FOXBOROUGH — After a horrendous start on defense, the Patriots won’t catch any breaks when they travel Thursday to Tampa Bay, where one of the league’s top young quarterbacks awaits.
Third-year quarterback Jameis Winston is the conductor behind a revamped Buccaneers attack. He was thrust into the starting role when he arrived as a rookie in 2015, and he quickly showed he was capable, despite some inconsistencies. After the Bucs went 6-10 in Winston’s rookie season, they improved to 9-7 last year, their first winning record since 2010.
“For a guy in his third year, he’s had extraordinary production,” Bill Belichick said. “Not many guys that have more than he has, and we’ve had some pretty good quarterbacks.”
Winston is the first player in NFL history to record 4,000-yard passing seasons in each of his first two seasons. Last year, he set franchise records with 4,090 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns.
The Florida State product was dubbed a savior for an ailing organization after a dominant college career. In two years, Winston led the Seminoles to their first national championship in 14 years, compiled a 26-1 overall record, and became the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy at 19.
This year, Winston has led Tampa Bay to 2-1 record (Hurricane Irma’s devastation stalled its season by one week) in the NFC South gauntlet. He has produced passing 864 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in three games.
Winston’s early professional success hasn’t surprised his NFL counterparts.
“Even when he was in college, sit in the pocket, try to get the ball down the field,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “So, to me, it’s just carried over for him well. He has done a good job in Tampa.”
Despite his historic start, Winston has experienced some typical early struggles. His 18 interceptions in 2016 were the second-most in the NFL behind Philip Rivers. He occasionally tries to squeeze passes into tight coverage rather than taking a sack or throwing the ball away.
But the 23-year-old has steadily produced, despite tremendous offensive turnover in Tampa. Mike Evans and Cameron Brate are the only remaining receiving threats from the 2015 team that Winston inherited. Running back Doug Martin played in only eight games last year because of suspension and injuries.
Speedster DeSean Jackson and first-round pick O.J. Howard, the fleet-footed tight end out of Alabama, were added this offseason.
Tampa Bay’s newfound army of playmakers, combined with Winston’s ability to evade tacklers and find receivers downfield, may well pose a threat to the struggling New England secondary.
“The thing that makes him really special is when he is scrambling, he is scrambling to throw; he is not scrambling to run,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said. “Not only is he accurate in the pocket, he is accurate on the run as well.
“He is legit, man. He’s a tremendous quarterback. He is only going to get better as time goes on.”
Winston isn’t as run-centric as Deshaun Watson or Cam Newton, two mobile quarterbacks who torched New England the past two weeks. But Winston is elusive enough to escape the pocket and manufacture big plays. The 6-foot-4-inch, 231-pounder has been sacked an average of 1.4 times per game since he entered the league.
The Patriots have consistently allowed the big play — a major component of Tampa Bay’s offense — to hurt them this season. Winston is averaging 8 yards per attempt, the sixth-most in the league, while New England is allowing a league-worst 9.4 yards per attempt.
Last week, Tampa Bay employed the type of misdirection play that has burned New England. Winston ran a play-action, and Howard wheeled off the line to acres of open space. He turned a wide-open catch into a 58-yard touchdown, reminiscent of his Alabama days.
The Bucs offense has valued tight end production in recent years, which explains why they used their first-round pick on Howard.
According to Pro Football Focus, Winston’s 116.8 passer rating when targeting tight ends ranked as the fifth-best in the NFL entering this season. He threw 19.6 percent of his passes to tight ends in his first two years; he has targeted them 21 percent of the time this year.
New England has defended tight ends well, one of the few silver linings in an atrocious four-game defensive stretch. But miscommunication, poor tackling, and a propensity to allow the big play have plagued a secondary filled with Pro Bowlers.
The Patriots are allowing a league-most 324 passing yards per game (Tampa Bay is second with 316). Opposing quarterbacks have a 116.5 passer rating against New England. For context, only five quarterbacks in NFL history have produced a higher single-season rating.
The New England defense must find answers, with limited time to prepare for Winston, whose 288 passing yards per game rank third in the NFL.
“He’s a great young player,” said Tom Brady. “I’ve watched him since he’s came in and he’s got them going. He’s a great leader. Has been since he came into the league, and he’s been really productive.”
Brad Almquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.