After knocking the rust off during a low-scoring game with Tampa Bay last week, the Patriots head into Week 2 of the preseason against the young, possibly up-and-coming Tennessee Titans.
The starters saw limited action last week, but you can expect an entire half of action for tonight's starters.
Here are 5 questions to keep in mind as the Patriots head into their second preseason game:
Does Brady have "The Look"?
You know the look I'm talking about. Larry Bird in 1986. Joe Montana in 1989. Michael Jordan in 1996. Bird and Jordan were coming off bitter postseason defeats and walked into camp with a determination that this year would end far differently. Montana was looking for back-to-back Super Bowl wins. Greatness responds to a challenge with an intensity that is unrivaled. Along the way to resounding championship wins, Bird's Celtics went 67-15 (and an improbable 40-1 at home), Jordan's Bulls went 72-10, and Montana's 49ers went 14-2. Each and every night they played, it was as if you were watching history unfolding before your eyes.
And it all started with "The Look." If Brady trots onto the field tonight and marches the Patriots on scoring drives with the intensity that those three greats showed, then we could be in for an historic season. Without some of his newest weapons last week, Brady was his usual calm and collected self, playing with his typical understated intensity. Except when he overthrew an open Wes Welker on his second and final drive. His hands instantly went to his helmet, the disgust showing in his body language.
That was "The Look." The look said, "I don't care that this is the preseason, the championship is on the line with every pass I throw." If we see Brady running the show with the steely-eyed efficiency we're used to seeing from him from mid-season on, it could be another indication that this could be a season for the ages.
How good is the defense?
It was tough to tell last week with Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel not on the field, and Ty Warren leaving the game early due to injury. But with Adalius Thomas (3 unassisted tackles) flying around making plays as expected, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel looking as hungry as ever, and Rodney Harrison patrolling the backfield once again, the players who did play provided a glimpse of what we can expect to see this season.
The defense held the Tampa Bay quarterbacks to just 122 yards passing, with Randall Gay, Ellis Hobbs, and Eugene Wilson showing that life without Samuel -- if necessary -- might be worth living. The run defense was spotty, though, just as it was at the end of last season. The Patriots allowed 169 yards on 36 carries last week (4.7 yards per carry). This is an area that needs improvement.
One bright spot last week was watching the second string force the only turnover of the game Second year tackle Le Kevin Smith forced the fumble and rookie Justin Rogers -- who also had a team-high 6 tackles -- recovered the fumble. Rodney Harrison mentioned in an interview last week that forcing turnovers was an emphasis for this defense. The 32 turnovers the Patriots forced last season were second only to the Ravens' 37. If two sixth round draft picks (Smith and Rogers) have bought into the system, the entire defensive unit should be one to watch.
Can the defense contain Vince Young?
The better question might be: Does it matter? The Patriots won't face the Titans this season, and there isn't another quarterback in the league quite like Young (now that Michael Vick probably won't be in uniform).
If Coach Belichick's comments this week are to be believed, the Patriots will be working on their own issues and not focusing on their opponents' strengths or weaknesses. For that reason, containing Young will probably not be a priority. Putting pressure on him and moving the pocket will be the goal.
Young sat out the Titans' first preseason game for violating a curfew rule (Young decided to spend the night before the game in his own bed instead of in the hotel with the rest of the team), so this will be his first game action of the year. More than how the Patriots do against Young specifically will be how the defense performs in their assigned roles. So if Young rushes for 70 yards, although it would be disappointing to watch, it wouldn't necessarily be a sign of weakness on the defense's part.
Will there be payback for last year's season finale?
After an 0-5 start, the Titans had won six in a row and were 8-7 with an outside chance of making the playoffs when the Patriots came to town in Week 17. New England won 40-23, and some of the Titans were upset that the Patriots ran up the score with Vinny Testaverde at the helm.
Who's the kicker?
Well, the punter, anyway. The placekicking duties will be handled once again
by Stephen Gostkowski. But who the punter will be is another question entirely.
Veteran Josh Miller was cut yesterday, so the battle is between undrafted free
agents Danny Baugher and Tom Malone.
Baugher punted three times last Friday against Tampa Bay. His last kick was the best of the game, a 48-yarder from the New England 42. Malone had two chances in the opener, but both of his kicks sailed into the end zone for touchbacks.
Unless the Patriots' offense lights it up, the performance of the punters tonight
might determine who's on the roster opening day. And if both kick the way they
did last week, Baugher might be the Patriots' new punter.