NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
There wasn’t much of a break for the Patriots between their second and third preseason games. We expect to see a lot more of the starters in this one though. Here are ten things to watch for when the Patriots and Buccaneers match up tonight.
1. How much will we see from New England’s starters?
The third week of the preseason is usually the week in which NFL teams play their starters the most extensively. The Patriots rested a number of their key players against the Eagles on Monday night (Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, etc.), so look for the starters to get at least a quarter or two of playing time. Bill Belichick left his starters in for the entire first half during the Patriots’ third preseason game against the Lions in 2011 before subbing in New England’s second-team players. This week should provide a strong indication of how New England’s starting lineups will look entering the regular season.
2. How will running back Jeff Demps factor into New England’s gameplan?
Deion Branch was impressed with Jeff Demps’ speed during his first practice with the team this week, but Bill Belichick tempered expectations when he claimed that Demps “has a long way to go” during a press conference yesterday. Demps is expected to contribute during tonight’s matchup, but Belichick’s comments seem to suggest that his role in the game may be limited. Regardless, Demps is expected to see some work as a kick returner and potentially as a member of special teams units as well. Fellow undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden has struggled during the preseason; it will be interesting to see how New England manages the snaps of their two rookie running backs. It appears unlikely that New England will carry five running backs into the regular season; Demps has an opportunity to establish a role for himself on the team’s offensive this year with strong contributions in tonight’s game.
3. In what capacity will fullback Spencer Larsen contribute?
The Patriots indicated an interest in adding a fullback to the roster this offseason by signing Tony Fiammetta as well as Spencer Larsen; the latter has the best chance of making New England’s roster now that Fiammetta has been placed on the reserve/left squad list. Larsen had missed 12 consecutive practices but returned to the practice field this week and should see some extensive action in order for the coaching staff to get him on tape. Larsen is primarily a fullback and special teams contributor but played linebacker in college and could potentially see some work on defense as well. Reserve fullback Eric Kettani played a handful of snaps on Monday night; most or all of his snaps will likely be taken by Larsen tonight.
4. Can Daniel Fells emerge as New England’s third tight end?
New England was without tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in Monday night’s loss; in their place, Alex Silvestro saw 34 offensive snaps, Tyler Urban was on the field for 19, and Jake Bequette played one down at tight end as well. Gronkowski and Hernandez are both expected to join the starters on the field but it’s possible that New England will want to see whether or not Fells can hold his own against Tampa Bay’s first-team defense. The Patriots gave Fells $2 million in guaranteed money, so he’s expected to make the roster despite Silvestro’s impressive second week. The game tonight will hopefully offer some indication of Fells’ role with the team: whether he will be asked to block exclusively or whether the Patriots feel comfortable throwing him the ball as well. Visanthe Shiancoe is expected to miss the game, which should offer Fells more opportunities.
5. Will the offensive line be able to protect Tom Brady for two quarters?
New England’s coaching staff was surprisingly complimentary when asked to assess the team’s offensive line play in Monday night’s loss; the vote of confidence has not alleviated concerns that quarterback Tom Brady may face more defensive line pressure than in previous seasons. Left guard Logan Mankins may see his first playing time since undergoing ACL surgery this past offseason; his return could provide a big boost to the line’s play. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was removed from the physically-unable-to-perform list this week but may not dress for the game; Vollmer’s absence would mean another start for 2011 fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon, who has had an inconsistent preseason thus far. Left tackle Nate Solder will be asked to defend Brady from Buccaneers right end Adrian Clayborn, a fellow 2011 first-round selection.
6. Have the Patriots’ reserve linebacker/special teams spots been resolved?
Only two additional linebackers are expected to make the final 53-man roster in addition to Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, and Bobby Carpenter. The Patriots gave Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera, and Jeff Tarpinian opportunities to earn the final spots last week with mixed results. Rivera was victimized by Philadelphia’s tight ends; his lack of awareness in coverage was extremely concerning and very well could have cost him a spot on the final roster. Jeff Tarpinian appeared to struggle as well; at this point, Koutouvides seems to be the frontrunner for the fifth linebacker spot, especially because he plays on the most special teams units of the three. Tracy White is expected to miss the game and may not be a lock for the 53-man roster; Tarpinian and Rivera must play better than they did last week in order to replace White.
7. Can seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard make a case for a roster spot?
Alfonzo Dennard was considered a potential first or second-round pick entering the 2011 college football season; his struggles during the Senior Bowl combined with an arrest for assault caused him to fall all the way to the seventh round. Dennard hurt his hamstring during training camp and has yet to appear in a game for New England; at this point he is on the roster bubble and may have to beat out Will Allen and/or Marquice Cole for a spot on the team. Dennard may have to show something on special teams in order to edge out either of those players, although he ultimately projects as more of a defensive contributor down the road. New England may give him opportunities on the boundary as well as in the slot to determine whether he can press receivers as effectively at the pro level as he did in college.
8. Will Devin McCourty rebound from his previous performance vs. Vincent Jackson?
Patriots left cornerback Devin McCourty was repeatedly abused by Vincent Jackson last season during New England’s game vs. the San Diego Chargers; Jackson looked uncoverable and caught 10 passes for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns. McCourty played well in the preseason opener before sitting out Monday night’s game against the Eagles; he should be active for tonight’s game, and a strong performance against a receiver he was unable to defend in 2011 would go a long way towards reassuring New England’s coaching staff that he is the team’s long-term answer at left cornerback. Should McCourty struggle against Jackson, it’s possible that the team will give Ras-I Dowling a chance to cover Tampa’s prize free agent signing after a Monday night performance in which Dowling was able to eliminate Jeremy Maclin from Philadelphia’s offense (just one catch for 15 yards.)
9. Which injured safeties (Allen, Chung, Ihedigbo, Wilson) will play on Thursday night?
Patrick Chung has yet to return to practice this week after suffering what appeared to be a shoulder injury in Monday night’s loss; Chung appears unlikely to appear in New England’s matchup tonight. Will Allen has missed some of the last two practices and may be held out of the game as well. On the bright side, both James Ihedigbo and Tavon Wilson returned to practice on Wednesday and should be ready to play tonight; they would join Steve Gregory as well as sixth-round pick Nate Ebner in the safety rotation. Ebner put together an impressive performance on Monday night; the battle between Ebner and Ihedigbo for a reserve/special teams role on the team should be one to watch.
10. How will Buccaneers first-round pick Mark Barron perform?
Rookie first-round pick Mark Barron is the Tampa Bay player to keep an eye on during the game tonight; Barron will likely be asked to assume coverage responsibilities on a number of New England’s receiving options. Considered one of the most pro-ready players in the 2012 NFL Draft, Barron is physical at the line of scrimmage, strong in run support, and can handle deep coverage responsibilities as well. The Alabama alum should get an opportunity to do a little bit of everything tonight, including slowing down New England’s top two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski’s size gives Barron a chance to hone his coverage skills before being asked to defend targets such as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham during the regular season; Barron should be tested often in tonight’s matchup.