NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots remain undefeated after an impressive defensive performance and a relatively more encouraging offensive game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who dominated the initial phase of the game but fell behind following injuries to their top two receiving options, wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Read on for five of the most relevant occurrences in this afternoon’s victory.
1. Patriots have success with committee approach despite Ridley’s struggles
Stevan Ridley’s recent struggles led to what was initially a committee approach at running back, with Brandon Bolden surprisingly starting the game and making a twelve-yard reception on the team’s first offensive play. Following that, the Patriots rotated their top three running backs, with the first three carries going to Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Bolden, in that order.
Stevan Ridley received the most carries early on, but it was Bolden who made the most impressive play of the early going, gaining 46 yards on a sharp cutback which would have went for a touchdown had he not been caught from behind by Mark Barron, who also intercepted Tom Brady in the end zone to prevent the Patriots from scoring on the drive. The committee approach served New England well, with Bolden having re-established himself as an effective offensive option on a team which has received inconsistent production at best from their skill-position players. Surprisingly, Bolden, previously considered more of a one-trick pony, looked like an effective receiver as well, catching five of the six passes thrown his way for 49 yards, bringing his total yardage on the day to 100 yards. Ridley’s 3.2 yards per attempt were less than desirable, while Blount was largely ineffective while the game was still competitive.
2. Wide receivers significantly more productive than in first two performances
Over the first two weeks of the season, New England’s inability to find consistent producers among their rookie wide receivers was one of the team’s major storylines, but the early returns were more encouraging this week, with rookie second-round pick Aaron Dobson catching his first three passes, gaining 26 yards, while undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins was unable to cradle a low pass on his first target but caught a sixteen-yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage by the Buccaneers which featured defensive end Adrian Clayborn making a zone drop and being left alone with the rookie receiver.
Although Dobson narrowly missed a couple of potentially catchable balls, Brady scored his second touchdown of the day late in the second quarter on an “in” route to Thompkins in which the rookie beat fellow rookie and second-round draft pick Johnthan Banks. Thompkins did drop a pass on a crossing route early in the third quarter, but made up for it shortly afterwards by catching a twenty-yard pass between two defenders to set up first and goal. Thompkins ended up catching just three of seven passes thrown his way, but Brady’s 10/17 passing on throws to Dobson and Thompkins was encouraging, especially because the rookie receivers weren’t to blame on many of the incompletions in what was an uncharacteristically inconsistent performance from Brady.
3. Brady sacked three times, hit six in uneven blocking performance
Prior to this week’s contest, our Ten Keys article highlighted some of the potential difficulties which may arise from attempting to pass protect against an aggressive defensive front, and the game’s early events served to confirm those suspicions. Tom Brady was sacked by Buccaneers weakside linebacker Lavonte David and strong safety Mark Barron on a third-down blitz, sabotaging New England’s first drive, and a first-down sack by Adrian Clayborn also prevented the Patriots from moving the chains a single time on their third drive of the game. In the mid third-quarter, the Patriots were temporarily taken out of field-goal range by a quick sack from rookie nose tackle Akeem Spence, who took advantage of his initial burst in order to overwhelm New England center Ryan Wendell, who played well last season but has struggled thus far in 2013.
Quick pressure also prevented the Patriots from producing quite as much as anticipated, as Tampa Bay’s pass rush factored into Brady’s underthrow of Aaron Dobson in the end zone on a drive which concluded with an interception. Simply put, although the sacks were fairly dispersed throughout the contest, it’s not sustainable for Tom Brady to be hit six times and sack three on a consistent basis.
4. Coverage benefits from injuries, still leaves room for improvement
With Vincent Jackson receiving plenty of attention from the Patriots, Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman looked to his second option, Mike Williams, who caught a 28-yard pass deep down the left side of the field with Alfonzo Dennard in coverage, then an eight-yard pass with Kyle Arrington in coverage on the next snap, although the field position granted to Tampa Bay as a result was not capitalized on. Later in the first quarter, a questionable pass interference call on Arrington on a pass intended for Williams set up a 30-yard field goal by Lindell, giving the Buccaneers an early 3-0 lead.
Williams moved the Buccaneers into Patriots territory at the beginning of the second quarter by beating Dennard on a crossing route, but appeared to suffer an injury on the play which required attention from Tampa Bay’s training staff. After returning to the game, Williams may have converted another first-down on the same drive if not for a borderline penalty by Dennard which was not flagged, but which fortunately rewarded the Patriots with a Buccaneers turnover on downs. Dennard also permitted a 22-yard back-shoulder throw to Eric Page despite a declined illegal contact penalty. Fortunately for New England, Jackson left the game early with an injury, while Williams was hobbled and prevented from producing at the same level. Nonetheless, the coverage could stand to improve next week, particularly from Dennard’s perspective, although the performance wasn’t entirely bad, as the Patriots held Josh Freeman to less than 50% passing on the day.
5. Strong performances from multiple Patriots pass rushers
If New England’s coverage on the day was inconsistent, their ability to reach Josh Freeman in the passing game was encouraging, as the Patriots recorded eight quarterback hits on the day, including three sacks. Even better, those hits and sacks were divided across a diverse group of pass rushers, with defensive ends Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, and Michael Buchanan, along with defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo recording hits on Freeman (the three sacks being split between Mayo, Jones, Ninkovich, and Kelly.)
As an added benefit, the production occurred against what is typically considered a strong Buccaneers offensive line which features four high-price investments: left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Carl Nicks, right guard Davin Joseph, and right tackle Demar Dotson. Hopefully for the Patriots, their success rushing the passer will continue next week against a Falcons offensive line which is not considered one of the stronger units in the league, having been forced to withstand the recent losses of players such as offensive guard Harvey Dahl (following the 2011 season) and right tackle Tyson Clabo (this past offseason.) Former first-round pick and current starting right end Chandler Jones is establishing himself as one of the most exciting young pass-rushers in the league.