This is the third preseason game and a huge step up in quality of competition. The Bucs started out with a team that will surely struggle this year, the Miami Dolphins then took a step up on toughness with the Tennessee Titans. Tonight is as good as it gets.
We know that too.
Head coach Greg Schiano will play his starters for the first half, at the least, and probably into the third quarter. None of New England's star players appeared on Monday against Philadelphia; the Buccaneer defense won't be that lucky tonight.
With that in mind, let's get right to what all of us are hoping to see tonight at Raymond James.
How will this unit hold up against one of the most powerful offenses in the NFL? The first unit was able to force a number of three-and-outs against the Titans but that was second-year quarterback Jake Locker under center. This is Tom Brady.
The defense continues to struggle with no quality depth on the line, but tonight the linebackers will have to really step up their game. This is more about the linebackers than it is the d-line.
It's all about Josh Freeman. He hasn't overly-impressed anyone in the first two games. "This will be a good night for him, Friday," Schiano said in his post-practice press conference Wednesday.
Freeman needs to find a rhythm. He needs to show some poise, be effective and throw the ball well. New England was next-to-last in defense in the NFL last year and that should help.
Time for Freeman to step up and do what he's supposed to do.
When the Buccaneers claimed Jordan Shipley off the waiver wire this week, they may have him in mind as the team's punt returner. It's been an area that Schiano hasn't been happy with in practice or the two previous preseason games.
Michael Smith looks like the man on the kickoff return unit. Can he keep up the good work? He'll get some chances because sad as it sounds, New England is going to score, which means they'll also have to kick off.
Pressure on Brady
There better be pressure on Brady otherwise it could be a long first half, and Schiano knows it. "You better be precise because he's (Brady) gonna be precise. You can't let him stand back there because at the end of the day, he's a first ballot Hall of Famer," he said on Wednesday.
Where's the depth?
Will any of the second- or third-team players on this squad really step up tonight? Jobs are on the line. The Bucs sent three packing on Thursday, waiving defensive end Quintin Anderson, wide receiver Armahd Lewis and tackle Mike VanDerMeulen. All were undrafted free agents. Twelve more will be gone by Monday then the final cuts will come on or before August 31.
Fewer mistakes and penalties
That one should be self-explanatory. Steady improvement all season is what this team needs. Biggest area of needed improvement is tackling.
Saved this one for last but it IS the most important factor. This team hasn't got much depth. Period.
Yes, this is just a "practice game," but there's a lot at stake for young men trying to play their way into the National Football League.
What happens tonight could go a long way for this young team's psyche. They could use a good showing to give them a little boost in confidence.
Washington is next up on Wednesday. Short week.
And the Carolina Panthers are a short 16 days away. Time flies when you have a lot of work to do.
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