Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 289d

Fit on D for David Harris, Dont'a Hightower in focus vs. Bucs

TAMPA -- It’s been a quick turnaround for the New England Patriots leading into Thursday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Many of the top storylines have been well covered, specifically focusing on the pre-snap communication issues on defense that led to major breakdowns in Sunday’s loss, as well as quarterback Tom Brady’s strong statistical opening quarter of the season.

So let’s highlight a few of the under-the-radar storylines leading into kickoff as part of this week's "final walk-through:"

If not now for David Harris, then when? The veteran linebacker has played just seven defensive snaps all season, and was inactive for Sunday’s loss to the Panthers. With linebacker Elandon Roberts managing an ankle injury, and questionable for the game, this seems like a week that Harris would be back on the game-day roster and possibly even contributing. Kyle Van Noy has been the top off-the-line linebacker, with Roberts and Marquis Flowers following him on the depth chart. If Harris isn’t part of the mix this week, it would be an ominous sign for him.

Hightower working his way back. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower played 37 of 65 defensive snaps in his return to the lineup Sunday and said his knee responded well. He should continue to see a gradual increasing workload, with one lingering question: Do the Patriots keep him playing on the line of scrimmage or move him back to the middle to help improve the overall communication of the unit?

Jonathan Jones takes step up the depth chart. Eric Rowe, who has been either the team’s No. 2 or 3 cornerback depending on the week, is inactive with a groin injury. Also, starter Stephon Gilmore is questionable with an ankle injury. That thrusts second-year player Jonathan Jones up at least one notch on the cornerback depth chart, while the Patriots figure to play the majority of their snaps in the big nickel (three safeties), so Jordan Richards could potentially be utilized more if the Patriots employ safety Devin McCourty with more corner-type responsibilities.

Stat of the week, Part I. This is the first regular-season game that Tom Brady has played at Raymond James Stadium, which opened in 1998.

Stat of the week, Part II. Outside of Thanksgiving, this is the Patriots’ first road Thursday night game since 1990, when quarterback Marc Wilson dueled Dan Marino as the Dolphins beat the Patriots 17-10.

Quote of the week. “I think that we all know in the secondary that we have to get it better. It’s the NFL. It’s simple. You either get it better or you have to look for a new job, so I think we all understand that.” – Patriots safety Devin McCourty

Prediction. The Patriots haven’t made it easy to invest in them through a quarter of the season with their defensive breakdowns, and this is a tough test for them, but I believe they are better than they’ve shown. There are actually plenty of good things happening on defense (Malcom Brown is playing arguably the best since joining the team as a 2015 first-round draft pick), but they are getting overshadowed by the big play. The Patriots will find a way to tighten that up enough. Patriots 31, Buccaneers 24.

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