Defense Rebounds a Bit in Florida
The Patriots seemed to have this one easily in control on Thursday night before Jameis Winston almost pulled off a huge come-from-behind win. The game itself was typical of Thursday night affairs. Neither team was especially sharp with each missing the opportunity for big plays and penalties (especially on the Patriots side) being numerous.
The best news you look for on Thursdays is to come out with a win (they did) and to come out of the game as healthy as you can. And yes, the Patriots seem to have come out of this relatively unscathed.
So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.
Tom Brady was not quite as sharp as he had been in the previous three weeks (thank you Thursday), and for the first time this season, it seemed the constant hits and sacks were affecting his game. And yet he still completed a ridiculous 15 in a row at one point. The Bucs were getting good pressure with their front four but every time they blitzed, Brady would recognize where it came from and make them pay, usually with Danny Amendola isolated on a linebacker
His best drive, not coincidentally was the Patriots only touchdown drive of the night where he was a perfect 7-7 for 84 yards with a nice throw to Chris Hogan just over the line and into the end zone. His best throw of the night was a deep one to Brandin Cooks where Brady performed the “bucket drill” to perfection, dropping the ball perfectly in his hands for a big gain. He made another just like that to James White who ran a wheel route and was open down the right sideline. His worst throw happened to come on the Pats opening drive where he was late and way behind Hogan and got picked off for his first interception of the season.
Perhaps we’re being a bit harder on the grades here, after all, Brady completed about 75 percent of his throws for 300 yards in the win while missing his top two receivers, one of which was a game-time decision.
Running Backs: B
The backs were good on Thursday night. We pointed out in our pre-game matchups that the team could boost Dion Lewis’ reps and perhaps give the running game a shot in the arm and that is exactly what they did. Lewis looked really sharp and he showed his elusiveness on several runs. He had a nice 31-yard scamper where he used his eel-like ability to evade tacklers and break into the secondary.
Mike Gillislee likewise had a good night running the ball and had 52 tough yards on 12 carries. White had another stellar night out of the backfield catching the ball and keeping the sticks moving. James Develin was solid as a blocker all night but ran a wrong route and nearly cost Brady an interception.
Wide Receivers: B+
The wide receivers took advantage of what they were given and did exactly what they needed to do. The Bucs were laying back in a two-safety deep zone to take away the deep passing game so Brady and the wide receivers worked the short and intermediate game work and were very effective. Danny Amendola was targeted eight times and had eight catches for 77 yards. He had some really nice conversions on third down where he did exactly what he needed to do to move the chains.His best catch was reversed on a push off but he made a highlight reel one-handed catch.
Hogan had a solid night with eight catches for 74 yards and the team’s only touchdown. He was also wide open going down the left sideline late in the game but Brady got hit and the throw sailed out of bounds.
Cooks had five catches for 85 yards including the nice bucket drill catch as well as a sweet 18-yard comeback route where he was given a ridiculous cushion in a testament to the respect the Bucs have (they played him twice a year in NO) for his speed.
Tight Ends: INC
Rob Gronkowski was a late scratch and the production from the tight end position in the passing game was zero. Jacob Hollister was targeted once and later drew a holding penalty. He also got chewed out by Brady for a missed route in the end zone. Dwayne Allen is still searching for that elusive first catch as a Patriot. His blocking was subpar on Thursday, he got taken to school by Noah Spence where Brady was sacked. The Patriots will need much better production from these guys down the road, especially if Gronkowski misses any further time.
Offensive Line: C
The offensive line did a better job in the running game as the team was able to put together a decent night running the ball but for a team that entered the game with one sack and who was having trouble getting pressure on the QB, the Bucs certainly didn’t appear like that team.
Most of the pressure was coming from the left side where Nate Solder has been playing hurt and several times he showed that he can’t step out to the edge fast enough to contain the edge rusher. But it was coming from everywhere. This unit has allowed Brady to be sacked 16 times in five games after allowing just 15 in 12 games a year ago. That isn’t good. Taking a look at the upcoming schedule, it is an issue that needs to get fixed pretty quickly.
Defensive Line: C
The Patriots defensive line did a better job on gap control in the running game other than the Bucs first touchdown drive. Doug Martin who finished with 74 yards, had 49 on that one The rest of the game he had eight carries for 25 yards. While not great, it was better than they had done the previous two weeks. The pass rush was pretty inconsistent again although Winston is a tough guy to bring down. Deatrich Wise and Cassius Marsh took back to back roughing the passer calls at the end of the first half to give the Bucs a chance at a long field goal and that sequence can’t be happening. But Marsh shows a pretty good burst off the line.
Dont’a Hightower moved back to the inside on running downs and only lined up on the edge in what seems like obvious passing downs. And guess what? No breakdowns, no communication issues and overall much better play. He filled the correct holes where he needed to and the defense was looking much better because of it. Elandon Roberts made a nice run stuff on third down and nearly got a safety on Winston, blitzing up the A-gap (where has that been?). Probably should have been called an intentional grounding call there, but maybe we’re being picky. Van Noy had an up and down night, getting beat in coverage but got a half-sack. Much better.
Much, much better by this group. Why? Because for three quarters Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore were given very simple tasks. Stick with a wide receiver no matter where he goes. Gilmore locked up with Mike Evans and for the majority of the night put him on a milk carton. Butler had the speedy Desean Jackson and likewise did a good job. Thru three-quarters Winston had 110 yards passing.
In the fourth, Matt Patricia went back to more zone and Winston and the Bucs were finding seams to exploit.
Devin McCourty and Pat Chung had good days in coverage, for Chung it was his best game of the season. He had the good receiving tight end Cameron Brate and provided solid coverage all night long. No breakdowns or blown coverages…so it was a good night overall. A long way to go but a positive first step.
Special Teams: B-
Stephen Gostkowski made four field goals and was money on those and his kickoffs. Danny Amendola had a really nice 40-yard punt return that set the team up in great field position. Kickoff coverage was good. Punt return coverage was good. Ryan Allen was okay but not great. But what killed them was penalties. Four ST penalties aren’t going to cut it. Brandon Bolden jumping offside on a 4th and 3 is inexcusable for a veteran such as himself.
Bill Belichick righted the ship in a short week with just really two days to prepare after a debacle on Sunday. The best moves were putting Butler and Gilmore on the Bucs top WRs and let them do what they do best, provide close man coverage. And moving Hightower back inside. The defense looked completely different on Thursday so there is the hope that this is a trend in the right direction.
Josh McDaniels had to switch the game plan without Rob Gronkowski to a more 3-4 WR set and although the team struggled to finish drives, they moved the ball well all night. This was a gut-check type of game and the team won. That’s all you want from Thursday night.