Yes, it's only the preseason. But losses like the one handed to the Patriots by the Cincinnati Bengals last Saturday night leave a mark regardless of when they occur. Case in point, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick is still outwardly questioning his team's dismal performance from last weekend.
After a week of fully padded practice action that Belichick termed, "a little bit better," the coach is looking for verification of that work in Saturday's preseason rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"I don't think it will be one specific thing," Belichick said of his broad expectations for the third preseason game. "It will be an overall evaluation of how we are playing. I think that if we go out and do one or two things well and do 30 things poorly like we did last week, I don't think we are going to come away from that saying, 'Well, great. We did two things halfway decent. Good.' We will see how we do from the total evaluation of it, from all of the aspects and hope that there are more things on the positive side than on the negative side. I am sure that we will have some problems. Hopefully we will be able to cause them a few problems, more than we did last week."
And some of that, especially in the scheme-light preseason, starts with the basic fundamentals of the game such as tackling and blocking.
"Everything," Belichick said in terms of what specific areas he's looking for improvement. "Do you want to list the highlights from last week? [Brief Pause] OK well that didn't take long. Hopefully we can find some positive things in the game this week from wherever they come. I am sure we are going to have problems. I am not oblivious to that. I don't think we are going to go down there and it is going to be 80-0. I don't think it is going to be like that at all. I just hope that we can do enough positive things to be competitive and show that we have improved and look like a football team."
From a player's perspective, Saturday represents an opportunity to not only bounce back, but to put together a strong performance in what should be a hostile environment against a good football team.
"We are anxious to get back out on the football field after the last performance that we had," defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. "And it's going to be a good test for us because Carolina is going to be ready and are we. It's going to be a good football game. I think the fans that are there are going to get their money's worth."
Guard Joe Andruzzi believes that while the game may seem complex at times, what the Patriots have to do this week is pretty simple.
"We just have to improve," Andruzzi said. "It always starts with making that first block. We'll get out there and whatever play is called just try and get out there and do the best we can. All 11 guys have to work together as one with no mistakes."
With the number of mistakes the team made last week -- in all areas of the game -- that would be a big step forward.
The team released veteran wide receiver J.J. Stokes on Thursday. The 10th year veteran played in two games in New England last season and then re-signed with the team as a free agent this spring.
The 6-4, 225-pound former San Francisco 49ers first round pick caught just two passes for 38 yards in his time with the Patriots in 2003 after beginning the season with the Jaguars. In six games with Jacksonville he caught 13 passes for 116 yards.
Stokes had been battling a number of receivers including young players like Chas Gessner this summer for a potential sixth wide receiver spot on the New England roster.
Preseason opportunity for Cloud
Michael Cloud played in just five games for the Patriots in 2003, but led the team with five rushing touchdowns. Despite drawing much fanfare after a New England debut with seven carries for 73 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans on Oct. 5, Cloud's opportunities were limited to just four games and 20 carries for the remainder of the year.
Part of what limited Cloud's contributions was the fact that he missed much of training camp 2003 with a calf injury and then had to serve a four-game NFL suspension before stepping on the field.
But after re-signing with New England this offseason, participating fully in the offseason program and taking advantage of all the coaching he could get during mini camp, the former Boston College star has led the team with 23 carries for 88 yards this preseason and is looking to use the expanded exhibition opportunities to solidify a role with the defending champs.
"It's all opportunity," Cloud said. "When you get that you just have to make the best of it. I am just going out there every week and just learning as much as I can. Whatever situation I am put in I try to go out there and do my best to help the team win."
With running backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk as virtual roster locks, Cloud is battling for the backup role that he filled at times last season. And considering that rookie fourth-round pick Cedric Cobbs has yet to step on the practice field this summer, it is a role that Cloud should have a good chance of filling when the season begins on Sept. 9.
"He really wasn't with us last year," Belichick said of Cloud's improved preseason role in 2004. "He wasn't with us in training camp, he wasn't with us for the first four weeks of the season. He came back and was kind of thrust into the offense and I think was probably reacting to a lot of things, rather than having the background, the amount of carries and the experience in the system that a player who had been there for, whatever it was, nine or 10 weeks would have. So, this year he has the benefit of all that. I think that, in terms of learning, understanding, reading the blocking schemes in front of him and having a familiarity with those players and how they block, there is a lot of chemistry there between a back and his blocking and just knowing the people in front of you and how they are doing it and how they are going to do it on certain plays. You have got to be better off with that."
Heading into the Super Bowl XXXVIII rematch Belichick was asked Thursday if he has watched that game as a fan, just to enjoy the drama of one of the best NFL championship games in history. "It has been a few times, when the kids are watching it or whatever, just kind of hoping that the end turns out well, you know, Adam's [Vinatieri] going to make the kick." And does he like watching it? "I definitely enjoyed it. It has a happy ending." … Despite the fact that the New England defense is coming off one its most disappointing performances in more than a year, Seymour believes the parts are in place for the unit to be very successful heading into the regular season. "We definitely have the tools to stop a lot of people. Whether we go out and do it or not, that's a different story. We definitely have the ability. It's up to us how good we want to be on defense because like I said we definitely have the tools to get it done. It's just a matter of going out and getting it done on the football field. On paper, we are pretty good."