New England Patriots Preseason Week 3 Matchup Preview

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2017

New England Patriots Preseason Week 3 Matchup Preview

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Fans hungry for the 2017 NFL regular season don't have too much longer to wait. On September 7, the New England Patriots will host the season opener, and they will take the next step in preparation for that opener this Friday.

    The Patriots travel to take on the Detroit Lions in the third and most important preseason game—the dress rehearsal. We're likely to see more starters on the field this week than we have seen or will see the rest of the preseason. This is their chance to get in rhythm and fine tune things before the start of the regular season.

    "It's just getting back into the routine," head coach Bill Belichick explained, via the team's official website. "I'd say we've got a ways to go before we're really maximizing everything that we do, but hopefully we'll get a little closer each day, fine-tune the process."

    Of course, starters won't be the only Patriots players on the field against Detroit. Watching them operate won't be the only reason to tune in, either.

    There are plenty of other storylines questions and situations to follow heading into the game. We're going to examine them here.

Mike Gillislee May Debut

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Patriots snagged running back Mike Gillislee away from the rival Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent this season. With LeGarrette Blount now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Gillislee was expected to be the first in line to replace him.

    With the Bills last season, Gillislee managed to rack up 577 yards and eight touchdowns on just 101 carries. Those certainly seem like good numbers for a future starter.

    Unfortunately, though, Gillislee has been dealing with a hamstring issue and has yet to make his Patriots debut. In the meantime, other backs have been finding ways to stand out.

    Fellow newcomer Rex Burkhead amassed 20 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and a touchdown last week against the Houston Texans. Dion Lewis has averaged 4.7 yards per carry through two games, while Brandon Bolden has averaged 5.1.

    If Gillislee doesn't find a way to make his mark soon, he could find himself more of an offensive afterthought than a workhorse.

    The good news is that Gillislee may be ready to make his debut against Detroit. He has practiced this week and says he's good to go.

    "As far as injuries, that's something no football player in the world can control. It's something that has been bothering me, but I'm good now," Gillislee explained, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.

Is Gronkowski Ready for the Season?

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Patriots managed to win Super Bowl LI without star tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field. However, there's no denying the offense is more dynamic when Gronkowski is healthy and in the lineup.

    Gronk wasn't healthy last season, and he eventually cut his campaign short in order to undergo back surgery. The Patriots—and their fans—should be eager to see him back in regular-season shape heading into the season opener.

    We actually saw Gronkowski last week, in his first preseason appearance since 2012. However, he didn't spend much time on the field and didn't see a target from quarterback Tom Brady. For Gronk, though, the experience of being back on the playing field was important in itself.

    "I'm glad I was out there. It felt good just to get the game speed," Gronkowski explained, per Reiss for ESPN.com. "You can never get enough reps. You can never get enough practice reps. So it felt great to go out there and get my feet wet and see what it's all about again."

    Gronkowski needs to continue to get his feet wet in this week's game and hopefully get some reps with the ball in his hand.

    According to Ryan Hannable of WEEI, Gronkowski didn't quite look like himself in training camp. A big play or two against the Texans, though, could prove that Gronk is all the way back.

Can Cyrus Jones Continue to Improve?

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    No matter how Gronkowski performs against the Lions, his role is completely safe. The same cannot be said for second-year cornerback Cyrus Jones. The 2016 second-round pick may have draft status to lean on, but he was a major disappointment in his rookie season and resides in a crowded cornerback room.

    Jones' best chance to find a significant role this season will likely come on special teams. The problem is that he struggled as a returner last season, too.

    The good news is that Jones looked good returning punts last week against the Texans. He averaged 14 yards per punt return, with a long of 33 yards. Jones will need to build on that this week in order to keep his stock trending in the right direction.

    One mishap on special teams could be enough to drive Jones right back into obscurity—or possibly even toward unemployment. Jones hasn't been reliable on defense through two preseason games and was especially abysmal in Week 1. He was burned multiple times and surrendered a 42-yard touchdown reception to Dede Westbrook.

    It would be great if Jones was able to do some good things on defense in addition to special teams. It's extremely important, though, that he doesn't take a step back.

The Pass Rush Is Still a Work in Progress

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Patriots had one of the most complete teams in the entire league last season. While almost every area of the team was strong, the pass rush was merely average. New England was ranked just 16th in sacks with 34.

    The Patriots tried to revamp their pass rush in the offseason, adding the likes of Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy and rookies Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers. So far, though, the pass rush hasn't been impressive.

    Through two games, New England has produced just one sack—one of only four teams with a single sack in the preseason. That came from Guy, one of the more underrated additions of the offseason.

    Part of the problem has been injuries. Wise has dealt with injuries. Rivers is out for the season with a torn ACL. The team recently added undrafted rookie Keionta Davis to help bolster the pass-rush unit.

    With this being the dress rehearsal for the regular season, New England needs to see more pressure from its defense. While the Patriots aren't going to utilize exotic schemes in the preseason—which they will likely do to create pressure in the regular season—the pass-rushers they have need to show they can win one-on-one matchups.

Can Garoppolo Rebound from a Poor Showing?

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    New England will be looking to get a solid outing from Brady and the starting offense against Detroit. However, the play of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will also be important for a couple of reasons.

    The immediate reason is that the Patriots want to know Garoppolo is prepared to step into the starting role if need be. Looking at the long-term picture, this may be Garoppolo's second-to-last opportunity to make an on-field impression before next offseason, since he is eligible for free agency next offseason.

    The last impression Garoppolo made on the field wasn't very impressive. He completed 15 of 23 pass attempts against Houston for 145 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Those aren't terrible numbers, but they don't tell the whole story.

    Many of Garoppolo's completions were of the short variety—he averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt. On his incompletions, he often missed wildly. He didn't show adequate touch and arm strength on a consistent basis, either. He ended the night with a pick.

    "Bad play. Rough way to end the night and it's frustrating when you can't go out there and make up for it," Garoppolo explained, per Hannable for WEEI.com.

    Garoppolo would certainly rather end the preseason on a high note.

Can Malcolm Butler Rebound?

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Garoppolo wasn't the only Patriot who had a regrettable showing against the Texans. Cornerback Malcolm Butler struggled as well.

    Butler made his preseason debut against Houston. It wasn't the debut the star cornerback wanted. According to Doug Kyed of NESN, Butler allowed five completions for 71 yards and a touchdown on five targets. Naturally, he'll be looking to bounce back against the Lions.

    "Just (got to) keep grinding it out, man," Butler said after the game, per Kevin Duffy.of MassLive.com. "Be pissed off about it and keep grinding it out...Just got to keep getting better each and every week."

    Butler was New England's No. 1 cornerback last season but didn't receive a contract extension from the team this offseason. Instead, the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal and tendered Butler as a restricted free agent.

    Butler and Gilmore are expected to be one of the league's top cornerback duos this season. That cannot happen if Butler continues to struggle like he did against Houston. If the struggles continue, Butler won't be able to cash in on the open market next year either.

    Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense will provide Butler with a proper test.

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