The Patriots and Bears have been fighting it out all week on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, but on Thursday night the two teams will take the battle inside the home of the four-time Super Bowl champions under the bright lights of preseason game action.
If the competitive intensity of the practice work is an indicator, this second preseason affair for both teams should offer some fun football for fans to devour on this hot August night.
With that in mind, as you tick off the hours of the work day to another night of football action, here's a double-digit rundown of things to keep an eye on as New England takes the field for the second time this summer.
Potential Debuts –Plenty of Patriots sat out the opener last Thursday night against the Saints. Many will probably sit out this one as well. But some guys may make their summer debut, including some making their first-ever game appearance in a Patriots uniform. One such player is veteran wide receiver Nate Washington, who had a nice week of practice action against the Bears. The veteran missed time early in camp after throwing up on the field on the first day of practice, but is now in a nice battle for a roster spot. Others who might see their initial action against Chicago would include receiver Chris Hogan, cornerback Logan Ryan, linebacker Jonathan Freeny and maybe even quarterback Tom Brady. Putting him last on the list is what they call in the journalism business burying the lede.
Quarterback Reps/Performance –Jimmy Garoppolo had an up-and-down night against the Saints. He will clearly be looking to level things out and get off to a much faster, more productive start against the Bears. Jacoby Brissett will also be looking to build on the good and cut back on the bad from the action a week ago. But the biggest question is whether Brady will take some summer snaps. The only way to find out is to quite literally tune in and see for yourself if TB12, who's had a great summer on the practice field, gets into the game.
A Tyler Gaffney Encore – The young running back was quite emotional and thankful to get back on the field for game action last week after two years on injured reserve. Prior to his 44-yard scamper he'd last found the end zone a couple years earlier in the Rose Bowl for Stanford. Now, Gaffney will look to continue to impress and improve as he might be in a legitimate fight not only for a roster spot but the job as the big back in the Patriots running back committee.
Playmaking Momentum – The Patriots defense took the scoring into its own hands against the Saints. The big plays came early and often. The action ignited plenty of thoughts of what the unit might be able to accomplish this year and how it might take pressure off a Garoppolo-led offense. Despite the potential to be without Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Shea McClellin it would be a good sign if the front seven can still make big plays.
Corner Market –The young guys battling for the depth roles at cornerback – Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Cre'Von LeBlanc, Jonathan Jones and Darryl Roberts – were all in on plays of note against New Orleans. The fight for roster spots and roles behind Malcolm Butler and Ryan is an interesting one that could very easily run into the regular season. This game offers a chance to make plays against a Jay Cutler passing attack that fields impressive weapons in Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White and others.
Fight Night – The Bears and Patriots had plenty of pushing, shoving and scuffling in three days of practice action. Some of the issues would have drawn flags and potential ejections in game action. It seems unlikely the extracurricular action will continue on the game field that controlled by the crew of officials, but you never know until it plays out.
Kickoff Work in Progress – The opener saw Stephen Gostkowski taking different approaches to his kickoff chances. There were powerful touchbacks, squibs and higher, shorter attempts. Bill Belichick has admitted that the team's kickoff philosophy under the new 25-yard-line touchback rule is a work in progress. Thursday night is a chance for more work and more progress.
Cyrus the Returner – New England's top pick Cyrus Jones is competing for a depth role at cornerback. But he also seemingly is being given every chance to be the team's primary punt returner. The only problem is that his hands have been inconsistent on the practice field, leading to far too many muffs. He handled his two chances cleanly last week and the goal will obviously be to do the same in another opportunity in front of the big crowd under the bright lights.
Get in Line – New England's offensive line was one of the team's biggest stories at the end of last season and into the offseason. The group has Nate Solder returning, rookie Joe Thuney trying to lock down the starting job at left guard and a battle for center. In the end the goal for Dante Scarnecchia will be to find a group of five guys to go to battle with, which is to say the right group of five guys to best get the job done. The front was shaky at times in the opener and must show improvement as the real trench battles draw closer by the day with the talented, aggressive Cardinals on the not-too-distant horizon.
Show Time –Many of the players on the 90-man roster already have their fate somewhat decided. Some are locks for jobs. Others will be out of work come September. But for the chunk of guys in the middle, what they do with every chance they get will decide their immediate professional future. Every game is an opportunity to show their stuff. They can make a play or give one up. They can put a resume on tape that will impress Belichick or another NFL personnel guy. Or, they can take a step closer to the end of their career. That's a lot of pressure, but it's also a lot of opportunity. That's what's on the line for many guys on every snap of preseason action.
What do you think of our list? Other things you'll be watching for on Thursday night? Let us know with a comment below!