Three Patriots Players to Watch Against the Cardinals

Steve Balestrieri
September 9, 2016 at 11:31 am ET

A Trio of Veterans Who’ll Have to Step Up in Phoenix

The Patriots take on the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football and have their work cut out for themselves if they want to fly home with a victory. They’ll be playing without key players Tom Brady, Dion Lewis, Rob Ninkovich and Sebastian Vollmer and they’ll be facing an Arizona team that is primed for a deep playoff run.

If they want to come out of Phoenix with a victory, they’re going to need a total team effort. However there a few players who will have to step up and will no doubt play key roles in the Patriots game plan on Sunday.

Here are our three players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday Night:

 Defensive End Chris Long: The veteran defensive end has had an impressive training camp and preseason after signing a one-year free agent deal coming from the Rams this spring. And with Rob Ninkovich out for the first month of the season, he’ll be looked to for veteran leadership and production.


Long is finally healthy after two injury-plagued years and found there was little call for his services this spring. He knows the Cardinals well, having faced them twice a year for his entire career in the NFC West. He’s had some good games against Arizona in the past and he knows Carson Palmer isn’t the most mobile of QBs.

Long has got his quickness back and has exhibited a nice spin move in the pass rushing department this summer. And facing running back David Johnson, he’s being looked to set the edge in the running game. That is something he’s been very good at doing thus far and it will be of even greater importance on Sunday.

Under the bright lights of a nationally televised game, Long is wanting to show that’s he’s healthy and ready to contribute in a big way again. We haven’t heard much from him this week. Expect that to change on Sunday night.

Tight End Rob Gronkowski: The big man has been hurting since pulling up lame in a joint practice with the Chicago Bears. Yelling in pain that was audible across the practice field, his hamstring still, admittedly isn’t 100 percent. He spoke with the media on Thursday and stated that he wasn’t even sure that he was going to play on Sunday. It is probably going to be a last minute decision, depending on how well he can run during the early warmups in Phoenix.

Rob Gronkowski is a force multiplier for the Patriots offense.

Rob Gronkowski is a force multiplier for the Patriots offense.

Other than Brady, no one is more indispensable to the team’s success than Gronk. He possesses a skill set like no other tight end in the NFL. He’s what we used to refer to Special Forces, a “force multiplier”. When he’s on the field, the opposition has to put so many resources designed just to stop him, that it increases the productivity of the remaining players on the field. And even then, he’s still difficult to stop.

I expect Gronk to play some against the Cardinals. And when he’s on the field he can be a difference-maker, 100 percent or not. His presence will be one of a calming influence on Garoppolo, knowing that he’ll either stay in to block or attack the secondary down the seams. As many know, Brady has used Gronkowski split wide to get a pre-snap read on if the defense is in zone or man coverage, depending upon who lines up opposite him. That is a small but important factor that may help the young quarterback going thru his baptism of fire on Sunday night.

Wide Receiver Chris Hogan: The free agent signee from the Bills has had a relatively quiet but nevertheless impressive spring and summer with the Patriots. Never having a defined role and always looked to be replaced in Buffalo, he’s worked hard and has seamlessly integrated into the Patriots offense. He rapidly gained the all-important trust factor with QBs Tom Brady and Jimmy Garroppolo.

Chris Hogan looked very impressive on Weds' practice

Chris Hogan has looked very impressive all summer.

With Gronkowski and Julian Edelman always bearing the brunt of the defense’s attention, it will be up to the others in the offense, like Hogan, Martellus Bennett, and James White to step up and make their presence felt.

Hogan should be facing single coverage on Sunday night. With the Cardinals looking to be aggressive against Garoppolo in his first NFL start, Hogan may be the safety valve that the Patriots need to keep the chains moving and giving Jimmy G. the easier throws he will need to get into a rhythm. Hogan is my choice for the Patriots player to have a big night offensively. Like Chris Long, he’s wanting to show on a national stage that he too just needed another opportunity to shine.

Honorable Mentions: D.J. Foster, Dont’a Hightower and Barkevious Mingo

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