The Patriots' season to some appeared to be in big trouble on Wednesday when Tom Brady went down in a joint practice against the Buccaneers after being tripped by Nate Solder. After all the tests and MRI's, Pats' fans can breathe as Brady practiced Thursday with a knee brace without a limp and will likely play on Friday night (8:00 ET, FOX) against the Bucs.
As for the on-the-field action, the Patriots looked strong on offense against the Eagles last week. Brady was 7-8 for 65 yards and a touchdown, but it was the running game that stood out with 248 yards of rushing, including a 62 yard run on the first play by Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount running for 101 yards on 11 carries, and a touchdown. The defense left a lot to be desired in the secondary as Michael Vick and Nick Foles continued to make big plays down the field.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come into 2013 with a revamped secondary due to the signing of safety Da'Shon Goldson and trading for former Jets' cornerback Darrelle Revis. They have one of the rising young running backs in Doug Martin. However, the big question in Tampa for head coach Greg Schiano surrounds quarterback Josh Freeman as he has thrown 63 career interceptions in 57 games. Freeman will need to protect the football to give Tampa a chance in the NFC South. Plus, it didn't help him that, according to people at practice this week, that Tim Tebow looked better than Freeman on Wednesday,
The one thing to watch in this game is how long the starters play for both of these teams considering these teams will play each other in the regular season a month from now at Foxboro in Week 3.
With that being said, here are three keys I am watching in Friday's preseason game:
1. The “Blount” Truth: With Welker and Hernandez gone, and Gronkowski likely out for six games, the Patriots will have to rely more on the ground game this season. Now that New England has cut Michael Jenkins, most of the receivers are rookies, so look for them to be eased into the offense. That leaves room for the running backs to eat yardage. Ridley and Shane Vereen will be the duo you see more often, but keep an eye on LeGarrette Blount. Blount had a good 51 yard run for a touchdown against the Eagles last week, even though he was helped by bad tackling. However, he is clearly winning the battle for that third running back spot right now and gets a chance to play his former team after playing his former college coach, Chip Kelly, last week. How much will Blount play this week considering he had a brace on his thumb Wednesday to hinder his role catching passes out of the backfield? Maybe, its a chance for Brandon Bolden to get back in the competition.
2. The Rutgers Connection: This week in Foxboro felt like a Rutgers alumni reunion as 18 players from both teams attended the state university of New Jersey. With the Patriots' issues in the secondary, there are more opportunities for players to make a statement to the coaching staff. Cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon have been praised by Belichick this week for their position versatility. Ryan was solid in 1-on-1's this week and had a couple of interceptions against Freeman. The Patriots are looking for a second cornerback to pair with Aqib Talib to bring strength to a struggling secondary.
As for Harmon, with Devin McCourty banged up, look for the 4th round pick to get more reps at free safety Friday night. Plus, Harmon even saw reps as the punt protector in practice on Thursday (Wait, I thought that was Tebow's job.)
3. Which Rookie Emerges?: We all know with Tom Brady that he will throw the ball to whoever is open. The Patriots are still searching for a number two target in the receiving corps to pair with Danny Amendola. Two rookies have stood out at wide receiver both in practice and in last week's preseason game. Aaron Dobson has shown he has great hands to catch the ball, but struggles to separate from defenders. Brady did throw him an excellent sideline fade in Thursday's practice. The player that has stood out to me is Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins has shown some good route running skills and yards after catch ability after having four catches from Brady against the Eagles. Every week seems to be which rookie takes advantage of an opportunity to be a big playmaker this season.
Player To Watch: Quarterback Ryan Mallett: Even before Tom Brady had the injury scare this week, Mallett was on my watch list after having a sub-par preseason opener. He was only 9-18 for 97 yards and missed a wide open touchdown to Josh Boyce against the Eagles and left the game with an apparent head injury. After Brady's projected 3-5 series on Friday, Mallett is expected to get the bulk of the playing time. He has the arm strength, but his accuracy has been a question mark as the Pats are looking for Brady's backup or a player that can bring trade value in the future.
Yes, he is still the #2 quarterback in the depth chart. I like Tim Tebow, but other than two screen passes last week and some good read option runs, he looked awful throwing the football as he struggled to read defenses and held onto the ball way too long. With Mallett getting more time, will he be throwing the ball to Julian Edelman, who is battling to make the team as a wide receiver/punt returner for the Patriots.