August 09, 2007
Finally Time For First Measuring Stick
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
TAMPA -- No, you're not going to see the Patriots threaten their record for most points in a game. You may want to just to whet your appetite, but it is so not happening.
First of all, Randy Moss is a scratch thanks to his hamstring. Second, these are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, not the 1979 New York Jets (who gave up 55 in a game to the Patriots that year). Third, this is the preseason opener, and players will be given shakedowns, not getting showcased just to psyche out the rest of the league.
The 2007 Patriots will formally begin their march towards Super Bowl XLII Friday night at Raymond James Stadium. While this game really won't mean a whole lot with respect to how the team will play in December and January and beyond, it will be well worth taking some time away from the Red Sox and their shrinking AL East lead and seeing where your Patriots are at the moment. You can't help but sit there and wonder about this new Patriot offense, but seeing what this group can really do will have to wait another month or so.
Not having Moss in the game does diminish its watchability quite a bit for casual and non-hardcore fans, but there will be plenty to look at and to take note of. Tom Brady will play a few series, maybe even the entire first half, and should get time to learn his new receivers in actual game conditions. The first defensive unit should get plenty of reps out there as well. The second half is when both coaches figure to bring in all the players who are longshots to make it to Foxborough in September.
If you are one of those fans who are too full of baseball or root for the Patriots only because it's fashionable, here are some things which you can look at as you entertain your friends Friday night.
Right off the bat, you should pay close attention to Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker. See if Brady tries to hit Stallworth deep and Welker underneath. What Stallworth will try and do is stretch opposing secondaries and respect the deep ball (as will Moss), but Brady will certainly try and see if Stallworth can outrun someone back there and nail one for 70 yards or so. Meanwhile, everyone is expecting Welker to become what Troy Brown was when he set the record for most catches in a season by a Patriot. Welker could well become the best new addition at wideout instead of Moss. Here's hoping these two guys get plenty of work in the first half.
You might also want to watch carefully to see if the Patriots can run right. There is an intense ongoing battle for the right tackle job, between Ryan O'Callaghan and Nick Kaczur. If Laurence Maroney (or Sammy Morris, perhaps) breaks off a few good runs off right tackle, see who is in at right tackle. Right tackles are usually the "road graders" with right-handed quarterbacks, and it will be very important for the passing game this year that the run game succeed, especially with the retirement of Corey Dillon.
Matt Cassel should come in around the third quarter, and his performance will be critical, albeit with second and third unit players in there. Everyone's secret fear is what will become of the Patriots should Brady ever get hurt, which thus far we've never had to actually see. Cassel needs to be able to come in and play as if Brady were still in there, and no one really knows if that is possible. Other than some nice garbage time work at the end of the 2005 season against Miami (the Flutie drop-kick game), Cassel is still by and large an unknown figure to most all outside the inner circle of the team. Cassel has backed up three very good quarterbacks in his day (Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC and Brady), but he has never had the chance to show what he can do if he had to bring the team home.
Adalius Thomas was the plum free agent pickup. His reputation and talent are both impeccable, but he bears watching to see if he fits in and if he will help make up for the fact that Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are getting long in the tooth. Vrabel still belongs outside, but in all likelihood Thomas and Rosevelt Colvin will be the outside backers. Thomas will be counted on to bring pressure, but what you should pay most attention to is whether or not Bruschi's best days as a run stopper are behind him. How well Thomas picks up the slack here may be a critical element of the season.
The Patriots traded the other day for Dante Wesley from Chicago, a backup cornerback on the NFC champs. He could turn out to be merely another body in camp. But the cornerback position remains imperiled as long as Asante Samuel continues his holdout. Tory James and Ellis Hobbs will probably start at cornerback Friday night, with Randall Gay and Willie Andrews as the main backups. Tampa Bay is not known as a team with an explosive offense, so this is a nice first test for the makeshift cornerback tandem. But the pass defense bears close scrutiny, and if the Buccaneers are able to move easily through the Patriot secondary, sound the lifeboat call at once.
And finally, have a chat with whomever you pray to, if anyone, for no injuries. You know for sure that Moss won't get any worse than a bad hammy. Injuries in the preseason are just as bad as in the regular season, but the bad karma that goes with an injury in a meaningless game makes it seem worse than it actually is, and team morale is even more negatively impacted. Front line players have to play, but keep your fingers crossed all the while.
Tampa Bay is a bad team to lead things off with. The Patriots are winless in five preseason contests against the Buccaneers in their history. The Patriots were spanked 27-7 here in the regular season in 1997, a game better known for the antics of Drew Bledsoe and some of his pals during the week and something called a "mosh pit". The Patriots' last meeting with these Bucs was a sweet 28-0 win at Gillette Stadium a week before Christmas in 2005. But facing this team in the preseason hasn't exactly been a walk in the park for the Patriots. Nevertheless, when you are playing games that don't put winning at the top of the priority list, Tampa Bay will give the Patriots a nice first test as they try and put together a team which will make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in three years after winning three or four Vinces a while back.
Speaking of mosh pits, if you get wind of Brady hanging out at one this week, you need to change what it is you are serving at your party.
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