After two productive days of joint practices, the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints will meet in the second preseason game of the summer for both teams on Saturday night. The Patriots had plenty of positives and negatives coming out of their game against the Green Bay Packers, and will be looking for improvement in all aspects of the game.
Here are five specific areas to focus on for the Patriots.
1. More Action for Starters
Most of the Pats' important pieces only played a series or two against the Packers but should see at least a full quarter of playing time in New Orleans. Nate Solder and possibly Sebastian Vollmer (or at least Marcus Cannon) should see their first game action of the summer, replacing a makeshift offensive line that looked shaky in the first game. Additionally, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower will likely see their first game action, marking an incredible recovery time for both players coming off of surgery.
Tom Brady took most of the snaps in practice against the Saints, how that will translate into the game is a mystery, but he should see more than the two drives he had against the Packers. Jimmy Garoppolo should be much better prepared to succeed behind a more veteran offensive line as well.
Most of all we're just looking for a smoother operation on both sides of the ball with better execution and consistency. That should be expected with the starters playing more.
2. Safeties and Corners
The Patriots worked with three-safety sets plenty this past week, with Devin McCourty getting some action at cornerback. This isn't outside the norm for McCourty, who often played man coverage against tight ends on passing downs last season.
But what will be of interest is how much the Pats employ three-safety sets that include McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. Bill Belichick likes to put his best 11 players on the field, and with a deep and experienced set of safeties, it would make sense to deploy them at times over some of the newcomer cornerbacks.
Free agent Tarrell Brown has consistently made plays on the ball in camp and could make his debut as well, giving a real sense of where the starting secondary is at and what this unit is0 trying to work on.
We can't read too much into the schemes that the Patriots show, but we can get a good sense of who fits best where.
3. Rookie Progression
The Pats got solid performances from a number of rookies in the first preseason game, but both Trey Flowers and Darryl Roberts left the game with injuries and haven't been seen since. Still, we'll be keeping an eye on the progression of guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson, along with defensive end Geneo Grissom, all of whom should get plenty of playing time. Mason and Jackson are hugely important players to the Patriots this season, seeing improved pass protection from them would be encouraging. Being next to experienced tackles instead of fill-ins should help them build on their previous performance.
Safety Jordan Richards also saw a lot of action against the Packers and will likely do the same against the Saints. Richards looked like he had excellent anticipation in his first game, a rare feat for a rookie. He'll be pushing for playing time in the regular season, especially if the Pats use some multiple-safety looks.
Wide receiver Chris Harper made some plays against the Packers and has been an under-the-radar rookie in camp. With Brian Tyms reportedly suffering a serious injury, Harper is right on the bubble to at least make the practice squad. Can he put together a statement game that puts him into the 53-man roster conversation? He'll need to find some synergy with Garoppolo once again.
4. Which Defensive Tackle(s) Will Emerge?
With the offseason loss of Vince Wilfork to the Texans, the Patriots are rebuilding the interior of their defensive line and have their last two first-round picks, Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown, leading the way. Brown and Easley had their moments, both good and bad against the Packers. Along with Antonio Johnson and Sealver Siliga, the Pats must establish some dominance inside, or risk getting run over this season.
Casey Walker was added this week after a short stint with the team last season, while Zach Moore has shifted inside from defensive end. These six defensive tackles will get plenty of work against the Saints and not only must be stout, they must prove they can generate critical pressure up the middle when Drew Brees wants to pass. The rotation is still wide open, so the stage is set for someone to emerge.
5. Running Backs
James White and Jonas Gray got most of the touches against the Packers, but this week we should expect to see Brandon Bolden enter the mix, possibly along with LeGarrette Blount. White and Gray are decent pieces but neither is ready to carry the load in either running back role. Bolden has plenty of experience and is the dark horse to lead the way in replacing Shane Vereen. As always, the Patriots’ backfield duties will be handled by a committee, but the next two games will go a long way toward determining who the primary guys are.