Fans of the New England Patriots will all have certain players and units that they will be focusing on in the upcoming preseason game at Tampa Bay, but what can Pats fans expect from the Buccaneers? Here’s a look at this week’s opponent.

Last week Bucs head coach Raheem Morris left his starting units play extensively against the Chiefs; I would assume the same will hold true Thursday. This team is very young – a whopping 74 of the 90 players in their camp have three or fewer years of NFL experience, and only three players on the roster are 30 or older – and they are fast and aggressive. Overall this should be a good test for the Pats in hot and humid Florida.

Quarterback Josh Freeman is one more good season away from being considered an elite NFL quarterback. After a rough rookie season (10 TD, 18 INT, 59.8 QB rating), Freeman blossomed last year, throwing 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions; his TD/INT ratio of 1.3% was 2nd best in the NFL last year. Freeman improved to a 95.9 QB rating as Tampa Bay won seven more games than the previous year, finishing 10-6. Perhaps most impressively Freeman has already engineered seven 4th quarter comeback game-winning drives in his brief career.

Freeman shows a lot of poise in the pocket and his offensive line has done a good job of protecting him; this will be an excellent test for the Pats to see what kind of strides they have made to improving their pass rush. But simply getting to Freeman may not be enough. At 6-6 and 250 pounds he is big and strong enough to shake off would-be tacklers, yet at the same time quick and athletic enough to pull the ball down and run for a first down when the situation dictates it.

Backup Josh Johnson has a different style; he’s a very athletic quarterback whose first instinct is to run rather than pass the ball. The offensive line doesn’t maul opponents but they do a good job of holding their own. Football Outsiders ranked them below average in both the running game as well as in pass protection last year, but they were decimated by injuries to that unit in 2010. A lot of Pats fans will surely be watching #62, RG Ted Larsen; he has progressed quite a bit since his training camp in Foxboro a year ago. Their OL dominated against Kansas City but it was difficult to tell if that was more due to the Bucs playing well, or the Chiefs simply looking completely out of sync. Freeman had plenty of time to throw as the Chiefs were completely unable to apply any pressure whatsoever to him.

At running back Tampa Bay features LaGarrette Blount, who like Freeman is both big (245 pounds) and athletic – he made some highlight reels hurdling over would-be tacklers last year.  Blount, who went undrafted due to his infamously punching two Boise State players after a loss when he was at Oregon, was cut by Tennessee before Tampa Bay picked him up and he went on lead all NFL rookies with 1007 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns despite missing the first three games. Tampa Bay has been consciously trying to get him more involved in the passing game, so expect a few screen passes his way. Beyond that Tampa Bay has big question marks for the other RB positions; veteran Earnest Graham is best suited as a FB and on special teams, Cadillac Williams was not re-signed, and the other running backs have done nothing impressive in camp thus far.  Mike Williams – another player whose draft status fell, after quitting on his team at Syracuse – is the primary receiver; he had 11 touchdowns and 964 yards on 65 receptions in his rookie season last year.


 

On defense Tampa Bay is still a work in progress.  In 2009 opponents literally ran over the Bucs, rushing for over 150 yards against them nine times. Their run defense has improved some but the pass rush still has a ways to go; they recorded only 26 sacks last season.  At DT they have their top 2010 pick, Gerald McCoy (consolation prize in the Ndamukong Suh sweepstakes) and 2009 3rd-rounder Roy Miller; this year they added DEs Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers. Clayborn looked very good in the game against the Chiefs but Bowers, who feel dramatically in April’s draft due to concerns about his knee, looked slow and not fully healthy in the few snaps that he was on the field for. Rookie Mason Foster, a 3rd round draft pick from the University of Washington, had a very good game as well as a good camp and and appears to be ahead of former Patriot Tyrone McKenzie in the battle for starting middle linebacker. Both seem to be doing a good job of calling the plays on defense and getting everybody in the right position, but Foster’s play on the field has catapulted him ahead of McKenzie on the depth chart.

Tampa Bay added former Falcon Michael Koenen to handle punts and kickoffs. Over the last three years Koenen’s 1:6 ratio (12 to 72) between punts inside the 20 versus touchbacks is the best in the NFL. In addition Atlanta was number one in the league in defensive field position following kickoffs last year, with their opponents starting drives on average from their own 22.2 yard line. Last week Koenen’s first kick went five yards deep into the end zone, followed by two that went nine yards deep, and between those first two kicks he had a punt that was fair caught at the ten yard line. The Chiefs’ drives started at their own 8, 10, 20, 20, 20, 3, 4, 18, 20, 16, 20, 35 and 31. Unfortunately we are probably not going to get a chance to see much of what the Patriots’ return teams can do on kickoffs and punts, although bad field position could be seen as a good practice for the offense to overcome in a preseason game.

The game is not sold out so it will not be televised in the Tampa area. Last year the Bucs were the only NFL team to have all ten of their home games (pre-season and regular season combined) blacked out. …

Of course that means that if you happen to be in the area you should be able to pick up a ticket for well below face value, right up to kickoff and beyond. If you are going to the game please be aware of the climate. Overnight lows in this area this time of year are in the 80-85 degree range, with extremely high humidity. You will sweat, and you will be uncomfortable. Hydrate, early and often. …

Tampa Bay has had the upper hand in the all-time preseason series between them and the Pats, winning seven of the eight games played by the two teams. The last preseason matchup was in 2008 in Tampa, when the Bucs won 27-10. …

In the regular season the two teams have played each other just seven times in the 35 years since Tampa Bay joined the NFL. The Pats lead the series 5-2; the last game was in 2009 when the Bucs were the “home team” for a game in England which the Pats easily cruised to a 35-7 victory. …

Tampa Bay limited Kansas City to just 137 total yards while forcing and recovering two fumbles, and also registering six sacks in the 25-0 shutout at Kansas City last week. …

When Mark Dominick was hired to replace Bruce Allen as GM in Tampa Bay he was 37 years old, making him the youngest GM in the NFL. He then hired Raheem Morris who was 33 at the time, the youngest HC in the NFL. …

With a possible probable suspension looming for CB Aqib Talib, Tampa Bay has added former Buffalo Bill Ashton Youboty for depth at cornerback. For those bemoaning the performance of Darius Butler, just be thankful your team is not in a position of possibly counting on Youboty, who couldn’t even got on the field for the Bills last year. …

For those of you that may like to make the game more interesting by placing a wager, Tampa Bay is listed as a two to 2-1/2 point favorite, and the over/under ranges from 36.5 to 37.5 depending on where you do business. …

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