Despite a lack of trusted receivers and offensive in-continuity, the New England Patriots are 3-0. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are like a well-oiled machine; they continue to churn out wins no matter what is staring them in the face. This game is a perfect example, though, of why I think the Pats have a top-notch defense. In the past when New England would constantly blow the doors off of their opponents, the defense would play soft so as not to allow a big play. They would end up giving up a ton of garbage yards and the overall stats for the game would not look all that impressive. Now, with the Patriots somewhat struggling on offense, they are taking over the game on the defensive side of the ball. If you would like a stat that perfectly summarizes this game it is the conversion rate of Tampa Bay on the critical downs. The Bucs were only 5/14 on third down and went 0/4 on fourth down. They were simply unable to sustain drives throughout the course of this game and Tom Brady began to form a connection with his young crop of receivers. By then New England had their opponents in check mate.
The Buccaneers did not struggle to move the ball early on in the game. Rather, they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that were in front of them. Rian Lindell missed a 38 yard field goal on Tampa’s opening drive. On their next drive they were able to advance the ball to the New England 12 yard line only to have the drive bog down. Lindell kicked the 30 yard field goal to put his team up 3-0. On their following drive the Bucs had the ball at the New England 34 and decided to roll the dice on 4th down and 5. Ultimately the team came up short and missed out on another opportunity for points. From this point on the Buccaneers would find it difficult to move the ball with a lot of consistency against the solid Patriots defense, lead by coordinator Matt Patricia.
Of course, when you fail to move the ball against a Tom Brady lead team, you are asking for trouble. Brady made Tampa pay by hooking up with Kenbrell Thompkins twice in the second quarter for scores. Josh Freeman threw an ugly pick in the closing minute of the half, and the Pats translated that into points and took a 17-3 lead into the half. In the second half they added two more field goals to produce the final that you see, but this game could have been even worse had Tom Brady not thrown an interception at the goal line to Mark Barron midway through the third quarter.
Tampa Bay really struggled in the second half of this game on offense, and a lot of that is due to the fact that their star wide receiver Vincent Jackson missed time due to a rib injury. Mike Williams was already dealing with an injury of his own, as were starting tight ends Tom Crabtree and Luke Stocker. So Josh Freeman was forced to look elsewhere for production and he was not able to find it. Doug Martin was the most consistent weapon on offense for the Bucs; he produced 108 total yards for the team. Unfortunately he was not heavily involved later on in the game since Tampa Bay was in such a big hole. Freeman failed to complete half of his passes again this year; he was missing a lot of them high and some low. The New England front four was able to mount some pressure, making the Kansas product a bit antsy in the pocket. You can blame this team’s failures on Josh Freeman but in the second half he was working with a thin group of receivers. Sure, Tom Brady managed to do well enough with his depleted receiver corps, but as we all know Josh Freeman is no Tom Brady. Next week the Bucs will have to do a better job building a lead and capitalizing on scoring opportunities. I attribute this loss to the amount of missed chances Tampa had early on. The game could have been much closer, instead it was a 20 point blowout.
Next week the Patriots will be tested against the 1-2 Falcons down in Atlanta. It was important for this team to develop a little bit of continuity on offense if they are expected to go down to the Georgia Dome and trade points with the Falcons. After all, the Pats have only scored 59 points all year (compared to Atlanta’s 71). They will likely need to do better than their season high of 23 in order to trump Matt Ryan and company. In the meantime, Tampa Bay heads home to take on the 1-2 Arizona Cardinals. They will want to pick up a win heading into their Week 5 BYE so they can begin to build up their confidence once more. I know they are 0-3, but the Buccaneers are more talented than their record would imply. This could be a 2-1 team, but so it goes in a very unpredictable league. The one thing I know for sure is that the Patriots are still a tough team to beat, even if their offense is not up to par with the production we have gotten used to seeing over the years.