FOXBORO — Bill Belichick bristled a bit earlier this week when someone referred to the third preseason game as a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season.
All of the games are important, the Patriots’ coach grunted.
It’s true, the third NFL preseason game has some increased importance in the process of team-building because of the growing practice around the league of keeping presumed starters out of the fourth exhibition contest and limiting their injury risk as the regular season nears.
But for players such as Patriots’ cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the opportunity to compete at a level close to the regular season is welcome.
“Obviously, we’re going to play more in this game. Everybody knows that,” Gilmore said Tuesday as he continued his preparation for Friday’s game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers (7:30 p.m.; Ch. 4). “It’s our first time on the road this year, so it’s going to be a little different. We had two home games, but we’re going to be going against a good team. The Panthers have good players, so it’s going to be a good test.”
Gilmore and most of the starters usually go for at least two quarters, and maybe well into the third, at this juncture of the preseason. As for the players farther down the depth chart, they’ll get at least a quarter of action — maybe some filtering into the game earlier because of positional need — and then their final test will come the following Thursday at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants.
Already, though, one can feel a subtle change in the atmosphere of the locker room.
The “training camp” portion of camp is over, the fans have all gone home, and the team is following a schedule more akin to the regular season.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘easier,’ I don’t want to use the word ‘easier,’ but it is definitely a lot … easier,” wide receiver Phillip Dorsett said, laughing. “It’s good, though. I’m just glad that we’re back on a regular-season routine and stuff like that. Tempo goes up, but at the end of the day, we get to focus on another team instead of on just our defense.”
Practices are on more restricted schedule, but that doesn’t mean that Belichick has turned things into a picnic.
“I think there’s always a sense of urgency in this locker room,” Dorsett said. “Bill does a great job of putting that on us. If the pressure’s up, you’ve got to be able to perform in pressure situations, and I think Bill does a good job of helping us by going out and making practice always really hard, so we keep that edge.”
Players also saw the first road trip of the preseason as a benefit because it will take them out of a comfort zone that has enveloped them with two previous games having been played at Gillette Stadium.
“It’s a lot different on the road,” safety Duron Harmon said. “The good thing for us is the communication is a little bit easier because when we’re out there against Carolina’s offense, the crowd is not as loud. So we’ll be able to call our communication from that standpoint.”
Harmon was one of the few players to use the dreaded R-word (rehearsal).
“This is an important game,” he said. “They’re going to be ready to go because this is a big rehearsal. You’ve got to use this game truly as a time to get prepared to familiarize yourself with what you’re going to do during the season.
“You don’t want your first week of preparation and studying film to be the first week (of the regular season),” he continued. “You want to be able to do it now. You want to take your preparation for the entire week and start doing it now so when you get in the flow of things for Game 1 of the regular season, you’ll have a good routine, you’ll have something that you can follow.”
Dorsett hopes to translate his preparation into a worthy performance Friday night.
“As a football player, you’ve got to be really detail-oriented,” he said. “Especially playing here … because if you’re not on track with the details, you’re not really going to be able to play. You’ve got to be in a certain spot at a certain time, (run) a certain route in a certain way, and you can’t really do your own thing.”
Dorsett had a strong training camp before tweaking an ankle prior to last week’s win over Philadelphia. He has just one catch for 4 yards in game action, and hopes to improve upon that.
“I think my comfort level has gotten a lot better,” he said. “But you can’t get complacent in this offense. Everything changes. There’s a lot thrown at you, and they expect the best from you. So if you don’t bring your best out there, something bad is going to happen.”
Gilmore, meanwhile, said he is far more in tune with the Patriots’ defensive system than he was in his first training camp after coming over from Buffalo last year. Friday’s game is another chance to continue that progress.
“Last year, I knew what I had to work on and I got better and better as the season went on,” he said. “This year, I just tried to come out and start fast, and do what I can to help the team win. One year here really helped me out a lot, but I’ve still got to go out there and prove myself every day, and work on my game and get better.”