Are the powerful Patriots ripe for the picking?

by Gary Shelton on October 4, 2017 · 4 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Can Jameis Winston lead his team to an upset victory?/STEVEN MUNCIE

Can Jameis Winston lead his team to an upset victory?/STEVEN MUNCIE

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

The bear is wounded. The bear is bleeding. The bear is frustrated.

Ask yourself: Does that make him more vulnerable?

Or less?

The New England Patriots, the dynastic New England Patriots, have been rendered mortal. Their defense has been wretched, something you would normally find in, say, Cleveland. They cannot stop anyone. They can't slow the big plays. They cannot protect their end zone.

So does that make them dismal?

Or, maybe, dangerous.

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How do you look at the Patriots faltering start to this season? Do you see hope in the gaps in the New England defense? Or do you see a team that everyone knows will be around at the end? Do you think they are vulnerable? Or do you think all of this is just going to make them mad?

"I think you’ve just got to go in and run your offense,” Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter said. “On a short week, it cuts your game planning. It’s not like you can add 500 new things on a Thursday night game. If you watch that Carolina game, Carolina did a great job, but there (were) some fluke plays in there where they just turned some guys flat loose. You just don’t see that and that’s not indicative at all of the Patriots on defense. It looked to me like they were trying to do some different pickups in their bunches and stacks and they got messed up a couple of times. You just usually don’t see that. It’s just unusual. If you look at who their cover guys are, they’ve got fantastic cover guys. I would expect that those issues will all be taken care of Thursday night.”

Still, it's New England. And the Patriots have a lot more on their resumes than the four games of this year.

It's the darnedest thing. New England has won so often, and so big, that we cannot imagine it ceasing. Sooner or later, the Patriots will wake up, and lo and behold, they'll be the Patriots again. No one doubts that. Bill Belichick is still Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady is still Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski is still Ron Gronkowski.

In Tony Dungy's first playoff season, he needed a signature win to boost the Bucs' franchise. They got it in a 13-6 victory over San Francisco. This could rival that game.

For now, however, do the Bucs have a chance?

Not according to the odds-makers. The Patriots, coming off a defeat, playing on the road in a short week, are still 5 ½ point favorites. The Patriots, last in the league in points allowed, last in big plays allowed, are still seventh in the NFL power rankings. (The Bucs, with a slightly better record, are 18th.)

In other words, no one nationally seems to believe that the Patriots have fallen so far they've passed Tampa Bay. Who can blame them? In the last eight years, the Patriots have eight playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins. The Bucs have zero playoff appearances.

It's as if the world looks at Belichick and figures that, once again, he'll find a cure. There is no one in the NFL who applies Band-aids quite as strategically as Belichick.

"What’s tough about them is, even though we haven’t gone ourselves against New England a bunch of times, when you study them, they’re an amoeba defense," Koettter said. "They can play any personnel group, they can change from week-to-week, they can be in even-front one week, an odd-front next week, they will play dime the whole game. They’ve got a nickel package, a dime package [and a] quarter package. They’ve always been able to adjust. They will switch at halftime and they’ve always been a very difficult team to plan for. In that respect, maybe it’s better that we do play them on a Thursday night.”

To me, this matchup is about one thing. It's about Brady dropping back in the pocket, and the Bucs unable to get close enough to shout at him. Tampa Bay has one sack in three games. And giving Brady time is inviting doom.

For the Bucs to have a puncher's chance in this game, it needs to force turnovers. It needs to start fast. It needs to ride out the inevitable rush by the Patriots. And it needs Brady to be less than the best to ever play quarterback.

"I think we’ve got to work together with the guys in the back end and we’ve got to be disruptive,” said defensive coordinator Mike Smith. “When he is wanting to throw the ball, we’ve got to have a body on a body. I think you also have to always be changing it up — not giving him the same look [and] making subtle changes. If he gets a beat on what you’re doing, he is going to be able to deliver the ball where it is supposed to go. That group of receivers right now — they are clicking. They’re playing really good right now and their running back (James White) catches the ball well out of the backfield, as well.”

Like usual, to win, the Bucs need a terrific performance from quarterback Jameis Winston. By now, that should go without saying.

Of course, the Patriots still have Brady, who has thrown for a league-leading 1399 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he's been sacked 13 times, tied for fifth in the NFL.

"We have not been able to get the quarterback on the ground,” said Smith. “We had some pressures where we’ve gotten him to move off the spot. Sometimes sacks are like turnovers — they come in bunches. We haven’t been able to turn the ball over. Those two areas are the biggest concerns of what we have not accomplished in the last two weeks. It’s not always just the guys that are rushing. It’s also what’s happening with the coverage. We’ve got to do a good job of making sure when the quarterback is trying to throw the ball that if it’s a man coverage, we’ve got to be in phase with the guys. If it’s a match coverage, we’ve got to be matching them. It’s across the board — we’ve got to be better and we’ve got to be more productive though in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback and affecting the quarterback.

"Where he can deliver the football — it’s amazing. It’s all based off of leverage. He and the receivers see it the same way. If you’ve got inside leverage, it’s on the backside. If you’ve got outside leverage, it’s on the inside. If you’ve got a lurker, it’s down and away. He’s just got the ability to process what the defense is and where the ball needs to go — that’s probably the most impressive thing. He doesn’t make very many bad throws and he usually puts it in the right spot and it’s always away from the defender.”

Bucs' quarterback Jameis Winston is looking forward to playing against Brady.

Growing up – Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, guys of that nature and more — every successful quarterback that was playing when I was coming up, I admired them,” Winston said. “Tom Brady, in particular, he is the winningest. He has won more Super Bowls than each of those guys, so to me that is the most important part. His ability to protect the football and take advantage of those opportunities when they are given to him is impeccable. Just studying him, just seeing how calm he is [and] how precise he is, is very impressive. That is the reason why every offseason, every rep I get during the season that I’m trying to be better and better because I know that he’s still out there playing. He’s still getting better and better. He should be an inspiration. Him and Drew Brees and a couple of the older veterans that are still playing to this day are just inspirations for young guys like myself and the other guys coming into the league to continue to work, continue to get better and that’s it.”

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