The dress rehearsal is finally here for the New England Patriots. The starters will get the bulk of the playing time (likely into the 3rd quarter) on Thursday night as the Patriots travel to Detroit to take on the Lions. So far, Tom Brady has looked razor sharp in the preseason by having only two incompletions the whole preseason and going 11 for 12 with a touchdown against the Bucs last Friday. The big story for the Patriots is the health of wide receiver Danny Amendola. Amendola will likely miss this game due to what Bill Belichick is calling a minor injury. With the injury not being a head injury, this is not something to panic about because Brady and Amendola have seemed to click already as opposed to the other young wide receivers. This is a good test for the new look Patriots' offense against a very talented pass rush.
The Detroit Lions were one of the disappointments of 2012, resulting in them receiving a top five pick in last April's draft. Matthew Stafford still threw for just about 5,000 yards and had 20 touchdowns and received a contract extension in the offseason. The question for Detroit's offense is can Reggie Bush become the feature running back that the Lions have not had in a long time and can they find a number two receiver behind “The Megatron” Calvin Johnson.
As for the defense, they signed former Jaguars' cornerback Rashead Mathis to try to mend a secondary that has gave up plenty of big plays to Brandon Weeden last week and is missing some form of a veteran presence in the secondary other than Chris Houston.
Here are some keys to watch for the Patriots on Thursday night in Detroit:
Keep The Bush From Growing: The Patriots' run defense has been solid in the preseason, but they have not exactly seen a lot of time against a number one running back. LeSean McCoy did not play for the Eagles in Week 1 and Doug Martin left the game last Friday for Tampa with a head injury. Reggie Bush may not be a top running back, but he did run for nearly 1,000 yards last season and had six touchdowns for the Dolphins last season. With not much work in the preseason so far, expect Bush to be more of a factor this week. That will mean that the front seven will need to focus on tackling and forcing Stafford into 3rd and long passes to benefit the psss rush. Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes will be linebackers I will be watching to keep Bush from getting into the second level of the defense.
Sacks, Sacks, and more Sacks: The Patriots' pass rush came to play against Josh Freeman last Friday with four sacks by a combination of Brandon Spikes, Chandler Jones, and Rob Ninkovich. With the Patriots putting Aqib Talib on Calvin Johnson, big plays could be in store like the Eagles had in the first preseason game. Look for Chandler Jones to try to continue his solid preseason as he will now be the featured pass rusher for the Patriots in 2013. Spikes is a player to keep an eye on, as I said before, because he is in a contract year.
Keeping Brady Upright: Tom Brady has not been sacked one time this preseason, but that could change when taking on the Lions this week. Detroit's strength under Jim Schwartz has been their defensive line. They added to that strength by drafting Ezekiel Anseh out of BYU with their first pick. Suh will go with a defensive line that loves to hit the quarterback with players like Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. Suh could cause Brady some more pain if he can get some pressure, which means the Patriots' offense, which still has a hole at right guard, will have their hands full in making sure the offense can run smooth on Thursday.
Player to Watch: WR Julian Edelman: Edelman has been the main punt returner for the Patriots over the last two years. However, with all of the rookie wide outs in camp and the acquisition of Leon Washington, the Pats may not need Edelman as much in that aspect of the game. Keep in mind that the Pats let Edelman seek other teams before bringing him back to the team late in the process of free agency. With Amendola probably out, Edelman may get some first team reps to prove he can be more than just a return specialist. At least, the former Kent State product has shown he can play secondary, but the Patriots I am sure do not want to see that again.