Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs-Patriots: Five things to watch
TAMPA - The Race to 10 was so 2010. This year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' goal is a little simpler, yet also more difficult: win the NFC South. That way they're assured of making the playoffs. This is the preseason, though. And while establishing a winning environment is important, the first job of coaches in the preseason is to evaluate talent, decide the winners of key position battles and determine strengths and weaknesses. So, forget about the scoreboard tonight and focus instead on these five critical areas of play for the Buccaneers. Middle linebacker The starting job is rookie Mason Foster's to lose, and he could lose it if Tyrone McKenzie can rebound from a slow start in training camp and make some impact plays on game days. McKenzie has an edge over Foster in that he has a better grasp of the defense and could probably handle the play-calling duties that SLB Quincy Black assumes when Foster is in the game. Foster got off to a great start last week with a fumble recovery and a key third-down stop. But Bucs coach Raheem Morris doesn't plan to settle on a starter for another game or two, so the opportunity is there for McKenzie to close the gap.DT Gerald McCoy When last we saw McCoy in a meaningful game, he was walking off the field in Washington holding his left arm after ripping his biceps. McCoy said he is 100-percent healed from that late, season-ending injury, but he strained a rotator cuff during camp workouts and missed the preseason opener. As the under tackle in the Bucs' 4-3 defense, McCoy is the trigger pin. This is the guy who has to create havoc in the middle of the line and in the backfield, which he did last season in occasional glimpses of greatness. The Bucs are expecting big things of McCoy, and it's not too much to ask in the preseason. QB Josh Freeman Freeman had a good game against the Chiefs, but not a great one. His timing was off a little bit on some throws. Freeman has also tended during camp workouts to force some balls into tight coverages, resulting in unnecessary interceptions. He may just be testing the limits of his arm, which is fine, but the last thing the Bucs need is for Freeman to develop bad habits. Freeman did an exceptional job last season of throwing the ball away when there was no play, a critical skill for a successful quarterback. The Bucs will be looking for a little more of that tonight, as well as for Freeman to display better timing on the throws he wants to complete. FB Erik Lorig The Bucs drafted Lorig as a defensive end in the seventh round last year, but moved him to tight end and now fullback. Lorig is behind starter Earnest Graham on the depth chart, but the Bucs hope Lorig emerges. That would allow Graham to spend more time at tailback. The Bucs really want Kregg Lumpkin to be their backup running back and third-down back, but if Graham can work there as well, it will allow them to expand the offense. If Lorig can hold his own in pass protection, as a lead blocker and as a pass catcher out of the backfield, it will free Graham for an expanded role in the offense. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Michael Bennett and Da'Quan Bowers looked pretty good in the opener. Backup Kyle Moore (two sacks) looked better, which is just fine. The Bucs need depth, if only because Clayborn and Bowers need to be pushed. This is a critical area for the team. They need their young ends to make an impact, so it's worth watching to see if these guys are getting past the line and into the backfield. The goal here, of course, is to cause disruption, hurry the passer and keep the run game in check.