- G Carl Nicks will make his 2013 debut Sunday against the Patriots, finally making the Bucs' O-Line whole
- The Bucs believe they can free RB Doug Martin for some second-level runs against the Patriots' defense
- The Patriots will play without TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Danny Amendola, two key offensive starters
When Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Jeremy Zuttah lines up over the football on Sunday, he'll be sandwiched between two of the finest guards in the entire NFL.
To Zuttah's right, Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph; to his left, Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. With Zuttah settled into his most natural position, Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn guarding the quarterback's blind side and rising standout Demar Dotson on the opposite end, the Buccaneers will field the offensive line they've been envisioning for 18 months against the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Tampa Bay made a splash with Nicks, the former New Orleans Saints all-pro, in the early hours of free agency in 2012. However, thanks to a preseason knee injury for Joseph a summer ago and a string of toe and foot ailments for Nicks, the Buccaneers have yet to put that starting five together for a regular season game. Now that Nicks is making his 2013 debut, the starting line will be intact and the Bucs hope that will help them shake off a tough start to the season and capture their first win.
It won't be easy. The Patriots are 2-0 and playing in a venue in which they rarely lose. However, their run defense looks vulnerable – ranked 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per game – and the Bucs have a Pro Bowl tailback in Doug Martin running behind that recharged front line. If the Bucs' big men in the middle can counter the Patriots' impressive defensive tackle duo of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, Martin could rip off some second-level runs.
"I do think we improved in our run game, for sure, but this will be a tougher challenge," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano. "When you look at this front seven, they're very, very big and very, very strong. You look at Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly in the middle – those are as big and strong of guys that you're going to go against. And then the three linebackers – at least two of the three are down-lineman-sized.
"So it's going to be an old-fashioned rock-em, sock-em game, and I like our guys. I like our line with Carl back in there; now we've got some more beef in there as well and with Doug Martin in there I think we've got a chance to run the football. We're going to be patient and do it – it's not always going to look pretty but I do believe we'll pop some runs if we stick with it."
Nicks played seven games in 2012 before his toe injury sent him to the sideline for the remainder of the year. Continued toe issues followed by a foot infection kept him out of the entire preseason and the first two regular-season games, but he has been champing at the bit to return. He'll get his chance today, though the Bucs will have to play it by year in determining how many snaps he ultimately plays.
"You talk to him [during the game], because he's the only one who knows how he feels," said Schiano of managing Nicks' status. "He's a veteran guy, and I really rely on the feedback from him and our trainer, Todd Toriscelli. There's no way I can know how he feels."
On defense, the Bucs also hope to be led by the big men up front. Through two games, Tampa Bay's rejuvenated pass rush has produced an NFL-high nine sacks, even dropping the Saints' Drew Brees four times last week. New England's Tom Brady, like Brees, is very good at avoiding sacks, but the Bucs could grab the momentum on Sunday if they can get Brady to the ground.
"It will be very big," said Schiano of the importance of getting pressure on Brady. "Any really fine quarterback, the best thing you can do is apply pressure. Now, how we do it is going to be important. You can't be all blitzing; we're going to have to be able to get there with a four-man rush, a three-man rush, some blitzes. Mix it up, and disguise as well. The thing that they will do at times, and maybe all the time, is go up-tempo, no-huddle. So we need to be prepared for that as well."
At 0-2, the Buccaneers are hoping to get into the win column on Sunday against the undefeated Patriots. Both teams have played a pair of very tight, low-scoring affairs so far, but in New England's case, they have made the end-game plays to come out on top. The Bucs are looking forward to the opportunity to reverse those fortunes in Week Three.
"I think they understand the challenge at hand," said Schiano of his players. "Not many teams come into Gillette Stadium and come away with a win. So we have our hands full, but it's a challenge that we're really looking forward to. I think the guys are prepared, they've worked awfully hard and we just can't wait to play."
While Nicks is active for the first time, the Bucs are without their top two tight ends, Luke Stocker (hip) and Tom Crabtree (ankle). Those two are among the team's seven game-day inactives, along with CB Michael Adams, T Gabe Carimi, DT Derek Landri, QB Dan Orlovsky and DE Steven Means. Adams, Carimi and Landri are also out due to injury or illness. TE Nate Byham will start for Stocker at tight end.
New England will be without TE Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) and WR Danny Amendola (groin), a pair of important starters in Brady's offense. Those two are inactive, as are WR Matthew Slater, RB Leon Washington, LB Steve Beauharnais, T Will Svitek and DT Chris Jones. Slater and Washington are also out due to injury. The Buccaneers and Patriots will kick off their Week Three matchup at Gillette Stadium at 1:00 p.m. ET, and the game will be carried by Fox. The action will also be broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will be available via a live stream on Buccaneers.com. Visit Buccaneers.com throughout the day to for further reports on the game action, including coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.