What to Look for in the New England Patriots' Matchup with Tampa Bay Bucs
The third preseason game is traditionally the dress rehearsal for the regular season, so this matchup will be of utmost importance to players hoping to make the team. The cuts have already begun, and with the maximum-roster limit being reduced to 75 next Monday, this could be the last chance for players to impress.
All things considered, this game should present a good indication of how the players have progressed in the system and how New England has developed as a team.
Here are some things to follow on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Progress of Brandon Lloyd in the Offense
Brandon Lloyd came to New England with big expectations, and judging from his play during camp, it certainly looks like he will live up to those expectations. However, practice is one thing, and we have yet to see Lloyd in extended game reps.
Playing just the opening few series against New Orleans, Lloyd only saw two targets and failed to record a reception in his limited time. With the starters expected to play well into the third quarter against the Bucs, the Patriots should finally be able to see how much progress Lloyd has made in this offense.
Touted as the final piece of the puzzle for the Pats offense, expect Brady to look for Lloyd early and often.
Who Gets the Call at Pass-Rusher?
After struggling for many years to find a good rotation of pass rushers, it seems like this year the Patriots have gotten themselves a good set of players.
With seven designated pass-rushers on the roster and likely only five roster spots available, Friday's game should illustrate who Belichick and Matt Patricia favor on the edge of the line.
With Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich the projected starters and with third-round pick Jake Bequette expected to make the roster, the final two spots will go down to the wire with Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis and Trevor Scott battling it out for them.
Cunningham and Scott seem to have the inside track to a roster spot, but anything is possible with Belichick at the helm.
Offensive Line Re-Shuffle
Far and away, the biggest problem for the Patriots going into the season has been the play of the offensive line.
With Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer missing the start of camp due to injury, and with Brian Waters failing to report to camp and Matt Light retiring, four of the five starters on the offensive line from the Super Bowl have yet to play a snap since that game.
With the current line in disarray and Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Dan Koppen all struggling mightily, the return of Mankins and Vollmer will be a great sight for Tom Brady and Pats fans.
Mankins is expected to return to the starting lineup, and Vollmer may play a series or two, and their return will solidify a struggling line.
SEC Linebacker Core
With the Patriots adding former Alabama linebacker Don’t’a Hightower alongside ex-Gator Brandon Spikes and ex-Volunteer Jerod Mayo, the three have formed an All-SEC linebacker corps.
All three are expected to start against the Buccaneers, giving the Patriots three young, athletic and hungry playmakers who are all great leaders.
The addition of Hightower, who should start at strong-side linebacker, will move Mayo to the weak-side linebacker position, allowing him to make more plays on the quarterback and in coverage. Mayo has been criticized for his lack of game-changing plays, and the move to the weak side will finally allow him the freedom to make those plays.
These three young guys have the ability to form one of the truly elite linebacker corps in the NFL.
Will Jeff Demps Play?
Maybe the biggest news to come out of Foxborough over the last few days has been the Patriots surprise signing of Olympian Jeff Demps.
Demps, a former Florida standout who won a silver medal as part of the United States Men’s 4x100m relay team, was signed to help out in the return game and give the Patriots running game a home-run hitter.
Due to NFL rules, Demps was unable to play in the second preseason game against Philadelphia, but he should factor in this game primarily in the kickoff-return game.
Unlike most track stars, Demps actually has a good football background, and with Josh McDaniels bringing back the screen game, he could see several snaps as the Patriots third-down/screen back.
Form of Nate Ebner
Another big surprise in training camp and preseason has been the impressive form of Nate Ebner.
Ebner, a former rugby standout who was a walk-on at Ohio State, was drafted in the sixth round and was expected to be nothing more than a special-teams player.
However, over the past week or so, Ebner has gone from special teams player to playmaking safety, as he has picked off multiple passes in practice and another one against the Eagles.
Once considered a long shot to make the roster, Ebner almost seems guaranteed a spot, as he has demonstrated an amazing ability to pick up the defense while continuing to excel on special teams.
With the Patrick Chung likely to miss Friday night’s game, Ebner could be in line to see significant snaps at strong safety.
Will the Patriots Continue to Feature a Fullback?
A big part of New England’s offense during the preseason so far has been the use of a fullback. With the Patriots running out several formations featuring multiple backs, the fullback has been an integral part of the offense.
However, with the signing of Jeff Demps along with injuries to offseason-signing Spencer Larsen, the Patriots don't have a fullback on the team who has a chance at making the squad.
With so many other skill players available and roster spots needed, the use of a fullback may need to be put on the shelf for the time being.
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