On Sunday, the New England Patriots have the chance to go 3-0 for the first time since their undefeated regular season of 2007. That might sound a bit strange considering how disjointed the Patriots offense has looked in their first two games this season, but it speaks to a larger point of just how meaningless a poor performance in the first few weeks of a season can be.
It would be foolish to extrapolate from such a limited sample, but aside from the general sloppiness and lack of execution in the two games, there are problems that the Patriots would be wise to eliminate as soon as possible.
Here are three specific areas for the Patriots to focus on improving against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Red-Zone Offense and Defense
Through two games this season, the Patriots are 31st in red-zone offense, the near polar opposite from where they were in 2012, when they ranked 1st. The Pats have put up just two touchdowns in eight trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Against rookie quarterbacks you can get away with leaving points on the field, but against the better offenses in the league, consistently settling for three instead is a recipe for losing football games. So far, the Pat's defense has compensated enough to prevent an upset.
Who will lead the Patriots in receptions in 2013?
As for New England's defense in the red zone, it's not doing much better, allowing touchdowns on three of four opponent's trips inside their 20 (26th in the NFL). The sample size is limited for the defense, but allowing only four opponent's drives to get inside their 20 is actually pretty good.
We get our opportunities down there at the goal-line, we have to get the ball in the end zone and we have to hold them to some field goal opportunities. Our red area offense and defense certainly needs work, needs to be better.
For the offense, it comes down to execution. The closer they get to the end zone, the tighter the passing windows become, and the less room there is for mistakes. That's when the level of precision is truly tested, and it's clear that the Pats offense is not the precise machine it once was.
Mistakes have been prevalent for the Pats when they're knocking on the door for a score. There was a fumbled snap and an end-zone drop against the Buffalo Bills. Against the New York Jets, the Patriots had no red-zone trips in the second half until Tom Brady was taking a knee to end the game.
In all, Tom Brady is just 5-of-12 passing inside the red zone, while the running backs are averaging 1.11 yards per attempt. The offense must be better, and the defense needs to show that it can put the clamps down on offenses who get inside their 20-yard-line.
Defending the Deep Ball
The Patriots have shown improvement against allowing long passes this season, after being dead last in the NFL last year in giving up passes over 20 yards. So far in 2013, they've allowed just four such passes, all to the Jets.
However, if you drop the cutoff down to 18 yards, the Pats have given up eight total plays, including two against the Bills that went for touchdowns. This is still an improvement, considering the Patriots defense gave up an average of six per game in 2012, but after playing two rookie quarterbacks, it still raises the concern that the Pats problems against the deep ball might not be entirely behind them.
Against the Bills, the problem on the 18-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods appeared to be a miscommunication. Aqib Talib seemed to think he had help over the top, but he did not.
On the other to Stevie Johnson, Devin McCourty bit on play-action just long enough to give Johnson a step on him and Alfonzo Dennard. A perfectly placed strike from EJ Manuel put six points on the scoreboard.
The Jets had three passes over 30 yards against the Patriots, but all three were due to poor balance among the pass-rushers, which gave Geno Smith clear throwing lanes on three pinpoint passes. As you can see below, the Jets were able to block multiple Patriots rushers with a single blocker and give Geno Smith a direct view of his intended target.
Some of the miscommunication problems that have led to the deep balls are due to the early season rustiness and should be fixed over time. However, the pass rush must improve in key spots, especially up the middle.
Some of the lack of pressure against the Bills and Jets can be attributed to game plans designed to keep their quarterbacks contained, but still, it's possible to do a better job collapsing the pocket.
Catch the Ball
Through two games, the Patriots are tied with the Detroit Lions for most dropped passes in the NFL with eight. Rookie receiver Aaron Dobson has been responsible for four of them, while Julian Edelman has two.
Receptions on those passes would've decisively swung the game in the Pats' favor, bypassing the need for a late field goal (against the Bills) and interception (versus the Jets) to secure the two wins. Of course, sloppy play at this early juncture is to be somewhat expected.
Part of it could be jitters that most rookie players experience. But despite the drops, it's clear that Dobson has the talent to get open in the NFL. Getting separation is the hard part.
Now comes the easier part, focusing on the ball and catching it.
While Kenbrell Thompkins hasn't had the drop issues that Dobson has, he seems to be struggling with refining his routes to Tom Brady's liking. He has caught passes on just six of 21 targets. Like Dobson, Thompkins has demonstrated he has the ability to get open, as he gained separation on the Jets Antonio Cromartie on a handful of snaps.
Dobson's problems likewise can be fixed once he gets more experience with Brady and more acclimated to NFL game speed. If Dobson and Thompkins were unable to get off the line of scrimmage or lacked the speed to get downfield, then it would be time for concern.
It seems clear that both Dobson and Thompkins can be legitimate NFL receivers, all they have to do now is catch the ball, and the Pats offense will begin moving the ball like it is accustomed to doing. And doing so with perhaps more explosion on the perimeter than they had since Randy Moss was in town.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.