Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Preseason Week 3 - Patriots vs. Panthers

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After two weeks spent on the road for joint practices and preseason games, the Patriots return to their homefield at Gillette Stadium to take on the Panthers in Week 3, aka The Dress Rehearsal.

How much is it really a dress rehearsal remains to be seen. We should see plenty of starters, but how many and for how long will be up to Bill Belichick. Keeping critical guys who have fought injuries like Sony Michel and Dont’a Higtower on ice for this one in preparation for the regular season could make sense.  All things considered, this is the closest thing we’ll get to what the 2019 Patriots will actually look like, even if some key players don’t dress, and that’s exciting.

The Pats are 2-0 on the summer, but there’s still plenty to figure out as the real quality work came mostly in joint practices. The wide receiver position got a huge boost over the last week with Josh Gordon being reinstated (but still on the NFI list) and Julian Edelman and Demaryius Thomas being activated.

Still, there are questions how the receiver position will all come together, and the tight end and swing tackle spots are far from set for the opener that is fast approaching. The good news is that most of the starters across the rest of the roster appear to be set and yes, the Patriots once again looked stacked despite the questions that every other team has as well.

How might it all come together? Week 3 should give us a little more insight. Here are the Carmax Keys to the Starting Lineup!

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots preseason Week 3 matchup against the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, August 22, 2019.

New Faces on Offense

Last week we didn’t get to see Tom Brady and thus the jury remains out on many of the new offensive pieces. That should change against Carolina, as Brady will be primarily throwing to Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios, Maurice Harris and Matt Lacosse, all intriguing players. A breakout game for any of those receivers could win them a job, and the team needs it to happen to round out their offense. Who looks good in practice doesn’t matter much if it doesn’t translate to a game and Brady has a way of developing a synergy with certain receivers. It would be great to see that synergy exist with one of the new guys.

Defensive Ferocity

You might have to go back to 2004 for the last time the Patriots had a more experienced and intimidating defensive group, but that doesn’t mean much if they get off to a slow start. All anyone cares about is the finish, but this defense has a chance to be great and it would be nice to set the tone for them to come out of the gate as great.

They have versatile pieces all over the front seven and the secondary is led by a shutdown corner and a group of safeties that have won three Super Bowls together. There are simply no holes, and with youngsters like Chase Winovich and JoeJuan Williams showing up, the depth is there as well. We saw glimpses of it against the Lions, and then in spurts against the Titans by mostly just the rookies. A third performance with disruption galore will put the early season opponents on notice that this is a defense that needs to be taken seriously. What’s not acceptable? Performances like allowing a 16-play, 79-yard drive like they did in last year’s preseason against the Panthers that took up a whopping 10 minutes.

Rookie Punter Takes the Job

Ryan Allen was released this week, meaning that the punter job now belongs to rookie Jake Bailey. Will Bailey still perform without Allen there to push him? The Patriots certainly expect so. And it won’t just be punting. It will be holding field goals and extra points, and maybe kicking off as well. If there’s another free kick opportunity (hopefully not!) he’ll kill the ball there too. The Patriots won their last Super Bowl in large part due to their punter and they’ll expect Bailey to continue to boom the ball like he has been all summer. But with Allen no longer around, the pressure has not been released, it’s only just increasing.

Rookie Improvement

One of the most remarkable facets of training camp has been how the rookies have just continued to improve each day. Chase Winovich, JoeJuan Williams, Jakobi Meyers and Byron Cowart have led the way, stacking each success and looking better and better every time they take the field. Even N’Keal Harry was showing daily improvement before getting hurt in the first preseason game. Can they continue their trajectory even in more limited action as the starters should play into the second half? It would be exciting to see the rookies get some chances against the best of Carolina to truly get a barometer of where they’re at.

Nobody Get Hurt!

Putting the starters into preseason games always comes with an element of risk and that’s why all that truly matters in the preseason, even the third game, is that nobody gets hurt. The Patriots had terrible luck in 2017 but let’s not talk about that. You can only hope and pray that the entire season doesn’t change course because of one freak play in August.

Predictions

Since the final score is meaningless let’s stick with a prediction about how the starters will play. Tom Brady and the offense will put our fears to rest, incorporating his new receivers into the offense and moving the ball like we’re used to seeing. Let’s face it, that’s what we saw in joint practices so there’s plenty of reasons for optimism, even if the names on the depth chart might be different from previous seasons. Finding reliable third and fourth options to compliment Edelman and eventually Gordon and Thomas is critical.

The Patriots offense is a well-oiled machine and while it’s not quite plug-and-play, they can make just about anything work. The bigger key will be having ground success with a new left tackle and tight ends, and how that translates to maintaining the strong ground game from 2018.

Defensively there are no excuses. They should overwhelm the Panthers defensive line with their starters, sparking talk of this being a throwback defense for Belichick. We know the front seven and secondary have all the pieces, now they just have to make it all fit together. If all goes to plan, the Pats will be poised to sit their starters in Week 4 and turn the page to the regular season opener where they’ll raise their sixth banner before facing the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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