FOXBOROUGH — OK, so it’s not quite time for real football yet.
The Patriots will host the Redskins at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night, but it’s the preseason opener. The score doesn’t count, and if history is our guide, we won’t see much, if any, of quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady last played in a preseason opener in 2015, and he played just seven snaps that night. Gronkowski hasn’t appeared in the preseason since 2012.
But that doesn’t make Thursday night’s game meaningless, either. Bill Belichick and his staff will use this game as the first dress rehearsal for the regular season, a chance to test their coach-to-player communication and see how Brian Flores does in replacing Matt Patricia as the de facto defensive coordinator. It’s also a great chance for the staff to evaluate the young players and see how they perform when the lights are on and there are no do-overs like in practice.
You will read plenty of stories this week breaking down what to watch for in Thursday’s preseason game in terms of Patriots storylines. But here’s something a little different — a guide to how to watch the game, and what you should be looking for to help determine which players will make the team, and if the night is successful for the Patriots:
1. Starting offense: Can they move the chains, avoid penalties and glaring mistakes, and finish drives with points?
The Patriots won’t be game-planning for the Redskins, and they won’t reveal much of their playbook. But assuming Brady plays — and he might, given the light workload given to him at practice over the last week — you still want to see him move the offense down the field, pick up a few first downs, and finish drives off with a field goal or touchdown.
Of course, context matters, too. In 2015, his last preseason opener, Brady was just 1-for-4 passing for 10 yards. But the rest of the offensive starters sat, and Brady was playing with backups and rookies. So don’t panic if Brady has a couple quick three-and-outs and is yanked for backup Brian Hoyer.
The same holds true for the backups. You shouldn’t care too much about the final stats for Hoyer and third-string quarterback Danny Etling, but you do want to see if they are making the correct reads, converting first downs, and ending drives with points.
2. Starting defense: Can they force punts and avoid big plays?
The Patriots won’t be able to atone for that Super Bowl loss in February, and we’ll have no idea for awhile whether this unit is any better than it was last year. But you still want to see the Patriots play clean defensive football, with no coverage breakdowns or bad penalties. Like the offense, the defense won’t be game-planning for Washington, won’t show anything exotic, and will mostly play straight-up man-to-man coverage. So if the Patriots are having coverage breakdowns when they’re in man, that’s a big problem.
You want to see if the defensive linemen can win any of their one-on-one battles up front and get to the quarterback. You want to see if linebackers can shed their blocks and tackle running backs at the line of scrimmage. And you want to see if the cornerbacks can hang with the Redskins’ receivers and cover like glue.
3. Which backups and rookies are getting reps with the other starters?
As I wrote earlier this week, 39 of the Patriots’ 53 roster spots are already accounted for. As for the final 14 spots, you can often get a feel for the front-runners just by paying attention to which players are filling in for the starters, or taking a lot of snaps.
Even if Brady and the starters play, not every starter will be in there — right tackle Marcus Cannon and running back Sony Michel are already hurt, for example. So take note of which youngsters get the call-up to the starting offense. It’s usually not an accident that these are the first players that Belichick turns to for a fill-in.
4. Can the rookies process the play calls and execute their assignments?
This game is really about the youngsters, and finding out which ones deserve a precious 53-man roster spot. Preseason games may only be a part of the players’ evaluation — every day in practice certainly counts, too — but they are definitely a big part of it. And you’re not going to make the team if you blow your assignment too many times, or allow a big play, or drop a big pass, or miss your block.
The Patriots want players who stay calm under pressure, execute their assignments, and make the plays when they’re in front of them. It sounds easier than it is.
5. Who is playing on the punt and kickoff teams?
Belichick loves him some special teams, and for most of the rookies and youngsters, that is how they will make the team. The fourth and fifth linebacker will be a key member of the kickoff team. The defensive backs and receivers will be key on the punt teams. Take note of who is returning the punts and kickoffs, especially if it’s anyone other than Cordarrelle Patterson.
Want to know who is going to win one of the 14 precious roster spots? When it comes to the Patriots, look to the special teams.