Patriots at Buccaneers; Five Key Matchups to Watch

Oct 1, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; Carolina Panthers safety Demetrious Cox (36) attempts to tackle New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) after a reception during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Each week the game comes down to the matchups. These are the top 5 matchups that will determine which team emerges victorious.

The New England Patriots came from behind for the second week in a row but this time they left too much time for quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. A week removed from a dramatic comeback win 36-33 last week against the Houston Texans, the Patriots came up short losing 33-30.

This week, the 2-2 Patriots board their brand-new 767 team plane (Can we agree to call it “Patriots Force One”?) for the first time as they travel to Tampa to play the 2-1 Buccaneers. New England last played in Tampa in 1997 (the “home” game for Tampa Bay in 2009 was played in London) and face a tough Tampa Bay defense. In addition to an explosive offense led by the dynamic Jameis Winston at quarterback

This week’s game will be back on CBS and can be seen locally in the Boston area on WBZ-TV Channel four. The top team of Jim Nantz (play-by-play) and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (color analyst) will be in the booth. Tracy Wolfson and the always entertaining Jay Feely–always good for a Tom Brady story as a close personal friend and college teammate–will work from the sidelines. Nationally, the game will also air on the NFL Network and be streamed online on

If you are stuck working or are in the car, the game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Ian Eagle and Tony Boselli will call the game. Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation and feature broadcasters Bob Socci on play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding his unique brand of color commentary.

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Now that you know how to watch, stream and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots get back to their winning ways against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night. Or if Jameis Winston powers his team to victory.

  1. NE Interior Offensive Line vs TB DT Gerald McCoy

The Patriots have had their hands full blocking for quarterback Tom Brady so far in 2017. While edge rushers get the attention on television and in the media, it is interior pass rushers who do the most damage to offensive game plans.

This week they get to face one of the best in the NFL as the explosive and entertaining Gerald McCoy welcomes the Patriots to Tampa. McCoy teams with the boisterous former Washington defensive tackle Chris Baker to make a dynamic one-two punch in the middle. Both are athletic and penetrating pass rushers in the middle of the defensive line, but McCoy is simply something special.

Last week against the Giants, McCoy burst through the offensive line to make tackles for a loss on the first two plays of the game. Tampa Bay has moved McCoy around the line more this season and he has responded by adding pressure. Although he does not have a sack in three games this season, the last four years he has put up 9.5, 8.5, 8.5, and 7 sacks.

Last week, per, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle had two hits and two hurries against the Giants even without a sack. Add in four run-stops to go with his pair of tackles for a loss, and his reputation as a disruptive force is well-earned.

While the Giants’ offensive line has struggled, so has the blocking in New England. Tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon will likely be occupied with ends William Gholston and Robert Ayers. However, with McCoy lining up all over the interior, it will take guards Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, and center David Andrews working cohesively to contain the disruptive force.

Quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked 13 times and the trio of interior blockers are as culpable as the pair of tackles. While that number puts them in the middle of the pack, the Patriots have faced a number of impressive interior pass rushers: in week one the Patriots faced the young and aggressive Chris Jones of the Chiefs; week two saw edge rusher Cameron Jordan of the Saints spending much of his time looping inside looking for a favorable match-up; week three featured J.J. Watt of the Texans; and last week was the young, athletic duo of Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei of the Panthers.

Despite playing these strong interior defensive tackles, this may be the toughest test of all. Everyone in the NFL knows that interior pressure is the way to make Tom Brady uncomfortable and Gerald McCoy may be the best interior pass rusher in the league.

  1. NE CBs Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler vs TB WRs DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans

No doubt the New England Patriots secondary is looking forward to having ten days off after Thursday to spend some time getting their communication issues sorted out. However, with just a three-day turnaround to play Tampa Bay on Thursday night, the secondary is trying to fix a number of issues in just a short period of time.

The pass defense in New England has been absolutely dreadful in 2017. With cornerback, Logan Ryan leaving for Tennessee in free agency and the team adding aggressive cornerback Stephon Gilmore from Buffalo, it appeared the Patriots had actually upgraded the secondary. Free safety Duron Harmon also was re-signed this offseason.

It has been a disaster in New England with uncovered wide receivers and running backs every game. What has been a disciplined and intelligent unit for the past 15 years now looks disorganized and unclear on basic assignments.

After giving up 352 passing yards to the Chiefs the Patriots followed up with 348 passing yards to the Saints, 292 to rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson and the Texans, followed by 304 more to Cam Newton on Sunday. Over the four games, the defense has allowed 11 passing touchdowns.

It doesn’t get easier on Thursday as young quarterback Jameis Winston brings his high-powered passing offense to face the struggling New England defense. Tampa Bay features two big-play wide receivers in veteran speedster DeSean Jackson and the huge and athletic Mike Evans.

Evans is just 24 years old and has a massive catch radius. At six-foot-five and 231 pounds, his athleticism, speed, and agility make him an anomaly and almost impossible to slow down. In three seasons he has topped 1,000 yards receiving in each and twice had a dozen touchdowns.

Opposite Evans, the Buccaneers brought in former Eagles and Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson has been upset with his role through three games and the Buccaneers will likely look to draw up some deep shots to try and get him on track. So far in three games, Jackson has just nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown.

  1. NE S Patrick Chung vs TB TEs Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard

Of course, the Buccaneers have a multi-faceted offense and often roll out multiple tight end sets. Young tight ends Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard are mismatches for most defenses.

Both are excellent receivers–although not great blockers–but do not shy away from their assignments. Brate had a breakout season in 2016, hauling in 57 passes for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2017 he has ten receptions for 137 yards and touchdowns in each of the last two games as the Harvard alum wisely uses his six-foot-five frame to be a threat in the red zone.

Opposite Brate (or even lined-up next to him) is rookie O.J. Howard. Howard was rated as the best tight end in the 2017 NFL Draft. Howard inexplicably dropped to the nineteenth pick of the first round and Tampa Bay General Manager, Jason Licht, jumped to grab him. Licht was formerly Director of Player Personnel in New England for Bill Belichick from 2009 to 2011 (and assistant director of player personnel in 2002) and was a key architect in drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

New England will likely have a number of defensive players in coverage of these tight ends, including strong safety Patrick Chung. Chung is the primary defensive player responsible for tight end coverage in man-coverage for the Patriots. Even in zone defenses (which New England has played much more than the past four seasons), Chung is often around the tight ends.

While others such as linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower and safeties Jordan Richards and Devin McCourty will have a role in covering the duo, most attention focuses on Chung. Chung gives up a lot of size but has a very high compete-level.

Chung will be busy with this duo of athletic and strong pass-catching tight ends. Even with the dual threat of wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, the Patriots have to be vigilant to be sure to try and contain the dual tight-end threat of the Buccaneers.

  1. NE WR Brandin Cooks vs TB CB Brent Grimes

The New England Patriots invested their first-round draft pick in wide receiver Brandin Cooks. So far through four games, they have just 13 receptions for 294 yards and two touchdowns to show for it.

Cooks seemed ready to break out in week three against Houston with five receptions for 131 yards and two touchdowns. The crowning achievement was the toe-tapping touchdown reception to win the game. However, last week he was again overlooked in the offense with just three receptions for 38 yards.

With Cooks coming off back-to-back seasons of 1,138 yards and 1,173 yards with New Orleans, the expectations after being traded to New England were sky-high. Instead, Cooks is on pace for just 52 receptions although his 22.6 yards per reception average tops the NFL.

Cooks will see a lot of Tampa Bay’s top cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes may be 34 years-old but he has not lost a step of the speed that made him a top cornerback in Atlanta and Miami before he landed in Tampa Bay. Grimes was injured earlier this season and the pass defense was terrible without him against Minnesota in week three (369 yards passing by Case Keenum). He is on the injury report but is expected to play Thursday.

Grimes had an impressive performance last week against the Giants despite being less than 100 percent healthy. Grimes was targeted nine times by New York quarterback Eli Manning and allowed just three receptions for 20 yards (and only four of those yards allowed as YAC). Grimes was the primary coverage for Odell Beckham and held him to two receptions for 10 yards despite being targeted seven times in coverage. Eli Manning had just a 42.4 quarterback rating while targeting Grimes on Sunday.

Grimes is no stranger to quarterback Tom Brady, having faced him twice a year in his three seasons in Miami. New England is going to need to score points with their porous defense and will need a big game of big plays from Brandin Cooks despite the tight coverage expected from Grimes.

New England has been more vertical than horizontal in the passing game (whether by design or necessity) with Julian Edelman out for the season. On Thursday night, the Patriots need Brandin Cooks to win one-on-one battles with Brent Grimes to give them a chance to outscore Tampa Bay.

  1. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs TB LB Devante Bond

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are likely going to be without linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander on Thursday night. David is dealing with a knee injury and missed last weeks’ game against New York. Alexander has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury.

Alexander is very good in pass coverage and snagged an interception in week two in Tampa Bay’s first game of the season. As good as Alexander is, David is probably one of the best coverage linebackers in the entire league. rated him fifth among all linebackers in coverage (coverage snaps per reception) in 2016.

In the place of their two best coverage linebackers, the Buccaneers turn to backup linebacker Devante Bond. Without David and Alexander, the Buccaneers gave up six receptions for 62 yards to rookie tight end Evan Engram last week and now have to deal with Rob Gronkowski.

While linebacker Devante Bond may get some coverage help from safety T.J. Ward, who missed Sunday’s game but returned to practice on a limited basis this week, stopping Gronkowski is no small deal.

Gronkowski had four receptions for 80 yards (and lost another reception to a questionable offensive pass interference penalty) and has returned to form after missing half of 2016 with a back injury. Gronkowski appeared to be injured after leaving the week two win over New Orleans but has returned to play all but one snap the last two weeks.

Gronkowski leads the Patriots with 318 yards receiving in the first quarter of the season and is second on the team with 20 receptions. He continues to be a vertical threat as well and is averaging a gaudy 15.9 yards per reception.

Tampa Bay will have their hands full trying to slow Gronkowski on Thursday night. If they can slow Gronkowski, they go a long way towards slowing the New England passing attack.

– Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for cover32/Patriots and covers the New England Patriots. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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