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The New England Patriots will travel to Detroit on Saturday, battling the Lions in the third preseason game at 8 p.m. at Ford Field.
The team is coming off a pair of blowout victories to open the exhibition season, dismantling the Jacksonville Jaguars in the opener 47-21 before topping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-14 last week.
Regardless of the relative ease of the first two wins, Head Coach Bill Belichick’s team still has a few lingering issues and roster battles to settle before the regular season commences on Sept. 12 at Miami.
Here are some issues to watch in Saturday’s contest:
A weakness in 2010, the Patriots’ ability to rush the passer plagued the defense on several third opportunities last year, ranking dead last in the league. Belichick and Nick Caserio looked to improve this in the offseason by loading up on the defensive line. The front office acquired disgruntled vet Albert Haynesworth and signed free agents Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis to stockpile to squad’s front four.
Despite no action for Haynesworth or Ellis thus far, the revamped front has performed tremendously in the first two contests, racking up seven sacks an 11 QB hits. Carter was particularly noticeable in the win over Tampa, mauling the Tampa line in a dominating effort.
Both Haynesworth and Ellis are expected to see action against Detroit.
Lions’ sophomore defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has already emerged as one of the premier lineman in the league. As a rookie, Suh put up incredible statistics. The Nebraska alum registered 10 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, and recovery en route to a near unanimous selection as Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The key in Saturday’s contest is to limit Suh’s presence. In the Patriots 45-24 Thanksgiving win over the Lions last year, Suh was a menace to the New England offensive line. Suh recorded a first quarter sack on Tom Brady and continually disrupted the New England offense. Brady has been the victim a big preseason hits before, receiving a vicious blow from Haynesworth during the 2009 preseason, which caused a rib injury that allegedly lingered through the year.
If Suh provides early pressure on Brady, like he did on this play versus Bengals’ rookie Andy Dalton, backups Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallet may see more action than anticipated.
One of the main talking points throughout the preseason has been the movement of kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yardline. Due to this, a significant increase in touchbacks has occurred, reducing the role of kickoff specialists such as Brandon Tate, Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs.
Chad Ochocinco’s New England arrival, combined with second-year man Taylor Price’s impressive preseason play, could represent the end of Tate’s stint in New England. Despite two great returns last year against Cincinnati and Miami in Week’s 1 and 4, respectively, Tate was unable to recapture that special teams’ magic as the season progressed.
Another player who could be playing for a roster spot is receiver/special teamer Matt Slater. Despite not putting up eye-popping statistics, the fourth-year player contributes on Belichick’s special teams unit. If the Hooded One feels that special teams will play less of a factor, Slater’s job may be in jeopardy.
The third preseason contest is often the game where the projected starters play a majority of snaps, usually playing into the third quarter. For rookie running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, these repetitions will be vital in determining their early season roles.
Ridley, a third round pick from LSU, has impressed this preseason, rushing for 148 yards and a pair of scores on 30 carries. New England’s second-round pick from this year, Vereen, has not participated much in practice due to injury, but returned to action Wednesday and should see playing time against the Lions
Rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling, the 33rd pick, will also be in the lineup for the first time this preseason. Dowling was sidelined with an injury that forced him to miss most of training camp, but returned to practice on Monday. The Virginia product will compete with Kyle Arrington and Leigh Bodden for the spot opposite Devin McCourty.
New England 34, Detroit 17