Five things to watch when the Patriots play the Buccaneers in the second preseason game on Friday at 8 p.m. (Fox TV):
1. How long does Tom Brady play?
He had a major scare this week when left tackle Nate Solder rolled up on his left knee and caused a minor sprain, but Brady was determined to be back at practice Thursday and wants to play Friday. Will Bill Belichick let Brady get his normal work for the second exhibition game — anywhere from 4-6 series — or will Belichick play it safe and pull Brady early, or keep him out altogether?
2. Can the offensive line slow down Tampa Bay’s pass rush?
The Buccaneers have a stout defensive line featuring tackle Gerald McCoy and ends Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn, who got the better of the Patriots’ linemen in one-on-one drills most of the week. And Brady suffered his injury Wednesday because Clayborn overpowered Solder with a bull rush. Can Solder and the rest of the unit hold off the Buccaneers and keep Brady clean?
3. Which young receivers will step up?
Last week it was undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who had four catches for 23 yards on one drive, including two first downs. Rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld also had a nice game, with a 22-yard catch-and-run in which he broke a couple of tackles. Aaron Dobson had two catches for 35 yards, but only caught two of eight targets. And Josh Boyce didn’t have a catch despite playing 30-plus snaps.
4. Can they slow down the Buccaneers’ passing attack?
The New England defense didn’t do much against the Eagles’ first-team offense last week, allowing Michael Vick and Nick Foles to complete 9 of 11 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Josh Freeman is more inconsistent than Vick or Foles, but the Patriots will still need better coverage and a more consistent pass rush to slow down him and Vincent Jackson.
5. Can the special teams units bounce back?
Last week’s performance wasn’t the best for the Patriots special teams. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made only 1 of 3 field goal attempts, and the punt unit allowed a 62-yard return. The punting battle between Zoltan Mesko and Ryan Allen is one of the tighter ones in camp, so every punt will count. Allen had the higher net average by 10 yards last week, but also allowed the big return.