It has been more than six months since fans of the New England Patriots were forced to watch their team suffer a 41-33 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. On Thursday night, the Pats will take the field in Foxboro for their first competitive action since that fateful night in February. The team will take on the Washington Redskins at Gillette Stadium, with the kickoff scheduled to take place at 7:30 PM ET.
While championships are far from won in the preseason, here are some of the storylines that might be of interest during Tuesday night’s contest:
Behind Enemy Lines:
The Washington Redskins will have a new man under center as they open the 2018 season. The team acquired quarterback Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs. As a result, the Kirk Cousins era came to a close in the Nation’s Capital. Cousins will now be calling signals for the Minnesota Vikings. Starting tonight, (presumably) Smith will begin his tenure as the starting quarterback in Washington.
Throughout the preseason, many eyes will be on Washington’s quarterback situation. While there is little doubt that Smith is the number one option, they currently have three quarterbacks on their roster. The team is expected to cut one of the backups, thus carrying only one backup. While this might be risky, it appears that head coach Jay Gruden and company are leaning in this direction. Kevin Hogan will be competing with Colt McCoy for that final roster spot, and each should get their share of snaps in Thursday’s game against the Patriots. Based on his experience and leadership ability, McCoy is expected to be the opening day second-string quarterback.
New Look in the Nation’s Capital beyond the QB
As for Washington’s ground game, running back Chris Thompson has already been declared OUT of this game. Thompson suffered a broken leg last November and missed the remainder of the season. Thompson is expected to make a full return. However, rookie Derrius Guice has had a very strong training camp. He might have earned the inside track on being the opening day starter and might see a good share of carries during this game. The remainder of the team’s strong corps of running backs (Rob Kelly, Samaje Perine, Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs) will also be on full display in Foxboro on Thursday night.
On the contrary, wide receiver Josh Doctson might not see action in this preseason tilt. Doctson has been increasing his time in practice, including a surprise appearance during Tuesday’s practice. However, he is still not 100%. The team might not be willing to risk damaging the health of a potential starting wide receiver in a preseason game. Therefore, it would not be a surprise for Doctson to sit this one out. One wide receiver that will be on the field is Trey Quinn. Quinn was the leading receiver in college football last year. It’s apparent that he is going to see a fair amount of time to evaluate his transition into the pro game.
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For the Hometown Team:
When it comes to preseason football, especially those of recent history, we rarely see much of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. If we are being honest, the Pats are not exactly evaluating the 2017 NFL MVP, to see if he might win the starting job. In fact, Brady probably does not require a preseason snap in order to come into to Week One looking in mid-season form. However, this has not been the usual offseason in Foxboro. Brady might see some time under center on Tuesday night. That being said, we should see plenty of time split between Quarterback Brian Hoyer and rookie Danny Etling. Should Brady start this game, Hoyer will most likely replace Brady after one series. Hoyer should get the majority of the playing time in the first half, with Etling getting the snaps in the second half.
Eyes on the Backfield
Like their Washington counterparts, the Patriots running back positional battles will be interesting to follow as the preseason continues to progress. With rookie Sony Michel, sidelined for the foreseeable future, (Michel recently had fluid drained from his knee and will miss about 2 weeks of playing time, potentially more) it is unclear as to who might be the starter (or who will get the most play time) on Thursday. Rex Burkhead and James White have been listed as their two top backs on the depth chart. However, newcomer Jeremy Hill and returning back Mike Gillislee appear to be battling for a roster spot. Look for the Pats to waste no time in showcasing these two running backs on Tuesday night.
The Patriots will also have a great number of eyes on the wide reciever and tight end positions. Despite talk fo ongoing contract negotiations, Rob Gronkowski has had a solid camp and looks to be progressing well towards 2018. Dwayne Allen is seeking to bounce back after a subpar 2017, and should get plenty of competition from emerging roster candidate, Jacob Hollister. As for the recievers, new additions Eric Decker and Cordarrelle Patterson will be looking to make their presence felt along side imcumbents Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan. While Hogan and Julian Edelman (who will miss the first four games of the regular season while serving a suspension) should see limited action, Dorsett, Decker and Patterson might see extended playing time on Tuesday.
What to Expect:
While the passing game will get some reps, the Patriots will most likely look to establish a running game to test out the waters with what they have in the backfield. Head coach Bill Belichick knows that this will not be easy to do against Jay Gruden defense. That is exactly why Belichck will do it. Gruden has been known for leaving his starting defense in the preseason a bit longer than some other Head Coaches in the league. This will provide a formidable defensive test for a backfield that will need to be strong during 2018.
Washington will look to test the Patriots defense early and often. The return of Derek Rivers to a pass rush that will feature Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, Jr. has already yielded marked improvement in camp, thus far. Couple that with the additions of Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton, and this Patriots defense should be more formidable than the unit which the Patriots rode to Super Bowl LII just one year ago.
It is a safe assumption that the numerous preseason questions will not be definitively be answered on Tuesday. However, the strategy and on-field play should provide some direction on the look of the Pats roster on Sepetmber 9, when they open the regular season at home against the Houston Texans.
At the very least, it will be great to have competitive football back in Foxboro.
Prediction: New England 28, Washington 17
–Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC