Well, this is it. It all comes down to this one.
We all know what tonight means, right? I mean, this is Week 3 we're talking about here; this is the dress rehearsal for the regular season. Anything short of perfection in this game pretty much dooms the entire year. You'd be hard pressed to find any team anywhere that had a lousy preseason dress rehearsal game and didn't go on to have a losing record when the games mattered. So if you're nervous for tonight's Patriots vs. Buccaneers showdown, good. You should be.
Well, not really. Week 3 of the preseason is only meaningful in the respect that we'll see more of the starters tonight than we will for any other fake game this August. And the only thing I'm really nervous for (other than my self-admitted fan paranoia) is an injury. Yes, I'm hoping that the Patriots come out looking great from the opening kickoff and that the offensive line looks more cohesive and I don't have to read too many articles this weekend about how the Patriots still look rusty and question Bill Belichick's choice to give his starters a decent amount of rest over the past week or so. And yes, I'm hoping that the Patriots put together a solid first half and that the camera has plenty of cuts to Tom Brady looking dreamy on the sidelines. But at the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, Week 3 of the preseason is just as meaningless as Weeks 1, 2, and 4.
One thing that Week 3 is especially good for, though, is getting a handle on some of the bubble players with a legitimate shot to make the final roster. Up until now, I've been examining more of the fringe players, rookies, and guys that wouldn't surprise anyone if they were cut. But with the starters seeing more significant time tonight, I figured that this game is a great chance to look at some of the bigger names currently on the bubble and what we'll be able to glean from their performance - or lack thereof - later on this evening.
Deion Branch/Donte Stallworth. The general consensus is that only one of these guys is going to make the team, a consensus I happen to agree with. Up until Monday's game against the Eagles, I had the edge going to Stallworth; he was getting more media attention in practice, was on the field more, and seemed to be having the better camp. But then Branch showed up with a 3 catch, 51 yard day on Monday and reminded everyone why he has been both a Brady and team favorite for so long. Right now I'd say that Branch has managed to get himself back into the team's good graces, but this competition is still neck and neck. Both players will be fighting for reps tonight, and it's quite possible that the man with the better receiving day ends up making the team. Of course, now that I've said that, Belichick will keep both players and further solidify my status as an idiot.
Ron Brace. With the release of Jonathan Fanene, I'm not sure whether or not I'd classify Brace as a true bubble player; he had a good game against Philadephia and now seems positioned to step into the middle of the defensive line rotation to spell starters Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork. However, I definitely haven't seen enough of him to consider him a roster lock at this point, so I'm curious to see how he fares tonight. I'm also going to be looking for how much time he sees with the first unit; if they use him as a situational down lineman early in the game and then give him extended reps all over the line into the 4th quarter, I'm going to take that as a sign that the team has Brace in their long-term plans. But they're going to have to make a decision soon either way, as the line is suddenly looking a bit thin and Andre Carter is garnering interest elsewhere. Brace has impressed when given the chance, but he's never made that big leap that coaches are looking for to justify a player's second round draft status; it's well past time to step it up.
Trevor Scott. I know I already touched on Scott in a previous Bubble Watch article, but I think he has made significant strides forward since then and always seems to be around when the defense makes a positive play. At the same time, though, he has seen a lot of reps late in these games, when the field is yielded to the longshots and late-round draft picks. In regards to Scott, I'm going to be looking more for when and where he plays as opposed to how he plays. If he sees reps with the first unit and subs in as a rotational linebacker/edge rusher, I think I'd feel comfortable removing him from the bubble altogether after tonight. But if we don't see him until late in the game and he's still on the field for much of the third quarter, there will still be some questions about his job security.
Myron Pryor/Gerard Warren. I lumped these guys together because I don't think either of them will play. Pryor is definitely out; he's still on the PUP lis and I don't think that Pryor has been healthy for more than a handful of plays his entire NFL career. As for Warren, at this point you have to wonder how much he has left in the tank. I think that Gerard has been great for this team and he's a hard worker, but I think it might be time to cut ties with him at this point. Maybe I'm wrong and Warren will see the field and be given a chance to prove why he should stick around to add depth to the defensive line, but I'm not holding my breath. It's too bad about Pryor, too, because I always remember being impressed with him when he was on the field. I just don't know if it's worth using up a roster spot on him when he is always injured.
James Ihedigbo/Sergio Brown/ Will Allen. With the familiar sight of Pat Chung nursing an injury comes the question of who is going to step in for him at safety when he misses some time in the regular season. Tonight's first team reps are likely going to go to Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson, but after those two, the safety position gets a little hazy. Yes, we all love us some Nate Ebner, but he isn't ready to step into the safety role just yet. Josh Barrett has been an absolute ghost all preseason as he nurses one injury after another, and he hasn't really been much of a factor for this team since they signed him. That leaves Ihedigbo, Allen, and Brown competing for what is likely one or two roster slots. Of the three, I'm most confident in Ighedibo making the squad, primarily for his value on special teams. Plus, of the three, he's the most reliable safety. Will Allen offers versatility as a cornerback/safety hybrid, but I haven't been overly impressed with him thus far, and his age is something to consider (as he likely isn't around much longer and any time he spends on the field impedes the progress of the younger guys). I've never been high on Brown and won't be sorry to see him go. However, I don't think any of these players' fate is sealed yet one way or another, and so tonight will be a good indicator as to where the coaching staff thinks the safety depth lies.