After getting crushed by the Tennessee Titans last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came out on fire against the New England Patriots. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the strength of a solid first drive and an interception return for a touchdown from rookie safety Mark Barron. Though the offense cooled off, the Bucs’ defensive line made their presence felt by continually harassing quarterback Tom Brady. When the franchise quarterback continually hits the turf, fingers point to the offensive line, and it’s time for New England fans to wonder if their struggles are a preseason blip or a sign of things to come.
As is often the case in Week 3 of the preseason, the starters saw a good amount of action into the second half, so we have a bit more to work with as we evaluate the starters for each team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Three Things of Note
1) Rookie Defenders
After spending high draft picks on defensive linemen in recent years, Tampa Bay added potential playmakers to the back-seven in Mark Barron and linebacker Lavonte David. Barron was the No. 7 overall pick, while David was chosen late in the second round. The rookies showed up on back-to-back plays early in the first quarter. First, David knifed through a block by right guard Donald Thomas to make a tackle for no gain on a toss play. Then, New England ran the same play to the other side and Barron read it quickly and combined with DE Adrian Clayborn for the stop. On the Patriots’ next possession, Barron picked up his interception, which was a bit of a gift off a Ronde Barber tip but he read it well and took it into the end zone. David later showed nice burst as a pass rusher to explode through an open hole in the line and pick up a hit on Brady.
It wasn’t all positives for the youngsters, as Thomas got the better of David on a pull block that sealed the edge on a 29-yard run by running back Stevan Ridley. He was then moved pretty easily by TE Rob Gronkowski on another Ridley run. Barron’s only negative play came when he was sealed by TE Aaron Hernandez on Ridley’s 1-yard touchdown run, but it was a solid game for both rookies who will stepping into the starting lineup in Tampa Bay from day one.
2) Michael Bennett
Do you know who Michael Bennett is? We covered him in our Secret Superstar piece for the Bucs and he was our eighth best 4-3 defensive end last season, second against the run. Be sure to check out his Week 4 game against the Indianapolis Colts from last season to see a dominant performance. Bennett was impressive in this game, and it started early in the first quarter as he got under right tackle Marcus Cannon and absolutely crushed an unsuspecting Brady to pick up a sack and forced fumble. He picked up another hit on Brady near the end of the quarter, but this time it came while rushing from defensive tackle. Bennett later slipped past tight end Daniel Fells to make a stop for no gain on RB Danny Woodhead.
With DE D’Quan Bowers likely out for the season, it will be on Bennett to hold down the left end spot, and he appears ready for the challenge.
3) Josh Freeman to Vincent Jackson
The Bucs spent a lot of money on WR Vincent Jackson in order to give QB Josh Freeman a big-play threat on the outside. The duo looked good early in this game as they hooked up for 49 yards on three passes, all on the first drive. The first came on a beautiful throw from Freeman to hit Jackson in between the CB and the safety in cover-2 for 25 yards. They later connected for 14 yards on a curl route on 3rd-and-12, and followed it up with another curl for 10 yards on the next play. The only blip for Jackson was a drop on a wide-open crossing route in the second quarter. Freeman looked much less comfortable throwing to his other receivers and it looks like Jackson will be a frequent target this season.
New England Patriots – Three Things of Note
1) Pass-Blocking Woes
The story of the Patriots preseason has been the poor play on the offensive line and this game continued that trend. It should be noted that it’s been a bit of a makeshift group, but it’s still alarming how many times Brady was moved off his perch, particularly the number of big hits he took. The other discouraging sign for the Patriots is that the pressure is coming from a number of different sources. It’s not just one player who is getting beat, there is pressure coming from all angles and each player on the line has been responsible at some point. In addition to the lost one-on-one matchups, there were a number of free blitzers who got shots on Brady in this game.
The offensive line concerns could be moot with the return of LG Logan Mankins and RT Sebastian Vollmer, as well as the hopeful return of RG Brian Waters. For now, the players who are out there have a way to go both physically and mentally.
2) Run-Stopping Front Seven
It looks as if Head Coach Bill Belichick has built a defense ready to stop the great running teams of the 1970s. Sure, it’s becoming a passing league, but the Patriots look stout in the front seven. The one constant is defensive tackle Vince Wilfork who was tremendous in this game as he shed blocks and made plays in the running game. Behind him are three run-stopping linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower. The trio combined for eight stops against the run, with Spikes in particular his usual self attacking downhill, taking on blockers, and punishing ball carriers. Much like last season, it appears that opposing teams will be taking to the air to move the ball on the Patriots.
3) Ridley Taking Control
Despite the issues in protecting the Brady, the offensive line did open some holes in the running game and Stevan Ridley took full advantage. He rushed for 87 yards on his 16 carries and he appears to be the frontrunner to take the majority of the carries in New England this season. He showed nice burst on a couple of runs, particularly his 29-yard gain that he bounced outside. The offensive line was able to give him a well-blocked edge on a few occasions and Ridley showed impressive speed getting around the corner.
One thing that former Patriots RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis was lauded for was his ability to take what the defense gave him and his consistency was a valuable asset to the offense. Ridley has a chance to add an extra dimension, as he has the speed and power to turn poorly blocked plays into positive ones. As long as he holds onto the ball, the running game should be in good hands with Ridley.