By: Bob George/
August 09, 2006

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ATLANTA -- A preseason opener is usually as momentous as a middle-aged person's birthday which doesn't result in the first digit changing.

Where: Georgia Dome
Atlanta, Ga.
When: Friday 8/11/06
8:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
2005 Team
Patriots 11-7
Falcons 8-8
Latest Line: Falcons by 3
Normally, starters play a few series, then sit back and watch future camp cuts go out and try their hand at the system against real live competition. Jobs could be on the line, but that comes at the end of the preseason, not the beginning. Starters may stay in a bit longer if they are really stinking out the joint and the coach thinks they need to get more reps in.

For the Patriots, the 2006 preseason opener is not your usually nondescript friendly battle.

At the beginning of training camp, this column examined three key positions which could hold the key to the Patriots regaining the crown they lost last year at Denver. Sure enough, each of those positions will draw a great amount of interest when the Patriots battle the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome Friday night.

On the plus side, there was a recent Rodney Harrison sighting at camp. Harrison is coming back from his devastating knee injury from last year way ahead of schedule. He was warmly received by his teammates, and his mere presence energized everyone out there, even those on offense (did you see that head butt Harrison got from Tom Brady?).

Harrison may get some playing time Friday night. There is even talk of putting Tebucky Jones back at his old free safety position, and moving Eugene Wilson to cornerback, his position in college at Illinois. If this happens, this will definitely be worth looking closely during the game.

But then there's Tedy Bruschi's wrist.

And Deion Branch is still sitting at home, in no hurry to cave in to the demands of the Patriots as he seeks a new contract before hitting the open market a year from now.

Bruschi has a broken wrist which projects to heal in about six weeks. This takes him out of the preseason, and perhaps a few games into the regular season. Bruschi vows that he will be ready for the season opener against Buffalo, but that may more false bravado than anything else. No report other than Bruschi himself says that he might be back early.

So, Patriot Nation will not get an early peek into how well Bruschi and Monty Beisel are handling the middle on defense. What is considered a major key in how well the Patriots do in 2006 now becomes an open audition for a backup role in the regular season. With no clear cut favorite to fill in for Bruschi (Don Davis?), it may also turn out to be a referendum on whether or not the Patriots should go to a base 4-3 until Bruschi can come back.

It might not be a bad idea for Bill Belichick and Dean Pees to try some base 4-3 formations, just to see what shakes.

The Patriots are deep on the defensive line. Jarvis Green, for example, could work in as a fourth down lineman. If Johnathan Sullivan has a decent grasp of the playbook, he could give it a try. Whichever of these guys steps in would determine where Richard Seymour would line up; the ideal situation would be to put Seymour at tackle and let him run up his sack totals. Whereas base 3-4 lineman tie up blockers, base 4-3 linemen are more aggressive in their pursuit of the quarterback.

As for wide receiver, this would be a great time for Reche Caldwell to show everyone what he's been showing those at camp. The Patriots will need all that he can give the team as long as Branch stays away.

All reports coming from training camp relating to Caldwell have been good to excellent. Despite not having the career track record, Caldwell has been impressing all observers in training camp thus far. A huge night in Atlanta would go a long way towards him possibly him cementing the number two wideout job, a job that seemed destined for rookie Chad Jackson.

Caldwell and Jackson should see a decent amount of playing time Friday night, although many of the passes thrown at them may be from Matt Cassel instead of Brady. With Cassel ticketed for increased duty in the preseason, as well as him being the leading candidate for the backup job to Brady, it would give Belichick a good barometer by which to judge the progress of both Caldwell and Jackson.

As for Branch, most experts think that he will come back sooner rather than later thanks largely to the fines being imposed for each day he misses camp. But Branch is determined to take this thing all the way, based upon reports close to both Branch and his agent. Nothing has come out indicating the two sides are getting any closer to an agreement.

The thinking here is that the Branch situation will reach an impasse to the point where the Patriots will slap the franchise tag on him next year. Branch will likely sit out until the point where he absolutely has to play to avoid not accruing a year of service, thus preventing him from becoming a free agent after 2006. In the long term, Branch would then be in line to become the next Adam Vinatieri, receiving one franchise tag after another, until the day when the front office merely decides to cut him loose and he splits at the first opportunity.

But for now, we have Caldwell and Jackson to ponder over. You might see how Ben Watson is used, just to see if he runs any deep routes just to cross up the defense. He probably would be used only during the time when Falcon starters are still in there.

This first preseason game will definitely be interesting to watch. What happens Friday night could have far reaching ramifications. That is not usually the case for preseason openers.

Look at it this way. It took until the final paragraph to finally mention the name Michael Vick.