FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots play their third preseason game Thursday night, and playing time will be in major focus. With the starters expected to earn the most reps of their summer against the Rams, it will be provide the best indication of the Pats' progress through training camp and the preseason.
Expect quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss — who put on a show together during Tuesday's practice — to play well into the third quarter along with the rest of New England's stars.
On the other side of that coin, it's not a good sign for players who don’t get into the game (barring injury-related reasons) because that's a decent indication they're on the wrong side of the roster bubble. With final roster cuts just nine days away, there are fewer and fewer chances for the underdogs to prove their worth.
Here are some other areas to watch when the Patriots take on the Rams.
On an Island
Cornerback Leigh Bodden returned to practice this week, which means he'll probably make his preseason debut Thursday. Bodden had a quiet camp prior to suffering his minor knee injury, so he's kind of up against it. There's no chance he'll lose his job as a starting cornerback, but Devin McCourty has filled in nicely in Bodden's place. It would be a comforting sign if Bodden, who was the Patriots' most consistent and reliable corner in 2009, can pick up where he left off.
Like Bodden, inside linebacker Gary Guyton also has returned this week from a knee injury. Rookie Brandon Spikes has been a stud in Guyton's position, and he has stood out as much as anyone on the defensive side of the ball.
Keep an eye on two things here. Watch the reps to see if Spikes has surpassed Guyton for the starting job alongside Jerod Mayo, and also keep an eye on situational use. Spikes and Guyton might perfectly complement one another, with Spikes playing on running downs and Guyton playing on passing downs. They could wind up sharing playing time because their roles are unique.
One other thought: The Patriots have used a lot of 3-3-5 formations — with three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs (sometimes with three corners, sometimes with three safeties) — and Mayo, Spikes and Guyton could be the three linebackers used in those situations due to their talent and versatility. This will be the first chance to see if Bill Belichick has something like that in mind.
Thursday could be Laurence Maroney's time to shine. The Patriots basically have given one running back a half of work through each of the first two preseason games, and Maroney has yet to get his chance against a first-team defense.
It seems like this is going to be Maroney's opportunity to run with the ones. If that’s the case and he plays well, it could indicate that Maroney has unlocked himself from Belichick's doghouse. However, if Belichick opts to give those first-half reps to someone else, it will be a strong indication that Maroney's spot on the roster is far from safe.
New England's second-string offensive line has to play better — if not for themselves, then for the long-term health of quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has gotten treated worse than one of Mike Tyson's sparring partners. Opposing defenses are picking on one side of the offensive line — typically, it's been over the top of Mark LeVoir and Thomas Welch when they have been at right tackle — and overloading it with blitzers.
Logan Mankins' holdout and Nick Kaczur's injury have depleted the Patriots' depth on the O-line, and the reserves have to do a better job of making the coaching staff feel more confident in case another starter hits the medical ward.