Thursday night should be Tom Brady’s night. That’s the plan, at least, according to him.
That’s not to say he’ll have the spotlight all to himself against the Eagles, or that that’s what he wants. But if he plays at all, there will be boatloads of attention paid to every snap he receives. They’ll be his first plays he gets against another opponent since Super Bowl LII, and they’ll just so happen to come against the team that beat him back in February.
We went over the various aspects of Brady’s night we’ll be watching closely here, if Bill Belichick decides he wants Brady to play at all. But we can’t train our focus on No. 12 in blue all night, and we know you won’t either. So here are five more storylines — non-Brady storylines — to track when the Patriots host the Eagles at Gillette Stadium.
DECKER CATCHING ON?
Eric Decker had one of the worst starts to a practice of any Patriots receiver this summer just a few days ago. He pushed off in a one-on-one drill. He dropped a pass in a one-on-one drill. Soon thereafter, he dropped two more passes when there wasn’t a defender in sight. Not what you’re looking for. Decker did, however, bounce back. And for him that was encouraging. Thursday will give the newest Patriots receiver another opportunity to show that he’s gaining in his understanding of the playbook. If that’s coming along, the fundamentals — like playing penalty-free and catching the football — should follow. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro at the moment, the Patriots may need to lean on Decker more than they would like. They’ll certainly give him some time to figure things out, but he’ll have to continue to show progress, as he did during that up-and-down (or down-and-up) session earlier in the week.
PATRIOTS HAVE THEIR (BIG) BACK?
There’s an opportunity here. The Patriots have gone without both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead for the last handful of practices, meaning there will be reps galore for the likes of Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Ralph Webb and Brandon Bolden. All four (plus James White) saw action offensively in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Of that group, I think the most fascinating battle is between Gillislee and Hill. It was Hill who looked the strongest last week (51 yards on 11 carries), but he looked limited at times in practice this week. Is he dealing with something that could drop his snap count Thursday? Will that leave the door open for Gillislee, who had a ho-hum night (43 yards on 14 carries) last week? Hill looks like the more capable pass-catcher and the more kicking-game friendly (three first-team special teams units against Washington) back at the moment.
McCOURTY’S CHANCE TO SHINE?
The Patriots held Jason McCourty out of preseason game No. 1. He didn’t have much of an answer as to why that was the case, but he didn’t seem too concerned when he spoke to reporters on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, he was taking snaps with the first-team defense. Will that continue to be the case against the Eagles? McCourty could be in the running for the No. 2 corner role — Eric Rowe has held that down for most of camp — and might be able to use a strong performance against Philly as a springboard to greater consideration from the coaching staff to be a starter. In competitive periods Monday and Tuesday, McCourty looked good. He picked off a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Phillip Dorsett in one-on-ones and broke up another intended for Rob Gronkowski near the goal line. He said he’s been doing his best to teach the young corners he’s in competition with — JC Jackson, Keion Crossen and Ryan Lewis have all stood out at different points this summer — but Thursday could be his night.
BENTLEY SPEEDING TO A ROSTER SPOT?
Inside the Patriots facilities, Ja’Whaun Bentley has an argument as the most pleasantly surprising player of training camp. As a fifth-round pick, he wasn’t guaranteed a roster spot . . . but he now seems to have a jump on one. After a strong performance against Washington — where he showcased good instincts, an ability to relay play-calls, confident pre-snap communication, and competency in coverage — we landed him on our first 53-man roster projection and highlighted his skill set in our “Long Shot” series. A three-year captain at Purdue, Bentley isn’t a next-level athlete, but he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-defense voice on a unit that could be enticed to deploy its best communicator, Dont’a Hightower, on the edge. “Eager to learn,” Hightower said of Bentley this week. “He’s really become a sponge. First dude in the classroom, last one out, always asking questions. Nice-sized kid, good on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer.”
TIME TO TACKLE THE ISSUE AT HAND?
The Patriots had nine missed tackles against the Redskins last week, and two more were wiped out due to penalties. That kind of thing will drive a coaching staff nuts, but in some ways it’s to be expected this time of year. In camp, the Patriots almost never have any periods where players are tackled to the ground. (Goal-line run periods are probably the closest thing to “live” for Belichick’s club, and those 22-car pile-ups are rare.) The result is a team that’s not accustomed to tackling, trying to tackle in a preseason game that (for some) doesn’t really matter. It can get ugly out there, and Belichick knows it. “Running and tackling are two skills that you don’t work on from the end of the season until pretty much the first preseason game. You can do a little drill work, but it’s not quite the same. So, any player that’s involved in any of those, running or tackling, they might have done it before, but they haven’t done it recently, and they haven’t done it at the timing and speed that it occurs in the game. So, there’s an adjustment, a break-in period for all of us, and that’s part of what preseason games are for . . . We can improve our tackling. We can certainly improve our running and breaking tackles. So, that’s part of the process.”