by Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Correspondent
August 26, 2009

It’s been said that the third preseason game is the most important of them all. The starters stay in longer, the game plans are slightly less vanilla and with training camp over, the week’s preparations are a little more regular season-esque. The safe bet would be that Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and whomever is the front-runner to start at tailback and tight end when the Bills come to Foxboro for the first of the real games in a couple weeks will play most, if not all of, the first half, maybe even into the the third quarter, on Friday night against the Redskins at FedEx Field. The same goes for the defense, where the real intrigue lies.

Much will be made of how often the Pats are in the 4-3 alignment as opposed to their classic 3-4. Who will get the most time at cornerback and how will the revamped secondary look? How many reps will Derrick Burgess get and will any of them not be with him lined up down in a three-point stance rushing the passer? But to me, the most important question regarding this game, and potentially this season, is about the linebackers. A look at the current roster tells me that if there’s one area or group to worry about, it’s the defensive men in the middle.

For starters, things look OK. Jerod Mayo is a beast manning the inside as his Defensive Rookie of the Year award and team leading 139 tackles from last year will attest. One outside spot seems mostly safe, with Adalius Thomas returning from injury and hopefully showcasing the form he displayed prior to hitting IR last December. On the other side, Pierre Woods will get the first shot and while he is certainly no superstar, he showed some promise in an every down role before a jaw injury cost him the final three games of last year.

And after that? Anyone?

Burgess is listed as an outside backer on the official depth chart but it remains to be seen how much time he’ll actually spend standing up versus being a down lineman when the Pats go to a 4-3. Eric Alexander is a star special teams guy who’s most famous moment playing the with regular defense remains getting burned to a crisp by Indy’s Dallas Clark during the Colts’ monster, second half comeback in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. Tully Banta-Cain had his moments during his previous tenure in Foxboro but was one of the bigger free agent busts of the last couple years with the 49ers and how much he has left now that he’s back where he started is a question mark. Gary Guyton hasn’t done much outside of being a special teamer and Detroit castoff Paris Lenon, while being one of the more experienced members of the group (he hasn’t missed a start since the 2005 season when he was playing for Green Bay), currently sits behind Alexander on the depth chart. Being let go by a team as woeful as the Lions, as Lenon was, doesn’t inspire too much faith either. Shawn Crable can’t stay healthy and when he is, on that seam route last week against Cincinnati when Bengals tight end Dan Coates ran unencumbered right down the middle of the field with Crable supposedly in coverage, he’s looked lost. A coupe of other names, Rob Ninkovich and Vinny Ciurciu, are long shots at best and of course, the all-everything Mike Vrabel is now elsewhere.

Which brings us to Tedy Bruschi, former conquering hero, face of the franchise, stalwart star. Bruschi has been a shadow of his former self for a couple of years now, routinely being blown off the ball by stronger, faster, younger opponents. Naturally, with Bruschi being an elder statesman, a link to the early days of the Patriots dynasty and a leader who has brought so, so much to the franchise over the years, it would be a great, inspiring story to see him contribute for one more season. But the reports out of Gillette regarding his potential role are sketchy at best. He hasn’t seen much time so far this preseason and when he has, it’s been with the second-teamers. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Bruschi doesn’t even make the team, a possibility that would be very sad but also probably the most realistic.

Last season, the Pats biggest weakness on defense was the secondary and right now, it looks like this year it will be the linebacking corps. An injury to Mayo, Thomas or even Woods would be crippling. And while the Rosevelt Colvins and Junior Seaus of the world may still be on stand-by, having to reach out to them again doesn’t feel like the most savory of options. By all accounts, the Patriots will resume their roles as one of the league’s alpha dogs this season, the return of Brady and the tremendous depth on offense being the keys. But there isn’t anywhere near that kind of depth in the middle of the other side of the ball and if anything is going to derail another Super Bowl run, that may just be it.