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Patriots areas of interest vs. Chargers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Areas of interest from a New England Patriots perspective in the team's home opener against the San Diego Chargers (CBS, 4:15 p.m.):

Locking up Gates. Now in his ninth NFL season, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is still going strong. Gates, who played through a foot injury against the Patriots last season, had eight catches for 74 yards in the 2011 season opener against the Vikings. The Patriots figure to make him a top priority defensively, attempting to make it difficult for him to get off the line. They figure to treat him like a receiver, which means they could be in a sub defense for a good portion of the game.

Connolly fills in at center. Barring an unexpected change, the Patriots will turn to six-year veteran Dan Connolly to fill in for injured center Dan Koppen. Connolly struggled at left guard last year against the Chargers and was replaced at halftime, so this Chargers' defensive scheme, coupled with their personnel, has been a tough matchup for him. First-year Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky could favor pressure up the middle based on Connolly's presence and the idea that it takes away quarterback Tom Brady's ability to step up.

Ochocinco's response. Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco took the high road from the media firestorm this week, pointing to his playbook on Friday and saying once he gets that down, then he'll do his talking. The Patriots had trouble getting the ball to their outside receivers last year against the Chargers, but it wouldn't be surprising if they try to get Ochocinco going early. Wes Welker was held to four catches last year against San Diego, as the Patriots ran most of their plays out of a multiple-tight end package.

Bigger cornerbacks must rise up. In the season opener against the Dolphins, the Patriots had Devin McCourty (5-10, 193), Ras-I Dowling (6-1, 198) and Leigh Bodden (6-1, 193) as their top corners. It's a bigger look for the defense, and this is another week in which that emphasis on size comes in handy. The Patriots won't face a bigger group of receivers this year than Vincent Jackson (6-5, 230) and Malcom Floyd (6-5, 225).

Spikes in the middle. There has been some question whether second-year inside linebacker Brandon Spikes has landed in the doghouse. This game should provide an answer. After he was a healthy scratch in the season opener (he had missed the preseason with an ankle injury but wasn't on the opening-week injury report), Spikes should be part of the game plan, especially with linebacker Gary Guyton questionable on the injury report (hamstring).

Offensive tackle rotation. With starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer expected to play after missing the season opener with a back injury, coach Bill Belichick strongly suggested there would be some type of rotation with the top three tackles (Vollmer, Matt Light, Nate Solder). What does that rotation look like? It could simply be a Vollmer/Solder combination on the right side, or perhaps it also involves Light. Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes are tough to handle on the edges.

Defensive tackles strong and deep. Between Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Myron Pryor and Kyle Love, the Patriots have a four-man rotation on the interior of their defense that can create a lot of issues for opponents. There project to be some favorable matchups on the interior, and if the Patriots win them like the Vikings did last week against the Chargers, it will go a long way toward slowing down quarterback Philip Rivers and Co.

Explosive Edelman? The Chargers struggled on special teams in 2010 (although they got the better of the Patriots), and in the season-opener, Vikings receiver Percy Harvin scored on a 103-yard kickoff return. Julian Edelman is the primary kickoff returner for the Patriots, and wouldn't it be a nice storyline for the Patriots if the new No. 11 takes one to the house on the weekend that the old, unforgettable No. 11 (Drew Bledsoe) is being inducted into the team's Hall of Fame.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.