The New England Patriots are coming off of their ho-hum sixth Super Bowl championship and are getting set to begin their quest for a third championship in four years.
That journey will begin on Thursday night, when the Patriots take on the Detroit Lions in their preseason opener.
This year, New England has more holes on its roster than we are accustomed to seeing, but we know that somehow, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will make it work and have this team in championship contention.
Still, the Pats have some work to do, so here are three areas of focus for the club in their first preseason game:
3. Establishing a Pass Rush
The Patriots second-to-last in the NFL with just 30 sacks this past year, and during the offseason, they lost their best pass rusher in Trey Flowers. They replaced him with the older Michael Bennett, but New England’s pass rush is lacking.
The Pats managed to win a Super Bowl in spite of their difficulty getting to the quarterback this past season, but they can’t necessarily bank on doing that again.
Pressure on the quarterback will have to come from somewhere, whether that’s Bennett or youngsters like Deatrich Wise Jr. and Chase Winovich, the latter of which is a rookie.
Basically, the Patriots need to try and find ways to get to the quarterback early so it carries over into the regular season.
2. Finding Out What Damien Harris Has
New England used a third-round pick on Damien Harris back in April, and the Pats seem to have high hopes for him. Plus, with Sony Michel sidelined due to a knee issue, Harris will probably get a lot of action on Thursday evening.
While a healthy Michel will probably be the Patriots’ No. 1 back, he hasn’t really separated himself from the rest of the pack in spite of his impressive playoff run this past year, so Harris has a chance to work his way into the rotation during is rookie campaign.
That means that Harris will need to have a productive preseason in order to really gain the trust of Belichick and establish himself as a significant part of the ground game, and New England will likely want to find out what he has early as a result.
Expect the youngster to get plenty of touches.
1. Finding a Reliable No. 2 Receiver
We know that Julian Edelman will be the Patriots’ No. 1 wide receiver going into 2019, but who will step up in the No. 2 role? Rookie N’Keal Harry? Veteran Demaryius Thomas? Dontrelle Inman? Phillip Dorsett?
New England lost both Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan to free agency this offseason, and Josh Gordon is facing an indefinite suspension, so the Pats lost several key members of their receiving corps over the last few months.
Someone other than Edelman will have to step up and provide a dependable option in the passing game, especially considering that tight end Rob Gronkowski is also no longer with the club after retiring.
The thought here is that Harry will emerge as that guy, but if Thomas can bounce back from his torn Achilles (which is a heck of a task), he will also have a shot.