On football

It’s a night to see what’s developing

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / August 19, 2010

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ATLANTA — The Patriots will be able to look across the Georgia Dome field tonight and see a team that can relate to the challenges they face.

And it’s not just because the man running the football side for the Falcons, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, has deep ties to the New England organization.

Entering Week 2 of the preseason, the Patriots’ reliance on a large group of first- and second-year players remains an overriding story line. The Falcons handed the reins to their young players in a somewhat similar fashion in 2009, and the growing pains were felt, but the goal to create something lasting never changed.

“The dynamic of your team is always changing, whether it’s Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, Year 5, or Year 10 in your tenure,’’ said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “You have to be very forward-thinking and that’s one thing I think Thomas and his staff have a very good feel for.

“Not only what’s available right now, but they have the forward-thinking approach to look down a longer timeline than a coach.’’

So even though Randy Moss wowed the crowd at the teams’ joint practices Tuesday, and as Tom Brady elicited the customary shrieks from the masses, and as Wes Welker continued to impress by darting around the field just six months removed from knee reconstruction, the team’s callow crew of freshmen and sophomores figures to have a rather powerful impact on the 2010 season.

The Falcons learned a lot by throwing their young to the wolves last year. The Patriots are in the process of doing the same.

Here are some aspects of tonight’s game where all that figures in.

■The defensive line: Losing Ty Warren hurts enough as it is. From a depth perspective, it could be a killer for an overhauled defensive front. The Patriots like veteran additions Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis, but the fact is, they were available deep into the free agent market and at affordable rates for a reason.

Mike Wright is a solid if unspectacular piece, but there are plenty of ifs beyond that at positions where depth and an ability to rotate is vital.

That’s why the development of second-year players Ron Brace and Myron Pryor and the assimilation of rookies Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston is so important.

If those players can reach a level at which the coaches feel comfortable playing them, it will allow for a rotation that, in the long run, will make a big-timer like Vince Wilfork more effective.

■The receivers: The loss of Torry Holt underscores the importance of Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price in complementing Moss and Welker. There were encouraging signs last week, but this is a position where practice production often doesn’t translate to the field.

Once Welker suits up, it’ll be interesting to see how he and Edelman are used together, though that well could wait another week.

Either way, with Holt and David Patten out, the safety net for the young guys is gone. They will be counted on, for sure, both now and when the season starts. As such, the three aforementioned receivers are fighting for snaps, and how quickly they can get their timing down with Brady will play into that.

■The offensive line: While Dan Connolly, the replacement for Logan Mankins for now, played well last week, the line as a whole had a couple of breakdowns in the passing game. On the flip side, the run blocking of the first unit was better than expected, and both aspects are worth watching.

So how do the young guys fit into this one? Keep an eye on Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. The Patriots had plenty of success running behind him last week, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them make a habit of that.

■The secondary: Outside of a couple hiccups from Darius Butler, the group looked pretty good against the Saints, particular when you held the performance up against the disaster in the Superdome last November.

What the coaches would like to see from the group is more playmaking. Patrick Chung flashed some, particularly with a big stop on a third down, but overall the defensive backs seemed to be a step away too often.

Every play isn’t going to be a big one. But the defense needs more big plays in general, and since big-time investments have been made on the back end, it would make sense that they should start to come from the secondary.

■The pass rush: Jermaine Cunningham was left home, so he won’t be a factor. This isn’t just about the edge guys, though. It’s about how the defense is deployed on a grander scale to get after the quarterback.

The Patriots blitzed plenty last week, and if the defensive backs are as promising as the club has made them out to be, that could be a theme for a unit that’s bereft of elite pass rushers.

So watch Marques Murrell opposite Tully Banta-Cain. But also watch guys like Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, whether they’re used to push the pocket from the interior.

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