Patriots at Tampa Bay: Game Preview

The Patriots play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night. How will they look, who will suit up, what can fans expect? Darren Kelly provides this preview of the the matchup.

Patriots To Try Out New Weapons In Tampa Bay
By Darren Kelly
August 9, 2007

It's been 200 days since the Patriots were one play away from the Super Bowl. It would have been their fourth trip in six years, and would have been as unlikely a feat as their first trip to the big game against St. Louis.

In the intervening months, the New England Patriots have improved their team exponentially. After making news the previous offseason for not re-signing wide receiver Deion Branch (and little else), the Patriots spent the last 200 days rebuilding their receiving corps, signing the most high-profile defensive free agent, and gearing up for another Super Bowl run.

Just two weeks after opening training camp, the Patriots hit the field for their first game action. It may be summer, but barbecues and pool parties are the furthest things from Belichick and company's minds.

Every player on this team knows what's at stake, and what the potential payoff is after these weeks of practicing in the Foxborough heat and humidity. The players that were here last season do not want to watch Peyton Manning or anyone else hoist the Lombardi trophy. And the new imports have watched New England win three of the last six Super Bowls. They're joining a proven winner at possibly the best time.

That's why Linebacker Adalius Thomas is here. That's why Donte' Stallworth joined the team. It's the reason Troy Brown, Chad Brown, Junior Seau, and even Vinny Testaverde are suiting up for one more season. And Randy Moss knows his best chance for a ring is this year, with this team.

It all kicks off tomorrow night in the Patriots' preseason match-up with the Buccaneers. Here are 5 things to watch for in the Patriots' first preseason game:

Is Tampa better than China?

Originally, the Patriots were supposed to be in China yesterday, playing the Seattle Seahawks in the "China Bowl." But in a rare public misjudgment by the NFL, the game was postponed until 2009. In place of the China trip the Dolphins and Giants head to London to play a regular season game in October.

So instead of traveling to China and playing an extra preseason game, the Patriots head to Tampa, stay in the same time zone, and let a division rival and a 2007 opponent receive frequent flier miles. And jetlag. As a matter of fact, the Patriots won't leave the Eastern timezone until Week 6 when they travel to Dallas.

This is the first time the Patriots have been to Tampa since the 2001 preseason -- their first Super Bowl season. Take a good look at Raymond James Stadium. The Patriots won't be back until the 2009-10 season. Unless they make it to the Super Bowl at the end of next season. (This year's Super Bowl will be at the Arizona Cardinals' new stadium.)

Who will be the #2 running back?

Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney combined for 1,557 yards rushing last season. With Dillon out of the equation this year, who's going to be the running back that provides relief for Maroney? And can anyone carry half the rushing load the way Dillon and Maroney did last year?

Tomorrow night's game might help shed some light on this question. Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans are back to try and fill the need, but neither rushed for more than 123 yards last year. One of the Patriots' offseason moves was signing running back Sammy Morris. Morris had 92 carries for 400 yards last year for the Dolphins, the second best season of his career.

Whoever gets the bulk of the carries -- and yards -- tomorrow night could have the edge in the running back race. After all, when Maroney went up the middle for 27 yards on his second carry of last year's first preseason game (during the opening drive), it immediately became clear that he would be an integral part of the team's offense. The same could happen for whoever shines tomorrow night.

How long will the starters play?

If last year's first game is any indication, not long. Tom Brady played just one series in last year's opener, and the rest of the starters played minimally, if at all. Richard Seymour and Randy Moss might not take the field. And Adalius Thomas, Laurence Maroney, and most of the other starters will probably see limited playing time.

Which players are on the field for the rest of the game -- and how they play -- will be the intriguing sidelight to the game. Right tackle Nick Kaczur, who is coming off of a shoulder injury, is in a tight battle for the starting spot on the offensive line with second-year tackle Ryan O'Callaghan. The Patriots traded for cornerback Dante Wesley this week, and he joins Randall Gay and Ellis Hobbs in the battle to replace Asante Samuel, if Samuel continues with his holdout.

How much will Matt Cassel play?

The strangest part of last season's first game was watching Matt Cassel play all but the first series. Cassel was 13-of-26 for 229 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, and was elevated to the #2 quarterback by the season opener.

Rookie Matt Gutierrez from Idaho State and 20-year veteran Vinny Testaverde are the only other quarterbacks on the roster behind Brady and Cassel. It will be interesting to see if Belichick wants to have a look at his rookie quarterback in Game 1, as well as how much Testaverde will see the field throughout the preseason.

How many receivers are enough?

Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth will be on the team when the season starts. But neither will see the field for many plays against Tampa Bay. That means that Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell will have an opportunity to prove that they belong in what is now an elite receiving corps. There's also Wes Welker, Troy Brown, Bam Childress, Chad Jackson, Kelley Washington, and a few others looking to be in the mix. Not to mention tight ends Ben Watson, Kyle Brady, and Garrett Mills.

It's trendy to say that with all of the receiving talent, the Patriots will employ the five-receiver set on every play. And with Brady's unique knack for spreading the ball around, the number of receivers catching passes each week will be high. But New England won't be passing on every down, and there are more players than spots at this point.

The receivers' practice sessions with Brady will tell the coaching staff more in regard to how well these second-level receivers will mesh in the starting offense. But nothing beats live game action, so whether it's Casel, Gutierrez, or Testaverde tossing passes tomorrow night, the wide receivers and tight ends that need to make an impact will be in the spotlight.

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