ReFo: Buccaneers @ Patriots, Week 3
It’s a rare sight to see two teams meet each other three times in such a short period of time, but after multiple training camp practices, a preseason game, and now a regular season contest, the players are surely sick of each other — and Bill Belichick and Greg Schiano have likely run out of recipes to trade. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ third trip to New England to visit the Patriots ended in a 23-3 loss that saw them fall to 0-3, while the Patriots improved to 3-0.
You’d think the New England Patriots were the 0-3 team the way people are talking about their “slow” start, and while they’re certainly not winning with the same pizzazz to which we’ve grown accustomed, perhaps it’s time to give their defense some credit for the first time in years. Granted, they’ve faced a pair of rookie quarterbacks and a struggling Josh Freeman, but any strong defensive effort is a welcomed sight in Foxborough after their scarcity in recent years.
For Tampa Bay, the questions will continue this week around Freeman and his future with the team. The young, promising defense has put together a string of strong efforts, but putting just 34 points on the board in three games is the obvious reason for the slow start.
Let’s take a look at the key performances from the game.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
The three points on the scoreboard might lead you to believe it was a disastrous performance for Freeman (+1.6), but it wasn’t the worst we’ve seen from him, and there were in fact some positives. He threw a beautiful deep route to Mike Williams on his first pass of the game, but of course followed it up with an overthrow just three plays later. After Tampa Bay’s first drive ended in a missed field goal, their second drive was going well until Freeman forced a throw into the end zone that was nearly picked off by free safety Devin McCourty. He bounced back on the very next pass, however, to drop a corner route where only tight end Timothy Wright could catch it, but Wright was unable to haul it in and the Bucs settled for yet another field goal attempt, this time with the 3 points tacked on. Those sequences represent the day in a nutshell for the Bucs, as Freeman and his teammates worked to undo their good with just enough bad to keep them out of the end zone.
Freeman’s most egregious mistake came at the end of the half as Tampa Bay faced a no-mans-land type decision to run the clock to take it to the locker room, or give it a shot at a last-second field goal. Their aggressiveness backfired as Freeman threw ill-advised into coverage and former teammate Aqib Talib made him pay with the interception that instead set up a late field goal for New England. As the game wore on, Freeman’s wide receiving corps became depleted and the offense continued to be just a beat off when it came to making the big conversion.
Big Plays Work Both Ways
Often lost in the narrative of the football game are the plays that never were, the ones that end up neglected by the boxscore and earn perhaps just a mere mention during the broadcast. Safety Mark Barron’s day fits the bill as his nine tackles, sack, and interception will have many assuming he was the best defender for the Bucs on Sunday. That wasn’t exactly the case as he was right around average, with one of his biggest blunders being bailed out by a poor pass from QB Tom Brady and subsequently rectified two plays later. With the Patriots on the 6-yard line facing 1st-and-goal, Brady’s play action completely fooled Barron, among other Tampa Bay defenders, but the throw to wide open Aaron Dobson found nothing but grass. After an incompletion, Brady’s 3rd-and-goal pass appeared headed for Dobson again, this time in the back of the end zone, but Barron leaped up from his double coverage on TE Zach Sudfeld and snatched the ball out of the air for the interception. It was one of a number of good plays from Barron, who also beat RB Brandon Bolden for his sack and later knocked away an out route intended for the running back.
While the box score plays were good to Barron, it was the hidden plays that put his day at +0.1 overall, including -1.4 in coverage. In addition to his leaving Dobson open in the end zone, he fell over completely on a Brady play action with 11:16 to go in the second quarter as not one, but two New England receivers zoomed past him wide open in the secondary, though neither was targeted on the play. When you throw in a poor pursuit angle on a third-quarter run by Bolden, and a missed tackle on TE Michael Hoomanawanui that put the Patriots into field goal range, you see that big plays followed Barron all around the field on Sunday, for better or for worse.
Bookends Play Well
Going largely unnoticed through three games is the play of Tampa Bay’s offensive tackles Donald Penn and Demar Dotson. They both graded at +2.8 in this game and have now moved to +8.3 and +6.8 respectively on the season. Penn surrendered just a sack and a hurry on 47 pass rushes, though the sack was perhaps a bit harsh as the entire offense appeared to be running draw except for Freeman who looked to pass before taking the quick hit. Dotson also allowed only two hurries while adding a couple nice second-level blocks in the running game. Through two weeks, the Bucs sat atop our offensive line Pass Blocking Efficiency rankings, and Penn and Dotson have led the way.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Not All on the Rookies
It’s been pretty clear that the New England passing game has struggled through three games, and while the chemistry between Brady and the young receivers certainly bears some responsibility in the matter, Brady has left a number of plays on the field and that trend continued against the Bucs. The domino effect was evident as the aforementioned end zone miss to Dobson led to the forced throw that was picked off by Barron. Brady’s poor throws often come in bunches, and that series at the beginning of the third quarter was not his finest. For the day, only 92 of his 225 yards came through the air, and only six of his 36 aimed passes traveled more than 10 yards. Brady’s -2.9 grade is his worst since Week 7 of 2010 when he graded at -4.4 against the San Diego Chargers.
The Patriots’ pass defense has been under scrutiny seemingly forever, but the secondary returned intact this season and the early performances have been strong. For the first time this season, the cornerbacks matched up as Talib (+2.8) tracked WR Vincent Jackson while he was in, and CB Alfonzo Dennard went up against WR Mike Williams. After giving up a couple of early first downs, Talib bounced back by just barely getting his hand in on a deep pass to Jackson and then followed it up with the interception at the end of the first half. Dennard had his struggles, as he got beat by Williams down the sideline with 12:40 to go in the first quarter and later had an illegal contact penalty declined as the back shoulder throw to WR Eric Page was still completed for the first down. Though he did get his hands on two passes, he also missed a tackle on TE Nate Byham, and finished the day surrendering six receptions for 110 yards on his 10 targets.
Left Side Production
The Patriots continued to get stellar play from the left side of their offensive line as LG Logan Mankins and LT Nate Solder graded at +4.6 and +4.5 respectively. Mankins was perfect on his 42 pass block attempts and he was a force in the running game (+4.1 run block) — he was particularly proficient in the Patriots’ zone scheme that was featured prominently on Sunday. He got movement on DT Gerald McCoy a number of times to open holes for Patriots running backs.
Solder gave up one solitary hurry on his 42 attempts, an Adrian Clayborn swipe to the back of Brady’s jersey, but even that hurry was recovered nicely as Solder was able to ride him past the pocket in time to allow Brady to step up. He wasn’t nearly as dominant as Mankins in the running game, but he did take advantage of undersized DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, first pinning him inside and later manhandling him to the ground.
– 21 of Freeman’s 38 targeted passes traveled beyond 10 yards.
– All five of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s kickoffs went out of the end zone for touchbacks.
– Tampa Bay rookie DT Akeem Spence played a career-high 51 snaps, and graded at +1.5 as a pass rusher, including a sack and two hurries on 20 rushes.
PFF Game Ball
A perfect day in pass protection, combined with some dominant run blocking, earns Patriots LG Logan Mankins the game ball.
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