Bucs are a dangerous 0-2 foe
If they can eliminate mistakes and get on same page, they'll challenge Pats
Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the team's next game. This week, it's a home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Fox, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: Tedy, this seems like a good week to highlight the fine line between a win and a loss. You have one team, New England, that found a way to win its first two games by a combined five points. Then you have another team, Tampa Bay, that self-destructed in critical situations to lose their first two games.
Tedy: For the Buccaneers, you had the play at the end of the Jets game when linebacker Lavonte David made a silly mistake, getting a 15-yard penalty on a late hit of quarterback Geno Smith that put New York in field goal range on the final drive. That's how the Bucs lost that game. Then, late in the game this past Sunday, they missed a field goal that would have given them a four-point lead and the Saints turned around and quickly drove for the winning field goal with less than a minute left. That's the difference in the NFL. How many plays away are the Patriots from being 0-2? If Stevie Johnson catches the ball on a third-down conversion and the Bills keep a fourth-quarter drive going, is the result from the opener different? If Smith doesn't throw one of his three interceptions in the fourth quarter, does that game go a different way? That's how tight it is in the NFL.
Mike: Here's a stat that caught the eye -- the Buccaneers are tied for the NFL lead with 23 accepted penalties, and the Patriots have the second fewest (7) at this point.
Tedy: I'm sure Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano is preaching the importance of the little things, how they are beating themselves with 13 in Week 1 and 10 this past week. Those little things on the field extend all the way to things like the starting quarterback, Josh Freeman, missing the team picture. It's a little thing – "I slept in, I messed up, I missed the team picture" -- but it reflects an overall lack of discipline.
Mike: Let's get into Freeman a bit. I'm not a scout, but, in joint practices with the Patriots back in August, I thought rookie Mike Glennon was more impressive.
Tedy: We know Freeman's background -- a 2009 first-round draft choice who was picked before Schiano became head coach. So he isn't Schiano's guy. But I think if you're the Buccaneers, you have to be careful because this is the quarterback position and you can't have a revolving door like with other positions. So you have to be sure before you close the book on Freeman.
Mike: Schiano publicly acknowledged that Freeman missed the team photo, which many interpreted as the beginning of the end for him; it's just a matter of when. Is there any other way to look at that?
Tedy: This makes me think back to when I was playing at the University of Arizona. I was very fiery, getting in everyone's face, trying to light a fire, and making sure everyone was emotionally high and ready to play. Our quarterback was Danny White, and he said to me, "Tedy, I've got a lot of stuff to worry about. I can't get that way." From that point on, I realized these quarterbacks are different. You have to treat them differently; they have a different set of responsibilities; and at times they can be fragile. If it means protecting them publicly more than you would other players, it has to be done. Up until that point, I was an everyone-needs-to-be-treated-the-same type of guy. But White helped me realize it's a different deal for quarterbacks.
Mike: Good stuff, Tedy. When I project the Patriots' defensive game plan, it seems pretty obvious in that it would start with limiting running back Doug Martin, then focus on receiver Vincent Jackson, whose size makes him a tough tackle. On the first play against the Saints, the Bucs lined Jackson up in the offensive backfield and motioned him out, which reflected how they move him all around the formation -- outside, in the slot, in the backfield.
Tedy: Jackson isn't a burner who will run past you, but he will battle you like an Anquan Boldin, being physical at the line of scrimmage. I'm careful with that comparison because of how strongly I feel about Boldin, but, similar to when facing him, you can't get bullied at the line of scrimmage. I think the bigger threat, in terms of which player you may have to "game-plan" against, might be Mike Williams because of his athleticism and speed at the receiver position.
Mike: As for Martin, Patriots defenders were talking this week about his diminutive stature (5-foot-9) and how he can be tough to locate behind those big offensive linemen. The Jets did a nice job against him in the season opener, but we saw Martin with much more production this past Sunday against the Saints. On one play, he took a direct snap, which is something the Patriots will have to be ready for.
Tedy: When you look at his yards from scrimmage last year as a rookie (1,926), he ranked third in the NFL behind only Adrian Peterson (2,314) and Calvin Johnson (1,964). Those are numbers that are going to be very difficult to produce year in and year out, sort of like tight end Rob Gronkowski's 2011 season with the 17 touchdown catches. You absolutely have to respect him.
Mike: One thing to watch, as it relates to Martin, is whether veteran left guard Carl Nicks plays this week. Nicks is probably Tampa Bay's best lineman, and 2011 Bears first-round pick Gabe Carimi has taken his place the first two weeks. The Bucs will attempt to push the tempo at times, and Freeman is a threat to run if you don't stay disciplined in your rush.
Tedy: Overall, this is an offense you'd think would be performing better. How these guys aren't jelling together as a unit, it makes me look at the Bucs and wonder whether there is something deeper. I think about football and how emotions are such a big part of it, momentum is such a big part of it, believing in the guy you are playing for is a big part of it. With all this talent, I'm curious why this offense is having so much trouble producing points. Until the Bucs stop tripping over themselves, you have to think that, if the Patriots play clean, play smart and take care of the ball, New England probably should get this victory.
Mike: When mentioning "believing in the guy you are playing for," it has led some to ask whether Schiano's message is getting through. There have been reports about friction in Tampa as Schiano is viewed as a disciplinarian type and maybe the players aren't all buying in.
Tedy: It's not just the coach. It's also believing in the quarterback. I'll give you an example -- last week against the Patriots, Smith had a play in the first quarter in which there was a roughing-the-passer penalty. He stood in the pocket and took the hit; his helmet almost popped off, but he delivered a strike to Santonio Holmes for a big gain. As a defensive player, you see that play, then you see the hit again on the JumboTron in the stadium, and you get up and cheer for your guy. Those are the types of plays in which you can win over your team. We'll see whether Freeman has any of those moments.
Mike: Defensively, the Buccaneers have played the Jets and Saints pretty tough this season. Linebacker Mason Foster had an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Saints, which shows how this is a unit that can be disruptive and not only create turnovers but score points off them.
Tedy: That was one of the best runbacks I've ever seen from linebacker, sort of reminiscent of James Harrison for the Steelers in the Super Bowl. I think this team loves using its linebackers, and it has three pretty good ones who are young, athletic and instinctive. Foster was one of his conference's top defensive players coming out of Washington. Lavonte David, at Nebraska, was one of the best defensive players coming out of his conference; he was a second-round pick. Then you add in Dekoda Watson, who had a big interception of Drew Brees on Sunday. These guys are making plays, and they love stepping up to get pressure on the quarterback. They'll get in those A-gaps and do a little cross stunt -- where they have one linebacker cross the face of the center and then the other linebacker loops around him.
Mike: This is also a defense that is tough in the red zone. Opponents have just one touchdown in eight trips inside the 20 this year. It's a small sample size, but that ranks the defense first in the NFL. The Patriots' offense has two touchdowns in eight red zone trips, which isn't up to the team's standard. Gronkowski (back, forearm) would help, and my sense is that he is ready to play but they still might take an ultracautious route. I don't expect Danny Amendola (groin), either. So, it's advantage Buccaneers if we go by the stats.
Tedy: One of the plays that impressed me the most last week against the Saints was the Bucs' goal-line stand at the end of the second quarter. It was one-on-one in the hole against a running back. David took on the lead block and forced it back to Foster, who scraped and filled on Mark Ingram. The play was stopped for no gain, and they got off the field. So this defense can make plays, especially at the linebacker level.
Mike: How has cornerback Darrelle Revis affected their defense?
Tedy: There aren't too many adjectives that haven't already been used to describe him. The term is "shutdown corner" and that's what he has been for so long. Everyone in the NFL respects his skills, and sometimes just the sight of that No. 24 jersey can lead you to not even look that way. It will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay will use Revis. When you see Julian Edelman being targeted 18 times last week, maybe the Bucs line Revis up on him and force Tom Brady to look to some of the young guys such as Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. I think that's the first thing you have to notice. I'm sure that's what the Patriots are talking about in meetings -- "If Revis is here, where are we going to go?"
Mike: Part of the reason the Bucs acquired Revis, and were willing to pay him at a level the Jets weren't, was because their pass defense ranked last in the NFL last season. They also signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and drafted safety Mark Barron in the first round last year. That's a lot of talent right there.
Tedy: I think Barron is a really good young player. Still, you can get all these talented players together, but, at times, you see the same problems they were dealing with last year. Abundance of skill doesn't mean anything when you have lack of communication. The Jimmy Graham touchdown last week is an example of this. Also, a Kellen Winslow touchdown in Week 1 in which he lined up in a bunch formation.
Mike: Yes, and media reports this week indicated that Revis might not be happy because they're playing more zone than the man coverage he's used to in Rex Ryan's defense. Up front, they can generate pressure with the standard four rushers, as we saw in joint practices when Adrian Clayborn, whom they'll flip from side to side, bull-rushed Nate Solder into Brady. That was a big scare for the Patriots at the time.
Tedy: These guys get after the quarterback, and Clayborn has a motor that doesn't stop. He's a guy they'll have to deal with. You have two top draft picks with a ton of potential -- Clayborn (2011 first round) and Gerald McCoy (2010 first round). That reflects the overall theme that this is a defense with a lot of talent. If you talk about talent, that's one thing, but I always sort of felt like it was a back-handed compliment when another team would mention it because that means you have individual ability but maybe aren't playing well as a team. I think this Patriots offensive line has to bounce back. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson had their way with it last week.
Mike: On special teams, Bill Belichick pointed out this week that the Buccaneers have had some success blocking punts in the past. With a rookie punter in Ryan Allen, that's something else to keep an eye on Sunday. Last year in Week 2, we saw the Cardinals come into Gillette Stadium and upset the Patriots; coincidentally, there was a blocked punt that day. It wouldn't surprise me if the Buccaneers pull a Cardinals-type upset if they can avoid the sloppy play that has hurt them. But until they prove they can do it, I will stick with the Patriots. Patriots 24, Buccaneers 17.
Tedy: I don't think the Patriots' problems on offense will go away in one week. Expect to still see some struggles from Brady and his receivers. The unit that will continue to carry this team will be the defense. The Patriots have to continue to force turnovers, and they will. Devin McCourty's pick-six will be the difference. Patriots 27, Buccaneers 20.