10 things to watch for in Patriots vs. Panthers

By WEEI 93.7

In theory, Thursday night’s preseason battle between the Patriots and Panthers at Gillette Stadium is the so-called “dress rehearsal” for the regular season.

But with the growth in importance and popularity of joint practices in recent years, the way preseason game action is valued and treated has changed.

Still, if there is a game that’s worth watching it’s this one. It comes almost a month into training camp and with two prior contests in the books. But it’s still two-plus weeks away from true game action in the regular season opener between New England and Pittsburgh in Foxborough.

If ever you’re going to see high-end, competitive, game-like August action it should come tonight against Carolina.

With that in mind, and regardless of whether this is a true “dress rehearsal” or not, here are a handful of key storylines to keep an eye on in tonight’s ever-important third preseason game.

Snap to it, Tom – While there is no guarantee at this point, the Foxborough faithful should get to see Tom Brady under center on Thursday night. Brady, who’s yet to see game action after extensive work in joint practices to this point, has played in the third preseason game in all but two years of his two-decade career. Any time TB12 takes the field he’s the center of attention. It’s also worth watching how he interacts and connects with his various targets at tight end and wide receiver, many of whom are new or young options.

What’s all the buzz about? – They may not quite be on Brady’s level, but the Patriots defense has plenty of talent, depth and star power of its own. It’s made plenty of plays on the practice fields, including impressive joint work in Detroit and Tennessee. That’s created plenty of buzz around the Stephon Gilmore-led unit. Thursday night the bulk of the starters on that side ball should take the field against Cam Newton (making his own preseason debut) and the first-team Panthers. Christian McCaffrey (also seeing his first live action of the summer) and Co. offer a nice test for the budding Patriots defense to show its stuff. Keep the Panthers athletes in check and there will be a growing level of expectation for the New England defense, continuing what’s already been a pretty impressive summer.

Meyers making plays – Undrafted rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers has done just about everything right this summer, both on the practice field and game action. While he’s gotten high-end reps working with Brady in practice, Thursday night he should get a chance for extended game reps with Brady. Those reps are money in the bank as he builds a rapport with the man who decides where the ball goes on every play. Meyers is no longer fighting for a roster spot, he’s battling for a rotational role (or more) in Brady’s passing game.

Fall in line – Isaiah Wynn had a nice cameo appearance early in last week’s win over the Titans. Now, it’s likely we’ll see the former top pick slide into the left tackle spot with the rest of the returning lineup of line starters. Bill Belichick said he’ll be looking for Wynn to “build on” his first action of the summer as he works back from the torn Achilles that cost him his rookie season. He and the rest of the group will also be working on the communication and unity that will be key for Dante Scarnecchia’s group once the season hits and Brady’s well-being is on the line every snap.

And then there was one…punter – Jake Bailey did enough this spring and early summer for the Patriots to part ways with veteran punter Ryan Allen this week. Thursday night represents the rookie’s first chance to go about his business knowing the job is his. How does the young player react to that change, especially in terms of his consistency? Are his holds on Stephen Gostkowski’s PATs and field goals up to the veteran’s standards? Bailey is the man at punter, now is the time to build on the work that won him the job, not let up.

Pass-catcher’s final shots – With Julian Edelman off NFI, Demaryius Thomas off PUP and Josh Gordon returning from suspension, there are a lot of veterans about ready to take over the wide receiver position. But those guys likely aren’t in the mix on Thursday night, meaning the newcomers and young players who have been working hard all summer still have time to prove their value and try to earn roles in New England. Some will also get the chance to do so while in the huddle with Brady. It may not pay off immediate dividends, but the guys catching passes tonight have a chance to boost their resumes.

Defensive coaching – The third preseason game may not be quite the “dress rehearsal” it once was, but it is still the nearest thing to regular season action you can get in August. One area that could be worth watching Thursday night – and probably worthy of continued attention well into the regular season – is the defensive coaching staff and how things are being handled on the sideline on that side of the ball. Is Belichick forced to continue to take a much larger role on defense given the turnover on the coaching staff? Is first-year linebackers coach Jerod Mayo going to call the plays come September? Is, as NBC Sports Boston reported, safeties coach Steve Belichick in the mix to call plays? However the mechanics and hierarchy is going to come together on the defensive staff, Thursday night could be a last, significant glimpse at how things might be handled against the Steelers on opening night.

Battle it out – Brady and the other starters will bring newfound summer attention early on against Carolina, but the competition that occurs later in the game could be even more important. There are still guys battling for jobs in all three phases of the game in New England with roster cuts less than 10 days away. The return game, kick coverage, swing tackle and final few reserve roles on defense could all come down to the wire in terms of the final 53-man roster. So, even when Brady and the starters leave the field keep watching. And also keep an eye on reserve guys who get time mixed in with the starters. It could be an indication of their rising standing within the team.

Momentum – While some guys may not get as many reps with the starters in the mix on both sides of the ball, Thursday still offers a chance to build on the momentum established in previous games. Damien Harris was very impressive in his pro debut last weekend in Tennessee. Can he build on that in any chances he gets to run or catch against the Panthers? Chase Winovich has been active all summer, regardless of when he’s gotten run or who it has come against. Does that continue? For some of the young and backup guys the reps may not be quite as numerous, but maximizing that playing time and keeping the positive momentum rolling is always a good thing.

Health check – Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the most important thing for any team in any preseason game is for the players to stay healthy. It’s a terrible thing to watch a player go down with an injury in August action, especially one that costs a guy his season. We’ve seen it in recent years with guys like Wynn, Edelman and others. Football players have to play football, you can’t just put them in bubble-wrap on the sideline. But you sure as heck can cross your fingers and hope that they all leave Thursday night’s preseason game the same way they enter it – healthy.