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Patriots - Panthers What To Watch For: How Will They Handle The Quarterbacks?

By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Places everyone, places! It's time to pull back the curtain on the "dress rehearsal" game of the preseason, the annual glimpse at the closest incarnation of the real Patriots that you will get before the start of the regular season.

Except, this week's Patriots still won't even be close to what you'll see in Week 1 at Arizona. Several starters won't see the field and Bill Belichick isn't game-planning for this game like he will for real games. But there will still be plenty to look for as the Patriots take the field at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. to face the Carolina Panthers. Mainly because they're facing the defending NFC champions and have an intriguing quarterback situation.

It's unclear whether Tom Brady will take any snaps with the Patriots, but he is making the flight with the team so you can reasonably assume he will get the start and at least a few series of work. You will definitely see plenty of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett once again. Both signal-callers will be behind an offensive line that is riddled with question marks and be playing without the Pats' top offensive weapons, but it will still be worth watching how they handle the Panthers' dangerous defensive front.

The fact that this game is on the road will also give you a different look at the Patriots than what you saw in the previous two preseason games, which were played in the comfy confines of Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defense will also have a big test with the Panthers offense and Cam Newton under center. That first handful of possessions will certainly be among the most entertaining football you'll see this month, so it's certainly worth tuning in.

Here's what you should watch for as the Patriots take on Carolina Friday night ...

How will they handle the quarterbacks?

It's become fairly obvious how badly Brady wants to play as much as possible, including the preseason. He said he wants to be out there Friday and only has so many more opportunities "in my life" to get reps, so it's clear that he's lobbying to get some snaps in the preseason before having to serve a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.

Seeing Brady play a little bit before his Week 5 return would be cool, but it's hard to find a good reason to put him back there with the Pats' battered offensive line and have him run the offense without Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman, other than his own peace of mind.

That brings us to Garoppolo, who will surely get the majority of the snaps as he gets ready for Week 1, which Bill Belichick has repeatedly said is the "priority" for the team at the position. Jimmy G. looked average in the first preseason game against the Saints, but showed marked improvement against the Bears in the second preseason game. This time, he gets his biggest test yet against the Panthers' tough, talented front-seven.

Brissett, meanwhile, will almost certainly get the majority of the snaps in the third and fourth quarter. He could also see the field in a simulated injury situation where he suddenly takes the field in the middle of a drive. He will be one injury away from being the Patriots' starter for the first four games of the season, so it can only do some good for the rookie to get a taste of what it would be like for that scenario to present itself.

Major test for Patriots offensive line

The Patriots had a shaky offensive line situation even before Sebastian Vollmer went down with a hip injury and other nagging ailments. Now, it's Marcus Cannon manning right tackle and the Patriots enter a veritable hornet's nest in Charlotta against the Panthers' front-seven, led by three-time First Team All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Cannon could be going up against former All-Pro defensive end Charles Johnson or emerging game-changer Kawann Short, while Nate Solder has appeared slow to get back into game shape since returning from his injury last season. Cannon is likely to be exploited and, whether he likes it or not, will have more eyes on him than most Patriots players Friday night.

The Saints and Bears do not boast nearly the defensive presence that the Panthers do, especially not up front, so Patriots quarterbacks figure to face more pressure than they've faced so far in the preseason. Kuechly will make life very difficult for Garoppolo to find open guys over the middle of the field. He has shown an ability to get rid of the ball quickly and effectively under pressure, but can he replicate his first two games against Carolina?

The Patriots will also give a glimpse at how effective they will be at running the ball this season. The Panthers also present a significant test for that and the team appears to lack depth at running back, but if the offensive line can't open running lanes or work together as a unit, they won't have much success on the ground.

Hitting the road

The Patriots were a decent road team overall in 2015, but played poorly at away stadiums down the stretch and the AFC Championship Game in Denver was a disaster for the offensive line that ultimately proved to be their downfall. Ideally, they get home field advantage throughout the playoffs in 2016, but they also need to be better on the road than they were last season to inspire more confidence in them as a Super Bowl contender.

Carolina presents plenty of tests on the field itself, but their stadium will also be a hostile environment for the Patriots and a decent simulation of their toughest road games. They have some challenging road contests on the docket in 2016, heading to Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Denver again, in addition to their division rivals who always give them a tough game in their own stadiums.

Garoppolo (and possibly Brady) and the offensive line will certainly have a harder time communicating with the loud Panthers home crowd screaming in their ears than they would at Gillette Stadium. How he performs with that added element against the best defense he's faced so far will be a strong indicator of where he is in his development and how he may perform in real game situations.

Containing Cam

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has had a strong preseason in his limited action so far in a "prove it" kind of season after the disappointing end to his MVP campaign in 2015. He is 13-of-18 with 198 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions with a 126.6 passer rating. Then again, it's the preseason. But then again, it's Cam Newton.

The Patriots had a hard time containing Newton on the edges the last time the Patriots and Panthers played each other, but that was in 2013 and the Patriots defense looks different and has better talent than that year, especially up front. While the Patriots front-seven will be undermanned, missing Jabaal Sheard, Shea McClellin and Rob Ninkovich, it will still be intriguing to see how they perform against Newton with who they have.

The Patriots have to face another game-changing dual-threat quarterback in the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, as well as QBs with similar size to Newton like the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. They also have to face teams with strong running back groups in the Steelers, Jets, and Rams. Their ability to contain players like Newton, and opponents' running games in general, will be crucial to their success on defense, and the Panthers will provide a decent litmus test for that.

Matt Dolloff is a writer for His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at

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