First exposure to referees and point of emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding. While some teams have had referees in their training camps, such as Washington, the Patriots have not. So Thursday night's game, with referee Jeff Triplette overseeing the action, will mark the first time the Patriots are exposed to the "third team" on the field. This is significant as the league is making it a point of emphasis to enforce defensive holding and illegal contact rules extra closely. Defensive backs such as Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner can make contact within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, but anything after 5 yards is a penalty and Redskins players said they thought the Patriots were regularly making contact down the field in practices. How many of those penalties are called against the Patriots on Thursday night?
Interior offensive line competition. With good competition at center and right guard, the three players who should see early action are Dan Connolly (center and right guard), Josh Kline (right guard) and Ryan Wendell (center). This isn't one of those storylines that has sizzle until thinking back to the AFC Championship Game and how the Broncos hurt the Patriots right up the middle. The Patriots hoped rookie center Bryan Stork would be in the mix, but he's been sidelined since the middle of the fifth practice of training camp with a lower leg injury. So there should be lots to digest in this sometimes-overlooked area of the game, particularly as it relates to Kline, who appears to be rising.
Early check-in on development of young offensive linemen. First-year Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has taken over for retired Dante Scarnecchia, and this game will provide an early snapshot of how that transition has unfolded. Specifically, can young offensive linemen Cameron Fleming (fourth round), Jon Halapio (sixth round), Jordan Devey (first-year player) and Braxston Cave (first-year player) be competitive to give the second-unit offense a chance to move the ball with Ryan Mallett at quarterback? For Mallett to have a chance to be successful, and prove he's a starting-caliber player, it starts with protection.
New-look front seven and containing RGIII. There have been positive vibes throughout camp from the defense, with the energy and camaraderie apparent. As it applies to this game, one of the things defenders spoke about in joint practices was how containing quarterback Robert Griffin III would be a good test that will show up later in the season against athletic quarterbacks. The Patriots are more athletic in the front seven this season, particularly with a linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo (middle), Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, so they should be equipped to handle such a challenge. It's unlikely that the Patriots will show much defensively, but if Collins is covering tight end Jordan Reed, his work in that area warrants a closer look. Reed has been excellent in practice the last few days, and Collins has potential to be a star.
Backup linebacker spots up for grabs. The Patriots have the potential to field one of their strongest linebacker corps in recent memory, but the backup spots remain up in the air with the likes of James Anderson, Steve Beauharnais, Darius Fleming, and others fighting for spots. Those three should play a lot and could help clear up the picture with a strong performance.
A closer look at undrafted TE Justin Jones. With Rob Gronkowski not yet cleared for full-team drills and top backups Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams sidelined with injuries, it leaves undrafted tight ends Jones and Asa Watson as the lone tight ends on the game-day roster. Jones, of East Carolina, is particularly intriguing in the red zone at 6-foot-8 and 275 pounds. Jones is most likely to land on the practice squad, but a strong showing in the preseason could change that.