by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

Preseason games usually lack much significance, but 2010’s friendly contests mean more than before. With two dozen draft picks over the past two years and countless new players (and by countless, I mean like six), fans are watching these games with the attentiveness of an overcaffeinated Where’s Waldo? addict.

Last Thursday’s outscoring of Atlanta kept our tempered optimism moving. Going into Scrimmage Three (Thursday vs. the Rams), or what has traditionally been the last sighting of starters during the preseason, the Patriots still have a few things to get straight before the games count.

Can Maroney Flash Heisman Form?

Pay Full Price, Get Halfback: After BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Fred Taylor started at running back against the Saints and Falcons, respectively, Laurence Maroney expects to step onto the dance floor (so to speak). While Maroney has had his chances – what other Patriot gets five years to reach his potential? – let’s give him one more: if he carries the ball 10 times and gains 40 yards over the Rams, we promise to leave him alone. At least until week two of the regular season.

Why The Hurry? There’s No Rush: Though the score didn’t indicate it, the Falcons gobbled up yards like Jets coach Rex Ryan eats M&Ms (Seriously, if you enjoy watching runaway trains, check out “Hard Knocks.” You’re telling me Charlie Weis needed a gastric bypass and Ryan doesn’t?). Give QB Matt Ryan (noooo relation) credit, but New England needs a pass rush. Will Tully Banta-Cain play this week, or will Marques Murrell step up? How close is rookie Jermaine Cunningham to returning? And when will Derrick Burgess actually show this “improvement” we’ve all been reading about?

Swing Logan, Sweet Chariot: Left guard Dan Connolly has performed well in place of Logan Mankins, but with Nick Kaczur out for a long time – the man had back surgery, for the love of St. Pete! – this line looks about as healthy as Rex Ryan (sorry, had to). As the Patriots continue to play smaller defenses with four-man fronts, it becomes harder to predict how the big guys up front will execute against the apartment-sized defenders in the AFC East. If the Rams stop New England’s running game, then yikes.

Get More For Wes? We hope not. Although it made us happy to see Wes Welker back on the field, every time a defender got near him it felt like my innards were hosting a gymnastics meet. Maybe one series vs. St. Louis, maybe one catch or two, but save Welker for Week One. Let’s check out more of what receivers like Taylor Price and Brandon Tate can do. A repeat of Tate’s Pardon-Me-I-Have-A-First-Down-To-Make move where he shook four defensive backs wouldn’t hurt.

All Aboard The D-Line: Okay, Vince Wilfork mans the middle and Gerard Warren has taken Ty Warren’s spot at left end. Mike Wright has started at right end, giving up too much yardage on the ground. Last week second-year player/conditioning phobe Ron Brace did solid work on the D-line, albeit against Atlanta’s B team. Time to see if the heftier Brace, Damione Lewis and rookie Brandon Deaderick can take reps against the starters.

I Get No Kick From Sham Games: No, these preseason scrimmages don’t count, but it still frays one’s nerves when Stephen Gostkowski misses a field goal attempt. This shank got overlooked due to a roughing-the-kicker penalty against Atlanta that featured less contact than my first date, but it still warranted concern. We’ll look for the Ghostkicker to have more success at Foxboro this week.

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