Sunday, August 29, 2010
Patriots have to-do list before opener
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
When New England Patriots players arrive for work at Gillette Stadium on Monday, the countdown will be on: just 14 days until the season-opening game Sept. 12 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The preparations now shift into a much higher gear.
Although there is still one more preseason game to be played, Thursday against the Giants at the new Meadowlands stadium, a major part of the team's focus will now be Bengals-based.
Between now and the season opener, Tom Brady's attention figures to be on the Bengals -- and perhaps a new contract offer.
Behind the scenes, quarterback Tom Brady should be ramping up his knowledge of the Bengals' 4-3 defense, looking closer at Cincinnati's most recent performance Saturday in Buffalo. Ditto for the Patriots' top defenders, who should be studying how the additions of veteran receiver Terrell Owens and tight end Jermaine Gresham have given the Bengals' offense a new look.
In the past, coach Bill Belichick has noted all the footballs that are in the air at this time of year -- from roster management to regular-season preparation to finishing the preseason strong. That's a big part of these next 14 days, which is a crucial time for all NFL teams.
There will be no Labor Day weekend getaways, and with this in mind, here are 14 items on the Patriots' agenda -- a couple of which fall into the lighthearted category -- between now and the start of the regular season:
1. Tuesday's roster cut-down from 80 to 75. By Tuesday, the Patriots will have to remove five players from their 80-man roster. Often, some of the moves are simply placing players on season-ending injured reserve, and safeties Bret Lockett and Josh Barrett seem like top candidates.
2. Kickoff gala at Gillette Stadium. On Tuesday, the team will hold its annual Patriots Charitable Foundation Kickoff gala, which includes appearances by owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and every player on the team. The team will present the Ron Burton Community Service Award, which is given to the player who has demonstrated the most commitment to giving back to the community.
3. Getting a better read on the injury situation and how it will affect the opener. Safety Brandon Meriweather (leg), defensive lineman Ron Brace (ankle) and cornerback Terrence Wheatley (ankle/lower leg) all left Thursday's preseason loss to the Rams and did not return. Meriweather is a major cog, having played more snaps than any other Patriots defender last season. Meanwhile, rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham seemed to be inching closer to a return after being sidelined since Aug. 11. If injured players look as if they might not be ready for regular-season action, plans must be altered.
4. Continuing to revise the game plan for the Bengals. Much of this work is probably already done, but with new information coming in from the Bengals' game Saturday in Buffalo and the Patriots' most recent game, plans will be tweaked. For example, if the Patriots planned to use their three-safety package against the Bengals but didn't like the way it looked against the Rams, now is the time to adjust.
5. Thursday's preseason finale at the Giants. Last year, Brady didn't play in the preseason finale, and, after leading 12 drives and producing six touchdowns this year, his work seems done. The biggest things in this game are keeping everyone healthy, taking one final look at any roster "bubble" players and tightening up the coaching game-day operation. The Patriots don't want a repeat of 1989, when the team lost Garin Veris, Andre Tippett and Ronnie Lippett to injuries in the finale.
6. Making television history. The preseason finale against the Giants will be the first game broadcast in 3-D for Verizon's local FiOS TV customers, provided they have a 3-D TV set.
7. Considering one final attempt at resolving contract issues. Although contract talks certainly could continue into the regular season, sometimes the final weeks of the preseason can serve as a checkpoint for the sides to make one more aggressive attempt to close deals. The biggies are Brady and offensive lineman Logan Mankins, a holdout throughout the preseason.
8. Making a decision on Nick Kaczur. The veteran offensive lineman has a significant back injury that could threaten his season, but to this point, the Patriots have not placed him on season-ending injured reserve. Will they reserve his spot on the roster in the event he could come back later in the season, or will they determine they've simply run out of time?
9. Finalizing the 53-man roster on Sept. 4. This is one of the toughest assignments over the course of the entire year for all teams because they have spent the entire year building up the quality and depth of the 80-man roster. A mistake evaluating a player can be costly, and balancing one player with long-term potential against another who could help more in the present is often tricky.
10. Scouting the waiver wire. As other teams release and waive players, there could be possibilities for the Patriots to improve their roster at a position of need. The pro scouts will be busy scouring the waiver wire and free-agent market as hundreds of players become available.
11. Establishing an eight-man practice squad Sept. 5. There has been no shortage of players over the years who started on the Patriots' practice squad before making significant contributions when later promoted to the active roster. This group should primarily come from players who narrowly missed the 53-man cut, assuming they aren't claimed by another team.
12. Getting the college scouting squared away. With the college season starting next weekend, the wheels are reset in motion to plan for the 2011 draft. A strong foundation has already been established from spring scouting.
13. Following Chad Ochocinco's Twitter account. Bulletin-board material doesn't come only in the newspapers these days. The Bengals' receiver is pure comedy on Twitter » as he has previously sparked up some good-natured trash talk with cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Devin McCourty.
14. Keeping their opening-game streak alive. The Patriots have won their past six season openers. The last time they lost a season opener was 2003, against the Bills in Buffalo. Belichick often talks about how the first game of the season is the most unpredictable of the year, and the Bengals are a strong opponent.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.