When the NFL schedule was released, this week’s Thursday night matchup was more interesting than most. The defending Super Bowl champs going on the road for a rare visit to Tampa Bay against a Buccaneers team many expect to take the next step this season. Tom Brady vs. Jameis Winston. Much better than the annual Thursday night clashes between the Rams and 49ers or Bills and Jets.
But the way the first month of the season has played out has given us even more reason to look forward to this game. New England is struggling on defense like never before and is very close to being 1–3 despite boasting Brady and the league’s top-ranked offense. Can Bill Belichick fix a defense that is allowing 456.8 yards per game, worst in the NFL, on a short week?
The Bucs have a top-10 offense and could have won more comfortably last week if not for two missed field goals and a missed PAT. But they are not without their issues on defense. Tampa also is allowing nearly 400 yards per game and ranks 30th in total defense. Worse, only the Patriots have allowed more yards per game through the air... not a good sign with Brady in town.
New England at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 5 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Patriots -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Adjustments from the Hoodie
He may have only three days, but Bill Belichick has to come up with something to stop the bleeding from his defense. It’s still early, but the Patriots are on pace to give up the most yards in NFL history. They’ve already given up the most points by a defending Super Bowl champ through four games other than the 1987 Giants (whose numbers are skewed because of the players' strike and the use of replacement players). The answer may be keeping things simple, playing more zone and making Jameis Winston put together long drives as opposed to risking big plays against man-to-man coverage. While the Pats' corners are supposed to be good 1-on-1, they are allowing a quarterback rating of 122.6 while in man coverage this season. Opponents have thrown 10 touchdowns and only one interception in such situations. And big plays have been a huge problem: Through four games, New England has allowed 17 plays of 25 yards or more, plus a 34-yard pass interference penalty. Last week, two Carolina drives were apparently stopped before being extended by other penalties in the secondary. Maybe it’s time to back off, let the ball be caught short and make some tackles until the offense makes a mistake.
2. Brady playing ball control
If the defense can’t get it together, another option for the Pats is to play a little keep away. The Bucs are allowing only 2.9 yards per carry, second in the NFL, so running the ball will be tough for New England. Fortunately, no one is better at the short passing game than Tom Brady. So far this season, Brady is actually airing it out more; he leads the NFL with 41 pass attempts that traveled 15 yards or more in the air. Some of that maybe a function of trailing more than usual, but Brandin Cooks has definitely provided a deep threat New England has lacked since Randy Moss. Expect Brady to take a couple shots but also use short passes to running back James White as an extension of the running game. Until the defense gets things figured out, better to have the ball in Brady’s hands.
3. Bucs facing long road
Tampa Bay could use a win to keep pace with the Panthers and Falcons in the NFC South, because the schedule gets crazy for the Bucs after this game. The extra couple days between games will come in handy, because the Bucs lost their bye when their Week 1 game with Miami was moved to Week 11 due to Hurricane Irma. Worse, they will play six of their next eight on the road as a result, including zig-zagging across the country for back-to-back games in Arizona and Buffalo and a three-game stretch at Miami, Atlanta and Green Bay for Weeks 11-13. If they can hang around, the Bucs close with three of four at home, but will it be too late? They have a rare chance to catch the Patriots when they are reeling a bit, at least on one side of the ball. If they let it slip away, they might regret it.
It’s possible that New England has too many issues on the defensive side of the ball to fix by just keeping it simple until bigger changes can be made with a few extra days off. It’s also possible the Patriots could get into another shootout like they did against the Texans, only this time Tom Brady can’t quite save them. It’s more likely that Brady has another big night against a pass defense that is almost as bad as his own, the Pats escape, and Bill Belichick uses the long week to fix the defense. We just can’t bet against the defending Super Bowl champions just yet.