Sunday night, 8:20 PM eastern standard time.
That’s when the homecoming festivities will kick-off. Freshman Mac Jones faces incumbent Senior Tom Brady to see who will win homecoming court. Security will be on high alert to ensure class jokester Rob Gronkowski doesn’t pull off any shenanigans. Fun-loving-senior-favorite Bruce Arians is sure to get lots of love from the senior class for their favorite teacher while that grumpy old guy Bill Belichick lurks in the shadows and generally ensures no one has fun. There will be presentations and ceremonies. Fireworks and cheerleaders. Family, friends, and fans will gather to support their loved ones. And oh yeah, there will be a football game too.
The defending Super Bowl Champions visit Gillette stadium to take on the 6-time World Champion New England Patriots. The GOAT, the myth, the legend of Tom Brady returns to where it all started to face the team that it all started with and the coach who gave him his start. If you’ve listened to any sports talk, watched any sports coverage, or read any sports section you’ll have heard about this one. The RETURN. The uncomfortable family get together after the divorce. This is Brady vs. the Pats. Mano a manos. One vs. eleven. Right?
Well not really. It’s still football. Eleven on eleven. X’s and O’s. For the amount of attention Brady v. Pats is getting it still comes down to doing your job. Executing your assignment. Winning your one-on-one match up. A week after the Pats did so with little consistency, they’ll need a team effort Sunday to remain in the game and give themselves a chance at winning it.
After watching the film from the Saints game, the importance of all eleven guys executing their assignment was even more evident. A single play can become a failure because one guy made an error. Those single plays can snowball and accumulate into a poor showing for an entire game or sink a team’s chances of winning. That brand of football is foreign to fans in the Northeast and hopefully, it goes back to being an unfamiliar brand of football this Sunday.
So, let’s get to a breakdown of the game this Sunday and keep it as football and team oriented as possible. We’ve heard enough about Brady versus Belichick, and we’ll hear more before and during the game. We’re going to go with a new format this week with breakdowns in areas of the game. Each section will be presented in a “who has the advantage when the…” format.
Patriots Run the Ball
The Patriots were supposed to be a running team even before Mac Jones got the nod at quarterback. The first two weeks reflected that effort as the Pats racked up 226 yards against the Dolphins and Jets. Last week the running game was abandoned early and the team racked up only 49 rushing yards. This largely could be explained by the James White injury. Damien Harris saw a season-low in snaps (22)-fewer snaps than Brandon Bolden got (33)! Harris was embarrassed in a pass protection effort after the White injury and seemed to be faded thereafter. Bolder offers presence in the passing game which led to his increase in usage, regardless of his ineffectiveness with the ball in his hands.
Hopefully, J.J. Taylor gets a little more run this week. He offers more oomph as a runner than Bolden does but his issues in pass protection are what led him to be a healthy inactive most of last year. Harris has been a force when he gets the rock, trailing only Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Javonte Williams in forced missed tackles. The Pats would be wise to rely on Harris in the traditional running game, Taylor when running out of the gun, and Bolden in obvious pass pro situations.
The tight ends have been unspectacular in the rushing game. Jonnu Smith adds a little as a ball-carrier but much less as a blocker. And Hunter Henry, the prototypical T tight end, has consistently been knocked backward at the point of attack. Jakob Johnson has done his job admirably thus far into the season but isn’t a dominating presence at fullback.
The offensive line is where the success of the offense will always come from. The interior three (LG Mike Onwenu, C David Andrews, and RG Shaq Mason) have been above-average players. They haven’t jelled completely as a unit or played to their usual dominant level, but they have been better than most. The problem along the o-line has been at both tackle spots. LT Isaiah Wynn has suddenly turned into a penalty machine with inconsistent results while right tackle has been a nightmare since Trent Brown went down with a calf injury in the first offensive series of the season.
The Buccaneers’ defense has been dominant against the run statistically; allowing 191 yards TOTAL in their three games. This is a misleading stat however. The Buccaneers’ secondary has been much maligned through the first three weeks leading opponents to pass against them with success. The Buccaneers tout a talented front season that features a lot of speed along the defensive line and linebacking corps. DT Vita Vea is an absolute behemoth in the center of their defensive line and routinely keeps talented linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White clean to make plays.
Despite the success passing against the Bucs defense, they are averaging a very respectable 3.1 yards per attempt against in the running game. The Pats will want to establish an honest attempt on the ground to help Mac but expecting success in this area will be short-sighted. Expect the Pats running game to be a nonfactor in this match up.
Patriots Pass the Ball
After all the opining of lack of deep passing game after the win against the Jets, Mac let loose, throwing 19 attempts over 15 yards downfield and 11 over 20 yards downfield. The problem is Mac connected on 3 attempts over 15 yards for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions and was 1 of 11 for 27 yards in throws over 20 yards. Hopefully, the fantasy football and Madden fans are happy with the “opened-up” passing game.
The Patriots have to play a smart brand of offensive football this season. Protecting the ball and staying ahead of the chains. When you are taking deep shots at that rate with limited success, it isn’t helping the team. In fact, it was actively hurting them last week. Mac should take the shots when they are there but forcing them for the sake of forcing them isn’t the game plan for success for this offense. Mac needs to get back to the plan from the first two weeks, taking what is there, and marching down the field with smart football.
The loss of James White will be felt. White leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards by a running back since 2015.
The Buccaneers’ defense has struggled to hold up in the passing game. While they feature a talented pass-rushing tandem in DT Ndamukong Suh, LB’s Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barret, and DE Jason Pierre-Paul, the defense as a whole has been susceptible to the big passing plays. Opposing offenses average 7.3 yards per attempt against this defense with 9 touchdowns against 4 interceptions. And for all the talent they boast in the defensive front seven, they have only gotten home for three sacks as a defensive unit.
The Buccaneers added Richard Sherman this week in hopes of shoring up the defensive secondary. After confusing the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs last year, the secondary has looked like the confused party themselves. A week after being added, don’t be surprised if Sherman joins that club this weekend.
There was optimism Trent Brown would return last week before being shut down in pre-game warm-ups. His return this week would be a huge boost to the Patriots’ pass protection and keeping Mac Jones upright. The more time Jones has to survey the field, the more success he should find. Spreading out the Buccaneers defense with three-wide looks will allow Jones to identify coverages and pressure pre-snap. Jones’ had his most success last week out of three wide sets. Perhaps we see Jonnu Smith in the backfield in gun formations this week.
Advantage: Patriots (but just slightly)
Buccaneers Run the Ball
The Buccaneers have 169 total yards rushing this season despite having talented backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. This is largely because they haven’t really tried running the ball, averaging four attempts a quarter thus far. They average 3.5 yards per carry, a respectable total, nonetheless.
The Patriots’ run defense has been poor thus far allowing 368 yards. Run stuffing linebacker Ja’Wuan Bentley was listed on the injury report early in the week but should be good to go against the Bucs (Bentley conducted an interview Wednesday-typically a sign a player will be active).
This is where the game will come down to in my opinion. The Pats haven’t been afraid to roll out dime packages against talented QB’s in the past, daring them to hand it off again and again. We saw it with Peyton Manning throughout the 2000s and have recently seen it when the Pats play Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. If the Pats can force the Bucs to run the ball and find success in stopping them, it will go a long way to dictating the flow of the game.
Not sure the Patriots will be able to consistently stop the running game if this is the route they choose to go. They had success against the Dolphins before the Jets and Saints both had success running the ball against the Pats. The Pats may struggle even more if they do utilize a dime package as their defensive base.
Buccaneers Pass the Ball
This is the juicy match up, where Tom Brady vs. Belichick becomes reality. This is also one of the better units on the Pats team versus one of the better units on the Buccaneers roster. The return of Antonio Brown from the COVID-19 list puts the Buccaneers receiving corps at full strength but the health of Rob Gronkowski bears watching. Gronk has been listed on the injury report with a rib injury all week and is officially questionable for his game-time status although it would be extremely shocking if he did not suit up against his former employer.
The Buccaneers run a straightforward passing game under Arians and have seamlessly incorporated concepts from the Patriots playbook to make Tom Brady more comfortable. It is about execution and not long developing crazy play design (ala the Chiefs). The Patriots run a straightforward single high man press coverage concept defensively, which also comes down to execution. Though the talent among the Buccaneers wide receivers may dictate some change of pace calls from the Pats. If Gilmore was available the Pats may be able to go one for one across the board with Gilmore on Evans, JC Jackson on Godwin, and Jonathon Jones of Brown. Without Gilmore, the Pats would be left asking Jalen Mills to cover either Godwin or Brown one on one for large portions of the game. Not sure that’s a game plan the Pats want to live with.
Belichick knows Tom Brady, his tendencies, and what makes him uncomfortable. The Pats won’t try to fool Brady all too often but will be switching up looks and movements after the snap.
The most important part of the game will come down to the Patriots’ pass rush. Brady has been sacked 6 times in three games. The Pats know Brady does fine against edge pressure but struggled against pressure up the middle. A key to success would be having the edge guys win cleanly while having Hightower or Judon coming up the middle. Rookie DT Christian Barmore has had an impressive campaign thus far but has failed to finish plays. Against a less mobile quarterback such as Brady, Barmore may a better chance at getting some sacks.
Tom Brady is going to be Tom Brady. New England fans know how seldomly a team has been able to make the man look mortal. The Pats will need to take advantage of the weaknesses along the Buccaneers’ offensive line if they hope to find success defending the pass. This week above any other, the marriage between coverage and pass rush has to be perfect.
The Patriots pride themselves in having one of the best special team units in the NFL, which makes this year’s performance such a shock. Nick Folk has been reliable (outside of a missed PAT against the Jets) but All-Pro punter Jake Bailey has been inconsistent, to say the least. He has mixed his fair share of shanks in with his usual booming punts and has also struggled on kickoffs. The last thing the Pats can do is give Brady the ball on a short field after a score.
The Bucs haven’t asked much of Ryan Succop, who has connected on two of his three field-goal attempts. Their punter, Bradley Pinion has enjoyed a strong start while averaging 41.4 net yards per punt. The Buccaneers coverage units have been so-so to date, not letting anything explosive by while also not being a suffocating unit. Sounds a lot like the Pats units.
The hope would be to see both Buccaneer specialists often Sunday night and take advantage of the hidden yards in the special teams game. With the caliber of player rostered by the Patriots for their special teams’ units versus what the Buccaneers have, the advantage here goes to the Pats.
Let’s get this straight, it’s being touted as Belichick vs. Tom Brady for a reason. Brady went to Tampa and immediately became somewhat of a coach and general manager himself. Arians is a fine coach but seemed to get a Super Bowl ring last year in spite of himself, not because of his own doing. Belichick will continue to play chess while Arians plays checkers if it comes down to it.
The match up here is Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator against Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels has drawn the ire of many around New England for his lackluster play-calling thus far. My feeling is he is still feeling the offense and how to let Mac succeed while not putting him in a position to fail. The first two games featured bland and safe play-calling (outside of one double pass against the Jets) while he was forced into passing early and often against the Saints. McDaniels didn’t “open it up” against the Saints but the plays were a bit more aggressive than the first two weeks. A caveat here; Mac Jones admitted to changing plays at the line quite a bit and needing to trust the original play call more. Perhaps the frustration with McDaniels should be shared among all involved parties.
If we look strictly at the coaching staff, the Patriots have the edge. If we include Brady into the Bucs coaching staff, the dial swings ever so slightly in their favor.
There will be plenty of emotion in this game both from Tom Brady and from the Patriots. Newcomer Matt Judon was fed up with questions about Brady and he never even played with the guy. Van Noy and Hightower have both vocalized hoping to get a hit on him. McCourty would certainly love to add a certain ball to his interception collection. The pregame festivities and inevitable record-breaking for total passing yards give a chance to the Patriots to switch things up and maybe heighten some emotions for Brady. Hoping to distract this guy seems like a shot in the dark as his “laser focus” has been on display since he got into the league. Maybe Brady peppers in a few “f*** it” chucks downfield that the Pats can take advantage of.
Advantage: The Fans
The forecast for Sunday calls for showers in the evening before steady rain throughout the night. A sloppy field with sloppy conditions would benefit the Pats, even if Brady spent 20 years in sloppy New England weather with his scuba suit. Perhaps the Pats get that added element that helped them steal a game from the Ravens last year. A slick field and a wet ball could mean some fluky plays, something the Pats might be hoping for at some point on Sunday.
Usually, rain means running the ball more. If this is the case, the Patriots might find themselves at a disadvantage as they have to play their base defense more and Brady picks them apart with short passes. Even if Tom Brady is used to the conditions, hopefully, those receivers from sunny Florida aren’t.
Based on the breakdown, the Patriots only advantages come in coaching, special teams, weather, and ever so slightly in their passing game. After last week’s performance, having to bank on the passing game to carry the team seems like a lost hope. McDaniels and Mac need to get back to efficient and safe play before they can hope to hang with Tom Brady and company. Brady will move the Bucs between the twenties before the Pats’ defense slows down their progress. A bend but don’t break defense will be in full force on Sunday night. In the end, the Pats just don’t have enough firepower to hang with TB12 as the Bucs pull away in the second half. Buccaneers win 31-21 with a late touchdown from the Pats to make the score a bit more respectable.