- James Walker, ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter
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Here are four things to watch for in these exhibition games:
No. 1: Patriots' defense
Analysis: New England’s defense, ranked 31st last season, will take the field for the first time in 2012. The last time we saw this group, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was carving up the Patriots in the Super Bowl. New England invested a lot of draft picks and free-agent dollars into this defense. Expect to see several new faces, such as first-round picks Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones, and free-agent signings Steve Gregory and Bobby Carpenter. The Patriots’ starting defense will get a good test against Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, who performed well against New England during joint practices this week.
No. 2: Who will emerge at running back?
Analysis: Expect the Patriots to give a lot of carries to their young running backs Thursday night. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are competing for the starting job vacated by former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley and Vereen bring different skills to the table. So far, Ridley has looked the best in training camp. But this battle will be won in the preseason games. Therefore, one of these young tailbacks must perform well to separate himself.
No. 3: Debut of Buffalo's revamped defensive line
Analysis: Buffalo’s starters may only play a few series. But it will be a good chance to see how the Bills’ new-look and dynamic defensive line is coming along. Stud defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were joined by big free-agent signings Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. This group has the potential to be one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. Washington will provide a good test in the debut of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. So if Buffalo’s defense can pressure Griffin and keep him at bay, it can corral just about any quarterback.
No. 4: Who will step up as Buffalo's No. 2 receiver?
Analysis: If Buffalo has a legit No. 2 receiver, it’s time for that player to come forward. The Bills need someone to be a threat opposite Steve Johnson, who will face plenty of double teams this year. There have been mixed results in training camp. Different players have flashed but no receiver has shown enough consistency. Receivers such as Marcus Easley, Donald Jones and rookie T.J. Graham need to step up. Performing in the preseason is the quickest way to impress Buffalo’s coaching staff.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will host their preseason openers Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins, respectively.