By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Things are getting serious for the New England Patriots.
Not quite Super Bowl serious, but with the focused demeanor Bill Belichick has maintained throughout training camp, the head coach has made it clear that the Patriots are doing all they can to get ready for the season opener that is now less than two weeks away. Really, even in the moments after his team pulled off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, Belichick talked about how his team was five weeks behind in preparations for 2017. And this summer in camp, he’s made reference to the limited prep time the Patriots have for Week 1, given the Thursday night kickoff.
So, while the third preseason game is generally considered the only important one, it carries a little bit of added significance for the Patriots, who are in full-on cram mode for their first real test of the year.
With that, here’s what to watch for when the Patriots take on the Lions Friday night in Detroit.
Running Back Reps
Last week, Patriots fans were introduced to Rex Burkhead. This week, they’ll likely meet Mike Gillislee.
Gillislee, signed as a restricted free agent by the Patriots this past offseason from the Bills, returned to practice this week at what he deemed as “100 percent.” Gillislee figures to be the primary back when the Patriots run the ball, and he’ll have a heavy workload to take on after the team let LeGarrette Blount (299 carries, 1,161 yards, 18 TDs) depart as a free agent. After Gillislee nursed a hamstring injury for most of camp, he’ll (likely) finally make his debut behind Tom Brady.
And with Burkhead absent from practice this week, we’ll likely see some more Dion Lewis and D.J. Foster, with perhaps an influx of James White (who’s gotten very little action through two fake games).
Albeit without Burkhead, the Patriots’ backfield Friday night will resemble the unit that rolls out on opening night.
Bounceback From Butler?
It’s a big year for the Patriots as a team — every year is, isn’t it? But it’s a really big year for cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Entering his fourth season, the 27-year-old has the opportunity to set himself up for likely his only long-term, big-money NFL contract next offseason. And with Stephon Gilmore manning the other side of the field, Butler should really have a chance to shine.
Yet, that endeavor didn’t get off to the greatest start last week. Butler had his ankles broken by Jaelen Strong on a Tom Savage touchdown pass, a play which came after Butler gave up a long completion up the right sideline to Bruce Ellington — one where Butler either lost his place on the field or couldn’t find the ball in time to try to break up the pass.
In all, it was a bad night. And he knew it.
“Just keep grinding it out, man,” Butler said, according to Mass Live. “Be pissed off about it and keep grinding it out. … Just got to keep getting better each and every week.”
It’ll be interesting to see how that applies this week, especially because he’ll likely draw a tough matchup with either Golden Tate (average of 93 receptions, 1,074 yards and 5 TDs per season over the last three years) or Marvin Jones (coming off a career-high 930-yard season).
Brandin Cooks made an easy catch on a 5-yard out to help get the Patriots’ first offensive drive moving last week vs. Houston. It was nice and all, but I believe the people of New England are eager to really catch a glimpse of what kind of player Cooks really is.
Friday night, we’ll probably get a better look, with the starters expected to have their longest stints of the preseason for this one. Whether that means playing two quarters or playing into the third quarter, it does mean that there will be more opportunities for Cooks to display the progress of his summer chemistry project with Tom Brady.
Spectators probably won’t demand too much. But given the excitement that’s been building since the Patriots acquired Cooks five months ago, they’re itching to see at least one connection that gets the heart racing.
But Then Again … The Tackles
It’s a fun idea to think about the Patriots’ high-flying offense taking the field with Cooks and Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola and having a grand old time. But some issues at left tackle might put a damper on that party.
Nate Solder returned to practice in the past week, but he won’t be playing in this game. Rookie Tony Garcia remains out as well. LaAdrian Waddle will be playing less than a week after sustaining a concussion against Houston, likely splitting the important left tackle reps with Cameron Fleming.
The absence of Solder presents an opportunity for Fleming or Waddle to step up and prove worthwhile of a roster spot. Of course, the opposite of that is always a potential reality, which could mean a number of plays that end in a way that nobody involved with the Patriots wants to see: Brady getting walloped.
On the plus side for the Patriots, the pass rush of the Lions is not the formidable unit it used to be in years past. But if you do see the blue jerseys flooding into the backfield with clear shots at No. 12, then you know there might be a real problem with the team’s lack of depth at left tackle.