By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For a team looking to fix their defense and bounce back after a second defeat on their home field, an appearance on Thursday Night Football is the last thing the Patriots need right now.
But that’s what the they face just four days after their last-second defeat to the Carolina Panthers, as took one of those fancy AirKrafts to Tampa Bay for their Week 5 tilt against the 2-1 Buccaneers. The Patriots sit at just 2-2 on the season thanks in large part to their abysmal defense over the season’s first month, allowing an embarrassing 128 points overall and 456.8 yards per contest. The defense that was supposed to be one of the league’s best looks more like a 5-year-old playing a video game for the first time. They look lost for long stretches, and that has led to some big plays by the opposition and a whole lot of points up on the scoreboard.
Of course, that D has the benefit of Tom Brady leading the offense, and the 40-year-old is having one of the best starts to his career. It’s why the Patriots are a .500 team and not one in full panic mode at the moment.
The Patriots can help relieve some of those defensive woes with even just a decent performance in Tampa, giving Bill Belichick 10 days to really fix the issues before a Week 6 tilt against the Jets in New York. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and Buccaneers kick off (and even something prior to kickoff) on Thursday night.
A Simple Plan On D
After Sunday’s loss, the main takeaway was the defense had to go back to square one. Their communication issues are costly and plentiful, and if they want to get on track, the best course of action is to keep it simple, if even just for this short week.
That could mean we’ll see some man coverage from their Swiss cheese secondary. Jameis Winston has loads of talent to throw to in Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, not to mention a pair of talented tight ends in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Malcolm Butler on DeSean Jackson should be fun to watch, and it’d be nice if Stephon Gilmore could hold his own (with help) against the 6-foot-5 Mike Evans and for the first time this season, show he was worth all that money he received over the offseason.
Eric Rowe’s injury adds even more pressure to the secondary. After starting over Butler in Week 2 before being injured, Rowe replaced a benched Gilmore in the second half last week — before being injured. So if you were hoping that Gilmore would get a week off to clear his head, that isn’t happening. But how much more simple can they make the defense — a question that was somewhat posed by some veteran’s after Sunday’s loss?
With the secondary struggling, we should see the Patriots up the pressure on Winston, a guy who can buy some extra seconds with his legs. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise will likely be unleashed early and often, though Bill Belichick did joke (we hope) that Wise could be called upon to D-up on Evans and his monster frame. Some added pressure from those two (who account for five of New England’s eight sacks on the season) will force Winston into the mistakes he’s been prone to making. If not, he may have a field day with the struggling secondary.
As safety Devin McCourty put it earlier this week, the biggest key is to keep the opponent off the scoreboard, and the Patriots simply haven’t been doing their job in that department.
“The most important stat to us is points, and we’re last in points. So, that’s what it comes down to. Our offense has scored more than enough points to win games,” said the captain. “So obviously, to me, not every stat is important to winning, but the key stat is points. When you’re last in that, there’s a lot you need to do better defensively.”
The Patriots don’t need to fix all their defensive issues on Thursday night, but they certainly have to do a lot better.
Don’t Count On The Run — For Either Team
It will come as no surprise, but Brady is probably going to have to do it all again this week. It would be nice if he could rely on a decent run game behind him, but that just isn’t the case so far, with New England averaging just 3.6 yards per carry.
You may be one of those begging the Patriots to run the ball more in hopes of Brady staying a little more upright throughout the game, but that shouldn’t be a big concern this week. The Bucs have just one sack through three games this season, and really haven’t been putting much pressure on the quarterback. Brady should have time to operate, which should mean some big points for the Patriots. But don’t count on that to mean a lot of rushing yards.
The same can be said for the Buccaneers, whose backs are averaging just 84.7 rush yards per game — good for 26th in the NFL. Their 3.85 yards per carry sit at 19th in the league. Doug Martin is coming off of his suspension and may be bringing a set of fresh legs to Tampa’s stable, which was “led” by Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber in Martin’s absence, but chances are both quarterbacks are going to have to put their team on their shoulders on Thursday night.
Take The Ball?
It’s usually a foregone conclusion that the Patriots will defer if they win the coin toss. But with the defense struggling so much, could Belichick go against his usual grain and take the ball to start the game?
Belichick loves the chance of the double score to end the first half and start the second, but he could change things up if he’s lost even more faith in his defense. Keep the defense off the field to start the game and let the offense put up points.
The problem with that is the Patriots scored a touchdown on their opening drive in each of their first three games of the season, failing to do so for the first time last Sunday against the Panthers, and that early cushion didn’t really help their defense. The Patriots have had the first possession in three of their first four games this season, leading to 17 points, but they’re only 1-2 in those games.
But if he wants to avoid a potential early hole on a short week, the hooded-one could change things up just a bit.
Please, Stay Healthy
Really, no one likes these Thursday night games except for Roger Goodell and everyone else who gets to line their fancy pockets thanks to the National Football League. Coaches and players hate it because you cut their intricately and expertly planned week of preparation (and in the players’ case, recovery) in half, giving them just three days to get ready for another 60 minutes of bruising and punishing action.
That usually leads to some pretty bad football in some pretty bad uniforms, which fans are now used to seeing on these short weeks. It also leads to a bigger probability of injuries, which the Patriots cannot afford on either side of the ball. So this is one of those “survive and escape with a win in any way possible” kind of games for the Patriots. Chances are it’s going to be an ugly one, which was to be expected, but hopefully that ugliness doesn’t mean the Pats are sending a handful of players to the medical tent.
Tune in to Patriots-Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5FM at 5:30pm with full postgame coverage after the game. WBZ-TV kicks off their coverage with Patriots GameDay at 7pm, and switch over to myTV38 after the game to catch Patriots Fifth Quarter!