FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots host the Carolina Panthers in preseason action Friday night, here are some key areas for the team based on what has unfolded in the first two games:
Conditioning and possibly playing into third quarter. The overall conditioning of the team has been a high priority for head coach Bill Belichick in training camp, with an eye toward what figures to be a sweltering Sept. 7 season opener in Miami (1 p.m. ET kickoff). Quarterback Tom Brady said Belichick has told the players to expect a heavy workload, which could mean playing into the third quarter, which is often the case in the third preseason game. It's all tied to conditioning.
Good test for run defense. One of the themes of the week has been how facing an athletic quarterback such as Cam Newton, and a downhill power running team, presents a nice contrast to the spread-it-out Philadelphia Eagles offense from last week. So it's more good work for the starting front seven in the 3-4 alignment, which was solid against the run last week against LeSean McCoy & Co. Our eyes will be on linebacker Jerod Mayo and if he plays for the first time this preseason.
Following up with Stevan Ridley. The four-year veteran played 16 snaps last Friday as the Patriots focused heavily on the run game. Ridley's final snap was ruled a fumble, which was a close play but nonetheless brought a hot-button topic -- Ridley's ball security -- back to the forefront. In a game in which the starters are expected to play extensively, how Ridley responds bears monitoring.
Competitions on interior of O-line. Center and right guard are the spots to continue to monitor, with Dan Connolly (center) and Josh Kline (right guard) looking like the front-runners at this point. But incumbent center Ryan Wendell is still in the mix, and the coaching staff has also taken a long look at first-year blocker Jordan Devey, who has played every snap this preseason. Four-year veteran Marcus Cannon is also a possibility at right guard, although our feeling is that he looks more comfortable at tackle.
Malcolm Butler and sustaining his play. The undrafted free-agent cornerback from West Alabama has been one of the surprise stories of training camp, as he's not only practiced well, but has shown up in games with ball disruption and strong coverage. Can he sustain it?