- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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DETROIT -- The Patriots visit the Lions on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET) in the third preseason game for both teams, and the expectation is that most top players will be on the field into the third quarter.
Here are some of the main things we will be watching for:
1. Protecting Tom Brady. Remember the 2011 preseason game in Detroit when Brady was ripped to the ground by defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh? Similar to this time around, it was also the third preseason game and the teams were getting after it. Patriots guard Logan Mankins called the Lions' defensive line the strength of the team so it's a good test for the top offensive line of Nate Solder (left tackle), Logan Mankins (left guard), Ryan Wendell (center), Will Svitek (right guard) and Sebastian Vollmer (right tackle). Svitek, the eight-year veteran who had never played guard in the NFL, has been pressed into action because of injuries to others.
2. Aqib Talib vs. Calvin Johnson and the big play. When it comes to top receivers in the NFL, Johnson might be No. 1 on the list. While this isn't a regular-season type situation in terms of game-planning -- where the Patriots might have Talib follow Johnson wherever he lines up -- there still figure to be plenty of times that the two are matched up (assuming Johnson follows through on his plan to play after missing last week's game with a bruised knee). In terms of getting a good feel for how Talib and the secondary are equipped to defend the big play, this is a good matchup. Let's also watch the safeties closely, with Devin McCourty possibly set to play his first preseason game after missing the first two as part of his management coming back from offseason shoulder surgery.
3. Potential opportunity for Julian Edelman. With Amendola not expected to play after being held out of practices this week, it opens the door for Edelman to step into the all-important role as the team's slot receiver. Edelman has played just four snaps with quarterback Tom Brady this preseason but this could be his chance to make a loud statement on his value to the team as a receiver. With all the attention placed on the newcomers in the receiving corps, Edelman has been somewhat of a forgotten target. Does that change Thursday night?
4. Can the pass rush duplicate its strong performance? Patriots coaches had to be encouraged with the pass rush in the team's preseason victory over the Buccaneers on Friday. Linebacker Brandon Spikes was a tone-setter and ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich brought heat off the edges to record sacks. The Lions have a strong vertical passing game and they are transitioning to a new left tackle in Riley Reiff, the 2012 first-round pick who takes over for longtime blindside protector Jeff Backus. There should be opportunities to rush the passer.
5. Still a competitive situation at punter. When asked if he has seen any separation in the battle at punter between incumbent Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen, Bill Belichick said Tuesday that he still views it as a competitive situation. Allen looked like he had an off night last Friday against the Buccaneers. Ford Field is often a friendly venue for punters, so it is another chance to gather information on what has been a notable training camp storyline.