Commentary

Pats-Giants: A pivotal game for some

In final preseason showing, several players competing for roster spots

Updated: September 1, 2011, 9:39 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

For the seventh straight year, the New England Patriots and New York Giants meet in the final game of the preseason. It's a matchup that fits well for both teams based on close proximity and not being in the same conference.

Usually the game features a bunch of second- and third-stringers, and this year figures to be no different, especially as the Giants are coming off a Monday night game.

Some areas of interest from this perspective:

Could have first look at second-round picks. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling (33rd overall) and running back Shane Vereen (56th overall) have yet to play this preseason because of hamstring injuries. They have been back at practice for more than a week, putting them in position to possibly take the field. The Patriots don't have a running back as fast as Vereen, who could add a new dimension to the team's ground game.

[+] Enlarge Brian Hoyer
Tim Fuller/US PresswireExpect to see a lot of Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer on Thursday night.

Overall coaching approach. After Saturday's disappointing loss to the Lions, coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that it could affect his approach in terms of handling personnel in this game. One could make a case that players need more time on the field. How Belichick balances the risk/reward bears watching -- especially with Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis yet to suit up this preseason -- as the Patriots don't want another 1989-like situation (Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett, Garin Veris all sustained season-ending injuries in the final preseason game that year).

Josh Barrett vs. James Ihedigbo. The Patriots released veteran safety James Sanders on Monday, opening the door for a fourth safety to sneak onto the final 53-man roster. Top candidates are Barrett (claimed on waivers last year from the Broncos) and Ihedigbo (the former New York Jet from Amherst, Mass.), with both making their biggest mark on special teams.

Likely last look at Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Hoyer has been the No. 2 option behind quarterback Tom Brady the last two years, and Mallett has upped the competition level by impressing with a strong arm and poise under pressure. If things go as the Patriots hope, this will be their last chance to extended action, building momentum into next year.

Brandon Tate's last gasp? The Patriots' No. 3 receiver last year could be on the roster bubble. He's already been pushed further down the depth chart with the acquisition of Chad Ochocinco, and now second-year receiver Taylor Price and third-year man Julian Edelman appear to have leapfrogged him as well. He figures to play a lot, and might be playing for a job.

Mark Herzlich in New England. The former Boston College linebacker figures to see a lot of action. While he's not viewed as a roster lock, he has positioned himself to earn a roster spot with a strong performance Thursday night. He should receive a warm welcome from the home crowd. And to top it off, the game is being played on his 24th birthday.

Eyes on the new long snapper. A snapper isn't an issue until he botches his assignment, and the Patriots aren't in an ideal situation, turning the position over for the third time in less than two years. Veteran James Dearth is in, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots bring in a rookie on the practice squad to develop, such as Iowa's Andy Schulze.

Antwaun Molden joins the mix. The Patriots claimed the former Houston Texans cornerback/special teams player on waivers, and if healthy, he could cover kicks to give the coaching staff an early analysis on how much he might be able to help on fourth down.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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