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

Keys to the Starting Lineup - Tom Brady vs. Cam Newton - CarMax Keys for Andy Hart

It’s not Patriots regular season action. Not “even close.” But Friday night’s third preseason game trip to Carolina to take on Cam Newton’s Panthers is about as close as we can get at this point in the summer.

With the opener against the Texans still two-plus weeks away, the third week of the preseason generally includes the most significant playing time for starters and high-end personnel. And the preparation for the game is ramped up a bit. Heck, Bill Belichick even admitted there’s a little game-planning going on this week. Just a little.

“There’s some. We’re not going to run plays that would have no – that would just be bad plays,” Belichick said. “We don’t want to do that. But, as far as game planning in preseason games relative to what it is in the regular season, yeah, not even close. You know, the things we do we’ll have to cover against what we’ve seen Carolina do and what their basic fronts and coverages and blitzes are, their basic formations and personnel groups and basic concept of plays. So, we’ll work on those, but we’re not going to put in a lot of plays specific for what they do, which we would absolutely do during the regular season.”

With many of the top players likely to see few if any snaps in the upcoming fourth preseason game against the Giants in New York, this Friday night against the Panthers is the last true tune-up for the opener as well as a final significant opportunity for many players to attempt to secure roles and roster spots.

With that in mind, here are six key things to watch for in Friday night’s battle with the Panthers:

Brady’s targets – A week ago Tom Brady made his preseason debut in impressive fashion against the Eagles. He drove the offense right down the field. But most of his connections were to returning veterans and left some wondering how/when he’s going to build a rapport with a few complementary targets. Maybe that will come against Carolina. We know Brady can connect with Julian Edelman, James White, Chris Hogan and, whenever he gets on the field, Rob Gronkowski. But every completion to the likes of Phillip Dorsett, Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen or Cordarrelle Patterson, even in the preseason, could prove valuable down the road.

First looks – A handful of Patriots with the potential to be key contributors this season have yet to see the game field this summer. Clearly Gronkowski is atop that list, but his status and expected contributions are pretty set. It would be nice to see PUP returnees Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones and Nate Ebner knock off some rust against the Panthers and pick up the pace on the preparation process for the regular season. Jonathan Jones will be very much in the mix at corner and deemed himself ready for game action. Cyrus Jones may be in line for top punt return duties in September with Edelman suspended, so reps in the role to help put past ball security blunders to bed would benefit all involved. Even seeing potential lead running back Rex Burkhead show his stuff against a talented Panthers might be nice. Adding Trey Flowers to the pass rush could ease fears that his absence is more than what he described as minor.

Controlled rush – Fans and media alike seemed almost giddy after seeing the Patriots blitz-happy pass rush produce against Philly. Certainly the performance was worth noting, especially the new faces bringing athleticism to the front. This game, though, is a chance to display an ability to utilize the controlled pass rush that Belichick so often calls on against athletic quarterbacks like Newton. Adrian Clayborn and company will be asked to hem the former NFL MVP in and force him to make consistent throws, an approach we’ll see down the road against Deshaun Watson and others when the games get going for real.

Last-ditch effort – The harsh reality is that a number of the 88 players on the Patriots roster at this point won’t be with the team in a couple weeks. Time is running out for those on the roster bubble to put some impressive plays on tape – either to stick in New England or to impress other teams enough to earn a look elsewhere. The battle to impress includes veterans and rookies alike. Mike Gillislee’s days could be numbered thanks to Jeremy Hill’s work. The fight for depth jobs on the offensive line could go down to the wire with a crowded group of experienced options fighting for a few spots. Can young players like linebacker Christian Sam, running back Ralph Webb, tight end Ryan Izzo, cornerbacks Keion Crossen or J.C. Jackson and receivers Braxton Berrios or Riley McCarron squeeze themselves into the roster conversation? Can all the talented, experienced options at defensive tackles stick around? Lots of questions and running out of time to get the answers.

Stay healthy!!!!!! – More playing time for more important players means more chance for injury. That’s just the reality of the sport. So while fighting for jobs or to knock off rust is important, it’s not nearly as important as making the return trip from Carolina as healthy as possible. Players need to play football to get ready for the real football season, but they can’t make it to those meaningful games if they go down in August, as a key cog like Julian Edelman did last year. Or Isaiah Wynn did last week. You can’t control the injuries, but you sure cross your fingers to guard against them. Do your collective part Patriot Nation!

Helmet-watch – Last week officials threw four flags for the new rule regarding lowering the helmet. The most curious, dubious call went against Jordan Richards for what appeared to be a perfect textbook tackle. This week the NFL held a conference call to discuss the controversial new rule. They apparently are sticking with it. Does that mean more flags this Friday night and, worse, into the regular season? The meeting with Carolina, with more starters on the field for both squads, is another chance for players and onlookers alike to try to figure out what the rule really is and how it’s going to be called. Enjoy!

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