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Patriots vs. Bucs: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for New England

Oliver ThomasContributor IJune 3, 2016

Patriots vs. Bucs: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for New England

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    The New England Patriots will hit the field for their third preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday, Aug. 24 at 7:30 P.M. EDT.

    After two days of joint practices, both squads have learned their opposition's strengths and weaknesses. And while this exhibition contest may not have the same luster of a regular-season matchup, there is still plenty to play for.

    Job opportunities, depth chart battles and intriguing matchups will be unfolding, all while the playbook undergoes further testing.

    Need any more reasons to tune in?

    Here are the things to keep an eye on when the Pats and Bucs go head to head under the lights of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

Coach Bill Belichick, Coach Greg Schiano and the Rutgers Connection

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    Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano are good friends, which makes their clash on Friday night all the more interesting.

    Both men have strong ties to Rutgers University. Belichick's oldest son, Stephen, was once a long snapper for the Scarlet Knights—where Schiano coached from 2001 until 2011.

    However, the connection runs deeper. The Patriots have used the New Jersey football program as a steady pipeline for NFL talent.

    Currently, there are three Rutgers products on New England's 90-man roster: cornerback Devin McCourty, defensive end Justin Francis and tight end Alex Silvestro.

    Clearly, the man known for sporting a cut-off hooded sweatshirt is also known for trusting Schiano's tutelage.

    When asked about his association with Rutgers alums last December, Belichick attributed it to the Buccaneers' new coach. According to MassLive.com's Nick Underhill, Belichick opined:

    Anytime he’s told me anything, it’s always been 100 percent accurate...I think a player that he’s familiar with, I would definitely want to take the opportunity to get his opinion and see what he thinks because of his experience and the amount of respect I have for him.

    This game also symbolizes a story that has come full circle. Stephen Belichick joined the Patriots coaching staff as an assistant in May, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. And after ex-Rutgers wide receiver Tiquan Underwood was released by the Patriots for a final time this offseason, he jumped on board with the Bucs.

    It will be fun to see the whole gang back together in a relatively friendly preseason environment. If Schiano's former players get the best of him, the reunion might be a little bittersweet.

Pats Defensive Line Facing Skilled Running Backs

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    New England's defensive front will have to stop the Buccaneers from hitting their stride in the running game.

    Tampa Bay's rushing attack boasts 2012 first-round draft pick Doug Martin, who's trying to seize the starting gig from bruising back LeGarette Blount.

    The thought of Blount playing against the Pats was thought to be doubtful due to a groin issue, reports Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune. Yet earlier this week, Blount returned to practice according to the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud, via Twitter:

     

     

    RB LeGarrette Blount returned to practice after suffering a left groin injury Friday. T Donald Penn and TE Luke Stocker also returned

    — Rick Stroud (@NFLSTROUD) August 20, 2012

     

    If Blount isn't completely healthy, the Pats could see a heavy dose of Boise State's Martin.

    On 14 preseason carries, Martin has totaled 44 yards and a touchdown. Week 3 of the preseason is usually when the top players get top playing time. It will be up to the Patriots to keep him from reaching paydirt in this matchup.

    Last season, the Patriots ranked 17th in rushing yards allowed, according to NFL.com. But with a new year comes a clean slate.

    If someone among the likes of Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick or Marcus Forston can close down the running lanes, their odds of making the 53-man roster could spike.

Cornerback Devin McCourty vs. Wide Receiver Vincent Jackson

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    New England cornerback Devin McCourty is no stranger to Tampa's No. 1 wideout Vincent Jackson.

    When the 6'5" Jackson was a member of the San Diego Chargers in 2011, he tortured McCourty in their Week 2 battle. By the time the Patriots pulled out a 35-21 victory, V-Jax had accumulated 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

    The majority of that damage was done against McCourty, who struggled to stay in check with the tall speedster.

    Now, the two will meet again. They may only line up across from one another for a few snaps, but their matchup is something worth keeping an eye on.

Left Tackle Nate Solder Against Tampa's Pass Rush

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    The Patriots have looked shaky this preseason when it comes to protecting the quarterback. But if one player went under the microscope, it would be left tackle Nate Solder.

    Solder's performance is more critical than most, as he is the sole proprietor of quarterback Tom Brady's blind side. It only takes one missed block to have New England's 2012 campaign go up in flames, so every down counts.

    The 2011 first-round selection needs a confidence boost before the regular season gets underway. Solder may have that opportunity against the Buccaneers' pass rush.

    Expect the 6'8", 320-pound blocker to see most of his action against Tampa's right defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn, another 2011 first-rounder, collected 42 tackles, three forced fumbles and 7.5 sacks last season.

    It won't be easy for Solder to keep Clayborn at bay, but he needs to show he can handle himself against a dangerous defensive end if he plans on being a full-time starter this year.

How Will Ryan Mallett Fare?

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    Ryan Mallett is at a pivotal point in his development. The 2011 third-round draft choice was shown the ropes of the NFL game last season, but it's now his time to put what he's learned to work.

    The Arkansas gunslinger has one of the strongest arms around, yet his accuracy is not where it needs to be.

    Can he make a second-year leap and become the quarterback of the future for New England? Or will he fall by the wayside like 2008 third-rounder Kevin O'Connell did?

    Right now, his future is very uncertain.

    This preseason, Mallett has thrown frozen ropes as well as 10-yard overthrows. He's flashed the talent that made him a desirable prospect last year, but his inconsistent performance has kept him from surpassing current No. 2 QB Brian Hoyer.

    Against the New Orleans Saints in the preseason opener, Mallet was 8-of-19 for 89 yards and an interception. But against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, Mallett started and looked more relaxed, completing 10-of-20 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.

    When under center versus the Buccaneers, Mallett will have another chance to impress the coaching staff. If he can showcase confidence under duress and pinpoint his passes, his arrow will be pointing upward.

Undrafted Tailback Brandon Bolden Looking to Secure Job

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    Running back Brandon Bolden is in good position to land a job on the Patriots' final roster; although, a solid game against the Buccaneers would certainly not hurt.

    Bolden has found some holes to run through this preseason. The 5'11", 220-pound rusher is an able pass-catcher and he's got deceptive speed off the edge as well.

    The combination of those skills makes the Ole Miss Rebel an undrafted free agent worth holding onto. If he can also find a niche on special teams, it won't be easy for the Patriots to let him go.

    One issue that puts Bolden at risk is the depth at halfback around him. Second-year backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are on the rise this preseason. Beyond those two 2011 draft picks, there's veteran flex-back Danny Woodhead and newly acquired track star Jeff Demps.

    Would New England consider keeping all five? It would be a difficult task because of the impending roster squeeze. More likely than not, something has to give.

    Look for Bolden to assert himself when given reps against Tampa Bay, but he'll have to share the load.

    Which begs the question, how will offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels facilitate the stable of backs in the team's third preseason game? The starters should get an extended look, so it will be vital for Bolden to capitalize when handed the ball.

    Keep a vigilant eye out for No. 38 versus the Bucs. Ultimately, the more Bolden can do, the more he will be used and the better off he will be.

Olympic Sprinter Jeff Demps Fighting for Role in Return Game

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    ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reports that the Patriots have reached a three-year deal with former Florida Gator running back and kick returner Jeff Demps.

    Demps was a sprinter at the University of Florida and was part of the United States' 4x100-meter relay team that won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

    By adding Demps, New England has found a way to re-establish their return game.

    According to NFLDraftScout.com, the 5'7", 191-pound blazer has been clocked running a 4.18 40-yard dash. Needless to say, the Patriots have a burner waiting in the wings.

    Against the Buccaneers, Demps may have a crack at returning kicks—an area where the Pats ranked 29th in the league last year, per NFL.com data.

    Could Demps provide the Patriots with the same big plays on special teams that Bethel Johnson and Brandon Tate once relished in? Could he eventually discover a specialty role within the offense?

    Regardless of whether or not Demps breaks off a stellar return against Tampa Bay, it will be an eye-opener to see a world-class sprinter on the football field.

Who Will Solidify the Inside Linebacker Spot in Place of Dane Fletcher?

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    During Week 1 of the NFL preseason, the Patriots lost serviceable inside linebacker Dane Fletcher for the rest of 2012.

    According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, New England's third-year backup linebacker tore his ACL against the Saints—an injury which leaves the team thin.

    In wake of that misfortune, the Pats must find an extra linebacker on the latter half of the depth chart to fill the void. It will be important to note who gets the most out of the reserve duties at middle linebacker versus the Buccaneers.

    Someone along the lines of Mike Rivera, Niko Koutouvides or Jeff Tarpinian will have to step into the center of the field and stand out while doing so.

Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth Still Battling at Wide Receiver

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    The wide receiver position is fully loaded for the Patriots. Yet with all the talent in the fold, there's bound to be some competition. Enter: Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth.

    This renowned battle between two over-30 route-runners should go down to the final preseason game. Both vets are striving towards the No. 4 wideout job, but merely a spot on the final roster would suffice.

    In July, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal offered his thoughts on the widely debated battle:

    Both players eye one last run after long careers. Both players know the Patriot Way. We suspect there is only room for one of them.

    While Branch has a strong rapport with Tom Brady and is a dependable possession target, he doesn't have the speed that Stallworth possesses. By the same token, Stallworth may be more of a deep-ball option, although Branch has the more reliable hands.

    Whoever excels more in the offense against the Buccaneers will gain a slight edge as the cut-down days draw near.

    Who will see more extended playing time and make the most of it? At this juncture, it's a crapshoot, but the picture will be clearer come Friday evening.

Will a Fullback Make a Push for the 53-Man Roster?

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    The Patriots have two fullbacks vying for—at best—one roster spot.

    Spencer Larsen and Eric Kettani are probably well aware of New England's lack of fullback use in 2011. Yet, that just gives them more motivation to deliver strong blocks, make the most out of limited touches and assist on the special teams units.

    Against Tampa Bay, the Patriots will have to put these two blocking backs to the test in order to make the decision an easier one.

    Larsen has been in the league for several seasons now and has notched some starts in the past. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kettani, who served in the Navy before re-joining the Pats.

    Will Larsen's time with the Denver Broncos under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels give him a leg up? Or could it be Kettani that makes a surge towards the final roster?

    The answer may be none of the above, as Larsen missed 12 training camp practices according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak, and Kettani still has practice squad eligibility, per Rotoworld.com.

    The fullback position won't be the most exciting facet to observe during of the Patriots-Bucs game, but it could be a sign of things to come for the Pats' offense this year.

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