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Tim O’Sullivan: Patriots rookies face stern test in third preseason game

New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

There was supposed to be a learning curve for the Patriots passing attack this season, or at least a few growing pains. But there have been no hiccups or glitches for Tom Brady during the first two exhibition games. Heck, there have barely been any incompletions.

Despite playing without his top five pass catchers from last year, Brady is 18-for-20 for 172 yards and two touchdowns during his preseason playing time. He’s led the first string to three touchdowns during the four drives he’s been on the field, which amounted to basically two quarters of action.

That’s not much of a sample size, but so far so absurdly good for the re-tooled passing game. That will all be put to a sterner test tonight in Detroit, however. Not because the Lions have looked good in the preseason (they haven’t), but because this is the third preseason game, the one where teams actually game plan, at least a little, and the starters, usually, play at least a half.

The final preseason game is used to make the final roster decisions; the third one is the dress rehearsal for the real deal.

“Offensive football is

always about 11 guys being on the same page. We’ve done a decent job of that the first two weeks in the preseason and those are good test runs for us,” Brady said during his weekly media session on Monday. “And we have another one. It’s all buildup for one thing, and that’s the opener. This week it’s Detroit and we’re going to try to see if we can work hard to be on the same page so we can go out and produce against Detroit.”

The players who need to work the hardest to get on that page are the rookies who want to be on the other end of Brady’s passes – receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, and tight end Zach Sudfeld – and they know it.

“To get on the same page as a great quarterback (like) him is difficult, he’s definitely demanding, so we just got to go out there and work and improve every day,” Dobson said after Tuesday’s practice.

“I’ve been pretty busy in the facility just trying to focus on getting better,” Sudfeld said. “There’s so many things I have to improve on. I’m just a rookie and I have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be. So it’s a long road ahead, but I look forward to doing it and it’s been good so far.”

Those rookie pass catchers have impressed so far, especially Thompkins (five catches, 26 yards) and Sudfeld (three catches, 54 yards, one touchdown). But it will be intriguing to see how they all react tonight to the increased intensity.

Will they make the correct adjustments to Detroit’s blitzes, which are likely to be more disguised and frequent than what the rookies have seen so far? Will they be able to keep up with their own game plan and assignments, which will probably be more involved and complex than they were in the first two weeks? Will they be in sync with Brady if he gets flushed from the pocket by the Lions formidable front four? And can they answer all those questions more than once?

“It’s more of the consistency and the dependability. Anybody can go out and make one good play, but if you go out and make a bad play after that, I mean you can’t win football games that way,” Brady said. “You’ve got to do it day in and day out, week in week out, and that’s how you get to be a good team.”

Brady has been a role model of consistency for the young guys so far, and they’ll certainly try to follow that example. But they also have one another to lean on as they go through this learning process.

“Coming in with Josh and Kenbrell, they’re going through the same exact thing as I am, so we can definitely relate when it comes to things like that,” Dobson said.

Chances are good they will all get plenty of time to go through even more things against the Lions. Danny Amendola, who seems on his way to becoming Brady’s favorite receiver, has been nursing an injury this week in practice and isn’t expected to play, which will open up more time for the rookies. It also looks like they’ll get some extra time to relate to Brady, who may be on the field for the better part of three quarters.

“I think there’s still a lot to be said for playing a game prior to the start of the regular season where the players play, come in at halftime, go back out and play again if that’s possible,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t think it’s like an absolute must but I think it’s a good experience if they can experience it.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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