The New England Patriots are getting ready to play their second pre-season game tonight against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium.

Both teams looked impressive last week in their openers. The Pats playing virtually none of their starters on offense, demolished the Jaguars 47-12. The Bucs, picking up where they left off last season, whitewashed the Kansas City Chiefs 25-0.

While the scores are secondary in pre-season, it’s the way that the players perform in their time on the field that is important. That being said, the Bucs present the Patriots a much stiffer test this week. So what are the keys to look for in tonight’s game? Look right here:

How much will Tom Brady and the starters play on offense: The offense has started slowly this summer, it always does so that isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. But with the starters sitting last week, how much will Bill Belichick put them on the field for? My take is probably two series, for Brady, Ochocinco et al. They need to get some timing down in game situations and look for Brady to target Chad quickly. Brady has elevated his game in practice the past week, looking much sharper.

This will also be the time for some backups to shine. With players out along the OL bubble players such as Steve Maneri will get plenty of reps. Ditto for WRs, with Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate and Taylor Price all missing time this week with injuries, Buddy Farnham and Jeremy Ross will get another chance to show what they’ve got.

Safety valve, spring leaks?: All the talk this week was on how much the team is disappointed in the play with S Brandon Meriweather. Bringing in Darren Sharper, Ronaldo Hill along with ‘damning with faint praise’ comments by Nick Caserio as well as Sergio Brown getting a lot of reps with the first team did little to temper the talk.

Adding fuel to the fire was Belichick refusing to get into how well Brown has played during the camp. So will Brown get a lot of reps this week? I would expect so, but the bigger question is, how will Meriweather respond? He needs to step it up and in a big way if he wants to quiet the calls for him to sit. All this talk will be moot of course, if James Sanders doesn’t return to practice soon.

Forget the designation, bring the heat: The Patriots have played a lot of 4 man fronts this summer. Bringing in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter has done little to quiet the talk about the ‘switch to a 4-3’ which Bill Belichick labeled a media fabrication.

Anderson played very well last week, it will be interesting to see how much Carter plays this week. Josh Anderson scrambled well, over the Chiefs in and outside the pocket last week. The Patriots will get a good test in bringing pressure and containing the QB in the pocket. There will be no Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis, but for the rest of the DL, this will be a good litmus test to see where they are at.

Special Teams, not so special anymore?: Bill Belichick started his career as a STs guy, and this week during one of his press conferences said “I’ll talk about kickoffs all day”, but with the new rules in place, is it eventually going to signal an end to getting a big boost in the kickoff return game?

The Patriots regardless had a very uneven special teams game, allowing a big return, getting little in terms of return yardage and making a bad snap on an extra point. There is lots of room for improvement there, although Stephen Gostkowski looked to be in great form with two field goals from 46 and 43 yards.

Look for the coaches to put a great emphasis on getting the STs ship righted this week.

Quarterback play, can Mallett and Hoyer continue their good start?: Both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett got off to a great start last week against the Jaguars. Judging from the amount of snaps in practice it looks as if Mallett will get a lot of reps this week against Tampa.

There is nothing to read into on that, it is just the coaches wanting to see how Mallett handles competition against better opponents. But it will be worth watching how both perform this week. The Bucs defense is better than the Jaguars so the coaches will be watching to see how both of the backups perform this week. Also it will be interesting to see if either Mallett or Hoyer gets any reps with Welker, Ochocinco and Branch on the field.

Two other players to watch this week, TEs Rob Gronkowski and Will Yeatman, the Gronk missed last week’s game with an injury but prior to that was probably having the best camp of any member of the offense. He’s been as close to unstoppable as there is. I’d look for the coaches to get him involved early and often in the game.

Yeatman is quickly gaining momentum as being in line to be the third tight end on the squad. Picked up to be the blocker in the Alge Crumpler mode, he’s more versatile than Lee Smith in that he’s finding ways to get open in the passing game as well. The coaches are going to give him a long look down the stretch of camp.

We will have a post-game report here on PatsFans as well as any other breaking news out of Foxboro. We also will have some upcoming interviews with some members of the Patriots alumni right here so stay tuned.

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