The New England Patriots will really test the Bucs defense tonight. In these past two years, the Patriots have moved to a spread offense based on underneath passing and personnel matchups. They can go with a five-wide, pass-heavy formation and a two-TE, two-back, run-heavy formation from the same personnel group, and this gives them a lot of flexibility on offense. It allows them to use pre-snap motion to create matchup problems for any defense. And that's exactly why this will be an ideal test for the Bucs' defense.
The Bucs will likely miss Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis against the Patriots, which will make defending the spread offense even harder. In addition, they need to figure out how to match up against this team. If they choose to go with predominantly nickel and dime personnel against the Pats' two-tight end sets, they will get gashed by the run. If they decide to stay in base personnel, there will be a lot of pressure on the linebackers and safeties to hold up in coverage.
There are two keys to defending this kind of attack: the ability of linebackers and safeties to hold up in coverage, and the ability of the front four to pressure the quarterback and hold up against the run. Geno Hayes is a competent pass defender, but Quincy Black struggles at times. Cody Grimm and Sean Jones will struggle to hold up in coverage in some matchups, and it will be interesting to see whether the Patriots try to attack them. It is preseason, though, so don't expect a very intricate gameplan.
More interesting will be Mason Foster's performance. The linebacker looked pretty good against the run last week, but this will be a major test for him. He will have to diagnose plays quickly, and hold up in coverage, something he hasn't been asked to do so far. His performance will be very telling, as will Tyrone McKenzie's on the second team.
Blitzing against a spread attack is generally counter-productive, as the multitude of options allows the quarterback to quickly complete passes. This means the Bucs will have to pressure Tom Brady and other quarterbacks with their base four defensive linemen. Last week the pass rush looked potent against the backups, but didn't do much against the first team. Having Gerald McCoy back will boost the pass rush, though, and if the Bucs can get to Tom Brady, that will be a very good sign.
Overall, the performance of the Bucs defense in a couple of hours will be telling for where they stand going into the season.