|Brady celebrates with Thompkins after the first |
of the rookie's two touchdown catches on the day
What: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New England Patriots, NFL Week 3
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA
When: 22 September 2013
We will learn a lot more about the 2013 New England Patriots in the next three games (at Atlanta, at Cincinnati, vs. New Orleans) than we have so far in the first three. But Patriots fans breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday when the Patriots finally started looking like the Patriots again after an uneven performance in the team's first two games. The wins against the Bills and the Jets were close contests that could have gone either way; the Patriots weren't lucky to win those games (they made fewer mistakes in the fourth quarter in each contest) but they are games that they easily could have lost. Not so on Sunday, in a game that marked the Pats' best all-around performance since the 41-28 shellacking of the Texans in January.
This isn't a complete team yet, but the main sign of progress that was expected -- a better rapport between Tom Brady and his receivers -- was evident on Sunday. Whereas Brady was reluctant to go to his new targets in the red zone early in the season (recall that both TDs against the Bills were on red-zone passes to Julian Edelman), both Pats TDs against the Bucs went to Kenbrell Thompkins, a man who caught just 4 of the 14 passes thrown his way two weeks ago. Tampa Bay prevented a certain third touchdown to Aaron Dobson in the third quarter with some nice pressure at the goal-line, but the important takeaway was that Brady was looking for the rookie in the end zone on that play.
I can't sit here and say that the connection (or lack thereof) between Brady and his new teammates was the reason for the Pats' shaky start. Whether he trusted them or not, Brady had no choice but to throw to Dobson and Thompkins in the last two games, and Brady is not the kind of player who will force a throw to a double-covered favorite of his rather than pass to a wide-open lesser receiver (though I do recall one pass where Brady threw a pass to the sideline into coverage instead of hitting one of two wide open receivers streaking down the middle of the field). Brady was going to make the correct throw, and if his wideout couldn't make the play, there's nothing Brady could have done about it. But I've got to imagine that the improvement in his receivers' performance against Tampa Bay was only a good thing for Brady. Like Peyton Manning, Brady is a perfectionist, and his frustration against the Jets in Week 2 was evident for all to see. Once it becomes second nature for Brady to hit his rookies, he'll have one less thing to worry about in the pocket, allowing him to focus on the relatively simple tasks of diagnosing the coverage, evading pressure, making his reads and throwing the ball into space. (To be clear, the end of that sentence was sarcastic: playing quarterback in the NFL is hard.)
Some more thoughts from the game:
Why the Patriots won
- I mentioned it above, but a better overall performance from the receivers (fewer drops, less miscommunication on routes) had a dramatic effect on the Patriots' offense. Brady's overall numbers weren't earth-shattering (25-for-36, 225 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), but his completion percentage (69%) was far superior to what he posted against the Bills (56%) and Jets (49%).
- Bill Belichick's teams are known for their ability to play situational football. What that means, essentially, is that they are constantly aware of the clock and game situation and use this knowledge to adjust the goals of each play accordingly. No series embodied this better than the final seconds of the first half. Trailing 14-3, Tampa Bay had 1st and 10 from its own 31 with 16 seconds remaining in the half. Josh Freeman (showing a lack of situational awareness) threw underneath intended target Vincent Jackson, where Aqib Talib was waiting for the interception (his third in two weeks). Freeman needs to know that the one thing he can't do in that situation is turn the ball over and the way to avoid that is by eschewing the underneath throw for a pass with more loft. If it goes out of bonds, fine, but Freeman couldn't afford a pick there. Talib, on the other hand, gambled for a turnover on the play, knowing he had some field to work with and that there wasn't much time left for TB to get in field goal range. He made a good play on the ball, but he was able to do that because he was aware of the situation and knew the risk-reward ratio of his decision was weighted heavily toward reward. Taking over with 11 seconds remaining at the TB 43, New England needed about seven yards to justify attempting a field goal. Brady threw a quick pass to Brandon Bolden (who played a solid all-around game on Sunday) for three yards and called timeout. On the next play, with six seconds remaining, Brady ran a sneak up the middle for five crucial yards, allowing NE to call timeout with three ticks left. Brady is the master of the QB sneak, and this one was even more effective because TB likely expected a short pass rather than a running play, let alone a QB sneak. On the final play of the half, Stephen Gostkowski tied his career long with a 53-yarder. The points didn't end up making a difference, but the way each team reacted to the situation showed the difference between NE and TB on Sunday.
- The pass rush was solid (3 sacks, 8 hits) -- not as good as last week against the Jets, but better than it was against Buffalo. Stalwart linebacker Jerod Mayo had a great game, recording nine tackles, including a sack and a tackle for loss. The Pats got also another sack from Chandler Jones (his third on the season).
- The Pats had their best rushing day of the season, with 33 carries going for 156 yards (4.7 ypc). Stevan Ridley wasn't particularly effective (11 carries, 35 yards) but both LeGarrette Blout (14 carries, 65 yards) and Brandon Bolden (3 carries, 51 yards) looked good behind the Pats' O-line.
- Gostkowski had a good day at the office, tying his career long with the 53-yarder and adding makes from 46 and 33.
- You can quibble that the Bucs missed some opportunities and that they're a bit of a mess right now, but the defense was very good overall. They didn't allow Doug Martin to bust any big plays (no run over 12 yards) and Freeman completed just 19 of 41 passes. Most importantly, the Pats only surrendered three points, total.
Why the Buccaneers lost
- Injuries to the Bucs' top wideouts, Jackson and Mike Williams, really hurt them in the second half. Without them, Freeman was forced to rely on Eric Page and Kevin Ogletree, not exactly a winning formula. Tampa looked good moving the ball on the Patriots in the first half and should have come away with more points than they did. Not so in the second half, as they were largely shut down by the New England defense.
- Missed opportunities. Tampa missed an easy opportunity to draw first blood when Rian Lindell missed wide right from 38 yards on their first possession. The Bucs then had to settle for three on their second drive after having 1st and 10 from the NE 15. As I mentioned in my Tulane-Syracuse recap, good quarterbacks get touchdowns in the red zone. Tampa had to settle for field goals (or missed field goals). Tampa then failed on fourth down their next two possessions (4th and 5 from the NE 34 and 4th and 1 from the NE 38, both good decisions and bad execution) before Freeman's costly INT before the break. That second fourth down failure was immediately preceded by a costly drop by Jackson that would have given TB a first and goal situation. That was all five Tampa possessions in the first half. I'll talk a little bit more about the final one in my next point, but when you're able to get that close to scoring range every time, you want to have more than just three points, total, to show for it.
- I mentioned that Freeman's bad decision gifted the Pats three points before the half, but Greg Schiano's playcalling also has to be questioned in that situation. Tampa took over at their own 20 with 47 seconds to play in the first half and two timeouts. They ran the ball on first down for five yards; 25 seconds elapsed before they got the next play off. Instead of kneeling, however, Freman attempted a deep pass that fell incomplete. On third and five, TB picked up the first down with a short throw to Tim Wright and called timeout. They still only had the ball at their own 31, but elected to throw another short pass to Jackson on 1st and 10 with 16 seconds left. So the sequence was as follows: run, deep pass, short pass, short pass (INT). What was Greg Schiano trying to do there? That sort of incoherent playcalling suggests no larger plan and looks embarrassing compared to the Patriots' precise playcalling once they took over possession. Run plays there end the half; deep passes mean that interceptions at least don't give NE great field position. A run play followed by short passes doesn't make any sense and Schiano was punished for it.
- The result of the above play was that Tampa entered the second half down two touchdowns and had to throw on most plays. New England knew it was coming, dealt with it effectively and shut out the Bucs over the final 30 minutes. If Tampa took its opportunities in the first half, it could have been an entirely different ballgame.
- More free Patriots points: the Pats had 3rd and 19 at the TB 44 in the third quarter. Brady threw a short pass to Michael Hoomanawanui, which safety Mark Barron should have stopped easily for a short gain. But Barron blew the tackle, allowing Hoomanawanui to pick up 16 yards on the play, getting NE well within field goal range. Gostkowski made the ensuing 46-yarder to put NE up 20-3.
- Tampa was 0-for-4 on fourth down attempts.
These sections will be shorter than usual, because I feel the right teams won on Sunday.
Why the Patriots could have lost
- I know that criticizing Brady borders on heresy in New England, but I've noticed that he's been short on a lot more throws than normal through three games. His interception at the goal-line in the third quarter also prevented NE from scoring at least a guaranteed field goal. Some of his struggles have been due to the receivers, but Brady hasn't shown the crispness and pinpoint accuracy on his passes that we've come to expect. I'm not panicking, but Brady is 36 years old and it's something that bears watching for the rest of the season.
- Bolden gave up on a sideline route in the second quarter that could have resulted in a big gain for New England. Brady was justifiably furious with his Bolden, as his pass sailed several yards in front of him -- exactly where Bolden would have been if he had run hard for the entire play.
Why the Buccaneers could have won
- I think the "Why the Buccaneers lost category" epitomizes this pretty well -- they made several costly errors that gifted New England points and could not capitalize when they were able to move the ball on the Patriots' defense. I would not want to be a Bucs player forced to rewatch this one in film study this week.