NFL Preseason Week 2 Preview: Eagles @ Patriots

Brady will sport the headset look on MNF

The New England Patriots start a three game in ten day stretch tonight on ESPN against the explosive Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid has let the media know his starters will be playing beyond the first half, offering a tremendous opportunity for unproven Patriot talent to show their true colors against some legitimate competition.

It has been an interesting week of training camp including special teamers Julian Edelman and Niko Koutouvides getting thrown out of practice, the activation from the PUP list of T Sebastian Vollmer and TE Daniel Fells, as well as injuries to RB Steven Ridley and old friend Jabar Gaffney. Tom Brady worked alongside Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkoswki on a separate field for the majority of practice Friday. This could be an early indication as to how Belichick will manage the team during this intense stretch of preseason action. Not to mention, the Patriots will travel to Tampa Bay for another set of joint practices on Wednesday/Thursday before their Friday game. Look for the Patriots’ stars to see limited action (if any) during tonight’s matchup.

After coming out flat with a 7-6 victory against the Saints, keep your eyes peeled on these five key areas tonight against the Eagles.

1) Three quarters of PHI starters: Andy Reid’s aforementioned decision will end up being a blessing in disguise for New England. Philadelphia has pro-bowl talent on both sides of the ball with Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Nnamdi Asomugha,and Jason Babin to name a few. Facing elite players of this magnitude will help accelerate the adjustment periods for some of the more raw talent on the Patriots.

Forcing two interceptions in last weeks contest, the New England secondary is hoping to build upon their silver-lined success. Sixth round draft pick Nate Ebner has been turning heads with his impressive safety play in camp. While Ebner will find himself as a regular on special teams, the former Ohio State rugby star has displayed unbelievable ball skills thus far and should get a long look by coach Belichick tonight. Will he beat out Josh Barrett or James Ihedigbo for one of the final safety slots? It will also be interesting to monitor how much work the banged up Tavon Wilson receives with veteran Steve Gregory shaping up to be the starting safety alongside Patrick Chung.

All signs are pointing north for Chandler Jones. Jon Gruden recently previewed the Syracuse alum as one of his top players to watch tonight. If Jones can disrupt this high-powered offense on MNF, despite it being the preseason, he will start commanding additional match-ups. His teammates already love him following the heralded “punt reception test” at the end of practice and is viewed as the humble, hard-working rookie. It will be fun to see how our defense responds to an early season challenge.

Will Vereen step up in the absence of Ridley?

2) Shane Vereen: Fellow running-mate Steven Ridley (knee/leg) was forced from practice on Thursday with and missed Friday’s session as well. With the treacherous preseason schedule that lies ahead, we can safely assume Ridley is out. Vereen has been taking snaps with the first-team all week and will play an integral role in the offense tonight. He totaled 81 yards on 13 touches against the Saints with three runs of 10+ yards. Brandon Bolden coughed up the rock in practice Thursday and is hoping to atone for his sins upon the signing of Olympic silver medalist and University of Florida RB Jeff Demps. He is not eligible to play against the Eagles, but you can be sure ESPN will feature the speedster multiple times. This is a situation in which need meets opportunity, Vereen will be tested early and often against an above average Philadelphia defense. Bolden is still poised to make the squad as a bruiser between the tackles.

3) Offensive Line: Is this the week we see Logan Mankins return to action following his activation off the PUP? He has increased his workload each day in practice this week and is beginning to return to his mauler ways. Getting T Sebastian Vollmer back is encouraging but the O-Line has been too inconsistent to operate as a cohesive unit. These two players combined with Cannon, Solder, Connoly, and Wendell are sure to make the squad. What about Dan Koppen? He was pulled from the Saints game early and time will tell if missing 12/18 practices is a testament to how his ankle actually feels. Furthermore, the versatile Nick McDonald and Donald Thomas are on the final roster bubble. The O-Line was abused against the Saints and this should be another wake-up call. Some moments of clarity should be made on this front tonight, especially facing this vaunted front four.

Can Mallett shake off a rusty start?

4) Ryan Mallett: 8/19 for 89 yards and an interception is not the way he wanted to start his sophomore campaign. With Brady more than likely sitting this one out, Mallett can be sure to see a good half to further develop his skill set. His arm strength can’t be denied and it’s quite obvious that his decision-making will improve with experience. Mallett will get some valuable reps during this absurd preseason stretch to his benefit. This is his first full offseason and has seemed to become more familiar with the playbook in comparison to his rookie lockout minicamp. Look for Mallet to bounce back from his subpar performance against the Saints. Will he give enough chances to Branch/Stallworth to solidify their roles with Gaffney out?

5) Linebackers: Things could be worse than losing Dane Fletcher to IR. Yes he was a solid contributor but was he ever a difference maker when it mattered? The facts are this, losing Dane puts more pressure on rookie Dont’a Hightower to perform to high expectations. His season-ending knee surgery also has opened the door for the undrafted Kansas alum Mike Rivera to see a bump in reps at camp and a chance at the final roster. He picked off Brady in a goal line drill last week, beginners luck?

Nick Caserio was quoted on Rivera saying, “Mike’s had a pretty good camp. He came in last year and was on our practice squad for most of the year and had a good offseason. He’s been able to get a few more snaps and take advantage of the opportunity he’s been presented. He’s a tough guy, he’s smart, he runs well, and he has good size. He’s shown up out there at different points. He’s doing some decent things.”

Bobby Carpernter, Jeff Tarpinian, and Niko Koutouvides know what this injury creates, opportunity. Ninkovich is strictly a DE now and while all three may figure to make the final roster, this preseason stretch could determine the pecking order for the regular season.

As it is with all exhibition games, the number one priority is to avoid injury at all costs. Game two of the preseason should help illuminate the status of multiple position battles for the Patriots.

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