Buccaneers vs. Patriots: What to Watch for in Preseason Week 2

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Buccaneers vs. Patriots: What to Watch for in Preseason Week 2
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Will we see any Buccaneers defenders pushing Tom Brady (right) in Friday's preseason game?

To say it was an eventful week of joint practices between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots would be a gross understatement. 

Anytime we're talking about a scare over a possible knee injury to quarterback Tom Brady, "eventful" doesn't begin to explain it.

The sports betting world literally stopped.

Alas, the world keeps spinning with the game between the two teams scheduled for tonight. Here are some things we'll be watching closely:

 

Tom Brady in a game situation

After injuring his knee in Wednesday's practice with the Buccaneers, Brady made his return in the team's walkthrough on Thursday and looked no different throwing the ball. All eyes will be on his confidence level in stepping into throws and leading with the left leg that suffered a torn ACL in 2008. 

If Brady can play, there's no reason he shouldn't play, considering he is still working to build chemistry with his new receivers. Brady went 7-of-8 for 65 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots' first preseason game against the Eagles and could build off that solid start against the Buccaneers.

He is quickly building rapport with his receivers, though, and putting the brakes on that process right as it's gaining momentum could have disastrous effects. 

 

Rotation at strong safety

Safeties Duron Harmon, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory are all viable candidates to start next to free safety Devin McCourty in Week 1 of the regular season. Right now, it looks like Adrian Wilson is the front-runner for that job, but Harmon is making his case as the backup.

McCourty was in his red noncontact jersey this week in practice, so he may not suit up for Friday's game. Instead, look for the Patriots to put a bevy of different combinations out there to try to find the best mix in case of an emergency. 

As of yet, though, no one has made a strong case to be the starter. With a few more opportunities, the Patriots are hoping that happens soon.

 

Linebacker combinations and nickel substitutions

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
It's not clear why Brandon Spikes missed Tuesday's practice—he fully participated the day before and after—but what happened while he was gone may have given us a glimpse of what the future holds for the Patriots linebacking corps. It was Dont'a Hightower in the middle, Jerod Mayo on the weak side and Jamie Collins on the strong side. 

In the nickel package, it was Collins and Mayo side by side. Mayo and Spikes were the primary combination in nickel packages against the Eagles, so a deviation from that combination would be noteworthy.

Collins had a strong start to the preseason, lining up mainly as the strong-side linebacker but also playing on the weak side as well. 

 

Defensive tackle depth

Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are solid starters at defensive tackle, but the depth behind those two is limited. Second-year undrafted free-agent Marcus Forston is the top backup, and while he has potential to be a versatile player in their rotation, he played eight snaps in one career game—against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3 of the 2012 season.

The Patriots have been giving Marcus Benard a chance to earn snaps on the inside in Jermaine Cunningham's old role as the sub-package pass-rusher up the middle, but his natural position is defensive end.

Third- and fourth-string defensive tackles like Joe Vellano, Cory Grissom and Anthony Rashad White should get an extended look on Friday as the team attempts to create some depth at the position.

 

Cornerback rotation

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Marquice Cole (23) joined the Patriots from the Jets in 2012.

Cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and (surprise, surprise) Ras-I Dowling have not fully participated in practices in quite some time, which has led to Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole getting extra practice reps. That should carry over into the preseason game, with the two likely to get the start at cornerback.

Although Cole has had the stronger training camp, Ryan has been primarily an outside corner, and Cole has been spotted mainly in the slot.

Interestingly enough, both Cole and Ryan had an interception of Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman in Wednesday's practice. 

Dennard's roster spot is safe, along with cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, but there's plenty of room for debate on the final two spots. Unless Dowling can get back on the field, he may miss his chance to compete for one of them. 

   

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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