Commentary

What to watch Thursday night

Updated: August 19, 2010, 10:54 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The New England Patriots visit the Atlanta Falcons in preseason action Thursday night, and here are 10 areas to monitor from a Patriots perspective:

1. Wes Welker's participation. The recovering receiver made the trip to Atlanta with the team, although that doesn't necessarily mean he will suit up for his first game action. One factor that the Patriots will consider is the artificial surface at the Georgia Dome, which was described by one coach as a harder surface than the field at Gillette Stadium. If Welker is close to playing, the safer decision would be to wait until Aug. 26 against the St. Louis Rams at home.

2. Ron Brace at left defensive end. Thin along the defensive line, the Patriots are hoping the 2009 second-round draft choice will make some big strides. Activated off the non-football injury list Sunday, Brace has been lining up as the backup left defensive end this week with veteran Damione Lewis remaining out of practice. If Brace shows signs of making a leap from his rookie season, it would help ease the loss of Ty Warren (season-ending hip surgery).

3. Tom Brady, offensive cohesion and the long ball. The combination of a solid penetrating Falcons defensive line, potential crowd noise that will further challenge the team's protection along the offensive line and the Patriots' work in practice on the long ball sets up the possibility for some preseason fireworks.

4. Fred Taylor and the running game. Last week, the Patriots featured BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the running game, as he played 21 of the game's first 27 snaps. Veteran Fred Taylor didn't play, so he figures to see his first action against the Falcons. Last year, the Patriots bullied the Falcons up front in the running game and they figure to try to do it again with their new heavy three-tight end package.

5. Bill Belichick's roster management. With 13 injured players not making the trip and the possibility of a few others not suiting up (e.g. linebacker Thomas Williams, Welker), the Patriots could dress 62-65 players for the game. That is extremely low for this time of year when teams have 80-man rosters, and when factoring in risk of injury and wear on key players, it figures to affect how Belichick approaches the game.

6. Devin McCourty's follow-up performance. The first-round draft choice had a solid debut, starting at left cornerback and coming up with two big kickoff returns against the Saints' reserves. He should start again, matching up at times against 6-foot, 212-pound Roddy White in a battle of two bigger, physical players.

7. Reserves making an impression on the offensive line. Perhaps the greatest area of concern for the Patriots is along the offensive line, particularly at the interior backup spots. As Belichick considers roster cuts and areas of surplus that might yield something in return in a trade, it is hard to imagine he won't be seeking offensive line help. It looked like the Falcons had their way with the Patriots' second-stringers in practice.

8. Derrick Burgess, outside linebackers and pass rush. The Patriots are thin at outside linebacker with Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham not making the trip. Veteran Derrick Burgess looks like he will be thrust into the mix at left outside linebacker, opposite Marques Murrell. The top backups are Pierre Woods and Rob Ninkovich. This area ties into one of the club's bigger weaknesses in 2009 -- the pass rush.

9. Tyrone McKenzie's time to shine. With inside linebackers Gary Guyton, Dane Fletcher and Thomas Williams unlikely to play, this opens the door for the 2009 third-round draft choice to see extended playing time after being on the field for just 20 snaps last week. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are the starters, but McKenzie projects as the top replacement who will play a lot.

10. Zoltan Mesko's punting. The fifth-round selection and first punter off the board in the NFL draft, he crushed it last week. He'll look to duplicate the performance in a dome setting.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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