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Reality check

It's still preseason, but third game should be meaningful for Patriots

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By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The third preseason game gets all the credit for being the one that counts. It’s the game that shows a coach whether his players are understanding the plays. Or exposes players who need more conditioning.

The third preseason game will mean even a little bit more for the Patriots. When they face the Lions Saturday night, they can test their offensive line against a hefty group of defensive linemen and see if another batch of players is healthy enough to return to game action.

The evaluation period is important, as teams must cut rosters from 90 players to 80 by 4 p.m. Aug. 30.

For the Patriots, the offensive line continues to work with rookie Nate Solder and the defensive line has yet to have Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth in the mix, although both returned to practice this week.

“Every game presents challenges and opportunities and gives our team a chance to go out there and perform against another team and evaluate,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “Each team is different, each matchup is different. So absolutely, it’s a great opportunity to go out and face an explosive team like Detroit.

“Offensively, they do a lot of things. Defensively, they’ve got a good front. They’ve kind of revamped their linebacker group. Obviously they’ve got a very good defensive scheme and coach with Gunther [Cunningham] and Jim Schwartz.’’

Ellis said his first padded practices have gone as expected, but he doesn’t know if he will be in the lineup Saturday. He has been rehabbing from offseason hip surgery, and as an NFL veteran, he knows the third preseason game can be a marker for players.

“I think each game is different, but the third game I think is about how good of shape you’re in,’’ Ellis said. “Just being able to play through a little bit longer in games, than you normally have coming out at the half. Mainly how the system operates offense and defense, it’s just getting your timing and communication and some live reps is important.’’

Another player who returned to practice this week was rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who has been out for weeks. For players like him who are looking for game reps, the chances are limited. There are two games remaining in the preseason.

“Guys that have missed time have some catching up to do,’’ Belichick said. “It’s good to see every player out there. It’s good to see every player that has missed time come back and rejoin the team and be able to go out and practice and compete.

“It’s a positive step, and the competition on the field, that will be decided amongst the players.’’

With so much focus on the defense, the offensive line has quietly been moving along, as Matt Light continues to be eased into the rotation following his offseason shoulder surgery. Solder held up against Tampa Bay, and if he plays this week, he will see another challenge in a Lions defensive line that is led by Ndamukong Suh, last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“They’re very good across the front,’’ said Logan Mankins. “In our O-line room, we all know we need to make improvements and this will be a good week to see if we made any.’’

Ultimately, who gets the time in the final preseason games is anyone’s guess, Mankins said. So he doesn’t try to figure it out.

“Bill, he runs that around here,’’ Mankins said. “I doubt he’d give you guys any insight to what his plans are. We’re usually in the dark like you guys. Whatever he feels is best for the team, we will agree with that.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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