I wanted to put off this preview for as long as possible, to see if Rob Gronkowski (questionable) or Danny Amendola (doubtful) would be definite locks to play this Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as either player, even hobbled, would give a big boost to what has been a decidedly struggling offense. Tom Brady and his receivers, outside of Julian Edelman, have been out of sync with each other. Stevan Ridley had a disappointing game against the Jets. The defense seems to be improving, but going against rookies EJ Manuel and Geno Smith certainly helps that perception.
Luckily, the New England Patriots face off with Josh Freeman and the Bucs, whose in-house drama is reaching new heights. The Buccaneers are 29th in the NFL in total offense, despite having quality pieces in Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, and Mike Williams. Their defense is pretty solid (13th in the NFL total defense, and that’s with a relatively impressive performance against the New Orleans Saints), and their front line with Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn and young linebacker core with Lavonte David and Mason Foster are quite dangerous. Star safety Dashon Goldson successfully appealed his one game suspension. Plus, you know, Revis Island. It’s scary to think, considering the two narrow escapes that the team has performed, but this is definitely the toughest matchup for the Pats thus far.
So, some things to look for:
Key Matchup: Aqib Talib vs. Vincent Jackson
No matter how ineffective Josh Freeman is, and how relatively slow out the gate Doug Martin has been, the Buccaneers still have a bonafide home run hitter in wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson has been targeted 24 times in Tampa Bay’s first two games. The rest of the team has 29 targets combined. He has 12 receptions for 231 yards, a whopping 19.3 yards per catch. He has 6 out of the team’s 7 plays of 20 yards or more. And you can bet that the Bucs, as well as a desperately-holding-onto-his-job Freeman, will be looking to air it out.
Going up against him will almost certainly lead cornerback, and former Buccaneer, Aqib Talib. Talib has been pretty reliable overall so far, though he has been beaten a few times. And there are few receivers out there who you can’t let beat you more than Jackson, eternally dangerous in open space and an absolute burner, even with his advancing age. This will definitely be a team effort between Talib and Devin McCourty to keep Jackson in check, and to take advantage of the mental errors that Freeman could make should the Pats stake out an early lead.
3 Pre-Game Questions
1. Will the Pats give Doug Martin the CJ Spiller treatment?
Despite how close and somewhat ugly the Patriots’ Week 1 win over the Buffalo Bills was, the one glowing achievement was the absolute shutdown of running back CJ Spiller, Belichick choosing to prioritize keeping him in check and force the hand of rookie EJ Manuel. As it turned out, Manuel performed quite admirably. However, the question is how the Patriots feel about troubled quarterback Josh Freeman, who arguably has much more dangerous weapons at receiver than Manuel does, and is actively looking to prove his worth. It will be interesting to see whether the Patriots will elect to put as much pressure on Freeman as possible, or to play it safe and focus on containing their young running back.
2. Will we see improvement in the passing game?
This is starting to become a bit of an overstressed issue. Amidst talks of bringing back Deion Branch or Brandon Lloyd, the best move for the Patriots is certainly to keep giving their young receiving as long as leash as possible, and Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson will see their fair share of targets. As discouraging as the drops and ill-timed routes were, the physical tools, especially those of Dobson, were readily apparent, as the rookie wideout found separation often. But (putting on my doomsayer hat and goggles) what if, after 10 days of preparation, the passing game is still a nonstarter? Can the Patriots afford to stay the course with the Falcons and Bengals as their next opponents, as we reassure ourselves that once Amendola and Gronk get healthy, and once Vereen finds his way back to the field, that it will be the same dominant offense? Do frustrated Pats fans call for free agent fill-ins, like Terrell Owens, Laurent Robinson, or Jabar Gaffney? (Who am I kidding, I always want Jabar Gaffney on the Patriots) How much longer can we take Brady’s R. Lee Ermey act?
And for god’s sake can we please put Zach Sudfeld back on the field? The Malik Sutcliffe Era went by way too quickly, and the Pats desperately need a Rowlf to ease some of these bad vibes!! Needless to say, if there’s one thing Pats fans are watching for this Sunday, it’s how the rookie receivers will perform against a daunting Buccaneers secondary.
3. Can the O-line keep Brady upright?
To top it all off, the Buccaneers are going to come after Tom Brady, and come after him hard. Greg Schiano will make sure of that. Tampa Bay has picked up 9 sacks so far this season, blitzing on almost 25% of their defensive plays, and creating pressure on 33% of all defensive snaps, putting them firmly in the top 10. McCoy and Clayborn on the d-line, and linebackers Foster and David, will make putting as many hits on Brady as possible their no.1 priority. And so it’s up to the Patriots offensive line to give their quarterback as much time as possible, as Brady has only completed 44% of his passes under pressure, and isn’t the same quarterback who can escape out of a collapsed pocket consistently. The good news is Nate Solder has all the motivation in the world after an Adrian Clayborn preseason bull rush ended in the left tackle landing on Brady’s left leg, sending all of New England into hysterics. If Brady can keep to the breakneck pace that he loves so dearly (by the way, Julian Edelman will continue to have huge games until further notice) it might neutralize the pass rush a bit, but that’s asking a lot of the Patriots’ receivers. This will be a tough battle for the Pats’ offensive line, even after an encouraging performance against the Jets’ strong defensive line.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Buccaneers 24
The key player in this game is Josh Freeman. And if you ask any Bucs fan, that’s not really a good thing for Tampa Bay. It’s entirely possible that Freeman comes out with a chip on his shoulder, and revives some of the magic from his first season. But odds are, mistakes will be made, and the Patriots defense are nothing if not opportunistic. The Pats’ secondary will get beat for big gains a few times, but if they can force a few turnovers, it’s anyone’s game. I’ll take a big comeback game from Brady, and after ten days of preparation, I see improvement from Thompkins and Dobson. Wishful thinking? Sure. But when in doubt, trust in Bill to pull it out.