Has it been pretty? Far from it, but the Patriots started their preparation for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a situation that only seven other teams could lay claim to: unblemished through two games.
The payoff of defeating the Jets during a short Week 2 is that the team had 10 days to prepare for its next opponent, the Bucs, who travel to town this weekend with an 0-2 record following disappointing last-second defeats.
The Bucs aren’t shying away from their record, but to cast them as an incapable team is shortsighted -- talent exists up and down the roster, with star power on both sides of the football.
One has to figure that Tampa Bay will be playing with an extreme sense of urgency, looking to avoid an 0-3 hole to start the season, while the Patriots have a chance to capture their first 3-0 start since the 2007 season.
With kickoff closing in, here are our five items we’ll be watching for.
1. Return of Gronk; improved passing game? This much we know for sure about Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski: He’s improving, but still day-to-day. Will Week 3 mark the return of Gronk? He hasn't been ruled out for Sunday's game (he's listed as questionable), but it’s possible he needs just a little more time before seeing game action. Gronk or no Gronk, will the passing game pick up enough after a disappointing Week 2 performance? The rookie receivers need to sharpen their games with another likely absence from Danny Amendola, with Julian Edelman likely to be prominently featured as well.
2. Revis Island. Make no mistake about it, even as he continues to work his way back from an ACL tear suffered early last season, cornerback Darrelle Revis has played at a high level since joining the Bucs. He’s familiar with the Patriots after several seasons with the Jets, and it will be interesting to see how the Bucs deploy Revis on Sunday and whether the Patriots test the All-Pro. Might Tampa Bay use Revis to blanket Edelman, the Patriots' top receiving option right now (he’s hardly been used in the slot thus far, where Edelman primarily lined up last week)? Conversely, if Revis aligns to just one side of the field, will Tom Brady stay away from him and look for other options? He’s the type of player defenses construct their coverages around and offenses often shy away from.
3. Power running game of Tampa Bay. The Patriots dressed just three defensive tackles in Week 2, relying upon defensive end Chandler Jones as a reserve-level option periodically. If there were a week where dressing an additional defensive tackle -- former Buc Chris Jones? -- could be needed, this is it, as the Bucs possess one of the biggest and most powerful offensive lines to lead the way for sensational second-year back Doug Martin. Donald Penn controls the left side, while star guard Carl Nicks (foot) has been a limited practice participant this week. Regardless of who lines up for the Bucs, it’ll be a test for the Patriots' interior defensive line, where Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will need to set the tone in building the first line of run stuffing.
4. Replacing Slater. Special-teams ace Matthew Slater has been unable to practice this week due to a wrist injury and looks unlikely to play. The question immediately turns to the kicking game and how the Patriots can attempt to fill the void, or at least partially do so. One area that we’ll be keeping a particularly close eye on is the gunner spot on the punt team. If there’s one area where Slater has routinely made a difference, that’s it, as he has terrific open-field speed and the strength and toughness to beat the vices at the line of scrimmage. Marquice Cole is likely to occupy one gunner position, but how will the team account for Slater’s absence? Could it be a player like Brandon Jones, Tavon Wilson or Kyle Arrington? Practice squad defensive back Kanorris Davis seems like a candidate to be promoted on Saturday as well.
5. Handling exotic schemes/pressures. The Bucs are off to a red-hot start with nine sacks in their first two games, but they don’t just generate pressure with conventional looks. They attack opposing offenses with a number of unique fronts, tilting their defensive linemen, using their linebackers and safeties in pressure packages, and consistently disrupting the integrity of the pocket. That puts the onus on center Ryan Wendell and quarterback Tom Brady to identify rushers and anticipate where the pressure will be coming from and in turn communicate it to the rest of the line. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is a name to keep in mind, as he has unique first-step quickness and the ability to cross the face of an opposing guard to work his way toward the quarterback.