"So where are you watching the Pats game tomorrow?"
That's the question I'd be asking right now if a) tomorrow's preseason game between the Saints and the Patriots was actually going to be on TV instead of my computer as I stream it live, and b) if I actually had anyone stupid enough to watch a Patriots game with me. And while I won't actually be asking that question, it's definitely a good feeling to know that it's finally a relevant one. Preseason or not, the Patriots have a football game to play tomorrow night, and I for one am pretty damn excited.
Those of you who have been following the Pulpit since last year know that I read way too much into preseason games. I over-react, over-analyze, and misinterpret strings of bad plays or a few stalled drives in spite of myself. I hope that most of you are more rational and have more important things going on in your lives than breaking down the first of four games that Bill Belichick has openly said he has no respect for and finds more or less useless, because being this amped - and a little bit nervous - for a preseason game is more than a little sad.
But that's neither here nor there. Nothing is going to happen over the next 24 hours to make me any less
pathetic excited for tomorrow's game, not only because it represents an official return to football, but also because it will give us all our first real glimpse into the answers to some of the questions Patriots Nation has been asking all offseason. I'm sure there are going to be a slew of "things to watch" articles coming out as we get closer to kickoff, but I figured I would touch on what I'm going to be looking out for tomorrow now; that way I can pretend that these were all my ideas and I'm not basically regurgitating everything I've been reading about all offseason. So here are a few things I'm going to be paying attention to tomorrow as Tommy B comes out for a series or two before turning the game into a glorified tryout.
Kickoff Returns. The Patriots have had a steady rotation of bodies back to return kickoffs during training camp so far. While Danny Woodhead still seems to be the primary return man at the moment, Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Donte Stallworth, and Jeremy Ebert have all seen time on the kickoff return unit. While a part of me doesn't want to see too many kickoffs, as it means the Patriots are giving up points, I'm still not convinced that Woodhead is the answer back there and I'm hoping some of the other guys show their stuff.
Splitting Backup Duties. How much time Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer see this preseason is going to be one of the bigger continuing storylines as August rolls on, so I'm not going to go too deeply into it here. But you figure that Belichick wants to give them both a decent number of reps so Mallett can continue to develop and so Hoyer can draw potential interest on the trading block. Of course, a lot can happen over the course of the year and Hoyer could end up as the team's primary backup, but right now I think that Belichick would like to get some value out of him before he becomes an UFA next season.
Patriots cornerbacks vs. Saints receivers. For at least a series or two, New England's secondary will be matched up against one of the NFL's best receiving corps. While only paranoid, delusional idiots like me read too much into the first quarter of the first preseason game, seeing how Devin McCourty and the gang fare against Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and Jimmy Graham - especially after this week's joint practices - will be a great measuring stick for how much work this unit needs to put in before they travel to Tennessee in Week 1.
Starting Units. More specifically, I'm curious to see who gets the nod at running back and defensive line for the first few drives. Will Chandler Jones start? Will the team open up in a 4-3 or 3-4? And who will be receiving the hand-offs to start the game? We're going to see a ton of formations tomorrow night and throughout the preseason, particularly at the receiver position, but I think there's something to be said for who the first units are that the coaches send out there.
Offensive Line. It's a little odd that I'm not worried about the O Line in the slightest, especially given my inability to relax and look on the bright side for even a preseason game. However, I think that the offensive line is going to be absolutely fine once the regular season starts. Even if Brian Waters does retire and Logan Mankins has to sit out a sizable portion of the season, we have the best line coach in the game in Dante Scarnecchia, and one training camp with that man would have even the Fab Five Women's Gymnastics Team out there parrying swim moves and driving Haloti Ngata to the ground like a bunch of champs (the risk of that, of course, is trying to get them all to stop swooning over Tommy B. Not even Scarnecchia has that kind of ability). However, while the line is going to be fine once the season starts, tonight will be a good indicator of how this young, inexperienced unit has gelled thus far and where the potential weak links are. I imagine the same guys will play along the O Line, for the most part, all game, and tonight will be a great chance to see where that group stands.
Nate Ebner. So sue me, I like the guy, and I'm excited to see him play. Odds are that he won't even get into this game, as he hasn't practiced a lot, and even if he does it will only be on special teams, but I'm currently entertaining the fantasy of seeing him streak down the field on a kickoff to absolutely blow up some poor New Orleans fourth stringer's spot and cause a fumble on the six yard line. And the bottom line is that as long as Ebner is still on this team, I'm going to have this running through my head every time his name is mentioned.