FOXBOROUGH — Even though most of the starters already had been pulled in a lopsided game that was well in hand, anybody connected to the Patriots defense was focused on the field as Tampa Bay lined up for another fourth-down play late in Sunday’s game.
Which team would win had been determined — the Patriots rolled, 23-3 — so the anxiousness on the New England sideline wasn’t tied to the outcome. It had everything to do with keeping the Buccaneers out of the end zone.
And when Josh Freeman’s pass fluttered out of bounds, it put the finishing touch on an impressive outing by the defense, which is gaining confidence by the week. Granted, they’ve faced two rookie quarterbacks and a struggling Freeman, but through three weeks they’re not giving up acres of yardage, and they’ve been extra stingy when it comes to allowing points.
The Patriots have allowed 34 points on the season. In terms of points allowed, it’s the second-best three-game start to a season in franchise history, bettered only in 1979, when they gave up 33. Included in this season’s number is a fumble return for a touchdown by the Bills in the season opener, so the defense is really on the hook for only 27 points.
“They’re paying the other team, so they’re going to get yards, they’re going to move the ball sometimes. But the most important thing is make them kick field goals,” said defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who was credited with a half-sack on Freeman. “They can move up and down the field all they want, but if we got five field goals, we’re good.”
They only gave up one this time, and that came on Tampa Bay’s second drive of the game (the first series ended with a missed field goal attempt). While it took the Patriots offense a little time to get in synch, the defense helped the first-half cause by twice stopping the Buccaneers on fourth-down plays. Both came in Patriots territory, and both defensive stops were followed by offensive touchdowns.
The first fourth-down denial was at the Patriots’ 34-yard line, when Tampa Bay needed 5. Freeman threw an incomplete pass. On the very next series, this time at the Patriots’ 38, Doug Martin was stuffed on fourth and 1.
Two momentum-changing plays, both delivered by the defense.
“That was huge, that’s pretty much a turnover,” safety Steve Gregory said. “Any time a team gets the ball on fourth down and they’re trying to get a first down, you’ve got to step up and stop them, and we did that in a big way today.”
Six times Tampa Bay drove inside the Patriots’ 40-yard line. Four times they lost the ball after a failed fourth-down conversion. The other two were the two field goal tries: One made, one missed.
The Patriots centered their defensive strategy on two players: Martin, and receiver Vincent Jackson. Martin came in as the league’s second-ranked rusher, and gained 88 yards on 20 carries. But his longest carry covered just 11 yards, and he could never find much open space.
Jackson is a big, fast receiver, and would be going up against former teammate Aqib Talib much of the game. Or at least as long as Jackson could play. He was forced out with a rib injury in the second half, and had just three catches for 34 yards.
“Speed and that size put together, that’s a tough combination right there,” said Talib. “I was ready for it. He went down early, I don’t know what happened to him, but I hope he’s all right.”
Talib stepped in front of Jackson and intercepted a pass underthrown by Freeman late in the second quarter.
It extended the Patriots’ streak of forcing at least one turnover to 30 straight games, and set up a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski on the final play of the half to make it 17-3.
It was their only turnover forced, but it was timely.
Aided by their final drive against mostly Patriots defensive reserves, the Buccaneers finished with 323 yards on offense, the most New England has allowed in three games. But they only gave up 3 points, keeping the opponent out of the end zone for the first time this season.
Tougher games surely await, but the Patriots couldn’t be better than 3-0 right now. Which is exactly where they are, helped mightily by the defense.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.