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Keys to the Starting lineup presented by CarMax: 6 things to watch vs. Eagles

The Patriots and Eagles meet Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, a preseason battle that’s nothing close to a Super Bowl rematch.

Keys to the Game - CarMax Keys for Andy Hart - Keys Patriots-Eagles

Six months ago the Patriots and Eagles met in Minnesota in the biggest game in all of sports.

We all remember how that turned out and certainly have no need to revisit those memories. The teams will do battle again on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium in the second week of preseason action, a summertime game that is certainly anything but a rematch.

But just because tonight's contest isn't the Super Bowl, that doesn't mean there won't be some important happenings on the Gillette turf. The summer process of battling for jobs and roster spots continues, ramping up through the course of the preseason schedule.

As Bill Belichick often reminds us, regardless of the situation, the games matter for the men strapping it up and taking the field to play in them whether it's a Super Bowl or a mid-August step in the preseason process.

With that in mind, here are a half-dozen things to watch for in the second week of Patriots 2018 preseason action against the Eagles:

Will the stars come out? – Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, among others, sat out the preseason opener against the Redskins. Both players, Brady in particular, have had their reps seemingly monitored this summer. Brady said this week that he expects to play against the Eagles and emphasized the importance of these preseason snaps, especially given the lack of joint practices this summer in New England. While there have been questions about the Patriots passing attack, things should look better with Nos. 12 and 87 on the field together if they get that chance against Philly.

Second looks – There were a number of young players who took full advantage of their extended reps in the preseason opener. Now, those guys will try to build on that debut and string together positive action in an effort to prove themselves worthy of roster spots and roles. Derek Rivers flashed against Washington as he works back from the torn ACL that wiped out his rookie season. Ralph Webb ran well in the second half a week ago. Devin Lucien was pretty much the only productive pass catcher early in that game. Ja'Whaun Bentley looked very comfortable in the middle of the defense. After nice debut performances, all these guys and more need to take the next step with some more positive work against the Eagles.

Get it covered – One of the areas that really struggled last week, despite the presence of many top-end players, was the pass defense. Early on the Redskins, mostly backups, threw with much success all over the field. Stephon Gilmore struggled a bit in the secondary, failing to take his strong practice performances to the "game" field. Both Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy got caught chasing, a linebacker coverage concern that carries over from last season. Even young cornerbacks who'd been making plays in camp were a little less productive under the bright lights. One of the obvious areas the Patriots need to improve on from a year ago is a pass defense that ranked near the bottom of the league. It would be nice to see some signs of improvement Thursday night against Nick Foles and the Philly attack.

Role play – Based on circumstances, the depth chart and practice action, there are some pretty important roles up for competition in New England. Jeremy Hill appears poised to unseat Mike Gillislee as the "big" back. Chris Hogan will be relied upon in September to be the No. 1 option at receiver during Julian Edelman's suspension. Both the No. 2 and slot cornerback roles are up for grabs. Jacob Hollister may be seeing a Year 2 jump into a key complementary role as a pass-catching tight end. Securing these roles and building confidence that they are up to the tasks are objectives that can be advanced throughout the preseason process, including tonight.

Debut time? – Brady and Gronkowski weren't the only ones to sit out the summer opener. Both Devin and Jason McCourty as well as top pick Isaiah Wynn could make there August debuts against the Eagles. Jason McCourty's status is very much up for debate after a curious spring in which he basically took no relevant reps in OTAs or mini-camp. He said this week that he's fully healthy and was never dealing with an injury. Tonight could be a step toward figuring out whether Devin's twin brother is in line for a possible starting job opposite Gilmore or if he might be on the roster bubble. Wynn has taken reps at left tackle, guard and right tackle this summer. He's had his ups and downs on the practice field, so game action could indicate what position he might be destined to play as a rookie as well as whether he's ready for the high-end competition in the NFL trenches. It will also be worth noting if any of the three latest players to come off PUP – Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones and Nate Ebner – are ready for game action after ramping up their practice reps earlier this week.

Flag football – A week ago the Patriots played a relatively clean game in terms of this year's new rules and points of emphasis. There were no calls for lowering the helmet. Rivers did get nabbed for landing on the quarterback with his full weight after a hit, an infraction that will undoubtedly infuriate fans, players and coaches alike this season. Given the way things are being called across the league and may be called this season, flags will continue to be a focal point tonight and in the weeks and months ahead.

What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots preseason matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium.

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