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What To Watch For In Patriots-Buccaneers

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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Donte' Stallworth (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Donte’ Stallworth (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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New England Patriots

BOSTON (CBS) –  The Patriots will play their third preseason game Friday night in what will be the closest we get to a real NFL game for New England until Sept. 9 in Tennessee.

Most of the Patriots’ stars are expected to take the field against the Buccaneers in Tampa after not playing Monday night against the Eagles, in what will likely be their final game-action tune-up before the regular season starts.

Here are four stories to keep an eye on Friday night.

The Starters Are Back

That’s right, instead of Ryan Mallett throwing to Alex Silvestro, we’ll get to see Tom Brady do his thing with Rob Gronkowski (at least for two or three quarters). Brady was 4-of-7 for 30 yards in his Game 1 tune-up against the Saints at Gillette, and like all the other star players, didn’t play much past New England’s first two drives. We should get a better picture of how the Brady-Brandon Lloyd connection is looking, as the two completed just one pass that was later wiped out by a penalty against New Orleans.

On the defensive side, Vince Wilfork has said the defense is making strides and starting to jell. Now we’ll get a chance to see it ourselves after most of the defensive studs gave way to the younger players on Monday. Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Devin McCourty should all be back out there, so there won’t be as much need to print out a roster prior to kickoff.

This game should give us a good picture of how far off the Patriots are, if at all, to being ready for the regular season.

The Offensive Line

Part of the reason Brady didn’t play much in the Pats’ first preseason game had to do with the fact it was the Pats’ first preseason game. Nearly getting flattened by the Saints’ Will Smith on their first drive also probably played into Bill Belichick’s decision to sit his franchise player, although Brady did come back out for another drive following the fumble-inducing play.

The offensive line, made up of some sophomore players, has drawn much criticism over the first two games — and justifiably so. Second-year tackle Nate Solder and second-year guard Marcus Cannon have looked like turnstiles at times, and with Tom Brady taking snaps this time around, they’ll need to do a much better job keeping him upright.

But the line should receive a huge boost in All-Pro guard Logan Mankins, who is expected to see some action Friday night. His insertion into the preseason lineup should give Brady at least a few more seconds before the Bucs’ pass rush can pressure him, and will go to show how valuable Mankins is to the squad.

Sebastian Vollmer was activated off the PUP list earlier this week, but it’s unlikely he’ll take the field for long, if at all, against the Bucs.

Donte’ Stallworth

After missing two days of practice this week, Wes Welker will likely sit this one out. That means Julian Edelman will get more reps at the slot receiver position. But while Edelman’s versatility makes him nearly a lock to make the roster, Donte’ Stallworth is running out of time to prove his worth. He had an off-game against the Eagles, and with Deion Branch’s performance, the pressure is on for Stallworth to make some noise.

There were times Stallworth was used in the kickoff game, but that role appears to be for newly signed Jeff Demps now. Jabar Gaffney’s nagging right leg injury could give Stallworth a longer shelf life, but he will need to do something Friday night to fit in with the crowded crop of receivers.

The first cuts come next Tuesday, when the Patriots will have to trim the roster to 80, followed by the final cuts on Aug. 31. While Stallworth might survive the first round, he’ll have to really do some catching and running over the next two games to make it to the 53-man roster.

The Secondary

After a historically bad 2011 campaign from the New England secondary, Bill Belichick made some moves to make sure the Patriots didn’t surrender yards in the bunches through the air once again. He drafted promising backs in Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard, and added a veteran safety in Steve Gregory, and is hoping a healed Ras-I Dowling can complement McCourty.

But this week, the Patriots will be without Patrick Chung, who missed both practice sessions with the Bucs thanks to a shoulder injury he suffered against the Eagles. Wilson did not play against Philly, but has returned to practice and should slide into Chung’s spot, getting plenty of chances to hit anyone running in his direction. Dennard is still awaiting his first preseason snaps of the year, and should get those Friday night.

The Tampa double-Josh passing attack (Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson) shouldn’t light up the scoreboard, but even last year the Patriots secondary struggled against less-than-stellar passers. Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson said earlier this preseason Freeman should be considered a top-five quarterback in the league. If the Patriots defense makes him look that way Friday night, it could be a long season once again on the defensive side of the ball.

Tune in to the Patriots-Buccaneers preseason game on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV at 7:30pm Friday Night! Pregame coverage begins at 4pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub, with postgame shows on both channels following the game!

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