BOSTON -- After a pair of joint practice sessions during the week, the Patriots and the Packers are now set to have a preseason battle on Lambeau Field on Saturday night.
While the joint practices are sometimes more valuable than preseason action for players and coaches, most people can't watch those joint sessions. So as fans from afar, you're excused if you feel a little overexcited for another preseason football game. (Mostly because we are also excited to spend a Saturday night in the summer watching a football game that doesn't count.)
And this should be a pretty important preseason game, or at least as important as preseason games can go. New England starters didn't play last week the Houston Texans were in town, and after Saturday, they'll have just one more chance to get in some game action before the regular season arrives on Sept. 10.
If last preseason is any indication, we should get at least a brief look at Mac Jones on Saturday. He played into the second quarter in the second game of the preseason last year, getting three series of work in before Brian Hoyer checked in against the Carolina Panthers. We should see some of his top targets like JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, and Kendrick Bourne as well, which will give us a look at how they match up against the Green Bay defense. Rhamondre Stevenson may get a little run -- he had two carries and a target in Preseason Game No. 2 last August -- though the Patriots need to get a better look at the running backs behind him on the depth chart.
We shouldsee some starters on Saturday night, though Bill Belichick remains the wild card in all of this. If he was happy with what he saw in joint practice this week, he may opt to give players another week before they start to take real game reps. Or, if he's really disgusted with what he saw from the New England offensive line, he may opt to protect offensive starters for another week.
At least we know we'll get another look at an exciting rookies on defense (Christian Gonzalez) and our first look at another exciting rookie on defense (Marte Mapu). That alone will be worth watching at least the first half.
And if you're going to stick it out for the full 60 minutes of preseason football (we here at WBZ strongly recommend you do just that), here's what you should be watching for throughout the contest.
As we previously stated, we may get our first look at Mac Jones in Bill O'Brien's offense throwing to his new security blanket in JuJu Smith-Schuster. Maybe we'll see him take a shot at DeVante Parker downfield, or Kendrick Bourne over the middle. Or maybe we'll get to see Mac out there with exciting undrafted rookies Demario Douglas and/or Kayshon Boutte.
Or we'll see none of that because the offensive line is a mess.
The offensive line was a mess last Thursday against the Texans. It's still down a pair of starters in Michael Onwenu (who remains on PUP) and Cole Strange, and although Trent Brown is at least putting in work now, it's likely still going to be a mess on Saturday night.
Even though there was no hitting quarterbacks this week, the Packers still took full advantage of New England's makeshift offensive line, which saw Brown at left tackle, Atonio Mafi at left guard, Andrews at center, Riley Reiff at right guard, and Sidy Sow at right tackle.
Against that group, the Green Bay pass rush was putting constant pressure on anyone playing QB for the Pats. With everyone fair game to hit come Saturday night, the Patriots offensive line is going to have to do a lot better.
A Zeke Appearance?
How about a look at the new guy? He's only been a Patriot for a few days, but Ezekiel Elliott knows how to run the ball so why not throw him out there to see what he's got left?
Elliott isn't the explosive rusher he once was and likely has only a few big plays left -- if any. But he could still be a valuable piece of the offense as a power back, a pass-blocker, and potentially even a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
And while his days of breaking off 40-yard runs may be behind him, the Pats may only need him to break off 3-5-yard runs at a time. As in 3-5 yards into the end zone, to help a team that was allergic to finding pay dirt in the red area last year.
While the Cowboys cut his usage way back last season, Elliott scored on eight of his 11 rushes from inside the 3-yard line in 2022. It's not very impressive, but the Patriots certainly could have used it last season.
Depth at Tight End
Mike Gesicki could help New England's red zone woes this season, but he won't be doing that Saturday night. He left practice last week with a dislocated shoulder so he won't be making an appearance in Green Bay, with the hopes that the offseason addition will be back for Week 1.
If it's a longer term injury for Gesicki, then that puts a lot of pressure on New England's tight end depth. Hunter Henry is still the top option at the position, but now the Pats need someone to fill in for Gesicki when they line up with two tight ends.
Matt Sokol and Anthony Firkser have gotten more opportunities in practice with Gesicki on the sideline, and one of them will have to step up Saturday night -- and potentially beyond.
We're becoming a little obsessed with the rookies on this roster and what they could be capable of. Christian Gonzalez wasn't tested much in his debut against the Texans (outside of a big shot he took on his first tackle attempt) but he also didn't do anything for us to lose faith in him.
Keion White really ramped up his hype train by spending much of his evening in the Houston backfield pestering whoever was at quarterback. Unfortunately he was dinged up in Thursday's practice and chances are we won't see him Saturday night.
But we should get our first look at versatile linebacker Marte Mapu, who shed the red non-contact jersey during this week's joint practices. He didn't play against the Texans, but was charting the team's defensive schemes from the sideline. That shows how much highly the Patriots think of the third-round pick out of Sacramento State.
Douglas and Boutte remain the most realistic options to make the team as offensive rookies, but quarterback/receiver Malik Cunningham stole the show by scoring the team's only touchdown in his lone drive against the Texans. The hype has only gone up with Cunningham starting to take some QB snaps in practice, though he only threw the ball a few times in that limited action. Maybe O'Brien will have a fresh set of plays drawn up for Cunningham to break free for more big runs out of the QB position.
Whatever the undrafted rookie does on Saturday, we'll be watching every second of it.
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