The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots will face off on Friday night in a game that comes as close to emulating regular-season football as the preseason has to offer. Both teams are expected to play the majority of their starters for the entire first half, and perhaps a bit longer. It will be ones on ones, as coaches say on the practice field, and strength on strength where it applies.
And nowhere do the Buccaneers appear to be stronger than along the offensive line, where they will be fielding three players who have been to the Pro Bowl in the last two seasons. Donald Penn's return to left tackle after three weeks of recovery from a calf injury makes that unit whole again, and prized free agent acquisition Carl Nicks will get his best chance yet to show why the Buccaneers made such an aggressive move to get him. They'll be battling a very sizeable Patriots defensive line that includes the 325-pound (or more) Vince Wilfork and the 330-pound Gerard Warren.
Nicks move from New Orleans to Tampa put him on a team that intends to pound away with the running game, an opportunity he relishes. His oft-stated goal is to maul his foe across the line on every play. Given the regular-season feel of Friday's game and the quality of the opponent on the other side of the ball, the intensity level should be high at Raymond James Stadium.
At least, Nicks says, it had better be.
"I hope so, or we're going to be in a lot of trouble," he said with a laugh. "We've got to come out and take it like a real game and execute."
Nicks played just one series (a touchdown drive) in the preseason opener in Miami two weeks ago. Last Friday against Tennessee, he stayed in with the first-team offense for essentially one quarter of action. The first outing was too short to be particularly meaningful (though a fourth-and-goal touchdown run was nice), and the second failed to live up to his expectations. The Buccaneers did not run the ball as well as Nicks had anticipated against the Titans, and he expects better on Friday night.
"We expect better and we know we can do better," said Nicks. "We want to push the line of scrimmage. We want to be on their side of the ball once the running back gets the ball and starts running it. We want to be physical. At the end of the day, we want to be tougher than them."
In analyzing the Tennessee game, several Buccaneer linemen have conceded that they played with their pad level too high that evening, a problem that has also been seen on the practice field in recent days. That's a product of a long and tiring training camp, and something the players have to fight through as their stamina returns.
"We've definitely tried, but at the end of the day you're going to play a little higher when you're fatigued," said Nicks. "We're going to give it our best shot. Coach made us aware that he knew we weren't going to be 100 percent, and if you're not 100 percent you're not going to play low. I think this week we're a little better as far as the legs go."
If the Buccaneers' front-line blockers can indeed get their legs under them, their won't be any shortage of motivation on Friday night to drive them forward.