FOXBOROUGH — The third preseason game is when the Patriots put an emphasis on their potential starters, giving them the most playing time as something of a dress rehearsal for the regular season and a chance to get them game-time reps that help with conditioning.
After practice Wednesday, quarterback Tom Brady said he’s hoping he’ll be on the field well into the second half Friday night when New England hosts the Carolina Panthers.
It isn’t just the physical work Brady wants, but the mental work as well.
“Coach [Bill Belichick] always does a great job of trying to keep us in great condition, so we do a lot of running in practice, post-practice runs,” Brady said.
“But you have to get out there and play, get your mind working, and get into the situations and concentrate for extended periods of time, and certainly we’re going to be asked to do four quarters of that in three weeks, so we’ve got to go out and see where we’re at and hopefully we’re in good enough condition to play a half.
“Hopefully we’ll play a lot more than that, but it will be good to see where we’re at.”
The Patriots and Panthers played a memorable Monday night game in Charlotte last season, with a controversial non-call on Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly defending Rob Gronkowski in the end zone serving as the game’s final play. Had Kuechly been flagged, the Patriots would have had another chance to win the game.
Brady didn’t mention the finish of that game, but he did laud the Carolina defense.
“This is a good game to really gauge where you’re at because we’re playing a really good team, a great defense, one that we played last year and really struggled with at times,” he said.
“This will tell us where we’re at. We’ve got to go out there and execute really well in order to move the ball down the field. They’ve got some of the best linebackers, very good secondary, and one of the best pass rushes in all the league.
“It’s a good challenge, and I think the guys are excited. This is a big week that we’ve tried to make some improvements, and we’ll see if it pays off.”
Much has been made about the point of emphasis on illegal contact and holding for defensive backs, but there is a change for Brady and offensive players as well, and it involves movement on the offensive line and a quarterback’s cadence.
Brady said referee John Parry, who was in Foxborough last week with a few members of his crew to discuss the rules with players, told Brady that he wouldn’t be as focused on catching players in violation of that rule, but other referees might.
“I guess you can’t [move] the shoulders, the head, and the hands with the voice,” said Brady. “They talk about calling that quite a bit. Sometimes it’s just natural as you try to inflect your voice, just the movement of everything gets you going. But we’ve got to be cautious of it because I was warned a bunch by John Parry.
“I think you’ve just got to try to make the changes because whatever the rules are, we’ve just got to adjust to them. They’re going to call it the way they’re going to call it, and then we’ve got to be able to adjust and play smart, because you can’t come out of the game with 12 penalties and think you’re going to win every week.
“You’ll just give up too many free yards, too many free opportunities for the defense. So, you’ve got to play within the rules. You’ve got to figure out where the line is and play right to it.”
Figuring out where that line is varies from game to game and referee to referee, but eliminating behavior that might lead to penalties begins in practice.
“Coach doesn’t want us to commit any penalties in practice,” said Brady. “You just start getting in bad habits of, for me for example, with the voice inflection on the cadence. You can’t continue to do that in practice and then think that in the game you’re going to settle down and not get called for that.
“You’ve got to be conscious of them and try to work on them so that when they come up in the game, they’re really instinctual and you don’t have to think. Because the best part about playing when you’re really in a groove is you don’t think about anything, you just react, and that’s when you’re usually at your best.”
Last Friday night, when more than 20 flags were thrown in the Patriots-Eagles game, Brady joked that he doesn’t mind if the penalties disrupt the pace of the offense if they’re going in New England’s favor.