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What to watch for Thursday night in Patriots-Redskins preseason opener

08.07.14 at 7:00 am ET
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Here are seven things we’€™ll be looking for Thursday night when the Patriots meet the Redskins in the preseason opener for both teams:

1. The interior of the offensive line: For a position that prides itself on consistency, continuity and stability, it’€™s been an interesting few months for the offensive line. While the tackle position figures to be pretty stable from here on out with left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and the left tackle spot remains the domain of veteran Logan Mankins, the rest of the interior has become a comparatively fluid situation. Rookie center Bryan Stork has missed a handful of practices with an undisclosed injury and is not expected to play against the Redskins, so incumbent Ryan Wendell should get the bulk of the snaps in his place. In addition, right guard Dan Connolly has seen some time at center, and while that’€™s happened, Marcus Cannon and Jon Halapio have taken some reps at the right guard spot. Meanwhile, Cannon has also seen some time at both guard and tackle, and could be in the mix to serve as the backup swing tackle behind Vollmer and Solder. (Rookie Cameron Fleming could be in line for some snaps at that position as well.) Expect lots of different personnel combinations as the Patriots — and new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo — try and find the right mix.

2. Quarterback play: If Thursday’€™s game is anything like preseason openers of the past, expect starter Tom Brady to play between 20 and 30 snaps (like two or more series) in hopes of knocking some of the rust off and getting back to game action. We took a look at these numbers Wednesday, but they’€™re worth revisiting as the opener looms — a look at his workload in preseason openers the last six years (the snap counts include penalties):

2013: 19 snaps against Philadelphia –€” 7-for-8, 65 yards, 1 TD

2012: 19 snaps against New Orleans — 4-for-7, 30 yards, 1 sack

2011: DNP against Jacksonville (Brady was not injured, but the opener came roughly two weeks after the end of the lockout. It what was likely a preventive measure to guard against starters being injured, most of the No. 1 offense and defense had the night off.)

2010: 17 snaps vs. New Orleans — 5-for-8, 67 yards

2009: 24 snaps vs. Philadelphia — 10-for-15, 100 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

2008: DNP against Baltimore

In addition, expect backup Ryan Mallett to get a heavy workload — likely the bulk of the second and third quarter — while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo figures to be in line to close things out.

3. The combinations at backup linebacker: The Patriots have to be encouraged about the state of their starting linebackers. It’€™s the backups that might give them some concerns. New veteran James Anderson has held up well in camp as the backup middle linebacker, and done well when running with tight ends and running backs in coverage. Steve Beauharnais will look to build off a mostly positive rookie year where he was one of the primary special teamers and transition to a more regular spot on defense. Meanwhile, newcomer Darius Fleming will also be fighting for a spot, and could make a strong statement if he has a good preseason opener against Washington Thursday night.

4. Who is playing strong safety: For what it’€™s worth, in the first depth chart of the preseason, the Patriots had second-year defensive back Duron Harmon listed as the starting safety opposite Devin McCourty, with Patrick Chung and Kanorris Davis listed as the second- and third-stringers behind Harmon. While the position is up in the air at this point, it certainly appears that Harmon has the inside track: He’€™s been the one at the spot next to McCourty when the bulk of the No. 1 defense has appeared together on the field. In addition, he frequently serves as the fourth when the three other de facto starters (McCourty, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner) are gathered together talking before, during or after practice.

5. Kick returner: There have been a variety of players vying for the job that was left open after LeGarrette Blount left for Pittsburgh in the offseason as a free agent. Josh Boyce, Shane Vereen and Matthew Slater are all veterans who have handled the job at the NFL level, while Roy Finch and Travis Hawkins have also seen time at the spot this summer. At this point, Boyce figures to have first dibs on the position, but that could change between now and the start of the regular season. Look for some of the rookies to get a chance to show what they can do at the NFL level Thursday against the Redskins.

6. Tight end: Rob Gronkowski didn’€™t make the trip to D.C., and back D.J. Williams didn’€™t practice on Wednesday. That means that Patriots fans will get a real opportunity to see what youngsters Justin Jones and Asa Watson can do. Jones is a massive presence at tight end, and the 6-foot-8, 275-pounder out of East Carolina certainly presents a massive catch radius. (More often than not, when the ball has been sent in his direction, he’€™s managed to come away with it.) He’€™s not the fastest guy in the world, but his bulk certainly makes for a tough cover for opposing defenders. In addition, Watson has had a fair camp to this point, but with ostensibly the two primary tight ends on the shelf, the younger brother of former New England tight end Ben Watson will almost certainly get an extended look against Washington.

7. How do the referees handle things when it comes to the renewed emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding: The Patriots have yet to have referees work their practices — that will come next week when the Eagles come to Foxboro — and so there’€™s not much of a feeling as to how things are going to work out with the New England defensive backs and the emphasis on the rules regarding what defensive backs can and can’€™t do when it comes to pass defense. Browner, who comes from a physical background in Seattle, has been very hands-on with receivers over the course of the summer (both his own teammates and the Redskins), and he will certainly be a player to watch when it comes to whether or not officials will truly crack down with the new approach and how much they’€™ll allow defensive players to get away with.

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