Last Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers was yet another reminder of how lucky the Patriots are to have Tom Brady at quarterback.
A team can overcome injuries to Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Shane Vereen with a veteran such as Brady leading the way. Playing with an inexperienced cast, Brady was an efficient 25 of 36 for 225 yards and a couple of touchdowns, limited his mistakes to one bad interception in the end zone, and guided the Patriots to a steady 23-3 win.
But Josh Freeman is not Tom Brady, to put it lightly. And the Bucs weren’t able to overcome their key injuries; their top two tight ends (Luke Stocker, Tom Crabtree) were inactive, star receiver Vincent Jackson left after the first play of the third quarter after injuring his ribs, and No. 2 receiver Mike Williams was hobbled all game by a leg injury. The Bucs are also down to their third kicker this year.
Freeman completed just 19 of 41 passes, threw an awful interception at the end of the first half, and couldn’t get anything going in the second half, forcing a punt three times and turning it over on downs twice. The Patriots varied their defensive alignments, switching freely between the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and one-deep versus two-deep zones, and Freeman couldn’t get into any kind of rhythm with his backup receivers.
The Bucs needed a full squad to take down the Patriots, and once Jackson went down with the Bucs already trailing, 17-3, they were toast. It didn’t help that Rian Lindell missed a 38-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter and didn’t have the leg to let the Bucs attempt anything over 50 yards.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game: Bill Belichick’s decision to take his foot off the accelerator in the fourth quarter, running the ball at the end and not tacking on a meaningless field goal or touchdown as he sometimes has done. Belichick wouldn’t run up the score on his good friend Greg Schiano.
Observations on the game after watching the coaches’ film:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ Brady was efficient, but he still doesn’t seem quite right. He didn’t miss as badly on throws as he did against the Jets, but he had a few poor throws that he usually makes — the short slant pass to Aaron Dobson that went wide, and the throw down the seam to Kenbrell Thompkins that he skipped in the turf (the play was wiped out by a penalty).
We’ll forgive him for not seeing both Thompkins and Julian Edelman streaking wide open down the middle of the field in the first half, because the play was a designed play-action throwback to tight end Zach Sudfeld (and an incompletion). But the interception in the end zone was terrible; not only did he not see Mark Barron, but Dobson, the intended receiver, was blanketed by his man and not even close to being open. And Brady already admitted that the low pass to a wide-open Dobson in the end zone kept him up all night Sunday.
■ Brady also was a bit indecisive early on, although he definitely settled into a groove in the second and third quarters. Two of his three sacks came on four-man rushes, on which Brady initially had plenty of time to throw.
His attack was quite simple: 22 of his 36 passes were thrown short in the middle of the field against the Bucs’ deep zones, and only one pass was thrown more than 20 yards downfield. He dinked and dunked his way to five trips inside the red zone.
Dobson and Thompkins were much better in terms of awareness and route-running, although each had a bad drop.
■ Running back Stevan Ridley was the unsung hero of the offense. He gained only 35 yards on 11 carries, but he had three fantastic chip blocks to give Brady enough time to hit receivers.
On the first touchdown drive, Ridley chipped a linebacker to allow Brady to hit Dobson over the middle for 16 yards on third and 4. Later on that drive, Ridley again chipped a linebacker to let Brady find Thompkins over the middle, and he ran in for the touchdown. And Ridley’s chip on Barron in the third quarter let Brady hit Dobson over the middle for 6 yards on third and 2.
■ Right guard Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell had a tough day up front, allowing all three sacks and three of four tackles for loss in the run game. The Bucs were stout up front, as Gerald McCoy (three tackles), Akeem Spence (four tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss), and Adrian Clayborn (six tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss) were active and disruptive throughout the game. Linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David were in on seemingly every tackle, but Foster badly overran his lane on one play to allow Brandon Bolden to break free on a 46-yard run.
Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, and the combo of Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon were solid all day, although Cannon had a rough go at first with a miscommunication on a run block and then a false-start penalty. But the Patriots rushed for 156 yards on 4.7 yards per carry, Brady had all day to find Thompkins on the second touchdown of the game, and he was sacked only once in the final three quarters.
■ Impressive job by LeGarrette Blount in the fourth quarter, rushing eight times for 56 yards on one drive when the Bucs were stacking extra defenders in the box.
When the Bucs had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots used some interesting hybrid defenses to mix things up against Freeman. The Bucs opened with a three-receiver set, but the Patriots countered with a 4-3 “Under” front, with three linebackers in the game to stop Doug Martin and the running game. They took the second safety off the field and replaced him with a third cornerback, and played press-man coverage with a single deep safety (Devin McCourty).
The Patriots challenged Freeman to beat them with jump-ball type of throws, and he did early on in the game, hitting Williams over Alfonzo Dennard for a 28-yard gain down the sideline, a 19-yarder to Jackson, and a 20-yard pass interference call on Kyle Arrington. But once Jackson went down, the Patriots switched to more seven-man coverages and Freeman had nowhere to go with the ball.
Freeman also seemed to throw almost exclusively toward the sideline. We did count about 10 passes thrown short-middle, but 24 of his passes were thrown toward the sideline, including the ball intercepted by Aqib Talib at the end of the first half.
■ The Patriots attacked the “A” gap a lot to try to slow Martin (20 carries, 88 yards) and Brandon Spikes had a disruptive game with seven tackles and a couple of hurries. Spikes made the stuff on fourth and 1 in the second quarter, and earlier in the quarter made an impressive play to shed guard Davin Joseph and drag down Martin from behind.
■ Speaking of Joseph, he was, well, pretty terrible. Rob Ninkovich beat him for a sack in the first quarter, Tommy Kelly beat him badly for a sack in the third quarter, Kelly beat him badly in the second quarter and forced a throwaway, and Jamie Collins also tossed Joseph aside and stopped Martin for 1 yard.
■ Arrington, who has two forced fumbles this year and was playing well, first was replaced by Dennard in the base defense after being flagged for pass interference in the first quarter, then was replaced by rookie Logan Ryan in the nickel defense in the second half. Ryan played well in his place, making a nice diving pass breakup, and it will be interesting to see if Arrington loses playing time next week.
■ Just a baffling decision by Schiano to do anything but take a knee at the end of the second quarter when his team took over on the 20 with 47 seconds left, trailing, 14-3. Schiano called a draw on the first play, and Belichick declined to use either of his two timeouts, seemingly content to take the game into halftime. The Bucs drained 25 seconds off the clock, threw incomplete with 22 seconds left, picked up a first down at the 31 with 16 seconds left, and then threw an interception at midfield with 11 seconds left.
The Patriots gained 8 yards and nailed the long field goal, stealing 3 points before the half.
■ Talib has been fantastic on defense this year, but his performance trying to block the gunner on the punt team has seemed a bit subpar, and he was removed from that duty on Sunday. Marquice Cole and Duron Harmon filled that role, and then McCourty when Cole came up with a right hamstring injury.
■ Edelman had one of the best 16-yard punt returns you’ll ever see, forcing three missed tackles before finally being pushed out of bounds in the third quarter.
Game balls . . .
WR Aaron Dobson: Four of his catches went for first downs, and he converted crucial third- and fourth-down catches on a touchdown drive.
RB Stevan Ridley: Blue-collar effort in pass protection led to several crucial plays.
LB Brandon Spikes: Was the most active linebacker and had four stops in the run game.
CB Aqib Talib: Now has three interceptions this season, and limited Jackson to just three catches for 34 yards before his injury.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.