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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick called this a "big week" for his team, the chance to build off an impressive preseason-opening victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.To this point, Belichick has been pleased with the way his players responded. He had them in full pads Saturday, Sunday and Monday, creating some training camp grind-it-out type stress as another layer of the team's system was added.
Now comes Thursday night's second preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7:30 ET), and it figures to have a different look than the opener, when several top players didn't play. The expectation is that more front-line players, headlined by quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Chad Ochocinco, will suit up for this one.
Defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, however, isn't one of them. He is not expected to play after missing the week of practices.
With that in mind, here are some top "areas of interest":
Chemistry between Brady and Ochocinco. Earlier in camp, Ochocinco said one of the things he liked about the Patriots' style of play is the importance of communication between quarterback and receiver without talking. The idea is to be able to look at the quarterback, process a signal, and feel confident that both players are thinking the same thing. The chemistry has looked good on the practice field for the most part. Now it's time to put it to the test in a game.
|Nate Solder figures to face a key test against the Bucs when he protects Tom Brady's blind side.|
Solder as blindside protector. With Brady expected to play, but veteran left tackle Matt Light still working his way back to full participation after offseason shoulder surgery, first-round draft choice Nate Solder projects as the starting left tackle. Solder had "more positives than negatives" in the preseason opener, according to Belichick. The Buccaneers can bring more heat than Jacksonville off the edge so this should be another good test for Solder.
Safety shuffle with Meriweather. The coaching staff might have been sending a message to Brandon Meriweather, as it was noticeable to see him replaced for parts of practice this week by second-year man Sergio Brown. Monitoring the rotation in the game could tell us more. It was telling from this perspective that in a preseason opener in which Pro Bowlers Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty didn't play, Meriweather was on the field for all 37 first-half snaps.
Carter's debut. Veteran defensive end Andre Carter, donning Richard Seymour's old No. 93, has been bringing some solid heat off the right edge in practice. Carter didn't play in the opener but was working in practice as part of a four-man line along with tackles Wilfork and Kyle Love, and end Eric Moore. He looks like he's going to help this defense.
Mallett's encore. During Tuesday's practice, Ryan Mallett took more second-team repetitions while No. 2 man Brian Hoyer ran the scout team. That seemed to be an indication that Mallett could be the first quarterback into the game after Brady. Mallett handled his debut well -- his laser to receiver Taylor Price on a hitch that went for 50 yards showcased his arm strength -- and this will be a chance for him to build off that. It's possible he could be inserted into the game earlier, against better competition, and in that scenario he'd have to deal with some different aspects of the game, such as crowd noise and a silent snap count.
Yeatman's time to shine. Almost every year, the Patriots have at least one rookie free agent who emerges unexpectedly, and Will Yeatman, who played at Maryland, is a candidate to watch. He was taking first-team reps in Tuesday's practice, lining up next to Rob Gronkowski in two-tight end sets. Yeatman, a former lacrosse player, has good size (6-foot-5, 268) and this looks like his chance to make a move on fifth-round draft choice Lee Smith.
Field goal operation. Last year at this time, the Patriots thought they had their field goal operation set for years to come after landing the top specialists on their draft board in kicker Stephen Gostkowski (2006), punter/holder Zoltan Mesko (2010) and long snapper Jake Ingram (2009). But Ingram lost his confidence, leading the club to sign veteran Matt Katula. The Gostkowski-Mesko-Katula grouping has returned this year, with Katula firing a snap over Mesko's head on a point-after attempt in the opener. Coaches will look to see how he responds.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.