12 things to watch for in Patriots vs. Titans

By WEEI 93.7

Friday morning in Nashville the Patriots will put the cap on three days of joint practice action with the Titans with a walkthrough.

It’s already been a very productive week in Tennessee for Bill Belichick’s team, notching two impressive workouts in extreme heat against a Titans squad that had its way with the Patriots last regular season. This time around both the Tom Brady-led offense and the Patriots budding defense impressed in practice action against Mike Vrabel’s squad.

This is all a lead up to Saturday night’s second week of preseason action between these two teams on the banks of the Cumberland River in Nashville at Nissan Stadium.

As the Patriots try to keep the momentum going on both sides of the ball from last week’s impressive preseason opener in Detroit, here are a dozen storylines to keep an eye on in the second week of exhibition action, appropriately including the possible summer debut of TB12.

Tom’s time – Brady dressed but did not play in the preseason opener. He said this week on WEEI’s Greg Hill Show that he would be lobbying to play in Tennessee. Despite issues with depth at receiver, he had a very productive week of work against the Titans, all the while trash talking his former teammate Vrabel. While there is no guarantee Brady will play, there is a good chance he sees a series or two of work for his first live action of the summer.

We have a Wynn-er! – Second-year tackle Isaiah Wynn’s workload has increased significantly, adding 11-on-11 first team reps to his efforts. Last year’s top pick deemed himself 100-percent this week and ready to go as he works back to a full contributor after missing his entire rookie season to a torn Achilles. There is little question that the expectation is that Wynn will be the starting left tackling protecting Brady’s blindside on opening night against the Steelers. To get to that point he needs live game reps, a process that should hopefully begin with at least some action in Tennessee.

WR target practice – The receiver position that was thin to open the summer is even more precarious right now. Julian Edelman and Demaryius Thomas remain out of action. N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett and Maurice Harris were all dealing with various issues that sidelined them for at least some practice time this week. Harry, who limped off the preseason field in Detroit and all around the Titans fields this week, actually flew back to Boston on Thursday, possibly for tests on whatever injury he’s dealing with. That means young guys like Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios, Ryan Davis and others will get even more chances to prove their worth, maybe even in a few reps with Brady throwing the ball. Next man up, even in August.

Too tight – Like receiver, tight end remains a wide open fight that’s dealing with injury. Matt LaCaosse is sidelined with a reported ankle issue. Benjamin Watson is healthy but has little left to prove. Newcomer Eric Saubert is finding his footing in New England. Ryan Izzo could use a bounce-back performance after dropping a would-be touchdown in Detroit. Time will soon be running out for guys at all positions to prove their roster worth. Beyond Watson, who’s suspended for the first month of the regular season, arguments can be made for or against just about every guy on the tight end depth chart. Maybe Saturday night will see one of them separate from a lackluster pack.

Trip to the vets – It’s not just Brady or Wynn. Plenty of Patriots could/should make their preseason debuts in Nashville. Offensively we may get the first look at the entirety of the veteran offensive line as well as the guys who will follow that line in Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead. Defensively studs such as Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Kyle Van Noy may wrap up an impressive week of work by knocking of a little preseason rush in game action. Tune in early to see what all the talk is about on defense.

Kicking it up a notch – With more veterans in the mix, at least early on, keeping an eye on the kicking game mixture of talent might be an indicator of how some bottom-of-the-roster battles are playing out. It’s not sexy and can be pretty hard to focus on from TV in preseason games, but the guys covering and blocking on kicks/punts have the opportunity to augment their roster chances. With such a heavy dose of returning talent in the kicking game battling young newcomers, there are bound to be familiar faces that don’t make the cut in a couple weeks. And live special teams are still one area that’s probably more telling and valuable in preseason game work than it is in controlled joint practice action.

Return engagement – The return work against the Lions was extremely positive as Berrios and Gunner Olszewski showed burst and the ability to make people miss. Veteran running back Rex Burkhead has gotten into the kickoff return fun in practice. There is still a long way to go before it’s obvious who will be returning punts and kicks for the Patriots this fall, but Berrios has to be considered a favorite in the return game at this point. Now he just has to keep the positive momentum rolling in Nashville.

Allen & Bailey’s competition – Another spot in the third phase that’s obviously up for grabs is the punting job. Rookie Jake Bailey not only had a nice booming punt against the Lions, but also capably handled the kickoff duties. His challenge is proving that he can be consistent enough to unseat Allen, who is what he is seven years into his career. Though Bailey is probably the favorite for the roster, one game of preseason action doesn’t feel like nearly enough to make the decision and a lot can change in a couple of weeks.

Coaches’ challenge – No, this isn’t about Belichick challenging pass interference calls, an area he passed on in the Detroit and one that already looks like it will be a potential debacle this season. Rather, this is about seeing the Patriots new-look coaching staff, particularly on defense, coming together. In Detroit we saw Belichick actually huddling up on the sidelines with his assistants, seemingly teaching his coaches on the football fly. It may be hard to assess how the process of finding comfort with the operations and coaching on defense is coming, but there is no question it’s a work in progress worth monitoring.

Mayo doing what’s in the best interest of the football team – It certainly looked like first-year coach and former All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo had the call sheet and was making the defensive play calls in Detroit. Belichick wouldn’t confirm the role and certainly isn’t going to let us know if the former team captain will be filling Brian Flores shoes in the regular season. But my high school English teacher used to say that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck then it’s probably a duck. Let’s see if Mayo looks like a duck for another week.

What a rush! – Coming off a game – admittedly with some higher-end Patriots making plays against second and third teamers – in which New England collected nine sacks in Detroit, there is a lot of excitement about the talent and potential on the edge of the front. There will be even more talent on the field in Tennessee. We’ve seen big pressure and sack games in the preseason in the past that didn’t necessarily equate to regular season success in that area. There is no question the Patriots have plenty of potential at defensive end and outside linebacker to make plays. It’s also an area that has more NFL-caliber bodies than roster spots. Whether you are watching Michael Bennett’s debut, seeing if Derek Rivers is really ready for a breakout third season or enjoying rookie Chase Winovich’s long blonde locks blowing in the post-sack breeze, there is plenty to watch for on the edge of a Patriots defensive unit that clearly has high-end potential this fall.

PI challenge – There have already been some pretty questionable examples of the use of the NFL’s new rule allowing coaches to challenge pass interference calls and non-calls. Check out the highlights of the Redskins and Bengals if you don’t believe me. Belichick has said he needs to get used to the new rules. The only way to do that is probably to roll the dice and challenge a call. Preseason is the time for all involved to figure things out, hopefully with the coaches and officials getting the hang of this new replay review before it has the chance to bog down and ruin any regular season games. Of course anything it better than what happened in last winter’s NFL title game, right?