Plain and simple, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took it to the Patriots Friday night.
Bill Belichick and company will have few positives to draw from this performance. The offense was hot and cold with Tom Brady running for his life, the defense struggled at times against both the pass and run and even special teams units seemed outmatched by the Bucs.
One message rang clear tonight, if the Patriots want another trip to the Super Bowl, they still have plenty of work to do.
After beginning training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, left guard Logan Mankins returned to the starting lineup Friday night.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who also began on PUP, took part in warmups Friday night, but he did not start. This is a clear sign he is one step closer to taking the field again and replacing struggling second-year tackle Marcus Cannon.
Cannon got beaten early on by Michael Bennett of Tampa Bay, who then proceeded to drill Tom Brady and force the ball loose. The sooner Cannon can get out of the lineup, the better the team will be.
Protection issues were apparent often all night Friday. At this point Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia need to have a long discussion to figure out what can be done to help out this offensive line. Guard-on-hiatus Brian Waters and perhaps a veteran tackle like Chad Clifton could go along way to improving this unit and saving Tom Brady's season.
Protection problems aside, Tom Brady needs to get clicking with his his former Pro Bowl target Brandon Lloyd.
All signs were positive between Brady and Lloyd throughout training camp, but the two are failing to bring their connection to the game field thus far. There have been chances for the pair to capitalize on, but for one reason or another, they are not hooking up on these plays.
It seems like the timing between Brady and Lloyd is just a little bit off still, but that little bit is making a large difference.
After rejecting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week to sign with the New England Patriots, running back (and Olympic sprinter) Jeff Demps stepped onto the Bucs field to make his National Football League debut.
Demps returned a third-quarter kickoff 23 yards for his first touch in the NFL.
He took the field next to Tom Brady on the following drive, but he instantly was flagged for a false start as he took off towards the line before the ball was even snapped. Clearly Demps has a long way to go with getting comfortable in the Patriots' high-powered offense.
Demps finally had a carry in the fourth quarter where he looked very quick (surprise, surprise) getting to the sideline, but he took a big shot. He sprung up smiling after taking the hit, which is a great sign for a player who needs to bulk up back into football shape.
Demps sprung loose for a 29-yard rush later on the same drive, setting up a short touchdown pass from Ryan Mallett to rookie wide receiver Jeremy Ebert.
For good measure, Demps tacked on a speedy 29-yard yard punt return in the game's final minutes, but the play was called back due to a block in the back by Malcolm Williams.
Despite not having his best game Monday night against the Eagles, Stevan Ridley has turned in two impressive performances this preseason. At this point I am confident in saying Ridley is ready for his chance to be a featured back in the National Football League.
Ridley's burst is apparent and something the offense lacked when most handoffs were going to a slower BenJarvus "Law Firm" Green-Ellis the past two seasons.
Ridley finished the night with an impressive 87 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown, while also hauling in three passes for 17 yards.
What Ridley may lack at this point is short-yardage power, something the team needed when they went for a fourth and short Friday, and Ridley failed to convert.
Ryan Mallett took over the Patriots offense in the fourth quarter and led them down the field for two scoring drives that he capped with touchdown passes.
The second touchdown pass to wide receiver Jesse Holley was very impressive. On first and goal from the four-yard line, Mallett was under duress and broke free from a would-be tackle, bought himself time and found Holley in the back of the end zone in a tight window.
Mallett ended his night completing seven of 13 passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
Shane Vereen left the game after a first-quarter carry with a left leg injury Friday night and did not return.
After missing so much time in last year's training camp and becoming a non-factor throughout nearly his entire rookie campaign, Vereen could once again be on the sidelines for New England.
He has shown flashes this preseason, showing people why the Patriots chose to draft him in the second round. Vereen and Stevan Ridley were looking like a possible solid 1-2 punch, but any serious injury would open the door for a player like rookie Brandon Bolden to contribute early on in his rookie year.
Four days after snagging an interception to end the Eagles' final drive before the half, rookie safety Nate Ebner jumped on the field with the starters Friday night.
With Patrick Chung out of the lineup and Tavon Wilson playing as full-time safety, Ebner stole Wilson's role as the "money" weakside linebacker in the Patriots' sub-packages.
Ebner later swapped places with Wilson and received reps as a pure safety with the first-unit.
For a player like Ebner, who very well could have been undrafted out of Ohio State, to already be fighting for playing time on defense is amazing considering his rugby-heavy, football-light background.
Vincent Jackson abused the Patriots secondary Friday night. A former San Diego Charger who has given the team and cornerback Devin McCourty difficulties in the past, Jackson controlled the first drive against the Patriots' starting defense.
Given, the Patriots were missing starting safety Patrick Chung, but like Bill Belichick would say, it is what it is.
One problem again at times on Friday night was McCourty. For this team to take a step forward, McCourty must either play better or take a seat. Another season out of him like last year would be unacceptable.
One man who may help this secondary is rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, who sacked Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman on one play, but was active all night. Jones and any Patriot pass-rush could go a long way in protecting some bombs from completing on this defensive backfield.
Doug Martin was the Robin to Vincent Jackson's Batman early on for the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers rookie back pounded the Patriots top unit, and even with hard-nosed effort near the goal line by captain Jerod Mayo, Doug Martin could not be denied (as pictured above).
Martin ripped off chunks on a few carries and ended the night with 13 carries for 53 yards and a score.
The team dealt with the more powerful, less elusive LeGarrette Blount much better holding him to 22 yards on seven carries.
The run defense is obviously less worrisome than the pass coverage, but at times it does warrant monitoring.
After beginning training camp with most projecting him to start opposite Devin McCourty, cornerback Ras-I Dowling is now in a battle for a role on defense.
Dowling played into the fourth quarter with mostly backups Monday against the Eagles, and he surprisingly lost reps Friday night to the mostly unknown former Jet Marquice Cole. Dowling did see some first-team reps after the injury to Kyle Arrington, but the team is clearly trying to see what they have with other players at the position as well.
Between fellow second-year man Sterling Moore and Cole, Dowling does not appear to be a lock at this point to be one of the top three corners on the team.
Dowling may end up being a major contributor, but he will not be gifted a role by Bill Belichick. He needs to go out and grab it.