When: Thursday, 8:25 p.m.
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TV, radio: CBS, NFL, Amazon Prime
When the Buccaneers run
Doug Martin is back from suspension and should immediately provide a boost to Tampa’s ground game. Martin (5 feet 9 inches, 223 pounds) is an athletic and smooth runner with great balance and body control. Martin has a low center of gravity and strong legs, allowing him to churn out tough yards between the tackles. Martin is not a straight burner, though, and can get caught from behind. Jacquizz Rodgers (5-6, 205) makes up for his comparative lack of size (he’ll occasionally get lost among the giants) with exceptional vision, quickness, and lateral movement. He has thick, muscular legs and does a great job of running through arm tackles and dodging big hits. Rodgers lacks the bulk to be a workhorse, so while Martin’s return will reduce his snaps, it should increase his productivity. Peyton Barber is a strong inside runner but battles inconsistency in his reads and will miss running lanes. Quarterback Jameis Winston is running less but is still a threat when he pulls it down. Center Ali Marpet is a smart and strong presence in the middle of the line. He fires out of his stance and plays with excellent leverage. Marpet is a grinder in the ground game but can quickly wall off in pass protection. Left guard Kevin Pamphile is light on his feet, which can be a blessing (on pass protection) and a curse (when run blocking). Right guard J.R. Sweezy is relentless.
RUSHING YARDS PER GAME
Tampa Bay offense: 84.7 (26th)
New England defense: 132.8 (26th)
When the Buccaneers pass
Jameis Winston is a big, strong (and strong-armed) quarterback with excellent leadership qualities. He has the physique (a wide 6 feet 4 inches, 231 pounds) to stand tall in the pocket and deliver darts and the athleticism to make plays with his legs. Winston doesn’t panic in the pocket and does a nice job reading through his progressions. It doesn’t always translate to good decisions, however, as he sometimes will take unnecessary gambles and force throws. Winston can be a streaky player. When he’s on, he’ll make big play after big play. When he’s not feeling it, his bad plays start to compound. Winston has great playmakers in his stable. Mike Evans (6-5, 231) is among the best receivers in the league. His combination of size, strength, and speed is rare. Evans also possesses one of the best pair of hands in the business. Pencil him in for the next five Pro Bowls. DeSean Jackson (5-10, 175) has awesome burst and acceleration and is able to maintain his speed downfield. He’ll get a little sloppy in his route running at times but he usually has gained enough separation that it doesn’t matter much. Rookie Chris Godwin (6-1, 209) can play inside and out, while Adam Humphries is a gritty possession receiver. Huge rookie O.J. Howard (6-6, 251) is a Gronk-like tight end who can be a game-changer. Jacquizz Rodgers is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
PASSING YARDS PER GAME
Tampa Bay offense: 277.7 (third)
New England defense: 324.0 (32d)
When the Patriots run
The Patriots have a corps of capable runners but have failed to achieve that elusive balance that could take some of the pressure off Tom Brady. Mike Gillislee has been effective on early downs. He’s a prototypical one-cut-and-go runner who wastes little motion when attacking the line of scrimmage. When he hits the hole cleanly, he gets to the second level quickly and will lean into defenders and deliver a solid pop. Gillislee is not a patient runner, and if a crease doesn’t develop in a flash, he can get stymied and swamped. James White has extremely quick feet, and is adept at changing speeds and making defenders miss. Get him in space and he can be a headache. White also has made great strides in the tackle-breaking department. Dion Lewis continues to build momentum. He’s starting to move more and more like the whirling dervish he was early in 2015. Lewis has good burst and vision and can spin and twist his way through a crowd and bounce off tackles. The very large and very active Gerald McCoy is Tampa’s first line of defense. He explodes off the ball and onto ball carriers quickly and efficiently. Strong side linebacker Kendell Beckwith is quick to read and react and will land some punishing hits. Destructive linebacker Lavonte David’s absence is a big one for the hosts.
RUSHING YARDS PER GAME
New England offense: 95.5 (20th)
Tampa Bay defense: 78.7 (sixth)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady has looked out of synch at times the last two weeks but caught fire late in both games despite being under siege for large stretches. Brady has been sacked 13 times and hit 27 total times this season but keeps answering the bell and keeping the Patriots in games despite the defense’s frequent lapses. Brady has great presnap recognition, processes information quickly, and exploits mismatches. He has tremendous poise and mechanics and is exceptional at getting everyone involved. Brady has a bunch of big helpers. Rob Gronkowski uses his size and strength to get open and make lots of yards after the catch. The receiving corps is versatile and valuable. Chris Hogan (15 catches) can play inside and outside. He’s very smart, and sneaky fast. Danny Amendola (15 catches) gets open quickly and is as clutch a third-down receiver as you’ll find. Brandin Cooks (13 catches) is both quick and fast and has proven he’s not just a deep threat; he also has the ability to make big plays in the short and intermediate game. Running back James White has sweet feet and even sweeter hands. He’s another guy that constantly comes up big on third down. The Buccaneers have a top-notch corner in Brent Grimes (he’s sticky and will contest everything) and a budding star in Vernon Hargreaves (he’s instinctive and physical). T.J. Ward is a savvy safety who specializes in big hits and playing on the edge.
PASSING YARDS PER GAME
New England offense: 328.3 (first)
Tampa Bay defense: 315.7 (31st)
Buccaneers’ key player: TE O.J. Howard
The rookie tight end is a massive target with exceptional strength and athleticism. He’s a receiver when you need him to be or an extra offensive tackle if you need that instead. He teams with Harvard’s Cameron Brate to form a formidable 1-2 tight end punch.
How he beats you: With versatility and durability. Howard can line up all over the field (think Gronk) and make plays at every level. He uses his strong hands to both snatch passes and jolt defenders.
How to shut him down: With extra attention. You have to match Howard’s physicality at the line of scrimmage and then mug throughout his route. Keep your hands close to cut down his catch radius.
Buccaneers’ keys to victory
1. You wreck me: Tom Brady has been under siege all season, and Tampa must continue this trend. Monster tackle Gerald McCoy needs to pressure the pocket and prevent Brady from stepping up.
2. Something in the air: Jameis Winston has a ton of pass catchers. The young gun must distribute the ball and keep the mistakes at a minimum.
3. Too much ain’t enough: The Tampa defense, like New England’s, has struggled, so the offense has to keep the pedal to the metal all game long. The Patriots lost a shootout last week. It’s not likely to happen again.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Jammin’ me: Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler have to stun their men at the line. Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson can eat up cushions like nobody’s business, so don’t give them any.
2. Into the great wide open: Take some deep shots early with speedsters Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett. You have to keep this defense honest to open up the underneath stuff.
3. Runnin’ down a dream: Jameis Winston can’t be allowed to get comfortable. Mix up the looks and keep him guessing. Maintain those edges, because he can improvise with the best of them.