The New England Patriots defense has been much maligned throughout the first quarter of the 2017 NFL season. It would be inaccurate to say that criticism wasn’t deserved. After an especially dismal showing on Sunday versus the Carolina Panthers, the spotlight was on the defense to…at the very least…make a statement.
On Thursday night in Tampa, they did just that. The defensive unit did just enough to contain the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Jameis Winston, en route to a much-needed 19-14 victory. The Patriots improved to 3-2, while the Bucs dropped to 2-2, in a game that saw 21 penalties (Patriots had 12 and the Bucs 9).
Defensively, the Patriots entered the night on pace to yield more yards than any team in league history. Winston, with his young Tampa Bay offense, was hoping to be the latest predator to the prey of New England’s struggling defense.
While it wasn’t a smothering, dominant defensive performance by the Patriots, it was a necessary step in the right direction. The Pats defense showed little-to-no signs of blatant miscommunication. Instead, they got solid individual performances from several key contributors, such as Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. At the very least, their defensive showing let the nation of NFL fans and sports media pundits know that the Patriots defense could still step up when needed. As it turned out, that performance was more urgently needed than originally anticipated.
The Offense Also Struggles
Upon hearing the news that tight end Rob Gronkowski would be out with a quad muscle injury, it became clear that the burden of victory would be squarely placed on the shoulders of quarterback Tom Brady. While Brady has always been capable of weathering mostly any storm, he hinted (earlier this week) that he and the Patriots offense would need to rely on the defense to provide them with a chance to win. In this matchup, the Patriots offense struggled…and for the first time this season…the Patriots defense stepped up.
Brady did put up a respectable stat line, going 30-40 passing, compiling 303 yards and one touchdown. His only scoring strike was a 5-yard TD pass to Chris Hogan in the second quarter. With his 186th career regular-season win as a starter, Brady tied Brett Favre and Peyton Manning for the most by a quarterback in NFL history.
However, Brady also turned the ball over twice — one on his first interception in eight regular-season games, and the second being a fumble on one of Tampa Bay’s three sacks. While neither of the mistakes led to points for Tampa Bay, they didn’t come without a price. The Buccaneers defense came into this contest having registered only one sack while earning a reputation of having trouble getting after the quarterback. They managed to put significant pressure on Brady, sacking him three times and forcing a fumble. The offensive line looked porous, especially tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. As a result, Brady found himself on the receiving end of some hard hits.
The continuous hits that Brady is taking are becoming an alarming concern. Brady has now been sacked more this year than he was during the entire 2016 campaign. It should be noted that we are only five games deep into 2017. As pliable and well-conditioned as Brady has been, his offensive line must perform much better, if they hope to keep their quarterback healthy and upright.
The Bucs Stopped Here
Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay offense looked poised to make several runs at various points in the game. However, it just never seemed like they could put it all together.
Winston finished 26 of 45 with 334 yards and zero interceptions. DeSean Jackson had five receptions for 106 yards.
Running back Doug Martin provided a lift in his return to action (from a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancers) and amassed 74 yards rushing and one touchdown.
However, the Bucs didn’t have a third-down conversion until late in the third quarter. They rallied late in the fourth quarter, with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Winston to tight end Cameron Brate. That scoring drive trimmed New England’s lead to 16-14 with 2:09 remaining. He marched the Bucs from their own 25-yard line to the Patriots 19. However, Winston would throw an incompletion on the final play, and the Patriots secured the victory.
That’s All, Folk??
The biggest story of the night for Tampa Bay is the blatant and costly struggles of kicker Nick Folk. Folk was already under fire for missing two field goals and an extra-point, before eventually beating the New York Giants on a last-second kick last week. However, he did little to help, and almost everything to hurt, his cause for being team’s leg heading into Week Six. Folk missed three more field goals Thursday night, including a 31-yarder that would have cut a nine-point deficit to six in the closing minutes. Needless to say, the Buccaneers may have some decisions to make, with regard to their kicking game, as we head deeper into the season.
On the flip side, Stephen Gostkowski continued a stellar season by kicking field goals of 27, 23, 45 and 48 yards for the Patriots.
The Patriots will now have ten days to prepare for their next opponent, the New York Jets. The Pats have several problems in need of solving within the next ten days. There is no doubt that they will be hard at work attempting to find those solutions. The Pats will travel to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to take on their bitter rival on Sunday, October 15 at 1:00 pm ET.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers. He is also a National Content Writer for cover32.com and covers the NFL and the New England Patriots.
Should the Bills bring in Vincent Jackson?