OK, I know it’s the preseason and having a "Keys to Victory" story is kind of pointless since a victory doesn’t really matter. After all, the Colts have lost 13 of their last 15 preseason games and they’ve done just fine (if you don’t count the postseason, of course).
So, instead, here are five things to keep an eye on Thursday night when the 2008 Pats kick off their preseason schedule versus the Ravens.
1. Nobody Get Hurt!
Seriously, the Pats could lose 70-0, and I really wouldn’t care as long as no one got injured. Okay, maybe I'd be a little concerned if they lost that bad, but nothing can derail a team faster than a preseason season-ending injury to someone important.
We have no choice but to leave this one in the hands of the Football Gods, so I’m going to stop writing about it for fear of bringing on any kind of curse or jinx. Just pray someone upstairs isn't looking to punish us for last year.
2. Battle of the Backups
So far, neither Matt Cassell, Matt Gutierrez, nor rookie Kevin O’Connell have been exactly lighting it up in camp, but Thursday night will be a chance for one of them to pull away from the pack (I hope).
Early indications are that Tom Brady, as well as many other vets, will have the night off. In a perfect world, Cassell would lead a couple touchdown drives with zero instances of tucking the ball and running because he doesn’t want to risk throwing an interception.
Stuff like that is fine if you’re Vince Young. If you haven’t started a game since high school and want to prove you’re a viable NFL backup, not so much. I wouldn’t complain if Kevin O’Connell flashed some kind of brilliance, either.
3. Bring the Pain, Rooks
This could be the first time in a long time that rookies see significant minutes on defense once the regular season rolls around. But first they have to prove they’ve got what it takes to play in an NFL game.
By all accounts, Jerod Mayo has been living up to expectations in practice. He’s fast, physical, and seems to be grasping Bill Belichick’s complicated defense. Meanwhile, Terrence Wheatley has also impressed, despite getting lit up from time to time by Randy Moss (show me an NFL corner who doesn’t).
As for the rest of the rookies, like Shawn Crable, Jonathan Wilhite (who probably won’t play after pulling up lame Monday night), Gary Guyton, and Vince Redd, among others, this will be a chance to see who the “gamers” are. All will surely get significant playing time. And don’t call any of them Shirley.
4. We Need an O-line Depth Charge
As I touched on constantly the last week, my biggest concern for the 2008 Patriots is the offensive line. Matt Light, Stephen Neal, and Ryan O’Callaghan are all probably out. The extent of each of their injuries is unknown, but the Pats have been scrambling to sign journeymen tackles, so that can't be a good sign.
Especially when every opponent this year will try to their best to get pressure on Brady the way the Giants did, though none of them have the talent of the G-Men’s defensive line.
So, the play of the current makeshift line, especially in the early offensive series, will be something to watch. Billy Yates and Wesley Britt need to show they are capable starters or at the very least could fill in until everyone gets healthy...if everyone gets healthy, Belichick willing.
5. Free Agents Fitting In?
Fernando Bryant has thus far looked capable of taking Asante Samuel’s place at cornerback, now we’ll see if that translates into the game. Linebacker Victor Hobson has been fairly quiet and has been passed by Mayo on the depth chart according to some observers.
But he’s an NFL vet, and we know he can play at this level. It will be interesting to see his play compared to Mayo once the action is live.
Other Individuals to Keep an Eye On
Matthew Slater—universally described as an "explosive" kick returner, he’ll need to show that explosion Thursday night if he’s going to make the team.
Chad Jackson—of course "The Chad" makes this list; Patriots fans are going to watching him like a hawk all preseason. He’ll take some punt returns, but it will hard to judge his performance at receiver with the backup quarterbacks throwing him the ball. Still, he needs to do something to show he's ready to contribute this year.
Sammy Morris & LaMont Jordan—these two could be fighting for a job, though I tend to believe both will make the roster. Regardless, both will need good games to ensure that.
Antwan Spann—he’s been having a great camp, but that needs to translate into the game if he’s got a shot at making the roster.
Tank Williams—Belichick will most likely keep the newly-installed defensive wrinkles under wraps for the preseason, but it will be interesting to see if Tank takes any reps at linebacker like he has been doing in practice.
We’ll be back this weekend with a full analysis of how all this mess plays out on Thursday night. Until then, Go Pats!