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5 things to watch: Lions vs. Patriots

The Detroit Lions have treated this week like it's the regular season in terms of their meeting schedule, practice times and media availability. It all leads up to tonight's third preseason game vs. New England, which is typically a regular season dress rehearsal of sorts.

We should see most of the starters play at least a half of football. So, what are five things I'll be looking out for tonight?

Defensive test

No offense to Scott Tolzien and Christian Hackenberg, but they're no Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback is expected to play tonight, and he brings with him one of the most explosive offenses in the game.

The 2016 Patriots won the Super Bowl and ranked fourth in passing offense despite missing their best threat, tight end Rob Gronkowski, for half of the season. They've also added receiver Brandin Cooks, and still employ Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola.

Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead are all a headache to defend out of the backfield.

Detroit's only allowed one touchdown in its first two preseason games, but tonight will be a much tougher test, and should tell us a lot about Detroit's younger and faster defense.

O-line continuity

The projected Week 1 starters upfront for the Lions have played a total of 18 snaps together this preseason. Tonight's contest should be their most extended work together yet.

Left tackle Greg Robinson, right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner are all new upfront, but all three are veteran players with extensive starting experience. It shouldn't take this group long to get on the same page.

New England's defense throws a lot of multiple looks at an offense. They ranked eighth in total defense last year and registered 34 sacks (16th). Patriots head coach Bill Belichik and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are two of the top defensive minds in the game. They'll have a plan for how they want to attack Detroit's offense.

How will Jim Bob Cooter and Co. counter?

How improved is this roster?

Sure, this is still the preseason, but these are the defending Super Bowl champions coming to Ford Field tonight, and a team that's been one of the NFL's best going on two decades now.

"Obviously, any time you get a chance to play against a team that hasn't lost very many games in the last century, or 10 years I should say, decade," head coach Jim Caldwell said. "Feels like a century, right? But decade I should say.

"They make very few mistakes and not only that, they are technically sound as they get in every single phase."

That means the Lions have to be equally as good in all three phases if they're going to compete tonight.

This should be a terrific opportunity for Lions general manager Bob Quinn and Caldwell to measure just exactly how this roster stands up against the best the NFL has to offer with less than three weeks to the start of the regular season.

It's also a good opportunity to see how far some of Detroit's younger players have developed and how much they are ready to contribute.

Extended look at Stafford

Stafford said this week that he's really tried to "uncover every stone" in an attempt to improve his game this offseason. He's played well so far in limited work in the preseason.

He's completed 77 percent of his passes with a touchdown and an interception that bounced off the hands of receiver Marvin Jones Jr. His 98.2 rating is respectable.

Stafford came to camp in the best shape of his career, and he's been very sharp all throughout camp. One goal he has for this season is to hit on more of the big plays he felt they let slip away in the pass game last year. Big plays down the field have been frequent in camp.

Stafford should get a lot of work against the Patriots. If he can guide the Lions on a couple first-half scoring drives, Lions fans should feel pretty good about where this offense stands to start the season. If he can't, there should equally be some concern.

Run game improvements

Only the Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans were stouter against the run last season than the Patriots (88.6 rushing yards allowed per game).

Cooter said this week that he made improving Detroit's 30th ranked rushing offense last season a big emphasis this offseason. Running back Ameer Abdullah has played well so far in the preseason, and he's expected to have all five starters on the offensive line plowing the way for him tonight.

Theo Riddick still hasn't ditched the red no-contact jersey at practice, so it's unlikely he plays. It will be hard to get a true gauge of the progress Cooter and the offense has made in the run game without both Abdullah and Riddick out there, but the goal should be an average yard per carry of 4.0. Can the Lions hit that mark? Can they be even better?

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