Patriots vs. Buccaneers: What New England Fans Should Watch For

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IAugust 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 27:  Marcus Cannon (R) #61 of the New England Patriots talks on the bench with Logan Mankins #70 against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on November 27, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The third preseason game is oftentimes seen as a dress rehearsal for the regular season, but that may not be the case for the New England Patriots in their preseason Week 3 showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Many of their regular starters were out for the previous game against the Eagles, and for those who didn't play, this is technically the second preseason game.

The game will still offer glimpses of what's to come in the regular season; so with that, let's take a look at some of the biggest things to watch for during the game.


Does the Offensive Line Play Better with Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer Back?

To say the Patriots tackles have had some rough outings might be being too kind. But the cavalry has officially been called in, and perhaps now we will see some stability on what was once a shaky offensive line.

For all the talk about left tackle Nate Solder's poor play in the first two preseason games, right tackle Marcus Cannon has actually been the worse of the two tackles. He belongs in a more developmental role for now, with technique issues having exposed him as a work in progress.

Vollmer comes back from another back injury, but he hasn't practiced yet. We'll be watching closely to see if he looks rusty, stiff or otherwise shaky in his first live action since Super Bowl XLVI.

It will be interesting to see if getting Mankins back helps Solder's play at all, but ideally, you'd like to be able to leave your franchise left tackle on an island against a team's best pass-rusher. According to the depth chart posted on the Buccaneers' official website, that pass-rusher will be the 6'3", 280-pound Adrian Clayborn.

He had a hard time dealing with the much smaller defensive ends of the Eagles (Trent Cole is 6'2", Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham are 6'1"), but Clayborn is a bit bigger at 6'3", 280 pounds.

He burst onto the scene as a pass-rusher in 2011. He graded out among the top 12 pass-rushers in the NFL in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, and generated 32 hurries and 10 hits to go with eight sacks. On average, he was getting into the backfield and disrupting 3.13 plays per game. Solder's going to have his hands full with Clayborn, a fellow 2011 first-round draft pick.


Tom Brady-Brandon Lloyd Connection

What exactly will wide receiver Brandon Lloyd bring to the Patriots offense? We don't know yet; we've only gotten to see a glimpse of the QB-WR connection in the team's first two preseason games. The two didn't hook up for a single reception against the Saints, and were kept out of Monday night's game against the Eagles. 

With the amount of pressure the offensive line gave up, it's a good thing Brady wasn't in there. 

But pressure or no, chances are, the two will be suited up and full-speed-ahead for Friday's game against the Bucs. 

The two were inches away from a pair of great plays against the Saints. They have commented in camp that their chemistry is a work in progress, but all signs on the practice field indicate that progress is being made quicker than they'll allow credit for.

Does that progress continue on the football field?


Who's Starting at Cornerback?

There are only so many words that can describe the Patriots defense last year, but there aren't enough stats. 

The defense as a whole came under fire last year, but especially the cornerbacks. They gave up 79 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which led the NFL last year.

Which players are charged with helping the secondary rebound after giving up the second-most pass yards in NFL history could be revealed on Friday night.

Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington got the start against the Saints in preseason Week 1. Cornerbacks Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling got the start last week, but Arrington and McCourty were both inactive

The starting combination will likely be McCourty and Arrington, but from there, the focus will shift to the performance of those two.

McCourty, in particular, was scrutinized for a dramatic dip in production from his 2010 to 2011 seasons. Whether it was technique issues or simply that he was exposed, he'll have his hands full against Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who caught a touchdown against McCourty and totaled 10 receptions for 172 yards and a pair of scores.

Granted, it won't be Philip Rivers throwing the ball, but with Jackson threatening the back end on every down, it may not matter.


Jeff Demps' Role

The moment you've all been waiting (a week) for is finally here. 

Unlike with a lot of track stars who take their speed to the football field, Jeff Demps already has a track record on the gridiron, having dominated in the SEC at running back for the Gators with a total of 2,951 yards from scrimmage on 424 collegiate touches (6.96 yards per touch).

The question is: How will Demps' speed be utilized by the Patriots? 

They'll likely try him out at multiple positions to find out what works best; he could take handoffs, catch passes out of the backfield or any number of other assignments.

He could even get opportunities to return kicks; the Patriots have lacked a dynamic presence in the return game and may want to give Demps a shot even though he has limited experience in that role (21 career kick returns, two career punt returns at Florida).

The Patriots have only had Demps in the fold and on the practice field for the past couple of days, so seeing him in real game situations will be an important next step. 


Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand.