Patriots-Rams: 10 things to watch

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots host the St. Louis Rams on Thursday in preseason action, the club is expected to be without some key players.

Receiver Julian Edelman, tight end Aaron Hernandez and outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham are among those unlikely to suit up based on their lack of participation in practice the last two days.

With that in mind, here are 10 things worthy of monitoring from a Patriots perspective:

1. Banta-Cain, Burgess and the pass rush. This game should be a good measure of the Patriots' ability to generate pressure with a standard four-man rush, specifically from the outside linebacker position. Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess should start, providing the first look at the likely top combination on the edges. The Rams had protection issues in their first preseason game -- they have two young tackles in Jason Smith (right) and Rodger Saffold (left) -- and are starting a rookie quarterback in Sam Bradford.

2. Laurence Maroney's place on the depth chart. After dressing but not taking a snap last week, the fifth-year running back would seemingly be in line to see his most extended work as part of the rotation the coaching staff has adopted this preseason. Maroney has played just 12 snaps this preseason. If he doesn't get the chance to prove himself Thursday night, it could be viewed as a sign of him slipping behind Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and perhaps BenJarvus Green-Ellis in their competition.

3. Run-defense gets a good test. They don't get much tougher than Rams running back Stephen Jackson, and so the Patriots' revamped front seven in the 3-4 alignment -- linemen Gerard Warren, Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright, and linebackers Derrick Burgess, Tully Banta-Cain, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes -- will be tested with their "fits" in the running game. Overall, the Patriots have checked out fairly well in this area the first two games.

4. Rotation at inside linebacker. While 2009 starter Gary Guyton returned to practice this week and should play, it looks like rookie Brandon Spikes will still start next to Jerod Mayo. Both could be tested in pass coverage against Jackson, who is also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Overall, this will be the first glimpse of how the Patriots might rotate their top three inside linebackers, while also seeing where 2009 third-round pick Tyrone McKenzie, rookie free agent Dane Fletcher and second-year player Thomas Williams potentially fit into the mix.

5. New look of the second-unit offensive line. The reserves on the offensive line struggled last week against the Falcons, which probably sparked the team's trade for Quinn Ojinnaka. Look for Ojinnaka to get his initial work at right tackle as the offensive line is an area the Patriots have some tough roster decisions to make when balancing present needs and future development of young linemen.

6. Increased workload for top players & coaches. In recent years, Bill Belichick has used the third preseason game as a chance to acclimate his top players to playing into the third quarter, so they get a feel for going into the locker room and digesting halftime adjustments. This is important for coaches, too.

7. Wes Welker's playing time. The recovering receiver played just one series last week, and was on the field for just six snaps. He figures to build on that this week, and every additional step he takes leading into the Sept. 12 season-opener against the Bengals is important.

8. Cornerbacks with Leigh Bodden's return. The eight-year veteran is healthy again, although he probably won't start as he is eased back into the mix after missing time with a knee injury. So rookie Devin McCourty (left) and second-year player Darius Butler (right) should once again start, and just as important will be who lines up in the slot against the slippery-quick Danny Amendola.

9. Taylor Price's progress and receiver depth chart. The 2010 third-round draft choice should get bumped one rung up the depth chart with Edelman not expected to suit up. That means he could find himself in the huddle with Tom Brady at times, providing an opportunity to evaluate his progress against top competition. Price has played 62 snaps this preseason with one catch for seven yards.

10. Coverage units on special teams. This is where players on the bubble can help themselves, and the Rams have some playmaking ability in this area. Who is on these units, and who is not, could provide some answers on some roster battles.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.