Based on the vibes around Foxboro, you might expect that the New England Patriots had just dropped their opening two games in Jaguars-esque fashion. However, the Pats are actually 2-0, as unfathomable as that might be to some. For a team that is clearly a work in progress, continuing to rack up wins in spite of injuries and discontinuity is a huge bonus.
Unfortunately, the Patriots will not face rookie quarterbacks every week, and the schedule beefs up quickly. Though the Buccaneers are marred by an 0-2 record and locker room chaos, they undoubtedly possess the most talent of any Pats opponent thus far. Moreover, Tampa is essentially one horrible penalty and one botched fourth-down call away from being undefeated.
Unlike the first two weeks, when the Pats could hone in on inexperience and weakness, the Bucs actually seem like a fairly well-rounded, albeit troubled, team. The game will likely come down to whether the Jekyll or Hyde version of Josh Freeman shows up (more on that later), but there are several intriguing individual matchups that will play a critical role in shaping the outcome as well.
Make no mistake, the Bucs have more than enough talent to come into Gillette Stadium and upset the discombobulated Patriots. Here are the four individual battles that will most decide whether or not that happens.
Julian Edelman vs. Darrelle Revis
If there were any doubts about Revis returning to elite form following ACL surgery, he has definitively silenced what few critics may have existed. At plus-4.5 for the year, Revis is tied for the highest rating among all cornerbacks. Moreover, against the Saints last week, Revis played 71 out of 74 snaps, signifying his ability to handle a full workload.
It's plays like this that will cause Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels to lose sleep this week. In this Week 1 sequence against the Jets, the Bucs counter a spread empty set with a man-zone hybrid. Except it's not really a hybrid so much as it is the entire defense playing Cover 3 while Revis plays man:
With Clyde Gates running a simple slant pattern, this should be an easy completion. Geno Smith places the ball on target, but Revis somehow gets a hand in to force the incompletion:
Revis' agility and reactivity in small spaces is part of what makes him the game's best corner, and it's especially problematic for the Patriots. Thus far, the passing game has really only had one reliable pet play—a "rub" concept for Julian Edelman, in which he and another receiver cross paths to mix up the opposing defense's man coverage:
Unfortunately, Revis is too smart for those plays to net anything of significance. If Rob Gronkowski is unable to suit up, that will allow Revis to shadow Edelman in man coverage the whole afternoon.
That should conjure some terrifying memories for Pats fans, as Revis was one of the few players who could bottle up ex-Brady binky Wes Welker. Excluding last season, when Revis did not play against the Pats, Welker averaged roughly seven receptions and 80 yards per game, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Of course, Revis did not blanket Welker in all those matchups, particularly when Randy Moss was still around. In 2011, when Welker was the bonafide top option in the passing game, he totaled just 11 receptions and 170 yards in two games, 73 of which came on one play.
Of all the matchups, this seems like the most treacherous for New England. It's hard to imagine Edelman having much success on Sunday, and if Brady still isn't on the same page with his rookie receivers, it could be similarly tough sledding to what we've witnessed so far.
Dan Connolly/Ryan Wendell vs. Gerald McCoy
So how will the Pats move the ball on offense if the passing game is once again stymied? Unfortunately, Stevan Ridley might face equally tough sledding against a Bucs run D that was elite by both traditional and advanced metrics in 2012.
One of the primary reasons for that success stems from former third overall pick Gerald McCoy. Last year, McCoy finished as the second-ranked defensive tackle by cumulative rating, behind only Geno Atkins.
McCoy continues to wreak havoc in 2013, particularly from the three-technique. On this play, McCoy demonstrates tremendous power in splitting the double-team from Vladimir Ducasse and Nick Mangold to bring down Chris Ivory for a one-yard gain:
McCoy also possesses above-average quickness for someone his size, a trait that allows him to thwart misdirection plays. Here, the Saints try to sell a play-action fake by having left guard Ben Grubbs act as a pulling guard:
However, this play call is doomed to fail, as it requires center Brian De La Puente to shift over and block McCoy one-on-one. Drew Brees does not even complete the play action before McCoy has penetrated into the backfield, on his way to a seven-yard sack:
For the Patriots, the tandem of Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly will face McCoy at different points in the game, likely often with a double team. Both have had subpar seasons thus far—Wendell's minus-1.9 rating places him 25th out of 34 centers, while Connolly's 0.1 rating is essentially the textbook definition of average.
Needless to say, both will need to step up their games. What's concerning is how often they've given up pressure in one-on-one coverage. Interior pressure has often left Tom Brady trying to throw from positions like this:
If McCoy has his way with the interior linemen, he and Revis could essentially submarine the Pats offense this Sunday.
Aqib Talib vs. Vincent Jackson
But even if the Patriots offense does a decent job against Revis and McCoy, it's hard to imagine them putting up significant production. Thus, the onus lies on the defense to sustain their stellar start.
Apart from having rookie quarterbacks, part of what made the Bills and Jets easy to defend was their lack of a true big-play threat. The Bucs certainly differ in that regard, as Vincent Jackson remains one of the deadlier vertical receivers in the league. Jackson's 24 targets ranks fourth among wide receivers, signifying how vital a cog he is to the passing game.
Thus, Aqib Talib may have more pressure on him this week than any other Patriot. What makes Jackson unique is that despite his skill set, he has actually done his best work from the slot. According to NESN's Doug Kyed, this might lead to having the Pats shadow Jackson, rather than sticking to his left corner spot:
Oddly, Jackson has been the team’s primary slot receiver through two games, according to Pro Football Focus. He has 34 snaps in the slot versus 13 from Ogletree and four from Williams. The Patriots will have to make a decision whether to shadow Jackson with Aqib Talib or let the Buccaneers dictate coverage matchups by moving Jackson around the field. Talib usually locks on the left side of the field, Alfonzo Dennard is on the right side and Kyle Arrington is in the slot. Talib matches up best with the big 6-foot-5, 230-pound target.
Indeed, Jackson's target and catch distribution supports this paradox, as he has inflicted his primary damage over the middle:
Jackson's work in the middle is almost reminiscent of a tight end who tears up defenses down the seams. Here, the Saints safeties are playing a bit too deep to help out on Jackson, allowing Josh Freeman to put the ball high where neither Roman Harper (No. 41) nor Jackson's man can deflect the pass:
A potential issue for the secondary is the size of Tampa's other receivers, Mike Williams and Kevin Ogletree. Both are over six feet tall, and could require safety help for Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington. If that is the case, Talib might occasionally find himself on an island against Jackson.
The Patriots defense carried the team to victory the first two games in large part because they limited big plays. Jackson represents the best big-play threat they have faced to date, and limiting his impact will be paramount to a victory.
Devin McCourty vs. Josh Freeman
OK, so this is technically not a one-on-one matchup. However, McCourty's ball-hawking skills combined with Freeman's erratic arm represents the Patriots' best chance to win the game. Considering the offense will likely struggle to sustain long drives, it is of utmost importance for the defense to force a couple turnovers and give Brady and Co. a short field to work with.
Based on the first two weeks, the Patriots must be salivating at the chance to exploit Freeman. The fifth-year quarterback has compiled the second-lowest grade among all quarterbacks, having completed just 45 percent of his passes while committing four turnovers.
Indeed, Freeman continues to exhibit the same poor mechanics and dubious decision-making that has stymied a once-promising career. Take this sequence from last week against New Orleans. This is about as simple a play as a quarterback could hope for—the Saints blitz six and play Cover 1 man. With Mike Williams running a go route and Vincent Jackson running a deep post, one of the two should have a ripe one-on-one opportunity:
Sure enough, Jackson comes open, as the safety is leaning a bit towards Williams' man. But for reasons known only to Freeman, he does not plant his feet and throw. Instead, he stares at the blitz (another frequent issue), backpedaling instead of delivering the strike:
Not only does he end up throwing off his back foot with wide-open hips, but the safety has had time to recognize his intentions. This predictably leads to catastrophe, as Michael Jenkins picks off the pass:
It's plays like this that McCourty can absolutely feast on. I've previously pointed out McCourty's tremendous range, something that should allow him to bait Freeman into some poor decisions.
McCourty's first full season at safety has gone about as well as one could hope, even without an interception in the books. Pro Football Focus has McCourty as its fifth-best safety in coverage, while Advanced NFL Stats.com has him 12th in Expected Points Added (EPA+).
Make no mistake, Sunday's game will probably be a struggle, as both defenses seem to hold a fairly clear edge over the opposing offenses. But while Tom Brady will probably not cost his team the game, one cannot say the same for Josh Freeman with any confidence. Ultimately, for a team that can no longer overwhelm defenses, that might be New England's trump card.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all photo stills courtesy NFL Game Rewind.