What to Watch For: Patriots vs. Buccaneers
Friday, September 20, 2013
To listen to the talk shows and read some of the fan boards, you'd think the New England Patriots were in real trouble.
After all, the Patriots struggled to beat Buffalo (Buffalo!) on the road by two points, and had to hang on to dispatch the lowly New York Jets by a mere three-points at home last week. What in the wide, wide world of Wes Welker is going on here?
It's simple, really. Growing pains. The kind experienced by, well, an inexperienced team that is trying to live up to expectations cast upon them by a fan base spoiled with success, and a media that assumes as long as Tom Brady is at quarterback, things will remain the same in Foxboro. The next stage in the development of the 2013 Pats comes Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium against Tampa Bay.
It's an easy assumption to make, really. Considering past success and the track record of the coach (Bill Belichick), it's not hard to picture the Patriots being in the mix for a Super Bowl berth in December. Getting to that point this year, however, will take some work. Some healing. And some luck, too.
The Patriots are 2-0 to start the season, the 7th time in Belichick's 14 seasons as head coach the team has begun this way. But that's not the problem. How they arrived at 2-0 has been the source of much discussion, angst and conjecture...and the result of a team that has had a sudden infusion of youth and inexperience. Still - they are 2-0. But it hasn't been a pretty 2-0. Brady's receiving corp is woefully inexperienced, they drop passes, they run wrong routes and the QB has been missing his top target at TE in Rob Gronkowski. The top runningback fumbles too much, and his top replacement is out for eight weeks with a broken wrist. The offensive line got beat up by the Jets.
Defensively, the Patriots have performed well, if unspectacularly. But it's the defense that has needed the upgrading over the past couple of seasons, and it appears those changes are beginning to take shape. There is a pass rush, up the middle and on the corners. There is run-stopping ability - as Vince Wilfork looks as solid as ever. The linebackers - while challenged somewhat in coverage situations - can plug the gaps and make stops. The secondary, with former TB Buccaneer Aqib Talib at one corner, is slowly improving...and Kyle Arrington's play at slot corner has been effective. Against the NY Jets, the defense sacked QB Geno Smith four times, and picked him off three times. No matter that it came against a rookie. The defense made plays, and saved the day.
Which is precisely what the Patriots want. The defense needs to save the day, perhaps for a bit longer, until the offense can regain some traction. The receivers still require time, and a lot of work, in order to be on Brady's page in the playbook. They can get there, but only if the defense - and the fans and the media - will allow them to. In the meantime, there's the issue of trying to get to 3-0 for the first time since 2007 (when they finished 16-0 and lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants)...and the Tampa Bay Bucs, at 0-2 and the victims of two last-second losses, are standing in the way.
3-0 sounds more like the Patriots past, even if in the present, they're really a long way from that past.
Keep working It
No time like the present to keep working the young, inexperienced receivers into the mix of the offense. While it would be nice to see them make the tough grabs, but at the very least, let's get them in the right spots to make the tough grabs. That would be a start. And considering that this progress could come against two of the better defensive backs in the NFL...in CB Darrelle Revis and S Dashon Goldson, that would be a real positive. It would also help if they could simply create space within a Tampa defense that leads the NFL in QB sacks after two weeks. They're pretty good. Expect Revis to attempt to put Julian Edelman on "Revis Island," with no chance of escape. That means someone else has to produce.
Give No Quarter
The Buccaneers have scored just 31 points in two games. Yes, the Patriots have scored only 36, but generally they have the potential to score more. Tampa? No one really knows. QB Josh Freeman is allegedly feuding with coach Greg Schiano, and is having trouble finding receivers. How he has trouble finding 6-5 WR Vincent Jackson may be one of the real mysteries behind the Bucs' 0-2 start. Finding the 5-9 Doug Martin running behind a good offensive line may be problematic for the Patriots' defense...he was third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage last year - as a rookie. If New England can get Tampa Bay in a hole, they've got to keep them there...in other words, force the pass.
After two weeks, the Buccaneers are tied for last in the league in penalties, committing 23 infractions. The Patriots, conversely, have just seven...which is second fewest. Don't make mistakes. Protect the ball. Win field position. All of these things are pertinent every week, but when the opponent is as good as you are - maybe better - the small things stand out. How can an 0-2 team be better than a 2-0 team? When the 0-2 team loses its games thanks to self-inflicted wounds (which Tampa largely did)...and the 2-0 team takes their current status for granted. We don't know if the Pats are doing that, but they are young...and this is a game that could go either way.