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Time is running out

Last real chance to judge Patriots

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / August 26, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots start the 2010 season in 17 days against the Bengals at Gillette Stadium. Tonight will likely be the last chance to see any semblance of the team that will take the field that afternoon.

It’s the third week of the preseason, and that means it’s dress rehearsal time. Next week, when the Patriots make their first of two September visits to the New Meadowlands Stadium and face the Giants, a good number of the prime-timers figure to be safely tucked away, with an eye toward Cincinnati.

So for the primary offensive and defensive units, both carrying a healthy sprinkling of first- and second-year players, the rebuilding Rams will provide the last, real chance to build timing and a sense of continuity.

Here are a few things the coaches will look for as the player evaluation and team-shaping processes remain in high gear:

1. Ability to absorb information — The Patriots haven’t planned for Sam Bradford or Steven Jackson or James Laurinaitis like they would during the regular season, but there were elements of that this week.

The young players’ ability to absorb that information and apply it to game situations is one thing the coaches will watch. Remember, because of the joint practices prior to preseason games with the Falcons and Saints, this is the first time these Patriots will face an opponent without seeing them in person first.

“That’s definitely part of the evaluation; what can they take from classroom or in the past two weeks, what can they take from practice and then apply to game situations,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “I think we have seen a lot of good examples of that, things that we’ve worked on in practice that then either the same or similar thing happened in the game and how we handled that, and that certainly gives you an indication of how, not only a player but also your whole team can adapt to those changes.’’

2. Playing into the second half — Belichick has typically played his starters into the second half of the third preseason game for a couple of reasons.

It’s simulating a regular-season halftime, and also conditioning players to come out of the locker room after some downtime and maintaining or turning momentum. So, the first series or two of the second half have some value from an evaluation standpoint.

“[You] go through that whole process of cooling down and getting re-warmed up, coming back, like it is during the regular season, [to] go through the halftime,’’ Belichick said. “We make adjustments all through the game, not just at halftime, but there is a little bit more time at halftime to work through some things.

“Even though some guys haven’t played in the second half, we still want all of our players to go through the whole 60-minute process regardless of which end of it they’re on — the front end or the back end or somewhere in between — to be ready to play for 60 minutes like we have to do every week in the regular season. We’ve tried to simulate that in the other two games. We’ll do that again this week.’’

3. Finding the right mix — During practice this week, Darius Butler moved inside to play slot cornerback at times, with Leigh Bodden and Devin McCourty on the outside. And how that works isn’t always about how good each player is.

Another key is how pieces fit together, so the coaches might tinker with personnel groupings a bit more in this game. And that helps form individual roles.

“I think there are a lot of components to that and that’s part of what we’re evaluating,’’ Belichick said. “Part of it is which players have performed better but also how they have performed in units and how different guys work together and what kind of depth we have with a certain combination of players versus a different combination. There is a lot of play back and forth there.

“A lot of times you’re evaluating a tight end against a linebacker or a running back against a safety or a receiver against a [defensive back] when you start getting into special teams and how many skill players you can carry and so forth. It’s not always just within a particular position. You’ve got a lot of cross evaluations going on.’’

4. Timing and rhythm — The Patriots’ offense seemed to establish a good bit of this in Atlanta, and the defense forced a couple of field goal attempts after yielding yardage to the Falcons’ first-team offense.

Belichick said, “Sometimes as a team or as a unit, you either do it well or don’t do it well and that gives you an indication as a coach as to what kind of problem that is going to be moving forward.’’

At this point, the coaches have an idea of what the offense and defense do well, so fine-tuning and building confidence is important. That gives the players a comfort level going into the opener.

5. Staying healthy — As much as the above four things are important, nothing trumps having all hands on deck for the opener.

That means players who didn’t practice this week — such as Julian Edelman, Bret Lockett, Darnell Jenkins, Eric Alexander, Aaron Hernandez, and Jermaine Cunningham — are likely to sit out tonight’s game. And the priority for Wes Welker will remain ramping him up for Sept. 12.

That, in fact, is the priority for everyone. And by the end of tonight’s game, we should have a better idea of how ready the Patriots are for Cincinnati and the rest of the games that count.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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