NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Despite narrowly escaping from contests with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets in the season’s first two weeks, the New England Patriots will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this afternoon in what should be their most difficult matchup yet. Although Greg Schiano’s Tampa Bay team is 0-2 and currently dealing with rumors of discord between Schiano and his players, the Buccaneers could easily be 2-0 at this juncture and boast a roster loaded with the type of talent that could give New England fits: an imposing defensive front led by elite defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a vastly improved secondary which features shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis and talented safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, a running game led by Doug Martin and which will likely feature the return of left guard Carl Nicks, and a talented receiving corps built around 6’5″, 230-pound vertical threat Vincent Jackson. Read on for ten keys to this week’s contest, which should demand vastly improved execution from New England’s roster.
1. Can the Patriots capitalize on Josh Freeman’s inefficient, turnover-prone play at quarterback?
Through slightly more than four NFL seasons, Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman remains a mystery, with a series of incongruous seasons. His career began with a disastrous rookie campaign before dramatically improving as a sophomore, only to return to his turnover-prone ways in each of the past two seasons. Freeman is one of the most physically-talented quarterbacks in the league and a legitimate big-play threat thanks to his massive arm, but he is a 58.4% passer over his career and has a combined 90 interceptions and fumbles through 59 career games. Thus far in 2013, he has sabotaged Tampa Bay in both of their first two contests, completing under 50% of his passes in both games and turning the ball over three times.
This week, rumors emerged that Freeman had missed numerous team meetings and had requested a trade, although the latter claim was denied by Freeman. Nonetheless, his time with the Buccaneers appears limited at best, as the organization invested a third-round pick in North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon this April, who is reportedly Schiano’s preferred long-term option. Freeman’s contract expires at the end of the season, and it’s very possible that he’ll be gone either then or by the trade deadline. New England must respect Freeman’s ability to throw deep, but they should be looking forward to playing an erratic quarterback who’s currently embroiled in controversy with his head coach.
2. How will New England’s 28th-ranked run defense fare against running back Doug Martin?
Despite fielding a defensive unit which has seen relatively little turnover from 2012 to 2013, the primary exception being the addition of Tommy Kelly, who replaces Kyle Love as New England’s starting defensive tackle, the Patriots rank 28th in run defense this season after concluding their 2012 campaign as the ninth-ranked team in terms of yards allowed. To some extent, that figure may be attributable to New England’s faltering offense, which has failed to create significant leads and consequently force opposing offenses to take to the air with the same sense of urgency as they did in 2012, but being mauled by the Jets last week, allowing 129 rushing yards to an underwhelming ground attack, was an embarrassment, the low point of which featured nose tackle Vince Wilfork being mauled by left guard Vladimir Ducasse on Bilal Powell’s three-yard plunge up the middle.
Although the Patriots will likely improve before the end of the season, they face a difficult matchup this week against a Tampa Bay rushing game which faltered in the season opener but performed more in line with expectations against New Orleans, with Martin gaining 144 yards on 4.97 yards per attempt as opposed to his 65 yards and 2.71-yard average in the opener. Despite recording just two catches thus far, the Patriots must also respect Martin’s ability as a receiver, having caught 49-472-1 last season.
3. Will the addition of Aqib Talib, acquired from Tampa Bay, help limit Vincent Jackson?
Through two games this season, Vincent Jackson has caught twelve passes for 231 yards, an average of 19.3 yards per reception which masks the fact that he’s caught just 50% of his passes thus far, an underwhelming total considering Tampa Bay’s investment of over $55.5 million in Jackson prior to the 2012 season. Although the sample size is relatively small at this point, it should also be noted that the wideout caught just 52.6% of his targets last season as well (72/137.) Jackson has also been targeted on seven interceptions over the past two seasons, which should create opportunities for Aqib Talib to add to his interception total, which currently stands at two after a pair of opportunistic grabs on underthrown passes by Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith last Thursday. In other words, look for Jackson to be targeted early and often, despite a relatively inefficient return on those investments.
However, New England shouldn’t get too complacent, as a would-be 73-yard touchdown was called back last week, obscuring his line. Jackson also dominated New England with San Diego in 2011, catching 10/15 targets for 172 yards and two touchdowns and undoubtedly establishing himself as a focal point of the Patriots’ future defensive gameplans in the process. Despite Talib’s size and athleticism, it would be a mistake to leave him without bracket coverage in this particular matchup.
4. Can right end Chandler Jones replicate his previous success against left tackle Jermon Bushrod?
In addition to the potential battle between Vince Wilfork and Carl Nicks, Patriots right end Chandler Jones’ matchup with Buccaneers blindside protector Donald Penn deserves mention. Last preseason, Jones created a buzz by dominating Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod (now with the Chicago Bears) and following up that performance with another outstanding effort versus Penn in preseason week three, in which Jones sacked Josh Freeman on one occasion and created pressure on a number of others, winning with both his power and with his bend. Tampa Bay rewarded Penn with a six-year, $41.7 million contract back in 2010 following an inconsistent campaign at left tackle in which the former Utah State star surrendered just five sacks but allowed 32 pressures and committed eleven penalties, according to ProFootballFocus.
Since then, Penn has improved, limiting his number of penalties and increasing his productivity as a run blocker. However, the matchup favors New England entering the contest, owing to Jones’ past success versus Penn, as well as the second-year defensive end’s quick start to the season, having recorded two sacks, two hits, and eight pressures over the first two games despite playing a pair of quality left tackles in Cordy Glenn (Bills) and D’Brickashaw Ferguson (Jets.) It will be a challenge, but Jones has a realistic opportunity to add to his season totals against Penn, although the 30 year-old has permitted just one sack and two pressures thus far.
5. Will the Buccaneers finally have the services of their elite left guard, Carl Nicks at their disposal?
Tampa Bay has used its past two offseasons to invest in a variety of franchise cornerstones, with one of their most expensive signings being left guard Carl Nicks, who was convinced to leave New Orleans for a five-year, $47.5 million contract which featured $31 million in guaranteed money. The 6’5”, 343-pound Nicks justified his reputation as one of the top guards in the league in 2011, playing every snap for New Orleans that season and adding to his reputation as a road grader in the run game and a surprisingly nimble pass protector. However, Nicks’ first season with Tampa Bay was cut short after the eighth week of the 2012 season, as a toe injury landed him on injured reserve in late October. He was succeeded at left guard by Rutgers product Jeremy Zuttah, who now starts at center.
This season, Nicks has been sidelined with a staph infection sustained during the preseason, clearing the way for first-round draft bust Gabe Carimi to start at left guard after two dismal seasons with the Bears. Needless to say, Carimi would be a much more appetizing opponent than Nicks this week, but the former has been ruled out for this week’s contest with an illness, while the latter took first-team practice reps on a limited basis and appears close to returning to the field. That doesn’t bode well for the Patriots, who may very well see Nicks on Sunday. However, it will be a treat for fans of trench battles, as we should see Nicks matched up against nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the foundation of New England’s defensive line.
6. Can Stevan Ridley make up for two underwhelming performances with success on the ground?
Running back Stevan Ridley, who appeared to emerge as a legitimate workhorse last season, has been perhaps the most underwhelming Patriot this season, seemingly losing his starting job to Shane Vereen nine attempts into the season thanks to a costly fumble before regaining his role via Vereen’s wrist injury but failing to capitalize, gaining just 40 yards on sixteen attempts in week two versus the Jets. Because the Patriots may have another difficult week throwing the ball (more on that later), a dramatically-improved performance from Ridley will likely be required to win this week. Unfortunately for Ridley, the Buccaneers currently rank eleventh against the run, allowing opponents to gain just 82.5 yards per game, with an aggressive front bolstered by a secondary both willing to support the run and effective at doing so. While regression to the mean will likely mean a better performance from Ridley than has been witnessed over the past two games, Greg Schiano’s defenses are typically characterized by stout run defense and it’s probably unrealistic to expect a complete breakthrough for the running back.
Ridley’s leash is obviously longer than it would be were Vereen healthy, but it’s possible that despite his ineffectiveness thus far, reserve running back LeGarrette Blount will receive a handful of opportunities to stick it to his former team, who traded him to New England in exchange for fellow running back Jeff Demps. That may not be a bad thing for Tampa Bay, as Blount is a low-percentage player, having been successful on just 37% of his rushes last season according to FootballOutsiders. He has gained just 26 yards on eleven carries this year.
7. How will New England’s offensive line account for Tampa Bay’s defensive line and blitz packages?
Last season, Buccaneers right end Adrian Clayborn, a 2011 first-round pick, tore his ACL in week three at Dallas and landed on injured reserve for the rest of the year. Tampa Bay’s starter on the opposite side, Da’Quan Bowers, a second-round pick from the same draft class, was limited by a torn Achilles suffered during OTAs, eventually returning in week eight but logging just 292 snaps on the season behind standout left end Michael Bennett, now with Seattle. The result was a relatively lethargic pass rush which depended almost completely on elite defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and which, according to Football Outsiders, pressured opposing quarterbacks less than 15% of the time when rushing four. The two have not been particularly effective thus far, with Bowers sharing time with 2012 starter Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who was brought in by New England for a private workout prior to the 2010 NFL Draft, but Tampa Bay’s pass rush has nonetheless been fearsome, with the Buccaneers currently tied with three other teams for the league lead in sacks (nine.)
In order to create pressure, Tampa Bay has relied on linebacker blitzes, resulting in 2.5 sacks for weakside linebacker Lavonte David, two sacks for middle linebacker Mason Foster, and one sack for strongside linebacker Dekoda Watson. Stopping McCoy should be the highest priority for New England’s offensive line, but their blitz recognition and pickup will be tested as well, and we should see an interesting battle between Clayborn and Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who was selected four picks ahead of the former Iowa Hawkeye.
8. Will New England’s receivers have any success against Tampa Bay’s vastly improved secondary?
The Buccaneers clearly prioritized defensive upgrades this past offseason, trading the thirteenth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and a conditional 2014 draft pick (either a third-or-fourth-round selection) to the New York Jets for shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis, with whom the Patriots are unfortunately well-acquainted. Although Revis missed nearly all of last season with a torn ACL, he has picked up right where he left off, being targeted on ten occasions this year but permitting just five completions for 46 yards, while getting his hands on two passes as well. Reports emerged this week of Revis’ frustration with Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, who Revis supposedly felt was running too strict an organization; another complaint mentioned was the team’s propensity for using zone coverage looks despite Revis’ status as perhaps the top man-coverage cornerback in the league. However, Revis and Schiano claim to have put the issue behind them, and, considering the massive investments Tampa Bay made in acquiring and compensating Revis, they have a vested interest in assuaging their star’s apprehensions, most likely by allowing him to play in his preferred coverages more often.
Because Revis’ presence on the field can, for all intents and purposes, eliminate one player from the field, the Patriots will not be able to get by with only one reliable receiving option this week as they did during Julian Edelman’s thirteen-catch performance last week. Fellow Buccaneers cornerback Leonard Johnson, a 2012 free agent, has allowed over 50 receiving yards in just one of his last seven games, while rookie second-round pick Johnthan Banks was considered a potential Patriots draft target this offseason. It should be interesting to see which cornerback Schiano most frequently assigns to each Patriots receiver.
9. What impact will recent free-agent investment Dashon Goldson have for Tampa Bay?
Dashon Goldson is set to participate in Sunday’s game after successfully overturning a one-game suspension handed down by the league office following the safety’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints running back Darren Sproles last week. Goldson, who signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract featuring $22 million in guaranteed money, was worked out by New England in August 2011 before ultimately opting to re-sign with the San Francisco 49ers on a one-year contract which allowed him to secure his most recent deal. Untested by Geno Smith and the New York Jets in the season opener, Goldson was targeted on six different occasions by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, surrendering four completions to the combination of Jimmy Graham (3/3, 62 yards) and Marques Colston (1/2, 13 yards.) However, it appears unlikely that the Patriots, with their own stud at tight end, Rob Gronkowski, sidelined, will challenge Goldson as thoroughly as New Orleans did last week.
In 2012, Tom Brady chanced just two passes in Goldson’s direction, completing one to Wes Welker for a seven-yard gain. After a disastrous 2011 campaign, Goldson substantially improved his level of play in 2012, allowing just three completions of over twenty yards all season. New England must also respect his physicality in the run game, although the safety’s aggressiveness has hurt him in the past, having been credited by ProFootballFocus with twenty-seven missed tackles over 2012 and 2013, including San Francisco’s playoff run.
10. Will Bill Belichick’s close relationship with Greg Schiano have any impact on the game?
Historically, the Patriots have had some trouble handling coaches who previously worked their way into Bill Belichick’s inner circle at some point. Notably, Nick Saban, then head coach of the Miami Dolphins, beat Belichick in the 2005 season finale and shut him out in 2006, Eric Mangini defeated Belichick in overtime in week eleven of the 2008 season as head coach of the New York Jets and trampled the Patriots once more as Browns head coach in 2010, and Josh McDaniels’ Denver Broncos team beat Belichick’s Patriots in overtime in 2009. The most logical reason for these shortcomings is most likely the opposing teams’ familiarity with Belichick’s overall philosophy and gameplanning approach, so it should be interesting to see what Greg Schiano, apparently one of Belichick’s closest friends in the pro ranks, has in store for the Patriots.
The two teams held joint practices together this preseason and met in New England’s second exhibition of the year, so it should be relatively difficult for either coach to surprise the other. However, that’s likely what will be required in order for either team to win. The Patriots have traditionally struggled to defend against opponents who deviate from their previous film (the most vivid example being Miami’s initial implementation of the wildcat offense on September 21, 2008), so it’s perhaps likely that we can will see some trickery in today’s contest from Schiano. Keep in mind that the Patriots currently employ a handful of Schiano’s former Rutgers players, so Belichick’s team figures to be well-prepared.
Final Prediction: Patriots 20, Buccaneers 17