Patriots at Carolina: 5 Things To Watch

The Patriots play the Carolina Panthers on Friday night. There are five key areas to keep an eye on writes Darren Kelly in this preview of the matchup.

The Patriots had an up-and-down Game 2 against the Titans last week. The first team defense posted a shutout, as the run defense performed far better than in Game 1 and the pass defense completely shut down quarterback Vince Young (5-for-17, 102 yards, 4 sacks). The most memorable sequence of the first half was just before halftime, as the defense stuffed the Titans on four plays from inside the 3-yard-line.

But the first team offense struggled at times. Clearly missing starting running back Laurence Maroney, the Patriots resorted to that old standby -- the screen pass -- to move the ball with the most precision. Quarterback Tom Brady suffered numerous hits as the offensive line couldn't keep the Titans out of the pocket.

Now the most important game on the preseason schedule is upon us. That's the standing NFL logic, that the second-to-last preseason game is the most meaningful. But before we get too carried away on the importance of the game itself, we need to remember that it is still only preseason. It's situations and the players' responses that matter most of all. One final score from Week 3 of last year's preseason tells you how important preseason scores are: Arizona 23, Chicago 16.

Here are 5 questions to keep in mind as the Patriots head into their third preseason game:

Is Laurence Maroney ready to be the starting running back?

Maroney was having a pretty good rookie season before taking a hard hit in Week 13 against the Lions. He missed the next two games, and finished the season with 745 yards rushing and a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. But he only rushed for more than 100 once (Week 4 against Cincinnati, when he rushed for 125 yards), and it remains to be seen if he'll be able to carry the load as the feature back. The most carries he had in one game last season was 19, in New England's 35-0 win over Green Bay. He also had offseason surgery on his shoulder, which has kept him out of contact drills until this week.

Tonight will be the first time Maroney takes the field for a game since last year's playoffs. It's also the first time he'll play an NFL game without Corey Dillon. So far no other running back has secured the second spot behind Maroney. If no one steps up, then Maroney might have to take on a larger role than expected in the New England offense.

How good is the defense?

The first team defense pitched a shutout last week and had a stellar goal-line stand. The defensive line -- still without Richard Seymour -- held their own against the Titans' offensive line. And the secondary was flying around making plays once again. Or was quarterback Vince Young making it easy for them?

We'll get one last look at the defense as it is currently constituted tonight. The expectation is that Seymour will be ready for the regular season. And the status of Asante Samuel is still up in the air. But in the meantime, tackle Le Kevin Smith has been impressive and Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau have looked like spry rookies in their return to action.

Is the offensive line as bad as they looked last week?

New England has spent a lot of money locking up Tom Brady's offensive line. That money didn't look like it was well spent last week. Brady was hit repeatedly as on more than one occasion defenders came in untouched on their way to level the Franchise.

Judging from some of the postgame comments, there appeared to be confusion about blocking assignments. You can bet that this will be a point of emphasis tonight. If Brady finds himself on his back as many times as he did last week, or is rushed into more ill-advised throws, then the offensive line could be an area of concern. The Patriots have changed their blocking scheme this season, presumably to adjust to the change in passing attack. But deep threats at wide receiver require more time for Brady to set up in the pocket -- time he has not had in the last two preseason games.

Is the punter for real?

Danny Baugher booted a 70-yard punt last week that probably cemented his spot as the team's punter. The team released Tom Malone this week, effectively giving the job to Baugher. The question is, is he as good as he looked? On both his 70-yarder and another that he buried at the 11-yard line, his kicks took fortuitous bounces. His third kick was a line drive punt that was covered well.

He definitely has a strong leg, and has had success so far with landing his punts inside the 20. We'll see if he continues to have the early success, now that the pressure of making the team is seemingly gone.

Which wide receivers will do enough to make the team?

We've yet to see Randy Moss play a down in a game for the Patriots, but you can bet good money that he won't be cut this week. And Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker are shoo-ins. Reche Caldwell and Kelley Washington have both seen significant time and will probably make the team. Jabar Gaffney started last week but then missed practice on back-to-back days. And there's still Troy Brown, Bam Childress, and a host of others in the mix.

Tonight will be one of the last times the receivers have to make favorable impressions on the coaching staff. Considering how shaky the offense has been the last couple of weeks, even the simplest of plays could lead to playing time in the future. With Brady's penchant for spreading the ball around, the wide receiving corps will be pretty deep, but not everyone currently on the roster can make the team.

Darren is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"

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