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Scouting the Matchup: Defense needs to step up

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per play, due in large part to the inconsistency of newly acquired tailback Mike Gillislee, particularly in short-yardage situations, and the lack of carries from the once-explosive Dion Lewis, who has been a non-factor for most of the year. With the emergence of rookie linebacker Kendall Beckwith, a third-round pick who's been forced to work on the inside due to injuries, the Buccaneers have improved against the run this year, particularly on first and second down, and are only year removed from leading the league in third-down defense. The Patriots have relied heavily on Tom Brady to bail out the offense but need more out of Gillislee, Lewis and James White, who has been featured more prominently in the passing game. Advantage: Buccaneers

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS RUN

The Buccaneers have struggled without Doug Martin, who missed the first three games of the season due to a suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He is eligible to return this week, which would shift Jacquizz Rodgers into his customary backup role, but it's difficult to gauge just how much Martin will play, if at all, and how effective he'll be considering his limited carries in the preseason. The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in all defensive categories, and their lack of depth at linebacker, highlighted by the recent absence of veteran Dont'a Hightower, has left them vulnerable in the run game. Given Tampa Bay's struggles moving on the ground, this would be the perfect week for the Patriots to reverse their misfortune and put their defense in manageable third-down situations by stopping the run on early downs. It could be an opportunity to give the disappointing Alan Branch more playing time to see if he can work through his struggles. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Tom Brady is on fire right now, and New England ranks near the top of the league in passing despite a struggling offensive line offering little protection in recent weeks. Under duress, Brady has been magnificent, again limiting mistakes and taking advantage of all of his options in the passing game. The return of Danny Amendola has eased the burden on others, and Brandin Cooks has found his comfort zone, not to mention the lift provided by a healthy, effective Rob Gronkowski. The Buccaneers got off to a strong start defensively this year but have faltered in recent weeks due to injuries to all-world tackle Gerald McCoy and pass rusher Noah Spence. They rank near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed and should be easy pickings for Brady as he continues to shoulder the load due to the team's struggles in the running game. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS PASS

Given both teams' struggles in the secondary, this game could turn into a shootout Thursday in Tampa Bay. Statistically, the Patriots have been even worse than Tampa defensively, with newcomer Stephon Gilmore and veteran Malcolm Butler off to slow starts. The Patriots are giving up too many big plays, which is troublesome against an offense that added several new weapons during the offseason, including dynamic wide receiver DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard. The addition of Jackson has made life easier for Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans, who is benefiting from fewer double teams in the secondary. The Patriots haven’t generated much of a pass rush either, and with a lighter, more mobile Jameis Winston in the backfield, they may not get to the quarterback in time to truly disrupt the passing game anyway. Advantage: Buccaneers

SPECIAL TEAMS

Danny Amendola's return also gives New England more dependability and play-making potential in the return game. Coupled with Lewis on kickoffs, the Patriots are always a threat to make something happen on special teams and affect the field-position battle. They've also been excellent in coverage, allowing next to nothing in the return game, even more impressive considering they've been without captain Matthew Slater. They'll be tested by Bernard Reedy, who has a 50-yard return to his credit this year, unless punter Ryan Allen can shake his early struggles and round into his 2016 form. Nick Folk for Tampa and New England's Stephen Gostkowski have been reliable on field goals, though the Patriots appear to be putting more on Brady's plate and less on Gostkowski's in recent weeks. Advantage: Patriots

OTHER FACTORS

Traveling to a warmer climate in Tampa Bay with only three days to prepare for the young, talented Buccaneers following a grueling Sunday home game against Carolina's top-ranked defense is not an ideal situation and could be a factor from a fatigue or endurance standpoint later in the game, especially if it's unseasonably warm. The Buccaneers also have a little less wear and tear on them, considering they've played one fewer game after their opener got postponed due to Hurricane Irma, plus they didn't have to travel last week after playing at home against the Giants. This is already a tough enough challenge for a New England team that has been a bit unbalanced offensively and is struggling to develop an identity on defense, never mind the other factors that could affect the outcome. Advantage: Buccaneers

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