There's no pressure on the New England Patriots to win their Week 2 preseason contest against the Philadelphia Eagles. The only pressure they should be feeling is to prove themselves to head coach Bill Belichick.
Here are a few players and key elements to keep an eye on during the game.
The Patriots added Olympic silver medalist and former Florida running back Jeff Demps, and in so doing, they placed rookie running back Brandon Bolden firmly on the roster bubble.
The undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss has looked good in the preseason and camp thus far—flashing speed to get outside, running with authority between the tackles, and showing the toughness to bounce off tackles.
There are only so many roster spots, though, and the Patriots aren't likely to keep all five backs: Demps, Bolden, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead.
It will certainly help if Bolden continues to run the way he has in camp and in the team's first preseason game, but if he wants a spot on the final 53-man roster, his best bet will be to stand out on special teams. The more ways he can contribute to the team, the better his chances of making the cut.
This will be something to watch until it's not.
The primary focal points this week:
- Left guard Logan Mankins returned to the practice field this week. He had surgery to repair a torn ACL in February, and is back to game action just over six months later. If he even sees the field, his level of comfort and his confidence in that knee will be in focus.
- Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer came off the physically unable to perform list Sunday morning. He has yet to practice, but the Patriots might like to see him in action. They're likely hoping he looks better than Marcus Cannon, who struggled mightily last week against the Saints.
- Left tackle Nate Solder
looked like Wayne Huntergot exposed last week against the Saints. He was consistently beat with the same move, as Saints defensive end Will Smith forced him outside then cut back inside several times. How will Solder respond to last week's performance, and has he worked on that hole in his game?
- Who is starting at right guard with Brian Waters still absent? Swingman Dan Connolly could be a candidate if Dan Koppen continues to get the start at center, but Ryan Wendell may be the guy at right guard if Connolly is the starting center.
The Patriots gave up a ton of pressure against an above-average Saints defensive line, but the Eagles feature a very talented front including defensive end Trent Cole (11 sacks in 2011, 21 past two seasons), defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (5.5 sacks in 2011, 12.5 past two seasons) and others.
The focus always seems to be on the secondary and the front four, but Jerod Mayo's steady presence in the defense is important; the fifth-year linebacker signed a five-year, $48.5 million extension near the end of the 2011 season, so the Patriots clearly have faith in him as the leader of the defense.
Mayo had begun to come under fire during the 2011 season for a lack of game-changing plays, but a pair of interceptions helped him turn some heads. The Will linebacker spot takes advantage of his sneaky athleticism.
He flew all over the field last week, making several key plays in the passing game. He tipped a pass that was intercepted by safety Steve Gregory, and stayed right on running back Darren Sproles' hip in pass coverage—no small feat to cover that small man—and brought him down short of the first-down marker on third down.
Mayo could be utilized in a number of different ways against the Eagles' first-team offense. He could spy on either quarterback Michael Vick or running back LeSean McCoy, or he could be used in coverage on tight end Brent Celek. How he performs in those roles could dictate how the Patriots utilize their personnel in the SEC linebacking corps of Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower.
Defensive end Chandler Jones made his presence felt in a big way against the Saints, putting pressure on quarterback Drew Brees multiple times and beating Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod in the process.
Jones has lined up primarily at right defensive end, so he won't be rushing the blind side against the left-handed Vick, but with left tackle Jason Peters on injured reserve, that also means he'll be going up against either left tackle Demetress Bell or King Dunlap.
As both a pass-rusher and edge-setter, Jones showed he has a well-rounded game last week. How does he fare against a running quarterback like Vick, where he'll be asked to contain? That will be worth watching.
Meanwhile, linebacker Dont'a Hightower had an up-and-down performance last week against the Saints, which came as a surprise after weeks of consistent practice. He was exposed a bit in coverage and against play action, and although he laid a few heavy hits, he also didn't wrap up on a few tackles. It was a typical rookie performance, with some bright spots and some things that need improvement.
He's getting reps with the first-team defense already, but he'll want to give the Patriots a well-rounded performance to really put his stamp on a starting spot in the linebacking corps.