Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

5 things to watch in Bucs-Patriots game

Carl Nicks' debut

The 6-foot-5, 349-pound left guard signed a $47 million contract in 2012, but a toe injury ended his season after just seven games.

Friday, Nicks returns, and we'll begin to get an idea if he can return to his All-Pro level of 2011 despite the pain he says he must play through.

Another issue for Nicks is conditioning. Because he has practiced on a limited basis, he hasn't played extensively at full speed.

"You have to be healthy to be in shape," he said. "So that's a struggle I'm kind of dealing with now. But in time, I think … my stamina will get better."

The Bucs won't have their entire offensive line back, however. Starting right guard Davin Joseph, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, isn't expected to play.

Ogletree pulling away

The company line when training camp began was to expect a battle between Kevin Ogletree and Tiquan Underwood for No. 3 receiver. The truth is, it hasn't materialized.

Ogletree had a strong start to the preseason last week against the Ravens, catching five passes for 65 yards. Underwood, meanwhile, had one catch for 6 yards. Ogletree, like Underwood, is one of the team's fastest players. But Ogletree has shown more consistency and better hands.

Special teams

The lopsided 44-16 score last week could be attributed, in part, to wretched special teams. It included a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown, 58-yard kickoff return on which kicker Derek Dimke made a touchdown-saving tackle that led to a field goal and a muffed punt by Chris Owusu that led to a touchdown.

With veteran kicker Lawrence Tynes still nursing a toe injury, Dimke has another chance to be a bright spot. Last week, he converted kicks from 29, 35 and 45 yards.

Backup running backs

Doug Martin is the starter, but there's little certainty behind him.

Against Baltimore, veteran Brian Leonard rushed for 23 yards on six carries, including a 13-yarder, and showed a willingness and adeptness for pass blocking.

Coaches long have shown a liking for rookie Mike James. But he had just 15 yards on six carries. Michael Smith and Peyton Hillis are still looking to get going despite limited work during practices.

"We're going to need these games to judge a running back," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "(A back) needs to go live. How does he handle the tackling? We don't tackle in practice. Assignment-wise, it's a check. Blocking-wise, check. But they are called running backs because they run with the ball. We need to see how they do live when people are trying to tackle them."

Casillas surging

It has been overshadowed, but there still seems to be a legitimate battle at strongside linebacker between Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas.

Casillas has increasingly performed well during practice, perhaps, because he is growing more comfortable in the system after coming over from the Bears. Friday, he can force coaches to take an even longer look at him.

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