Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox (Line: Patriots by 7)
When the Patriots run
Fresh legs are the order of the day for a stable of backs that hasn’t run in anger in nearly a week and a half. Between fumbles and foul weather, Stevan Ridley has yet to get his rear in gear this season. The third-year back needs to run with the energy and swagger that has made him an integral part of this offense. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder shows good vision and patience. He usually picks the right creases and will blast through them and meet linebackers head-on. Ridley is a rhythm player, and needs to get his touches early to find it. He generally gets stronger as the game progresses, but if he fumbles early he’ll be banished. LeGarrette Blount is quicker than he looks. The 6-1, 245-pounder is an aggressive north-south runner with good leg drive and vision. He doesn’t possess a bevy of moves, but he can get low and deflect hits. Leon Washington and Brandon Bolden have been too banged up to have an impact. Fullback James Develin is just a battering ram — he’s only going to touch the ball if he’s recovering a fumble. The offensive line has lacked snarl this season. Left guard Logan Mankins (he’s the nastiest) and his band of brothers will need to come out firing against a stout Tampa Bay defensive line. Tackles Gerald McCoy (6-4, 295) and Akeem Spence (6-5, 307) are athletic and quick and will shed their initial blockers quickly. Linebackers Mason Foster (he’s an explosive hitter) and Lavonte David (he’s instinctive and quick) will find the ball carrier.
When the Patriots pass
When last we saw Tom Brady he was channeling his inner Dan Marino — showing anger and frustration at the trials and tribulations of his young receiving corps. Brady acknowledged he needs to improve his in-game body language, but what really needs to improve is the route-running and focus of the youngsters. Brady’s going to put the ball in the right spots, so it’s up to the receivers to concentrate and make plays. Of the three rookies, Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1, 190) is at the head of the class. He has a good combination of speed, size, and strength. He lines up everywhere and has shown the ability to make acrobatic catches (at least in the preseason). He needs to bring those skills to real games. Aaron Dobson caught a TD pass on his first play vs. the Jets, and it was all downhill from there. Dobson (6-3, 210) has excellent size and speed. He lacks concentration, which translates to rounded-off routes and dropped balls. If he can stay focused, Brady could make him a star. Josh Boyce (5-11, 206) was a speedy, sure-handed receiver with excellent after-the-catch moves in college. That he hasn’t been able to crack the rotation speaks volumes. Julian Edelman has been terrific. The 5-10, 198-pounder is often compared to Wes Welker, and while he’s neither as quick nor as consistent as the ex-Patriot, he’s still pretty good. He runs great routes, has strong hands, and is fearless. The man, who has a history of injuries, takes a ton of big hits. Darrelle Revis is the best player in an above-average Buccaneers’ secondary.
When the Buccaneers run
Doug Martin burst onto the NFL scene by rushing for 1,454 yards as a rookie last season, and the 5-9, 215-pound bruiser shows no signs of slowing. Martin has a special blend of strength and speed contained inside his compact frame. He has excellent vision and burst to the hole. He runs low and with great balance. He will power through tacklers and will make big gains after first contact. He is the rare back who can both bounce outside and hit home runs, and also bang between the tackles and push the pile on third and short. He’s the reason LeGarrette Blount now wears a Patriots uniform. Gang tackling is a must against Martin, and luckily for the Patriots they have a pretty physical gang. Vince Wilfork (he looked under the weather vs. Jets, no?) generally controls the line of scrimmage with his quickness and power. Expect a bounce-back game Sunday. The 6-1, 325-pounder has the bulk to anchor and clog lanes, and the quickness to shoot gaps and be disruptive in the backfield. Fellow tackle Tommy Kelly (6-6, 300) is physical and smart. It comes as no surprise that Jerod Mayo is New England’s leading tackler. One of the most instinctive and physical players in the league, Mayo diagnoses plays instantly, finds the ball quickly, and drills ball carriers. Keep your eye on No. 51 and you won’t be disappointed. Fellow linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are learning from a master. Spikes is a thunderous hitter who needs to become more consistent. Hightower is another physical player who fills the hole and will punish players.
When the Buccaneers pass
Quarterback Josh Freeman is off to an abysmal start (he’s completing just 45.3 percent of his passes), yet the Buccaneers are just two plays from being 2-0. The 6-6, 248-pounder has all the physical skills to be one of the league’s best. He’s extremely physical and nimble. He has a big arm but is much more accurate on routes of 10 or fewer yards. He needs to shorten his loopy delivery. Freeman can extend plays with his quick feet, but too often abandons the pocket quickly as he lacks the patience to let plays develop downfield. New England pass rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich must be disciplined and contain Freeman and prevent him from getting outside and turning busts into booms. Freeman has some exceptional weapons at his disposal, none more so than the 6-6, 230-pound beast that is receiver Vincent Jackson. One of the top deep threats in the game, Jackson is averaging 17.9 yards per catch in his nine seasons. He has a tremendous combination of height, speed, and athleticism that makes him a nightmare to defend. He has outstanding leaping ability and will fight for every ball. Jackson also has a penchant for making highlight-reel catches, and it’s a safe bet he wakes up every morning missing Philip Rivers. Mike Williams (6-1, 212) has good short-area burst and reliable hands but lacks the speed to stretch defenses. He’s tough and isn’t shy about going over the middle. New England’s secondary is stronger than it’s been in years. The ultrasmart Devin McCourty is the leader.
Buccaneers’ key player: Josh Freeman
A big, physical specimen with a huge arm and abundant athletic skills, Freeman is at a crossroads. Once considered the future of the franchise, he is battling inconsistency and maybe his coaching staff. Meanwhile, rookie Mike Glennon is waiting.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With great physical skills. When he’s playing confidently, Freeman will beat you with his arm and legs, moving down the field by ripping off chunks of yards and demoralizing defenses.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By mixing things up. Most of Freeman’s problems are cerebral. He doesn’t diagnose defenses quickly, so disguising them helps. A couple of big hits will help, too.
BUCCANEERS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. No flag football: Tampa Bay has a league-leading 23 penalties. If this continues, the losses will continue to pile up and coach Greg Schiano’s head might just explode.
2. Leadership qualities: Whether it’s Josh Freeman or Darrelle Revis, somebody needs to step up and help this team grow up. Stop crying and start playing.
3. Powerball: Doug Martin is an exceptional player. Get the ball into his hands as often as possible and let him take the pressure off beleaguered Josh Freeman.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Confidence builders: Time for Tom Brady to play good cop. He needs to treat his young charges with kid gloves and get them involved early. Like he has a choice?
2. Island hopping: Darrelle Revis is dangerous. Rather than tempt fate, just ignore him and target the less-risky members of the secondary.
3. Head bangers: The offensive line has to take control. The biggies have to fire off the ball and create some running room for New England’s backs to finally find their groove.
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com.