5 things to watch, Patriots vs. Eagles

Greg A. Bedard’s five things to watch against the Eagles Monday night

1. STERN TEST: We don’t know what the Patriots’ plan is for the starters, but with three games in 10 days you would figure they put a lot of effort into this one and then dial it back before a final tuneup against the Giants. That’s what the Eagles will do. Coach Andy Reid said his starters will play the first three quarters with modifications. The only significant starter not playing is defensive end Jason Babin. So the Patriots will get to measure themselves in this one.

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2. TACKLE IMPROVEMENT: Tackles Nate Solder (left) and Marcus Cannon (right) had rough outings against the Saints, and they need to show improvement after a week of tough practices. Cannon, who gave up six quarterback pressures against the Saints, has the most to prove. With Sebastian Vollmer set to return, the Patriots need to determine if Cannon is capable of being the swing tackle on game day. There’s still some question about whether Cannon can even play tackle. He has all the physical tools to do so. Solder is fine. He just needs to keep working on his technique.

3. HOLD THE EDGE: We’ll get to see exactly how solid the Patriots’ ends are because the Eagles will really test the edges with quarterback Michael Vick, running backs LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, and receiver DeSean Jackson running reverses. Can Rob Ninkovich really handle left end, which is the strong side of a rushing offense? Can Chandler Jones rush the passer if he’s worried about not losing containment? Jones really shouldn’t have much trouble against two inferior left tackles in King Dunlap and Demetress Bell. Overall, the Eagles’ line is lacking.

4. HOW’S THE COVERAGE: The rebuilt Patriots defense got off to a good start last week by covering well against a Saints team that was missing some weapons. We’ll get a better barometer of the progress against the Eagles, who love to run crossing patterns and press the edges. The Patriots will have to cover and communicate well not to be exposed like last season.

5. MORE FROM HIGHTOWER: The season-ending knee injury to Dane Fletcher will likely keep Dont’a Hightower moving between his starting strong-side spot and middle linebacker. Hightower played all three spots against the Saints and had to think through a lot of things. This should be the final game in which Hightower is asked to do everything. Soon it will be time to get him ready for the season in one spot.