8:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -5.5, Over/Under: 55.5
A pair of teams desperately searching for answers clash tonight in Tampa Florida, as the Buccaneers host the reigning Super Bowl Champions New England Patriots at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday Night Football. After securing their fifth Lombardi Trophy of the Brady/Belichick Era and enjoying an uncharacteristically busy Offseason, the Patriots (2-2, 2nd in AFC East) were expected by many to be the overwhelming favorite to once again return to the Super Bowl and raise another championship. In returning nearly the entirety of last year’s roster, including the additions of high-profile acquisitions such as Pro Bowl Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Receiver Brandin Cooks, Bill Belichick’s charges appeared to be as loaded as they’ve ever been, as he and the Franchise look to maximize the remainder of Tom Brady’s illustrious Hall of Fame career. However, two games into the 2017 campaign and it’s safe to say that things are NOT proceeding as planned in Foxborough, Massachusetts. For a team that has won no less than twelve outings every year since 2009, a 2-2 start is enough to sound the proverbial alarms, even at such an early stage of the term. So just what the hell is going on in New England, you ask? Well, in essence, their Defense has been absolutely abysmal. For all Belichick’s wizardry, his (well-earned) reputation as the game’s foremost defensive strategist is being put to the test by a unit that is allowing a ridiculous 456.8 Total Yards per Game, the sixth-highest figure through the first four games of any season in NFL History, and also represents the most Points relinquished by a team that had led the NFL in Scoring Defense in the previous season since 1970. Let’s take a moment to run down the rest of the numbers, which are quite shocking to say the least; the Patriots have been torched for an average of 32.0 Points (31st Overall), with a league-worst 324.0 Yards (32nd Overall) coming against the Pass on 8.6 Net Yards per Attempt (32nd Overall), and another 132.8 Yards against the run (26th Overall) on 5.1 Yards per Carry (31st Overall). Furthermore, they’ve permitted the second-most Touchdown Passes thus far (Eleven), with their opponents averaging a whopping 40.6 Yards per Drive, easily most in the league despite the fact that their Starting Field Position is their own 25.9-Yard Line, third-best overall. Just look at last week’s stunning 33-30 defeat at home to the Carolina Panthers for evidence of their existing issues. Despite owning a solid Plus-Two Differential in Turnovers, the hosts stood by helpless as the visiting side continued to march up and down the field unabated, racking up a staggering 444 Total Yards, while continuing drives with stunning efficiency converting 6-of-9 of their Third Downs. Panthers’ Quarterback Cam Newton, who had struggled throughout the previous three games of the campaign, recaptured his MVP form from 2015, completing 22-of-29 Passes for 316 Yards and three Touchdowns, while rushing for another forty-four Yards and a score on eight carries. As has become a habit in 2017, New England was once more relegated to relying on Brady (66.5%, 349.8 Y/G, 7.82 NY/A, 10 TD, 0 INT) to save the day, but even for all of the 40-year old’s considerable skills, even he can’t heal what ails this group. The two-time MVP did his best to keep his team in it, completing 32-of-45 Passes for 307 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, but was sacked another three times, bringing his total thus far to thirteen, which is nearly as many times as he was dropped in the twelve games that he started in 2016. With that said, No. 12 has an opportunity to make some more history tonight, for with another victory Brady will be at 186 on his career during the Regular Season, which would tie him with the likes of Brett Favre and Peyton Manning for the most in NFL History.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers (2-1, 2nd in NFC South) may not have had the lofty expectations of their opponent tonight, but have nonetheless appeared to be lacking in what was predicted by many to a very important season for the young team, and more specifically their Quarterback Jameis Winston. After a surprise 9-7 campaign that took them to the precipice of the Playoffs, the Bucs looked like a team ahead of schedule, with their heralded Quarterback primed to make the next leap in his evolution. Management clearly had the same feeling, as they went out of their way to surround Winston (63.0%, 288.0 Y/G, 7.37 NY/A, 6 TD, 3 INT) with more dynamic weapons, acquiring Receiver Desean Jackson (9 REC, 143 YDS, 1 TD) in Free Agency, and selecting promising Tight End OJ Howard (4 REC, 92 YDS, 1 TD) with their first pick in the NFL Draft. Even with the past two NFC Champions residing in their division, many around the league were bullish on Dirk Koetter’s charges making a considerable play for the NFC South, returning to the Postseason for the first time since 2008. However, just as New England has found out, these games are rarely ever won on paper alone… First, we’ll take a look at Winston, the former No. One Overall Pick and Heisman, who now in his third season as the Starting Quarterback continues to display the inconsistencies that have begun to make him such a maddening prospect. In last week’s 25-23 escape against the New York Giants, No. 3 put his teammates on his back, completing 22-of-38 Passes for 332 Yards and three Touchdowns, leading the home side fifty-nine Yards down the field with just over two minutes remaining to set up the game-winning 34-Yard Field Goal courtesy of Nick Folk. However, it was a very different story the previous weekend, in which he was harassed constantly by the Minnesota Vikings’ Defense, which sacked him twice and intercepted him three times in the 34-17 loss. Koetter was promoted to Head Coach last season in large part to his rapport with the young gun-slinger, and he must continue to find a way to even out Winston’s play, which even at this point remains erratic. Secondly, and perhaps most surprisingly, is the play of the Defense, which for lack of a better term, has been a disappointment thus far. After a poor start to the 2016 term, the Buccaneers’ Defense really settled into a solid unit, and was one of the prime reasons for the team nearly making the Playoffs, allowing just 18.1 Points over the final eight games of the schedule. With Playmakers scattered throughout all three levels of the unit, big things were expected out of this group, but again, while they’ve looked great on paper, they’ve provided only moments of the greatness, and those moments have been fleeting of late. While Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith’s charges have been solid against the run (78.7 Y/G, 2.9 Y/C), it’s been a completely different story versus the pass, where they’ve been shredded to the tune of 315.7 Yards (31st Overall) on 7.4 Net Yards per Attempt (28th Overall). So yeah, there’s New England’s woeful Pass Defense, and then there’s Tampa’s. Making things even more maddening is the fact that due to their Season Opener against the Dolphins being postponed until later in the season because of Hurricane Irma, the Bucs have only played three games thus far, one less than thirty other teams in the league, and they’ve still be torched the way they’ve been. And making matters worse, opponents have been very keen to exploit this weakness, for no team in the NFL has seen more passes thrown against them than these guys, who’ve had to defend a whopping 42.3 Attempts per Game. Furthermore, allowing the likes of Mike Glennon, Sam Bradford, and Eli Manning to throw the ball all over the field against you is one thing, but with Tom Brady on deck, what can you expect to happen?