With the Patriots taking the field at 7:30 tonight to host the St. Louis Rams, here are a few things I will be looking out for, in regard to the Patriots' play on the field:
Pass Rush/Outside Linebacker Play: Tully Banta-Cain returned to practice this week and is expected to play in tonight's game. With Banta-Cain back, we'll get our first look at the Banta-Cain/Derrick Burgess combination at outside linebacker. The two rushers will be going up against to young tackles in Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, so they should be able to take advantage of their experience.
Offense in the 2nd Half: One of the problems the Patriots had last season was closing out games, and putting up points on offense in the 2nd half. With the starters expected to get their most extended playing time of the preseason, it will be interesting to see if they can gather a lead in the first half, then come out strong and extend it in the second half.
Inside Linebacker Rotation: With Gary Guyton finally healthy, the Patriots should get a chance to better evaluate the inside linebacker corps. Brandon Spikes will likely still be the starter, but it will be interesting to see how the Patriots can rotate in Guyton on passing downs.
Offensive Line Depth: With George Bussey back and healthy, and with the recently acquired Quinn Ojinaka in the mix, Patriots fans should get some kind of idea what the offensive line depth chart looks like tonight. So far in the preseason, Bussey and LeVoir have been the top two tackles off the bench, with Thomas Welch working with the 3rd string when Bussey has been healthy. I'd expect Ojinaka to get in there with the 2nd string line tonight, which means one of Bussey/LeVoir won't be seeing the field with the 2nd unit. Ojinaka and Bussey can both also play guard, which may also factor into the shape of the 2nd string offensive line.
Secondary/Sub-packages: In addition to the return of Gary Guyton, George Bussey, and others, the Patriots also had a starting cornerback return to practice this week; Leigh Bodden. While Bodden was out the last couple of weeks, rookie 1st round pick Devin McCourty worked with the 1st string offense. With Bodden back, McCourty will be competing to unseat 2nd year cornerback Darius Butler on the left side. Bodden's return will also shake up the team's sub-packages. Jonathan Wilhite and Brandon McGowan have been the first two defensive backs on the field in nickel and dime situations to this point, having Bodden back would seemingly push one of those two down the depth chart (presumably Wilhite, although it depends on the offense's personnel).
Running Back Competition: Week one, BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the load. Week two, Fred Taylor. This week, Laurence Maroney, who dressed but didn't play last week), should presumably get the running load. It should be interesting to watch how he plays tonight, coming off a solid debut against the Saints in the preseason opener.