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Bucs vs. Patriots: What to watch for

The Bucs take the field for the second time this preseason tonight, providing another opportunity to learn more about this season's squad. The early portion of the game should be especially telling given the competition: the defending AFC champions. A few things to look for:

The backfield

Coach Jon Gruden indicated Friday that fans might get more than a glimpse of running backs Warrick Dunn, left, and Earnest Graham. Against Miami on Aug. 9, Dunn and Graham started in tandem, but neither had a carry or caught a pass. Now, Gruden allows, "Warrick and Earnest, they need to play." You'll still see plenty of Michael Bennett and Ken Darby and maybe a little of Clifton Smith. Linebacker lineup

The starters are Cato June (strongside), Derrick Brooks (weakside) and Barrett Ruud (middle). That's the easy part. But the Bucs can't keep all nine now on the roster. So watch closely to see who gets the most playing time because those are the men coaches want to evaluate most. Sixth-round pick Geno Hayes, Ryan Nece, Matt McCoy and Antoine Cash appear to be on the bubble. Matt Bryant's accuracy

The team could not have been happy with Matt Bryant's 1-for-3 performance against Miami. In the great scheme of things, it didn't matter that he missed wide right from 52 and 36 yards, but it has to make the Bucs a little nervous when their kicker starts erratically. Bryant in 2007 improved over the previous season, posting a career-best 84.8 percent conversion rate. His success is critical for a team that in 2007 outscored its opponents by an average of just more than four points. The return game

Last weekend, Micheal Spurlock and rookie Dexter Jackson were paired on kickoffs. Both possess rare speed. Last season, Spurlock became the first in team history to return a kickoff for a touchdown, and Jackson is said to have sub-4.3-second 40-yard speed. They also combined to return three punts against the Dolphins and might split that duty again tonight. Jackson is the guy the Bucs hope grabs hold of the job long term. But keep an eye on Clifton Smith, the undrafted rookie from Fresno State who has caught Jon Gruden's eye. Last week, the coach suggested the Bucs made a mistake by not drafting him in April. The starting defense

The Bucs will see at least some of the Patriots' prolific offense, led by some guy named Tom Brady. It might be for only a series or, at most, two, but still valuable experience for someone such as second-year end Gaines Adams to be matched up against the best. Imagine Aqib Talib (he'll most likely be the third cornerback) locked up with Randy Moss dueling over a deep ball. That's not a bad early test.

Ryan Nece

Clifton Smith

Warrick Dunn,

Earnest Graham

Matt Bryant

Gaines adams

Bucs vs. Patriots: What to watch for 08/16/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:50pm]

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