Key areas of interest for Pats

The Patriots return to the practice field on Sunday for the first time since their preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night. As was to be expected, there was a sampling of ups and downs for the team, including bright spots in Chandler Jones, Shane Vereen and interceptions from each of the team's starting safeties.

But Thursday is now in the past, and the Philadelphia Eagles will be headed to town in a week for a Monday Night Football showdown at Gillette Stadium.

Before then, the Patriots have a week's worth of preparation and practice time, and one of the final stretches in which they will have time to dedicate to both game preparation and normal practice routines (the team will head to Tampa Bay for a short week after Philadelphia before a final week in advance of the preseason finale against the Giants).

With that in mind, building off of what we saw in Thursday night's game, here's a look at areas of interest leading into the week.

1. The running back competition continues. No new bodies have been added, but the running back competition became even more interesting after Vereen, the final back to receive a carry on Thursday night, dashed to a game-high 64 yards on 11 impressive carries. He showed good vision, agility and made tacklers miss in the hole, and reminded fans of the promise he displayed during his college career. Can Vereen use Thursday as a steppingstone to catapult up the running back depth chart, and perhaps challenge Stevan Ridley -- who looks like the current starter and also was solid on Thursday -- for primary ballcarrier duties?

2. Offensive line carousel. There were some shaky moments for the Patriots' offensive line on Thursday night, and how the depth chart and line combinations evolve over the next week are worth noting. This group is difficult to accurately gauge in that should Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, and Brian Waters return to the lineup, the starting unit would be comprised of a formidable five-man tow. In the meantime, however, questions exist relating to the players who are currently being relied upon. Of particular note for this week: How will the team arrange the interior of its line, and will a player like Nick McDonald -- whose versatility shined on Thursday -- earn more snaps?

3. Domino effects from injuries. Like many teams at this juncture of the season, the Patriots are dealing with injuries that have led to depth chart shuffling and readjusting position groups. The primary wound on Thursday night was the loss of linebacker Dane Fletcher to a serious knee injury that could cost him his season. The team also entered the game with a number of injuries, and we'll continue to observe what ripple effects those ailments have on the lineup. Injuries are never a good thing for a team, but they do lead to opportunities for other players to step up in a teammate's absence. With Fletcher down, players like Jeff Tarpinian and Mike Rivera may be in line for additional reps.

4. Optimism for defense? Preseason or not, the Patriots defense allowed just six points on Thursday night. We often lose sight of team accomplishments during preseason, opting rather to focus our attention on individuals who stood out -- positively or negatively. But the Patriots defense showed some solid signs on Thursday night, including a standout effort from Chandler Jones, physical play from Dont'a Hightower, and a rock solid effort from captain Jerod Mayo. We won't know what this defense is truly capable of until the regular season commences, but we saw some positives on Thursday night that we'll continue to watch this week in practice.