By Paul Dottino

EAST RUTHERFORD – Yes, Eli Manning will return to the lineup – and he’s made it clear he’d like to stay in the game as long as possible.

And yes, coach Tom Coughlin will stick to the traditional plan of using the third preseason game as a dress rehearsal, allowing his starters – the healthy ones — to play at least a half Saturday in Baltimore. But don’t expect Manning to go much beyond that point.

Manning has been practicing with a different helmet/tighter chin strap since Wednesday in order to prevent damage to the forehead gash he suffered against the Jets in the preseason opener. Ultimately, the Giants won’t know if the new helmet is effective until he takes a hit. Regardless, you will see plenty of Rhett Bomar in the second half as he attempts to impress the coaches with something more than his grit and toughness.

So here are the three important things to watch in the Giants’ third preseason game:

1 – The quarterbacks. Manning would like to refine his timing with the receivers, considering they’ve played less than a half together this summer. The coaches have seen enough of Bomar to be intrigued with his potential as a backup, but his passes have been too inconsistent to inspire a lot of confidence to this point. He needs a strong performance to enhance the Giants’ belief that he can move up into to the No. 2 spot in the short term while veteran Jim Sorgi rehabs his shoulder. Sorgi appears concerned about his hold on the backup job. He hasn’t played since the Jets game, although he plans to practice Monday.

2 –  The offensive line. The Giants only can hope that Pro Bowl center Shaun O’Hara’s chronically swollen ankle/tendinitis does not flare up during the regular season. For now, he’s in a boot and likely to miss the final two preseason games. Veteran left guard Rich Seubert (broken left hand) will play center while making his summer debut. David Diehl gets to move back to his preferred left tackle spot after two games at left guard. Right guard Chris Snee (leg), right tackle Kareem McKenzie, and left guard Guy Whimper also will start. Former Eagles Pro-Bowl guard Shawn Andrews has been practicing at both spots on the left side, although it’s very possible he’ll be challenging for the left guard spot before long.

3 – MLB Jonathan Goff and OLB Keith Bulluck. Coughlin says he wants to get the best 11 defensive players on the field, even if it means he’s got to do some shuffling. Goff’s clearly more developed than OLB Clint Sintim. So the Giants have slid Bulluck into a one-sided competition with Sintim and allowed Goff to man the middle. Goff is being afforded every opportunity to seize the starting MLB spot, but what does he do with it? Coughlin has given Goff good reviews for making the right reads – but Goff doesn’t finish plays with consistency. Bulluck’s only obstacle is the medical staff’s insistence that he be brought along slowly following last December’s knee surgery – he’ll see limited action again.

Finally, we’ll sneak in one more item – Kenny Phillips (knee) insists he’s ready to play a full game, but the medical staff will continue restricting him. He really hasn’t been tested during this preseason.

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