On Thursday, the Patriots will embark on their first road trip of 2018, for preseason game No. 3 against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. New England hosted its first two exhibition contests at Gillette Stadium, marking just the third time during the Bill Belichick era as head coach of the Patriots that the preseason schedule has worked out that way (2012 and 2016 were the other two occasions).
All summer, since training camp opened in late July, the Patriots have worked exclusively here in Foxborough. For this reason, there seems to be added excitement in the locker room about this upcoming first road game – a chance to play and get used to operating on the field in a hostile, unfamiliar environment.
"Yeah, it's our first time [on the road] this year. So, it's going to be a little different because we've had two home games," cornerback Stephon Gilmore acknowledged. "And we're going against a good team."
"It is important to communicate on the road. We haven't played on the road yet, so, we'll try to execute and be on the same page," right guard Shaq Mason concurred. "As far as the travel aspect of it, yes, it's going to be different because we've been here [all summer]."
As Belichick pointed out on Monday, the team also shifts somewhat toward a regular season schedule this week to begin getting accustomed to preparing for an opponent, which is also something the players seem anxious to do.
"I wouldn't use the word easier, but it's definitely… I mean, it's a lot… easier," wide receiver Phillip Dorsett laughed. "We're back in our regular season routines. The tempo goes up, we get to focus on another team instead of just us. I feel like there's always a sense of urgency in this locker room. When the pressure's on, you've got to be able to perform."
Which is why, starting this week, there's even film to study, not just of their own practices, but of the Panthers and their two preseason games thus far.
"This is an important game," declared safety Duron Harmon. "They're going to be ready to go. It's a dress rehearsal. You've got to use them games truly as a time to get prepared to familiarize yourself with what you want to do in the [regular] season. You don't want your first week of preparation and studying film to be the first week [of the regular season]. You want to be able to do it now, so, that when you get to Day 1 of the regular season, you'll have a good routine."
Isn't that special?
Wide receiver Riley McCarron spent nearly all of his rookie season on New England's practice squad last year. This summer, with injuries and depth questions a factor, McCarron is hoping to find a place either as a pass catcher or return specialist.
"We're still trying to take it one day at a time. It's been a learning process throughout the entirety of camp," McCarron told reporters. "I'm still trying to gain the trust of my teammates and coaches any way I can."
In the first two games this preseason, McCarron has handled the majority of both punt and kickoff returns, but is still looking to make that signature play that could determine his 53-man roster fate. While talking to the media Tuesday, McCarron did his best to explain what it's like to stare down a wall of opponents bearing down on him as he tries simultaneously to secure the spinning ball that's falling out of the sky.
"I guess it's just a feel thing, after being back there so many times," he observed. "The ball is the most important thing, so, obviously, I'm looking at the ball, trying to do my part, make smart decisions back there and be a guy that the coaches and team can count on."
No changes to the absentee list. The same five players who didn't dress for practice on Monday were also out of commission on Tuesday: right tackle Marcus Cannon (unknown), linebacker Harvey Langi (kidney, according to media reports), rookie running back Sony Michel (knee), rookie offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn (left Achilles), and rookie tight end Ryan Izzo (unknown).
RB Rex Burkhead (knee) has been at practice in pads the past couple of days, but seems to have engaged in limited activity during the first couple of drill periods, when media are allowed to watch practice. The normally talkative Burkhead has also made himself scarce during the media interview period so far this week. He still appears, therefore, to be in the process of working his way back from this latest medical issue.