On Friday night, the Patriots will visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their third preseason game of the 2012 season, a contest that typically serves as a dress rehearsal for starters as the regular season draws closer.
It is also the second leg in the team's 10-day, three-game whirlwind tour leading up to the final roster cuts that will result in 32 more players being released. As is the case in any exhibition contest, every rep matters, as players who are on the bubble can help their candidacy and depth within positions can be affected by strong or weak performances.
With all this in mind, here are five storylines to monitor entering the action.
1. Start 'Em or Sit 'Em? The Patriots held 26 players out of Monday night's game against Philadelphia, including pivotal starters Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and a host of others. It seems more likely that the starters will see action this week, although exactly how much remains unclear.
It's not uncommon for teams to play their starters through three quarters during the third preseason game. Will Bill Belichick take that approach with his offensive and defensive stalwarts? Anything seems possible, and it would come as little surprise to see Belichick carefully monitor the reps of Brady and others, as he fully understands that having his top players in the best condition possible heading into the regular season is of ultimate importance.
2. Chance for secondary to showcase. In limited action during the preseason opener, the Patriots' secondary was solid against Drew Brees and the Saints. Top cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were held out against the Eagles, but may find themselves on the field quite a bit against the Bucs' improving passing attack.
This game represents an opportunity for the secondary as a whole to showcase its potential improvement after a down year in 2011. Vincent Jackson, who signed with Tampa Bay after several years with the Chargers, was excellent against the Patriots in a Week 2 contest last season, and provides a stiff test on Friday night.
The secondary, as well as the entire defense, looks to be coming together for New England, and Friday night is a chance to further prove itself.
3. Debut of Demps? It seems likely that Olympian Jeff Demps, a recent acquisition for the Patriots, will make his debut Friday night. Demps' world-class speed is well-documented, and he may be called upon to return kickoffs in his NFL debut. The Patriots have done little in the return game thus far in the preseason, and it was an area in 2011 that left much to be desired.
While keeping in mind that a return is not predicated upon the talents of just one player, make no mistake that Demps could bring a dynamic element to the Patriots' special teams with his blazing speed.
4. Conditioning. Belichick has alluded to the importance of conditioning, and few climates are better for putting a player to the test than the Tampa Bay area, where the heat and humidity can be excruciating.
The Patriots have also worked through a camp in which sun-soaked practices were a regularity. In fact, the team was not forced to move any of its workouts inside because of rain or thunder.
Daytime temperatures in Tampa Bay are forecast at around 90 degrees on Friday, and that heat will likely spill over into the game. If the starters play extended reps, we'll have a chance to evaluate their level of conditioning.
With a trip to Nashville for the season opener on the horizon, these details should not be overlooked.
5. Players of note. Preseason games are always important evaluative tools for individual players, and here are a few worth watching.
Offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer: Will either make his preseason debut? (We would expect at least Mankins to.) If so, how effectively can they regain their form and help the Patriots' offensive line jell after a couple of up-and-down performances already?
Defensive end Justin Francis: The undrafted rookie from Rutgers was an early bright spot in camp, and his ever-present motor continues to stand out. He could be toeing the line between becoming an active roster player or a practice squad member. If he sees the field against Tampa Bay's top offensive line and makes plays, he could cement a spot on the active list.
Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth: The Patriots could be without both Welker and Jabar Gaffney on Friday night, which may afford Stallworth plenty of reps. If he can make use of his speed in game action, he'd help state his case to earn a spot in this receiving corp.