We have finally reached the point of the preseason game that matters to most football fans. On Friday night, the Patriots will play their “dress rehearsal” game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was disappointing for Patriots’ fans to not see many of the stars against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday, but it was also impressive to see the first team defense knock Michael Vick out of the game. Also, for the most part, they kept the Eagles off the scoreboard. This is a re-match of the preseason game from last year where the Patriots won 31-14. However, this is a new Tampa Bay Bucs team.
The Buccaneers made some interesting moves in the offseason. They spent the cash by signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson from the Chargers and offensive guard Carl Nicks from the New Orleans Saints. They also made a change at head coach by bringing in Rutgers’ head coach Greg Schiano to toughen up the defense. The key for their success this year will be if Josh Freeman has a great season for Tampa in his third year at quarterback.
Here are some keys for this dress rehearsal in Tampa Bay:
1. Who’s Snapping To Brady? The offensive line has been a major concern for the Patriots in terms of depth so far in the preseason. Sebastian Vollmer is practicing in full pads at right tackle and Logan Mankins has made a remarkable recovery just to get on the practice field. The key position that quarterback Tom Brady has to worry about him is who is giving him the football at center.
The Patriots tried four guys at center in Monday’s loss to the Eagles, including starting the game with Rian Windell. On the depth chart, Dan Koppen is listed at center, but he is trying to re-cover from an injury that he suffered Week 2 that caused him to miss most of last season. Also, Dan Connolly might be in the mix for some reps. Overall, Koppen has to be the guy when he is healthy, but this is another position on the offensive line where depth could be an issue say Koppen can’t say healthy.
2. Secondary Staying Pat Without Chung: The one injury coming from Monday’s game that could carry over is safety Patrick Chung. Chung suffered a shoulder ailment in Monday’s loss after what some thought was concussion-like symptoms. He did not participate in the joint practice Wednesday either.
This means that new players in the secondary might have to step up. Steve Gregory will look to build off of his interception against the Saints and rookie Tavon Wilson could see his first action since New Orleans after tweaking his ankle last week. With Will Allen also leaving practice early on Wednesday, the Patriots will look for Sterling Moore to play better in coverage as well as the depth of the secondary continuing to improve.
3. Pressure on the Freeman: The one thing that fans are looking from out of the Pats’ defense this year is pressure on the quarterback. Last year, against the Bucs, New England had three sacks, including two of them by Jerod Mayo. The key to make Freeman rattled is to get him to move out of the pocket. Otherwise, he could have a pitch and catch with Vincent Jackson the way Jackson shows up against the Pats. I look for rookie defensive end Chandler Jones to have a great game against the re-vamped Bucs’ offensive line.
PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Jeffrey Demps: The Patriots will unveil their new weapon on Friday against Tampa and that is rookie running back Jeff Demps. This is the perfect time for him to join the team since the Pats’ longest run on Monday was an anemic seven yards. Plus, the return game could use a boost after fellow rookie Brandon Bolden muffed a punt. His speed could be huge for this team in terms of giving the offense some very good field position. Also, a screen pass from Tom Brady could go from five yards to twenty-five yards with this Olympic sprinter in the mix.