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Puzzling over fit of these final pieces

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The exhibition season concluded last night with the Patriots’ 18-17 loss to the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium.

The only thing that matters is the Patriots came out ahead on the injury front. Running back Sammy Morris (head), punter Zoltan Mesko (hand), cornerback Kyle Arrington (groin), and safety Patrick Chung (knee) sustained minor injuries in the finale.

The Patriots had a lot of players miss time with injuries in the preseason, but they also emerged without a major injury to anyone on their two-deep depth chart. Contrast that to a year ago: The Patriots had to put two starters (cornerback Leigh Bodden and end Ty Warren) and two expected contributors (Brandon McGowan and Brett Lockett) on injured reserve.

So in the only category that matters, the preseason has been a resounding success for the Patriots - no matter what anybody wants to remember about the debacle in Detroit.

But there is still much work to do in the next 10 days before the Patriots open another season of great expectations in Miami.

Here are some of the areas coach Bill Belichick will be fine-tuning behind closed doors:

Star cornerback: Provided Bodden is starting opposite Devin McCourty, the competition is between Arrington, Darius Butler, and rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling. After missing all but one practice, the 33d overall pick finally saw the field last night. The vast potential that led the Patriots to draft the lanky cornerback out of Virginia, was definitely on display. Dowling is long, surprisingly quick, and, if he can avoid the injuries that he’s battled since high school, he could very well find his way into the lineup. You can see Bodden kick inside to play the slot position, with Dowling or Butler on the outside. Arrington is effective there when he has confidence, but it seems to take only one play for him to struggle.

Safety: Not sure what to make of Brandon Meriweather not getting any playing time in the first half, while Chung played next to Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown. You could understand wanting Barrett and Brown to get as many reps as possible, but why not rotate Chung and Meriweather? Is Meriweather on the way out? You wouldn’t think so after the release of James Sanders, but Belichick could do anything. League executives think Meriweather could bring a second- or third-round pick in a trade. Barrett did show promise in the back end. Brown struggled last night, both in coverage and against the run.

Defensive line rotation: The Patriots have all their big boys back as Albert Haynesworth, Mike Wright, and Shaun Ellis made their Patriots debuts. It was hard to gauge their readiness against the Giants’ backup line, but there is a lot of talent there. “Legit. No doubt,’’ said Giants quarterback David Carr about the Patriots’ line. “My guys were geared up and they were ready to go, but those guys? Another level.’’ Don’t worry about the Patriots getting gashed a bit by the run. They were very plain in their alignments - wide and even splits - and will not be that way in the regular season. “That was all by design,’’ said Patriots end Andre Carter. “You don’t want to show anything in these games.’’

Right guard: Starter Dan Connolly was seen after the game walking around without a limp nor any protective devices on his right leg. He doesn’t appear to be far off. Still, you might think the Patriots will be on the lookout to acquire for more depth at guard. Ryan Wendell, the Patriots’ best interior backup, has been hurt. Rich Ohrnberger is serviceable in spot play, but it would be tough to count on him if any of the Patriots’ three starters on the interior line were out for an extended period.

Chad Ochocinco: His assimilation into the Patriots’ offense has taken longer than anyone anticipated. But it’s no need to panic. This offense still averaged 4.8 points per game more than any other team without Ochocinco contributing. They might have to rethink their plan for him to be the No. 2 receiver to Wes Welker to start the season - perhaps add some tailored packages for him in the early going - but as long as Ochocinco can fit the precision of this offense coming out of the bye week, he is worth the investment.

Defense: As much promise as this group shows, several starters - Haynesworth, Ellis, Bodden, and Brandon Spikes - have not had a chance to practice with the rest of the starters because of injuries. For this unit to be all that it can be, the players are going to need a lot of reps to work on timing and get familiar with each other. You can bet Belichick will be doing that in the next 10 days.

Along with figuring out the rest of the puzzle pieces.

Play time is over. Game time is almost here.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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