the field. Hopefully this bye-week gets him confident that he is OK and he’ll return the All-Pro that he was prior to getting banged up.

One of 12 1/2 sacks by Chandler Jones (photo: Keith Nordstrom NewEnglandPatriots.com)
One of 12 1/2 sacks by Chandler Jones (photo: Keith Nordstrom NewEnglandPatriots.com)
  • Chandler Jones

When Hightower got injured Jones production suffered, despite the help he got from Jamie Collins and Jaball Sheard. At one point it felt like Jones was going to smash all Patriot sack records, but by seasons end he had an injured toe and was struggling to get to the QB. The two weeks off (he sat the last game) should re-energize his motor and the combination of Jones, Hightower, Sheard, Collins, Akiem Hicks, Malcom Brown and, old faithful,  Rob Ninkovich will have opposing teams scratching their head when they have the ball.

…And Let’s Not Forget

  • Danny Amendola

If Edelman hadn’t been out Amendola wouldn’t have played (injury)  at the end. No one can ever question his toughness to me. Here’s hoping fans appreciate how much he has done this year, beside building a car port in an upper class area of Rhode Island. The trio of Gronkowski, Edelman, Amendola along with  James White, Brandon LaFell (yes, as 4th receiver), Steven Jackson and Keshawn Martin should keep defenses on their heels, cutting back on the pressure being put on Brady.

  • Tom Brady

    Down goes Brady and it hurts
    Down goes Brady and it hurts

No, he’s not an afterthought. When he limped off the field in Miami, Patriot’s Nation held their collective breath and looked to the sky. Why, oh why, was he even playing? Despite the (high?) ankle sprain sustained on a low hit (no penalty?) by arguably the dirtiest player in the NFL (Ndamukong Suh) you know #12 will be on the field doing anything it takes to win.

…And No More Injuries, Please!

It seems every day something new pops up on the injury front. Whether it was Chandler Jones last week or Nate Ebner Thursday, enough is enough.

In case you forgot, the non-playing Injured Reserve list for the Patriots includes these names we were counting on to help get to Super Bowl 50:

  • Nate Solder & Ryan Wendell from the OL
  • Running backs Dion Lewis (sigh) & LeGarrette Blount plus FB James Develin
  • Oft injured DL Dominique Easley

There are more, but those six were key players.

So, everyone else, please, stay healthy for the 1st real game of the season, January 16 at Foxborough…as the next step to ring #5 commences.

Follow me on Twitter @SnowdonBob

New England Patriots: Forget Gronk, Who Is This Leonard Johnson Guy?

Let me start by saying it was great to see Rob Gronkowski back on the field. There’s no doubt he made a big difference in the Patriot offense as they destroyed the Houston Texans 27-6 on Sunday Night Football. The win & Miami’s Monday night loss to the Giants gave New England the AFC East Division title once again.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady explains to the officials why the call should be against Houston (AP Photo/George Bridges)

Tom Brady was efficient (22/30, 255 yds, 2 TDs, 0 ints). Heck, he even helped the officials out with a call (see photo). James White continued to show promise, Danny Amendola was solid and, once again, Brandon LaFell had the drops (caught 5 of 8 passes)…but make no mistake, this game was…

All About The Defense One of 6 sacks as Brian Hoyer is brought down by Dominique Easley with help from Ninkovich. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

One of 6 sacks as Brian Hoyer is brought down by Dominique Easley with help from Ninkovich. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Yes, the offense put up 27 points against what was a surging Texan’s defense, but this was a game dominated by the Patriots D. There was never a time when you felt Houston could score enough points to win from their opening 3 and out to Tom Brady kneeling to kill the clock over the last 2 minutes.

Keshawn Martin (82) fumbles a punt during the second half (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Keshawn Martin (82) fumbles a punt during the second half (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Even when Keshawn Martin muffed a punt (this is beginning to become a habit) and Houston recovered the ball on the Patriots 22 with 10:32 left in the 3rd quarter there was no concern. New England was up 20-6 at the time and, despite their recent troubles with 14 point leads, you just knew this team would not blow another double digit lead.

Obviously Houston Coach Bill O’Brien had no confidence in his team’s ability to move the ball long distances when he ignored the opportunity for a chip-shot field goal and went for it on 4th and 4 at the Pats’ 15 yard line. An incomplete pass from Brian Hoyer to Nate Washington, who was covered by Leonard Johnson, and the D had done it again.

It’s easy to question the decision to chase points that early in the game, and I have to confess I did. The game was within reach and putting any points on the board would have given the Texans a lift with most of the second half still to play. He proved to be right though, as that was the last time Houston had an opportunity to score.

So, Who Is Leonard Johnson

Leonard Johnson, a  previously unknown cornerback, played 42 snaps (courtesy of Mike Reiss) and had a solid game as the #3 CB behind Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.  The Texans were 0-3 throwing in his direction and he had one of the better break-ups in the game. Johnson  joined the team this week after being released by Tampa, and Bill Belichick jumped at the chance to bring him in and sign him to a 2-year contract.

Belichick is slow to give praise to any player, let alone one who had just joined the team, but he had this to say about the 4th year undrafted free agent:

“He worked really hard this week,” “It was a long week, a lot of extra work, a lot of extra meetings, some good competitive time on the practice field. Got to give him a lot of credit — he came in, learned and his teammates embraced it … .”

As the year started everyone had concerns about the Patriots’ secondary, but, to the surprise of all, it has been pretty solid through the first 13 games. Butler has had some great and some not-so-great games, Logan Ryan has grown into a sold #2 and now it looks like (I know, it was just one game) Johnson brought the final piece to the puzzle.

It’s Nice To Be Back On Top

Everything fell into place on this Sunday as the Patriots went from the #3 AFC seed back to #1, aided by Cincinnati and Denver losses. Once again they have control of keeping an important bye-week in the play-offs and home field advantage throughout. With 3 games left (Titans at Gillette next week, J-E-T-S and Dolphins on the road) they could, and should, finish with another 14 win season and a healthier team when they play the real games.

Game Notes:

It wasn’t all good news though, as the injuries continue to mount.

LeGarrette Blount was on his way to a big game before injuring his hip early (99 J.J. Watt) (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
LeGarrette Blount was on his way to a big game before injuring his hip early (99 J.J. Watt) (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

LeGarrette Blount (Hip), Devin McCourty (Ankle), Dominique Easley (Thigh) and Jonathan Freeny (Hand) had all left the field with injuries by the end of the game.

Blount is walking with the aid of crutches and is reportedly out for the season, Freeney has a cast on his hand and McCourty has a high ankle sprain. Easley was put on season ending IR Tuesday

  •  Jerod Mayo had his best game of the season, leading the team with 7 tackles
  • Defensive Lineman Akiem Hicks,  acquired in a trade from the Saints for TE Michael Hoomanawanui , was outstanding with 2 of the Patriots 6 sacks and was credited with 6 tackles.
  • Jabaal Sheard seemed to spend the entire game in the Houston backfield, as he had 2 forced fumbles, 3 QB Hits, 2 sacks and 5 tackles
  • J.J. Watt was a non factor except for one late hit on Tom Brady long after he had released the ball
  • The Patriots clinched a playoff spot for the 17th time in the 22 years Robert Kraft has owned the team.
  • This is the 7th straight year the Pats have made it to the postseason
Rob Gronkowski's 10th TD catch (Photo: Patriots.com Keith Nordstrom)
Rob Gronkowski’s 10th TD catch (Photo: Patriots.com Keith Nordstrom)
  • Gronkowski notched his 10th touchdown, marking the fifth time he’s done that in his career. That’s the most 10-plus touchdown seasons for a tight end in history (From Paul Perillo)

The Patriots have already had their trap game (Philadelphia) so should not let up as they take on the hapless Titans in Foxborough this Sunday

Follow me on Twitter @SnowdonBob

New England vs. Dallas: Patriots Defensive Line against Dallas Offensive Line

A big focus on this week’s game between the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys will be the Patriots defensive line vs. the Cowboys offensive line. Both are amongst the best in the league for their position groups and a key to victory for New England will be to beat the Cowboys offensive line consistently.

The Patriots defense currently ranks 5th in team sacks, behind the Broncos, Packers, Rams and Steelers who have all played one more game than New England. The Patriots are led by defensive ends Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard and linebacker Jamie Collins who make up 8.5 of the teams 13 sacks on the year. Though getting after Brandon Weeden wont be as crucial to the game as it would if Tony Romo was healthy and playing, you don’t want to give any quarterback time in the pocket to make plays and to allow his receivers to get open. The Cowboys had the leagues best offensive line last year headlined by left tackle Tyron Smith and rookie guard Zach Martin and still are the leagues most talented offensive line in the views of most people, despite being amongst one of the leagues most penalized offensive lines early in the season. With that being said, it is a good reason why the Patriots should bring the blitz at Weeden, get after him, and sack him, or be held and move them back and try making Weeden beat you, which lets face it he can’t do.

via cowboysblog.dallasnews.com
via cowboysblog.dallasnews.com

A key will be stopping the Cowboys running game. The Patriots have struggled this year defending the run, they improved vs. Jacksonville but that was in a blowout game where the Jaguars had to throw the ball because they were down by so many points. The Cowboys o-line and running backs are also a lot better than the Jaguars, though Joseph Randle has had fumbling problems as of late and Darren McFadden has looked like he has his whole NFL career, a bust. Travis Frederick and Zach Martin are strong interior blockers and could provide room for whoever is in Dallas’ backfield.

via twitter.com
via twitter.com

In a game that should be an easy win for the Patriots, especially coming off a bye, watching how the defensive line plays will be something of interest to see. The Cowboys offensive line is one of, if not the best in the league and seeing how the Patriots perform against them will be a good test to see if they are as good as they’ve looked so far, and a good test for the defense.

New England Patriots: Finally A Game That Means Something

The first two pre-season games mean little to nothing.  They are an opportunity to shake the tree and see what falls out that may be a surprise among the newcomers.  The experienced vets play little and undrafted free agents and draft picks get their opportunity to catch the eye of the coaching staff…and most of all Head Coach Bill Belichick.

Now game three…that’s a different story!

New England vs Carolina: Finally A Game That Means Something

Pre-Season Game 3

Friday night’s Patriots’ game at Bank Of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC is important for many reasons. It will give fans their first chance to see most of the veterans in action and evaluate how things are expected to evolve when the season starts against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, September 10 at Gillette Stadium.

What to watch for Friday night:

  • How much playing time Patriots’ QB Jimmy Garoppolo gets with the first team unit against the Carolina Panthers first
    Luke Kuechly grabs Rob Gronkowski in the famous last play non-call loss (Photo: sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com
    Luke Kuechly grabs Rob Gronkowski in the famous last play non-call loss (Photo: sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com

    team. Although most teams don’t “game plan” for preseason match-ups and keep things pretty vanilla this will be a true test against an always strong Panther defense featuring former Boston College Eagle Luke Kuechly. Last season the Middle Line-Backer was voted to the Pro Bowl and selected to the NFL All-Pro First Team for the second consecutive season.

Although Garoppolo took a huge step forward in last weeks comeback win against the Saints, every Patriot fan in the world is hoping Tom Brady is the starting QB when the opening bell rings. That said, the Patriots have to be ready if his suspension is upheld and Belichick is the best in football having his team prepared for every contingency. Sure Tom Terrific will play in this game and may get the majority of snaps…but this will be the only chance Garoppolo has to play with the offensive unit that will start the season and against an opponent who will also be using most of their “A” units on both defense and offense.

  • By 4 p.m Tuesday (9/1) all clubs must cut their rosters to 75 players on the active list.

That means many of the names you see on the current team roster will be gone shortly after this game. Those on-the-bubble players will be showcasing their talents in hopes they catch the eye of another team.  With limited playing time in this game they have to make every minute they are on the field count.

  • This will be a test of the evolving Patriots’ secondary and defense.
Malcom Butler makes the play in pre-season vs New Orleans (Keith Nordstrom Patriots.com photo)
Malcom Butler makes the play in pre-season vs New Orleans (Keith Nordstrom Patriots.com photo)

When starters have played against starters this pre-season (a small sampling at best) the Patriots secondary has been (I’m being kind here) challenged and, with the exception of Malcom Butler, have not met that challenge very well. Both the Packers (Game #1) & Saints (Game #2) seemed to march up and down the field with ease. On the positive side, as has been the case throughout most of the Belichick years, the team seemed to suck-it-up once the opponent got inside the Pats 20 yard line. The healthy return of Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo will be critical to this years defensive unit along with the addition of Jabaal Sheard and continued development of Jamie Collins. 

  • Gronkowski, Chandler and Wayne could see playing time

For the first time we could have a good look at Scott Chandler as he teams up with Rob GronkowskiAdd in the possible sighting of newcomer Reggie Wayne and it could make for an interesting mix despite the continued absence due to injury of Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. The playing time for Chris Harper will also be an indication of his likelihood to stick with New England while so many WRs are still hurting.

  • The annual shuffle on the offensive line continues

The return of Ryan Wendell should help quiet down the jitters of rookies Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason, who have both shown promise but also weaknesses that need to be worked on.  With Nate Solder and Sebastion Volmer back and the continued development of second year center Bryan Stork this unit should start to jell shortly.

  • The Shane Vereen question

As training camp started most (myself included) experts (did I just refer to myself as an expert? Surely not!) felt the Patriots would be hard pressed to replace the 3rd down efficiency of Shane Vereen.  Although his replacement has not yet been determined, a few leading candidates have stepped up and made themselves known. Last years 4th round pick, James White, has taken a gigantic leap in his second camp and is the favorite to step into the role. Keep a close eye on 24-year-old Dion Lewis who has bounced around since being a 5th round pick by Pittsburgh in the 2011 draft. He was out of football last year (leg injury) but has displayed some explosiveness, especially last week against the Saints.

Other developments will occur during the game, so enjoy this one all the way to the end.  Next week  the “locks” will sit while the bubble players will get most of the playing time before final cuts are made. The 1st and 4th games are usually the sloppiest and hardest to watch, so it’s nice to finally have a game that means something!

Follow me on twitter @SnowdonBob

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