Friday, Aug. 10, 2001 8 p.m. (ET) - Foxboro Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
A year ago, the Patriots had to cancel a scheduled scrimmage with the Giants because injuries left Bill Belichick virtually without an offensive line. This year, the Giants will make the trip from Albany to Smithfield, R.I., on Aug. 7 for two days of practice before the teams go to battle in the preseason opener on Aug. 10.
The Giants are the defending NFC champions and perhaps Belichick is hoping that spending three days with winners will rub off on his 5-11 team of a year ago. The Giants were hardly favorites to win the NFC last year and much was made of the leadership and attitude that helped propel them to seven straight wins on the way to the title game.
Belichick spent his offseason trying to shop for some of those same ingredients. Now his team will get a first-hand look at how a team looking to prove last year wasn't a fluke goes about its business. The Patriots have some players who have experienced what the Giants did last year — an unlikely berth in the Super Bowl followed by increased expectations. So perhaps there will be some give and take when the two clubs meet for a few days of hitting someone besides their own teammates.
While the starters for both clubs will see very little time in the opener, Belichick will get a gauge of how his defense can handle different types of running backs as the Giants use the Thunder and Lightning combination of Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber. Dayne is likely to see more time as the Giants prepare him for the long season after one in which he hit the proverbial rookie wall. The club needs Dayne to regain his confidence so that he takes some of the load off the diminutive but talented Barber. Dayne is about 10 pounds leaner than last year, which may help his endurance.
The quarterback is Kerry Collins, who made as impressive a comeback last year as any player in recent memory, although don't expect to see much of him. Instead, Jason Garrett and rookie Jesse Palmer will get some opportunities to strut their stuff in game action. Garrett is a proven backup while Palmer will be getting his first taste of the NFL.
The Patriots won't see wideout Ike Hilliard after he underwent foot surgery in June. The other starter from last year, Amani Toomer, should see some time, but Head Coach Jim Fassel will give Ron Dixon the opportunity to unseat Joe Jurevicius as the No. 3 wideout.
On the offensive line, the Patriots could learn something from the Giants group that came together last year. With three new faces — left tackle Lomas Brown, left guard Glenn Parker and center Dusty Zeigler — the Giants front line gelled into a productive unit. That group is not young and won't play much in this opener.
The Giants defensive line may well be the strength of the team, which is exactly what the Patriots offensive line needs. Cornelius Griffin emerged as a rookie last season and will start in place of Christian Peter at tackle alongside veteran Keith Hamilton. Michael Strahan will give Matt Light and/or Greg Robinson-Randall everything the young, inexperienced offensive tackles can handle on the right side. Strahan will be helped by the addition of former Titan pass rusher Kenny Holmes, who didn't get his due playing with Jevon Kearse in Tennessee. Since losing Chad Bratzke in free agency a couple of years ago, the Giants haven't had a complement to Strahan and Holmes provides that. He will also keep Patriots tackle Adrian Klemm on his toes.
If the Patriots offensive line struggles, it may force Belichick to give quarterback Drew Bledsoe an even earlier hook. Generally, there are a set number of plays or a certain level of production a coach wants to get out of his starters, but if the pass rush becomes unbearable, Bledsoe should be out. Damon Huard, Tom Brady and Michael Bishop could all get some snaps.
Protection is certainly an area of concern for the Patriots, who will look at different combinations early in the preseason to try to find five guys to live with. Last preseason, with a patchwork line, Belichick didn't expose his No. 1 quarterback early on, limiting his playing time and his opportunities to throw from the pocket.
The front line is obviously an area to watch with hot competition at the tackle spots. At left tackle, Klemm will battle veteran Grant Williams. Mike Compton will be the left guard alongside center Damien Woody. Joe Andruzzi is the leader to play right guard and Light, Robinson-Randall and Williams could all see early action at right tackle.
This will also be the first look at new draft pick and left tackle Kenyatta Jones, who is a mammoth lineman out of South Florida. A couple of other linemen to keep an eye on who are competing for jobs are Adam Davis and Grey Ruegamer.
Among all those linemen, the Patriots will try to find five who can pass block and open holes for J.R. Redmond. That won't be an easy task against the Giants defensive line or a linebacking corps that includes Michael Barrow and Jessie Armstead. Second-year man Brandon Short moves into the starting lineup as well and will be a player to watch.
Like the Patriots, the Giants don't have a lot of depth in their front seven, but do have more talent than New England among their top players. This might allow the Patriots to produce later in the preseason contest when the backups step on the field. The Patriots are not a top-heavy team this year, but did add depth through free agency, which may show up more in the preseason than during the regular campaign.
One of the suddenly deep positions for the Patriots is wide receiver where NFL veterans Bert Emanuel, Charles Johnson, Torrance Small and David Patten join incumbents Terry Glenn and Troy Brown. Barring pass protection problems, this group should provide Bledsoe with much better options than last year and also help him better utilize the middle of the field, an area that was non-existent in 2000.
Jason Sehorn is still the Giants top corner, but watch for first-round pick Will Allen and third-round pick William Peterson to see plenty of action as the club looks to upgrade the corner spot opposite Sehorn that was held by Dave Thomas last year. Thomas wasn't terrible for the Giants, but it's clear by the team's draft selections that it wanted to do better. So Thomas and last year's nickel back, Emmanuel McDaniel ,will be pressed hard for their jobs by the two rookies. New England will also look to get Tony Simmons, Shockmain Davis and Curtis Jackson some reps as their jobs are on the line. Dane Looker, who the team traded for last year, was bothered by a strained hamstring early in camp, which will hurt his chances.
Antowain Smith, who failed his initial conditioning run, will see some time after Redmond, who entered camp as the frontrunner to win the starting job and extended his lead when Smith was kept off the practice field by virtue of his failed test.
Robert Edwards won't likely see much action in the first preseason game because of a strained groin suffered during the first week of training camp, which put a damper on the excitement surrounding his return. Patrick Pass and Walter Williams could see some second-half action carrying the ball.
Defensively, the Patriots will be tested early by a strong running game and a passing attack complemented by the Giants ability to spread the ball around. Barber is a tremendous receiver out of the backfield and an elusive runner.
Mike Vrabel is the leader to man the strong side linebacker spot and he will be a player to keep a close eye on. Vrabel has never been a starter in his four previous seasons, all with Pittsburgh, and is now being asked to play over the tight end where he will draw some coverage responsibilities. Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi should man the other starting jobs before handing things off to the likes of Larry Izzo, Maugaula Tuitele, Yubrenal Isabelle, Matt Chatham and Rob Holmberg. Another player to watch closely is Antico Dalton, who started camp playing with the No. 1 defensive group at Willie McGinest's crash end spot. His presence with the first group over Greg Spires was surprising and likely means Spires must make the squad as a situational rusher. Dalton is a second-year player out of Hampton. Another intriguing prospect is rookie seventh-round pick T.J. Turner, a big, athletic linebacker who could open some eyes as a late-round selection.
In front of that group is a defensive line that is getting no respect as the season nears. It is hardly a group recognized as disruptive, but Bobby Hamilton is coming off his best season and Anthony Pleasant is in his 12th. While Pleasant heads into the twilight of his career, he at least adds an experienced veteran on the end. He is currently backed up by first-round pick Richard Seymour. Seymour will learn the ropes from Pleasant while also getting some action in passing situations as an inside gap rusher.
Garrett Johnson is the only true nose tackle on the roster and will start against the Giants but also may see some extended time as Belichick tries to get him as much playing experience as possible. If he indeed is the chosen one to replace Chad Eaton, he needs the reps.
Behind Johnson, rookie free agent Jace Sayler will see some action and could be one of the camp's sleepers. Free agent pickup Riddick Parker will spell Hamilton and the trio of Chuck Osborne, David Nugent and Reggie Grimes will see some time.
In the secondary, the competition is hot with Otis Smith, Ty Law, Terrance Shaw (shoulder injury) and Terrell Buckley all vying for starting jobs. All four will play in multi-receiver sets, but all four want to start. The starting safeties are Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy while Matt Stevens, Tony George, recently acquired Je'Rod Cherry and Antwan Harris see action at the back of the defense. Harris is a true corner, but has played some safety in camp. Kato Serwanga will have to stand out early in the preseason to survive cuts with the experienced veterans added at the corner as well as some other young players drafted by Belichick.
It will be interesting to see newcomers Leonard Myers, Hakim Akbar and Ray Hill in what may be the most competitive position group on the roster.
Of course, the Patriots have added depth on special teams and should excel in this area. In one other note, defensive linemen Willie McGinest and Brandon Mitchell won't play.