The injury-riddled 2-0 Patriots host the disgruntled and unraveling 0-2 Buccaneers this weekend in a meeting of two teams far more evenly-matched than their records indicate. New England’s success is a product, at least in part, of an easy start to its schedule. On the other hand, Tampa Bay, as Pats players have reminded us all week, is two late errors removed from an undefeated mark of its own.
There’s much we hope to see on Sunday afternoon – Tom Brady steering clear of Adrian Clayborn, for starters – but what we can learn by the evening will depend on which early consistencies remain and what new questions are formed.
Is the defense really this good?
So far, yes, matchups with the Bills and Jets notwithstanding.
The Patriots have an unblemished record largely on account of their coverage. They’re allowing 15.5 points per game (T-6th in the NFL) – coincidentally, the same number of points the Bucs score on average – and 302.0 yards a contest (8th). And thanks to a pair of mistake-friendly rookie quarterbacks, they’ve given up just 169.5 passing yards per game (4th). Credit much of that success to the play of the secondary. Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, et al, have been fantastic. EJ Manuel and Geno Smith were held to a combined 61.5 QB rating, which bodes well with a superior but struggling Josh Freeman coming into Foxborough. The does-he-want-a-trade-or-doesn’t-he signal caller is last in the league (of 33 quarterbacks) with a 45.3 completion percentage in the two games after losing his captaincy.
What will help determine whether the defense is for real is whether it can shut down some of the league’s top talent, just as it did in Week 1. C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson are great. Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, and Mike Williams are better.
The Patriots held Spiller to a modest 41 yards on 17 carries. The second-year Martin is coming off of a rookie year in which he totaled 12 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards. He paces a Bucs offense that averages 112.5 rushing yards per game (11th) and his 209 yards thus far sit him second in the league. That’ll be a big test for Vince Wilfork and a Pats team that’s surrendered 132.5 yards a contest on the ground (28th).
Johnson caught three balls for 39 yards and a TD. Jackson is big and versatile. He’ll line up in the slot and on the outside, some of the reason he’s fifth in the NFL with 231 receiving yards. The durable Williams has twice flirted with 1,000-yard seasons and has no problem getting in the end zone. Responsibility, secondary.
If the Pats can regularly stop premier talent from doing damage against them, that’s a great indicator going forward and it will put a lot less pressure on the offense to score 25-30 points per game, especially since it may not be able to. Moreover, continuing to force turnovers will be a key. Through their two wins, the Patriots have overtaken six possessions with three fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
Conversely, if New England implodes on Sunday and gives up 30 points, a new question will arise: Was that just a hiccup, or did the defense benefit from mediocre competition early?
Is the offense really this bad?
No. No, no, no. Brady’s offenses don’t average 18 points and 331.5 total yards per game.
In truth, we’re probably around 8-10 weeks away from learning the identity of the Pats offense. Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski must both return and remain healthy upon doing so, and that goes for Shane Vereen as well once he’s eligible in Week 11. We know what Amendola should do (as he did in Week 1), what Gronkowski can do as an All-Pro, and what Vereen will be looked at to do, which is fill the Danny Woodhead role. Anything along the lines of his showing against the Bills is gravy.
As for Sunday’s game with the Bucs, that can only hope to encourage or further cast doubt on the new class.
Best-case, the Patriots will improve upon their early-season ineffectiveness and inconsistencies and get a good performance or two out of rookie pass-catchers (namely Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins) who have combined for nine catches on a whopping 34 targets, including several drops. On the plus-side, those receivers have at least, more often than not, put themselves in position to catch the football before making the errors. That’s light years ahead of other high-profile rookies – and veterans – to cruise through New England in recent memory. With 10 days between games and a longer-than-usual week of practices, it’s reasonable to expect to see some development in this area. Mistakes and miscommunication will lessen through repetition, which the long layoff should have provided.
Equally important, Brady must temper his visible frustration. Injuries, personnel decisions, and tragedy have dealt him a poor hand but a leader of his caliber is capable of displaying a better example on the field, no matter the outcome.
Worst-case, Brady erupts again because his wideouts grab only another five of 17 balls thrown their way against Dashon “Fine-A-Game” Goldson and company. Oh, and someone else gets hurt.
Realistically, with All-World and happy-to-be-a-Buc cornerback Darrelle Revis expected to spend some significant time around top Brady target Julian Edelman (this still sounds crazy), that’s going to open up more opportunities for the rookies and maybe even a rarely-utilized tight end. If Gronkowski does play, though he shouldn’t, it probably won’t be much and would only serve as a tuneup for the Falcons. Nevertheless, substantial attention would be paid to how he looks. As for Edelman, Sunday will prove to be just the next in a series of weeks where we ask, “Can he stay consistent and keep taking all these hard hits?” After two games, he leads the team with 157 yards, two touchdowns, and 20 catches on 27 targets. He was thrown to just 54 times total over the last three years.
Other areas to keep an eye on:
Will the offensive line be better? It will have to be for the sake of a successful running game and giving Brady the time he needs to build an in-game rapport with his new teammates. Plus, blitz-happy Tampa is tied for an NFL-high with nine sacks, and it shares a piece of eighth-place by allowing 17 points a game.
Will third-down efficiency improve? The Pats are 16th in the league at 39.5 percent, a number hammered down by a 4-for-18 contest with the Jets. Again, this will get better through rookie maturity and, of course, the health of key weapons.
Will the red zone be the fun zone again? The numbers are ugly all the way around. The Patriots have been held to just two TDs in eight trips inside the 20 compared to a 67.5 percent success rate in 2012, while the Bucs limited the Jets and Saints to one touchdown in eight combined tries in their losses. That score belonged to New York. New England has to be able to score in the red zone without Gronkowski.
What's the bottom line?
If the Patriots win, they’ll be 3-0 for just the fourth time in the Bill Belichick era after having beaten three seemingly inferior teams. There’s no better cushion to have entering an incredibly daunting stretch that follows; games in Atlanta and Cincinnati before a home tilt with New Orleans.
If they lose, there’s no need to panic. The Bucs aren’t the better team, but they will be motivated after shooting themselves in the foot each of the last two weeks. They also possess many more weapons than either the Jets or Bills, and the Pats aren’t even close to full strength.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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