The New England Patriots traveled to Atlanta for a set of two practices with the Falcons on Tuesday and Wednesday, and will play the upstart challengers in the NFC South on Thursday night in their second preseason game. The Patriots passed their first test of the 2010 season last week defeating the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints 27-24. The Falcons made history last season despite missing the playoffs. Atlanta recorded back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history by going 9-7 last season and 11-5 in 2008. Amazingly there has never been a back-to-back division champion in the NFC South. There is your history lesson for the day, you’re welcome. Lets get back to the present and this matchup.
The Patriots have been bitten hard by the injury bug since their first preseason game, losing defensive end Ty Warren and wide receiver Torry Holt to season ending injuries, offensive lineman Logan Mankins is still missing from the team; but its not all bad news because wide receiver Wes Welker made the trip to Atlanta, and veteran outside linebacker Derrick Burgess has returned from his absence early in training camp. Here is what to watch for from a Patriots perspective on Thursday night:
Bubble Watch: (Patriots battling to make the final roster)
Sam Aiken: With Torry Holt (IR) and David Patten (retirement) out of the way, Aiken’s path to a roster spot has gotten much easier. With Matthew Slater limited with an injury, Aiken has a firm hold on the number six spot on the depth chart behind Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price. Aiken was the Patriots special teams captain last season, but Pat Chung, who was an ace in college at Oregon is starting to take over some of the roles Aiken had last season. Depending on how many running backs make the roster, Aiken could be on the outside looking in if he doesn’t show something in the preseason. Keep an eye on Aiken and the Patriots special teams against Atlanta.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: The Law Firm got the start against New Orleans and scored the Patriots first touchdown of the preseason. Green-Ellis has been on the bubble the past couple seasons, and would certainly land on another roster somewhere if the Patriots were to release him. Lets not read into the first preseason game too much, but BJGE looked pretty good.
Sammy Morris: Morris was believed to be on the bubble last year in training camp, and with Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, and Green-Ellis all fighting for a roster spot, if the team keeps six wide receivers including Aiken, there is no way they keep five running backs. Morris could be the odd man out given his age (33), and limited upside. Odds are that the Patriots will keep five running backs and cut Aiken instead.
Ron Brace: Injuries which have destroyed the Patriots depth along the defensive line, likely will save Brace, a 2009 second round draft pick from the chopping block. Given Brace’s outstanding college career at Boston College, the Patriots will give him every opportunity to get on the field. Keep an eye on Brace against the Falcons, his upside is off the charts if he can put it together.
Eric Alexander: Alexander has found a way to make the Patriots roster for years now due to his significant contributions on special teams, but he is certainly no guarantee to make this roster just looking at the plethora of talent at the linebacker position in New England. With Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Brandon Spikes, and Jermaine Cunningham likely to make the roster that leaves Alexander, Tyrone McKenzie, Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich, and Marques Murrell (who has looked outstanding) to battle for the final couple spots. Woods and Alexander are strictly special teams contributors and most likely the first ones to go.
Terrance Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite: Wheatley has come along way since last year, but is buried on the depth chart behind other young players. Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty, and Darius Butler are locks, which leaves a group of Wheatley, Wilhite, and Kyle Arrington to battle for the remaining two spots. With a ton of talent at safety its possible one of these two is a surprise cut.
Rich Ohrnberger and George Bussey: One of these two will make the final roster given the injury to Nick Kaczur. Bussey will not play against Atlanta, so all eyes will be on Ohrnberger on Thursday night.
What to look for:
Will Wes Welker suit up?
Welker made the trip to Atlanta, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will play on Thursday night. If Welker doesn’t suit up in the Georgia Dome, he will likely give it a go next week against St. Louis at Gillette Stadium.
Tom Brady’s and the offense’s performance:
Crowd noise could be an issue in the Georgia Dome, but Brady and the offense should be just fine. Keep an eye on how the Patriots utilize their crowded stable of running backs, as well as how the passing game, which looked sharp against New Orleans performs. Young gun wide receivers to watch once again are Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price.
Roles of the tight ends:
Rookie Aaron Hernandez was on the field a ton against New Orleans, and is once again a guy to watch against Atlanta. Alge Crumpler, a former Falcon will be interesting to watch as will rookie Rob Gronkowski.
Where will the pass rush come from?
Marques Murrell stepped up last week, can he do it again? With Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham out with injuries guys to watch include Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich, and Tyrone McKenzie.
Devin McCourty vs Roddy White: McCourty passed his first test with flying colors against New Orleans, while Darius Butler struggled. McCourty will have his hands full with Pro Bowler Roddy White on Thursday night. Another Patriots secondary note is to watch Pat Chung who has been playing extremely well of late.
Don’t mess with the Zoltan:
Rookie Zoltan Mesko is the only punter on the roster and continues to make the front office look good for selecting the Michigan product in April’s NFL Draft.
13 Patriots on the roster did not make the trip to Atlanta: wide receivers Matthew Slater and Darnell Jenkins; offensive linemen Nick Kaczur and George Bussey; defensive lineman Damione Lewis; linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Gary Guyton, and Dane Fletcher; and defensive backs Leigh Bodden, Bret Lockett, Terrence Johnson, and Josh Barrett.