Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat(s) of the Week
What stats are we going to talk about this week?
How about the number five; the amount of Super Bowls Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have won together.
Or, maybe we could talk about the number 14; the number of AFC East division championships the Patriots have won since Brady became the starter in 2001.
If not those, then certainly we could talk about the number 210; the amount of wins Brady has as an NFL quarterback, which is the most in league history.
We could talk about any of those numbers and more, if we wanted to. The Patriots and the dynasty of Brady and Belichick contains some of the greatest numbers and statistics the game of football has to offer. But we don’t have to talk about any of those numbers for the Patriots’ preview against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday. You know why? Because they don’t matter.
Regardless of how many Super Bowls your players or coaches have won or how many Pro Bowls you’ve been to, every game you play starts the same; 0-0.
And, no, I’m not undermining or taking any respect away from what is probably going to be the greatest quarterback and coach to ever grace the game of football. But, what they’ve done in the past doesn’t mean as much as what they’re doing currently, and currently the Patriots are 2-2 – not undefeated and on their way to a perfect season like some thought they would be.
The Buccaneers aren’t getting the 2001 Patriots on Thursday. They’re not getting the 2007, the 2014 or the 2016 Patriots, either.
So, what do the 2017 Patriots bring to the table?
Let’s start with their defense.
The Patriots defense is currently ranked dead last in the NFL in total yards given up per game (456, which is the most by 60 yards), passing yards given up per game (324) and most touchdowns surrendered through the air (11). They’re second to last in total points given up (128), and subsequently, points given up per game (32). They’re also the second worst team in the NFL in rushing yards given up per attempt with an average of 5.1. The team is also tied for the fifth worst total sacks on the season with eight.
So, for your “too long; didn’t read” version: The Patriots defense is really bad – or has been for the first four games.
There was quite a bit of turnover from the Patriots’ roster that led to the drop off we’re seeing now. Pass rushers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins were both traded at different points in 2016. The team lost Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Barkevious Mingo before the season began, and they also said goodbye to Jabaal Sheard and Logan Ryan in free agency. I don’t care how you slice it, that’s a lot of change, on the defensive line especially, which explains the inability to get the quarterback and stop the run.
The team signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to replace Ryan, but he’s having communication issues thus far. With a then-depleted defensive line after free agency, the team drafted pass rusher Derek Rivers in the third round, but he tore his ACL in early August. The Pats also traded for defensive end Kony Ealy, but once he got to New England, he wasn’t what they thought and he was cut near the end of training camp.
The Patriots have good pieces in the secondary, on paper, but if you take out Dont’a Hightower, who has been injured already this season, that New England front seven isn’t intimidating. David Harris and Kyle Van Noy aren’t very athletic at the linebacker spots, and minus a surprisingly good start from rookie Deatrich Wise, the Pats aren’t getting much control from their down linemen.
So, let’s move to the offense.
During the course of the offseason and training camp, the Patriots offense had just as powerful of a shift of preference, but it was because of a small number of key players moving out and in and not by the sheer number of moving pieces like it was on the defense. They lost tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency, but also acquired receiver Brandin Cooks from the Saints. The biggest loss, however, was when key receiver Julian Edelman tore his ACL at the end of August.
With those things in mind, the average offensive numbers have shifted for the Patriots. For starters, Brady is having his best statistical season at age 40. He’s averaging the most yards per attempt in his career (9.0), the most passing yards per game in his career (349), leads the league in passing yards thus far (1,399) and currently has a 10-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Brady’s numbers are a result of a few things. First of all, his defense is terrible, so if the Patriots offense doesn’t do everything they can, they’ll lose games (we saw that last week against Carolina). Second, Brady doesn’t have the plethora of slot weapons he’s used to having, especially with his main one, Edelman, being out. Danny Amendola is doing fine as a replacement, but he’s no Edelman. Instead, they’re trying to replace the total receiver production with Cooks and Chris Hogan. Those two players aren’t the quick-hit receivers like we’re used to seeing from the Patriots. Instead, their success is farther down the field, hence the inflated numbers for Brady.
The Patriots certainly can be a quick-hit offense as they move the ball down the field, at times, but it’s not a certain as it once was – that can be a good or bad thing for an opposing defense, depending on how they play it. With receivers who do more damage down the field, Brady has also been sacked 13 times already, which puts him on pace for the most sacks he’ll take in a single season.
In conclusion, the Pats aren’t what you think they are, but they’re no pushovers, either. This is still a very talented offense with two of the most creative offensive minds, both on the headset and at the quarterback position. If you don’t play on your game, the Pats can still work you, as they did against the Saints. However, as the Chiefs, Panthers and even the Texans showed, if you attack the weaknesses they have and instead flip the tables, demanding that the Patriots’ offense be perfect, that mean there’s likely a thermal exhaust port somewhere.
If there’s a port, you can blow it up.
Click to the next page to see some film breakdowns of just where the Patriots defense fails them and the 2017 preferences of how Brady attacks through the air.