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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: 10 things to watch vs. Lions

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Heading toward the 2017 regular season with 19-0 hype, the defending-champion Patriots are 0-2 in preseason action this summer.

Now, it's clear that preseason scores are by no means an indicator of future fall success, especially for a proven, veteran team like New England.

That said, clearly Bill Belichick would like to see his team put forth a better all-around performance in Friday night's all-important, "dress rehearsal" third preseason game in Detroit.

Even then, it's not necessarily about the score or the end result. It's about execution and competition in all three phases. That's something that was very much lacking the last time the Patriots took on the Lions on the road in the third week of preseason action back in 2013. That night was a 40-9 Detroit domination in which New England's first five Tom Brady-led drives ended in a fumble, a punt, a fumble, an interception and, you guessed it, one more fumble.

Here's hoping that preseason history doesn't repeat itself.

10 things to watch for from the Patriots vs. the Lions in Detroit:

Brady's 'rhythm' - Brady said earlier this week that what he's looking for in his playing time in the third preseason affair is "just feeling the rhythm of the game." While the breakdown of Brady's snaps in the third preseason game has varied over the years, he generally starts and plays at least half the game. Sometimes he plays just the first half. Others he plays, comes out and then returns in the third quarter. There have even been times when he's played a full three quarters. Regardless, this will be the best chance to see Brady in extended action with his new-look offense. Seeing him find a rhythm is important. Of course seeing him stay upright and healthy is even more important.

Tackle football- Left tackle Nate Solder returned to practice this week, but reportedly did not travel to Detroit. That means Cameron Fleming will once again likely be protecting Brady's blind side. Fleming has been up and down at various times this summer. The rest of the returning offensive line starters should be on the field for extended action in front of their 40-year-old passer, but it's Fleming who's most in the spotlight. LaAdrian Waddle returned to practice after missing a week due to a reported concussion, while rookie Tony Garcia remains out of action with an unknown injury. The depth at the tackle spot remains a competitive summer battle. Still, Fleming keeping Brady clean might be goal No. 1 on the Patriots To-Do List in Detroit.

No big plays- Both the first unit defenders and the backups for the Patriots defense have been allowing big plays this summer. That's not what Belichick and Matt Patricia are looking for. One of the main tenets of the defensive system in New England is not allowing big plays. The time to clean up the issue is now, not when the games begin to count in a couple weeks. The Lions have the weapons to make plays, so New England will have to play better to achieve this goal. That means much better coverage and much better tackling.

On edge - The competition to fill out the depth chart on the edge of the Patriots defense is ongoing. Trey Flowers sat out the first two games. His debut in Detroit would ease questions about his health and how ready he is to be Da Man at defensive end. Otherwise it's a continued mixing and matching of bodies to see what mix works. Kony Ealy gets another chance to prove his worth. Harvey Langi too. Dont'a Hightower could very well have a role on the edge, and his return to practice from PUP was a good sign this week even if he'd seem unlikely to jump right into extended game action. There's a serious lack of proven talent and depth on the edge of the defense and figuring out how to overcome that will be a priority, though it's a process that will likely continue well into the regular season.

In the running- Mike Gillislee returned to practice this week after missing the first two preseason games and plenty of practice action with a hamstring injury. The veteran newcomer deemed himself 100-percent healthy. That could mean at least a few snaps and carries in Detroit. Rex Burkhead had a big role in the first offense last week in Houston, but did not practice this week. So he's unlikely to see action against the Lions. That could mean another extended look at Dion Lewis, who's been one of the best performers for the Patriots all summer. James White has seen limited snaps, while Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster and LeShun Daniels Jr. all remain in the running back mix. It's a crowded, talented backfield and Friday night's action could give another hint to how the competition at running back might be playing out.

Bounce back, Butler- Malcolm Butler struggled in limited action in his summer debut last week in Houston. The former Pro Bowler has had an otherwise solid summer, but seeing him do it on the game field against Matthew Stafford and Co. would alieve any fears fans may have that the fourth-year player is headed toward anything other than an impressive season. The Patriots secondary is expected to be the strength of the defense. Butler and his fellow veteran brethren can measure themselves against a Detroit passing attack that ranked No. 11 in the NFL a year ago.

Jimmy's ball security- Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't pleased with himself last week after an interception and lost fumble in Houston. The backup has turned the ball over a bit too often on the practice field this summer, as well. Though Friday night will be a big dose of Brady, whenever Garoppolo gets in the game the fourth-year No. 2 needs to take care of the ball. Turnovers and big mistakes are the difference between winning and losing in the NFL. At some point, somewhere, Garoppolo is going to be a starter. Ball security is a focal point any time he's on the field from here on out.

Competition continues - Though many believe that the bulk of the Patriots 53-man roster that will be announced on Sept. 3 is already locked up, there clearly is still some competition at various spots. That includes battles at defensive end, tight end, running back, backup tackle and in depth/special teams roles to fill out the roster. There is pressure for many guys to perform well to try to nail down at job. But as Belichick pointed out this week, life in the NFL is all about pressure.

More Cyrus - Second-year former second-round pick Cyrus Jones had a terrible start to the summer in the first preseason game, allowing a 97-yard touchdown. He was much better last week, earning positive reviews from Belichick with his work in the return game. The young playmaker needs to string together positive plays and games, regardless of what role he's in. Jones is one of the more notable supposed 'bubble" guys as the preseason process winds down. After last week his arrow is pointing up. Can he keep that momentum going?

Air it out - Brady and new speedy receiver Brandin Cooks have connected with regularity for big plays on the practice field this summer. But we've yet to see that in a preseason game. Chris Hogan has also had his share of big plays on the practice field, as has Rob Gronkowski. There is no doubt that the Patriots passing game has huge big-play potential this fall, well beyond the catch-and-run success we saw from the running backs last week. It might be nice to see a tiny sample of Brady and Co. getting the ball down the field against the Lions on Friday night. All fans dig the long ball!

Other things you'll be watching for as a Patriots fan? Let us know with a comment below!

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