What to Watch for in New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints Preseason Game

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IAugust 9, 2012

Aug 7, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady passes against the New Orleans Saints during a joint practice at the teams practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-US PRESSWIRE

The Patriots are known for leaving no stone unturned. So while you might think preseason games are meaningless, I can assure you the Patriots coaching staff and front office do not feel the same way.

The players might take it even more seriously than the coaches; after all, it's their jobs that are ultimately on the line.

While roster bubble battles will be a focal point of preseason games where third- and fourth-stringers will see more playing time than they ever will in the regular season, there are also several other dynamics to track, and story lines we've been discussing all offseason will finally come to a head on the turf as the Patriots and Saints go head-to-head.

Here are some of those story lines.

Offensive Line

Arguably the focal point of training camp has been the Patriots offensive line. The group has been shuffled around, and has struggled to this point in camp.

The Patriots are short-handed on the line, missing Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer and Brian Waters at camp. There will likely be a lot of shuffling on the line, as the Patriots try to find where certain players fit best while also creating some versatility by getting those players some meaningful reps in different spots.

With injuries having already taken their toll at tackle, it's fair to wonder how much Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon will play. They are currently the team's top two tackles, but depth might force them to play a bit longer than they might otherwise have played.

Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower

All eyes on the first-round picks.

The two have played extensively on the first-team defense, indicating that the team is trying to cram in as much as possible to prepare them for the season.

Jones has looked much stronger than advertised, and has put an arsenal of pass-rush moves on display. The Patriots will be eager to see what he can contribute with the departures of Mark Anderson and Andre Carter off the edge.

Hightower is a linebacker in a similar mold to Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, although a bit more athletic and a lot more versatile. He could be moved around a bit in the game, as he has been in practice, and asked to do multiple things to see where his strengths are in a game situation. 

The Patriots front seven has a much different look this year, and these two could be huge factors in how that group ultimately performs.

Deion Branch vs. Donte' Stallworth

This is how the Patriots depth chart at wide receiver would look, from this perspective, if it were handed down today:

  1. Wes Welker
  2. Brandon Lloyd
  3. Jabar Gaffney
  4. Julian Edelman
  5. Matthew Slater
  6. Deion Branch
  7. Donte' Stallworth

Obviously, the Patriots won't carry seven wide receivers, but this is more to give you an idea of who will land where on the roster, and not on the roster. 

Branch gets the nod over Stallworth because of his unbridled chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady and his inside-out knowledge of the wide receiver position in the Patriots offense.

The outlook here is based on the idea that Slater will be listed as a wide receiver (which he has been every year he's been on the roster); if he's listed as a specialist, that may open up another spot, but it's highly unlikely. What's more likely is that how Branch and Stallworth perform in preseason games could go a long way in determining which one makes the roster.

The Secondary

Quick rehash: 31st in passing yards allowed, 29th in yards per attempt allowed, 23rd in passing touchdowns allowed.

The secondary as a whole got a facelift this offseason; additions include safeties Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory, as well as the return of cornerback Ras-I Dowling, the team's second-round draft pick in 2011. 

But a lot is riding on the ability of the unit to come together; veteran safety Patrick Chung has had a stellar training camp, and enters a contract year, while third-year cornerback Devin McCourty faces a do-or-die situation after an outstanding rookie season was followed by a troublesome second year.

We know the Patriots offense will light it up; it's up to the defense to improve. They made stops when they needed to last year, but making stops when they don't need to would be nice once in awhile.

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates.


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