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Analysis: Buccaneers-Patriots

Observations about New England's second preseason contest from the press box at Gillette Stadium.

If anything substantive can be ascertained from New England's two victories to start the preseason slate, it's that improvements are being made by the Patriots in more areas than not.

There are still significant points of emphasis that need work before the regular season commences, but by and large, Bill Belichick's troops are stepping up when called upon.

Of note versus Tampa:

…Tom Brady showed no ill effects from the reported left knee sprain he suffered in practice Wednesday. The QB came out with a large brace on the knee, but looked as sharp as ever dropping back and throwing the football during the two offensive series in which he appeared. His only misfire was a third-down pass attempt to Danny Amendola, which he threw badly behind his intended receiver. Otherwise, Brady has a near-perfect night, albeit another short one.

…After being scratched from the lineup completely last week against Philadelphia, fullback James Develin started the game as the lead blocker in front of Stevan Ridley. Develin even carried the ball twice, picking up first downs both times on third-down plays. He wouldn't say afterward why he was out of the lineup last week, but his body language seemed to indicate that it wasn't injury-related. Develin remains a dark horse to win a roster spot, but being given a starting assignment, and performing well in the role, will certainly help his cause.

… Very curious decision by Bill Belichick to go for a two-point conversion after the Patriots scored an opening drive touchdown. It was successful (a fantastic catch in the back of the end zone by rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld), but I'm left wondering about the timing of the decision. You almost never see a team go for two unless it's coming from behind or trying to extend a lead to put a game out of reach.

…For the second week in a row, the Patriots had a strong contribution from their running backs while the starters were in the game, both on the ground and through the air. By halftime, the backs combined for 71 yards rushing (led by Shane Vereen's 29) and 58 receiving (Vereen had most of those on a 46-yard catch-and-run). But once again, LeGarrette Blount showed some surprising elusiveness in open space after catching a pass in the flat and gaining 12 yards. He juked a Bucs defender along the way, the second week in a row he's gained extra yardage using feints.

…Veteran LB Dane Fletcher subbed for Jerod Mayo at weakside 'backer on the second defensive series. Fletcher has rebounded nicely from a season-ending knee injury incurred last August.

…Good pressure early by New England's front seven, with a trio of sacks of Bucs starting QB Josh Freeman during the first two drives. They'll need to do this consistently during the regular season to take some of the burden off the secondary.

…New England's kickoff coverage unit left a lot to be desired. Tampa averaged nearly 40 yards per return. The Patriots did a better job returning kicks than they did against Philly, but still not as well as they'd like. Leon Washington, rookie Josh Boyce, and Matthew Slater shared the duties on the evening.

…Rookie corner Logan Ryan had a slow start to camp, getting beaten repeatedly in practices. He appeared to be progressing, however, and seeing more and more reps with the injuries to Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling. Ryan was beaten for a touchdown in the first half against the Bucs, but came back in the second stanza with a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown.

…Sudfeld saved not only Brady's skin on that 2-point conversion, he also bailed backup QB Ryan Mallett out on a remarkable TD catch late in the second quarter. On both plays, the rookie was draped by defenders, but managed to snatch the ball over their heads, hold on, and keep his body in bounds for the scores. He is a virtual lock to make the 53-man roster.

…Like last week against the Eagles, o-lineman Will Svitek started at right guard before moving to his natural position at left tackle with the second offensive grouping. Later in the game, though, he appeared to injure his left knee and was replaced when head coach Bill Belichick called a timeout just before a Stephen Gostkowski field goal attempt. Svitek didn't return to action, but was seen in the locker room afterward and didn't appear to be hindered in any way.

…In the competitive punting battle, incumbent Zoltan Mesko had the better night, averaging 44 yards on three punts to rookie Ryan Allen's 39 yards on a pair of boots. Mesko also held for all of Stephen Gostkowski's placekicks, an area where Allen is still trying to gain experience. Mesko may have an edge over Allen now after two games.

…Top 2013 draft pick Jamie Collins has been relatively quiet this summer, but the outside linebacker showed up on the stat sheet with a nice tackle-for-loss in the second half. He read a running play perfectly and shot up the middle late in the third quarter to drop Bucs back Mike James for a one-yard loss. He had a solid series at the end of the third/beginning of the fourth in which he logged several tackles, as well.

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