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OPPONENT: New England Patriots
WHERE: Gillette Stadium
WHERE THE PATRIOTS STAND: The Patriots are 8-5 and in first place in the AFC East division.
PATRIOTS HEAD COACH: Bill Belichick
PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Belichick
PATRIOTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Eric Mangini
PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Brad Seely
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE: OVERALL: 24th (296.1 ypg) RUSHING: 16th (113.3 ypg) PASSING: 25th (182.8 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE: OVERALL: 2nd (270.6 ypg) RUSHING: 5th (92.8 ypg) PASSING: 4th (178.0 ypg)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS OFFENSE: OVERALL: 5th (362.8 ypg) RUSHING: 22nd (94.1 ypg) PASSING: 2nd (268.7 ypg)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS DEFENSE: OVERALL: 29th (353.5 ypg) RUSHING: 11th (104.8 ypg) PASSING: 31st (248.8 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW… …New England has a minus-8 turnover ratio and Tampa Bay has a plus-7 turnover ratio this season?
SCOUTING THE PATRIOTS
Quarterbacks New England’s offense is one of the league’s best, and it’s led by QB Tom Brady, who has helped the Patriots win three of the last four Super Bowls.
Brady, a former sixth-round draft pick, is a great leader, and is very poised and accurate. He’s completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,630 yards and tossed 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season. Brady loves to spread the ball around, evidenced by the fact that he’s completed passes to 15 different receivers this season.
The key to limiting Brady’s success is taking away New England’s ground attack and getting after him with a relentless pass rush. If Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks No. 2 overall in the NFL, can do that it will stand an excellent chance of halting New England’s potent offense.
Brady (right shoulder/shin) is listed as questionable on New England’s injury report, but you can bet he’ll play. The Patriots are notorious for listing a plethora of players on their injury report each week just to have them play on Sunday. New England has 14 players listed on its injury report this week, and 13 of them are questionable.
Running Backs The Patriots are ranked 22nd in the NFL in run offense, but that number is a bit misleading. After struggling earlier in the season, Patriots RB Corey Dillon, who has been plagued by a calf injury and is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game, got back on track last week vs. the Bills, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown en route to a 35-7 win on the road.
After missing three games earlier this season, Dillon has carried the ball 164 times for 608 yards (3.7 avg.) and nine touchdowns in 10 games. A ninth-year veteran, Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards (4.7 avg.) and 12 touchdowns en route to helping the Patriots win their second straight Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay’s front four will be without under tackle Anthony McFarland (hamstring), which means Ellis Wyms will likely have to step up in his place. While he might be a better pass rusher than McFarland, Wyms’ first priority must be containing Dillon, who has the size, speed and balance to gain some serious yardage.
Of course, Wyms won’t be alone in terms of tackling that difficult task as defensive ends Greg Spires and Simeon Rice, and nose tackle Chris Hovan, who has been outstanding vs. the run as of late, will attempt to shut down New England’s ground attack and dare Brady to beat Tampa Bay, which has the 5th best run defense in the league, through the air.
The Bucs must account for two more players – fullback Patrick Pass and RB Kevin Faulk – in the passing game. Both players have combined for 43 catches for 454 yards as targets for Brady to hit out of the backfield. Faulk and Pass are also listed as questionable with a foot and hamstring injury, respectively. Tampa Bay linebackers Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece must account for these two players as well as Dillon on screen-plays and in the flats while plugging the proper gaps and tackling Dillon when he carries the ball, which should be quite often.
Wide Receivers Brady has been a passing machine this season, and for good reason. While he likes to spread the ball around, his primary target is WR Deion Branch, who has hauled in a team-leading 70 passes for 883 yards and four touchdowns. The former Louisville Cardinal is one of the main reasons why the Patriots are converting 41.6 percent of their third down tries this season.
Branch, who was last year’s Super Bowl MVP, isn’t the biggest receiver (5-9, 193), but he’s athletic, quick and has clutch hands. Those attributes will make it difficult for Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly to limit his production, which makes it that much more important for the front four to get pressure on Brady immediately.
Patriots WR David Givens is the team’s second-leading receiver with 50 catches for 562 yards and one touchdown. He’s been banged up lately, which has made it tough for him to get separation on a consistent basis. It won’t get any easier for Givens on Saturday when he goes up against one of the league’s hottest cornerbacks – Ronde Barber, who has notched four interceptions over the past two games and has a team-leading five interceptions and 20 passes defensed this season.
Bucs nickel CB Juran Bolden will face WR Troy Brown, who has slowed down over the years but still has produced 36 catches for 435 yards and two touchdowns as the team’s No. 3 receiver.
Neither Brown nor Bolden will get on the field much as the Patriots like to feature two-tight end sets quite often. New England has what is arguably the best trio of tight ends in the NFL in Ben Watson, Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria. The good news for the Bucs is Graham, who has hauled in 16 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, didn’t play vs. the Bills last Sunday and may not suit up vs. the Bucs. He’s listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. However, his replacement, Fauria, is a capable backup and has caught two touchdowns this season.
Watson, who is listed as questionable with a head injury, is developing into one of the league’s best tight ends. He’s a solid blocker and receiver, evidenced by his 25 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns. All three of New England’s tight ends know how to work the flats and the seams of the field, but they’re at their best in the red zone, where they’ve each proven to be lethal weapons in the passing game. Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips and LBs Derrick Brooks and Ryan Nece have done a great job of covering tight ends in the passing game this season. They’ll have to be at their best vs. New England on Saturday.
Offensive Line New England’s roster has been decimated by injuries, and the offensive line is no exception. In fact, the Patriots’ left and right tackle positions have suffered through injuries to LT Matt Light and RT Tom Ashworth, both of whom have missed a significant amount of playing time due to ailments. These injuries, along with Dillon’s ailment, have hindered New England’s ability to run the ball effectively this season.
With Light listed as doubtful while he recovers from a broken ankle, backup Nick Kaczur has started nine games at left tackle for the Patriots. Kaczur, who is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, will go up against Bucs DE Simeon Rice, who has notched a team-leading nine sacks and six forced fumbles. It will be critical for Rice and Co. to get after Brady early and often. That said, Rice must get into a groove early and find a way to get past the left tackle and/or tight end and disrupt New England’s offensive backfield.
Attacking the right side of New England’s line will be Bucs DE Greg Spires, who has been playing through his own injuries this season. Spires must first concern himself with stopping the run since the Patriots run Dillon to the strong side of the formation quite often. Spires has been solid vs. the run and will go up against RT Tom Ashworth, who is a better pass blocker than he is a run blocker. Ashworth is questionable for Saturday’s game with a knee injury.
Ellis Wyms will likely start at under tackle and will go up against Patriots right guard Stephen Neal, who has started all 13 games for New England. However, the Bucs will likely rotate players like Dewayne White and Jon Bradley in with Wyms in order to keep the defensive line fresh. The Bucs don’t seem to be too concerned with not having McFarland for this game, which could be viewed as a vote of confidence for Wyms and Co.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing matchups to watch in the trenches will be New England RG Logan Mankins vs. Tampa Bay NT Chris Hovan. Mankins, who was a first-round pick in April, might have met his match in Hovan. Both players are extremely physical and play with attitude. Hovan has really come on strong as of late and should be able to penetrate the offensive line, even if Mankins and Russ Hochstein, who makes his fifth start at center on Saturday, attempt to double team him.
As banged up as New England’s offensive line is, this unit has only allowed Brady to be sacked 22 times through 13 games.
Defensive Line Injuries have taken their toll on New England’s defense, which ranks 29th in the NFL and is surrendering 353.5 yards per game.
Still, the Patriots’ 3-4 defense features several playmakers, including two up front in defensive end Richard Seymour and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
Seymour, who has notched three sacks, one forced fumble and four passes defensed, is the D-line’s most talented player. He’ll go up against Tampa Bay left tackle Anthony Davis, who played extremely well vs. Carolina last Sunday. Davis has the size to overpower Seymour, but footwork will be key in Davis’ attempt to hold off Seymour’s pass rush.
Wilfork’s 325-pound frame will give Bucs center John Wade all he can handle. Wilfork isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he’s an excellent run stuffer, which means Tampa Bay rookie RB Cadillac Williams’ best chance of finding daylight in the running game might be on the perimeter.
With Seymour being a Pro Bowl talent and dominant run defender, look for the Bucs to run Williams toward the right side of the O-line, where Patriots LE Ty Warren will be playing. Warren is the second-leading tackler on the team. He’s notched 60 tackles, one sack and one pass defensed. Warren will line up vs. Bucs RT Kenyatta Walker, who is coming off a strong outing vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers.
Linebackers New England’s 3-4 scheme is designed to confuse opposing offenses with different alignments and a variety of blitz packages. The Patriots have one of the most talented group of linebackers in Willie McGinest, Chad Brown, Teddy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
McGinest is a capable blitzer and is solid in pass coverage. He’s notched 48 tackles (4.5 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and five passes defensed. Inside linebacker Brown hasn’t been a great playmaker. In fact, the Patriots don’t blitz Brown as often as they do McGinest. Walker, RG Sean Mahan and RBs Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman will be charged with the difficult task of accounting for McGinest and Brown, especially when they blitz.
Running on the perimeter will be a real challenge for the Bucs. McGinest anchors the left side of the defense while Vrabel occupies the right outside linebacker spot. Vrabel leads the Patriots in tackles with 89. He’s also notched 2.5 sacks, five passes defensed and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. The heart and soul of New England’s defense is Bruschi, who returned to action a few weeks ago after suffering a stroke and undergoing heart surgery during the offseason. Bruschi has notched 41 tackles and three passes defensed while serving as an inspiration this season.
Davis, rookie RG Dan Buenning and Tampa Bay’s running backs must help account for both Vrabel and Bruschi in this game. However, the key to holding off McGinest and Vrabel, especially in the passing game, will be Tampa Bay tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht. The Bucs have been using a lot of max protect sets to help buy QB Chris Simms time to throw, and it’s been working both there and in the running game. Expect Smith and Becht to do a lot of blocking while Williams, Pittman and FB Mike Alstott are used as receivers in the flats.
Secondary New England has placed five defensive backs on injured reserve since the regular season began. The loss of DBs Randall Gay, Duane Starks, Guss Scott, Rodney Harrison and Tyrone Poole has left the Patriots’ secondary extremely vulnerable, and opposing offenses have been taking advantage. As a result, New England’s pass defense currently ranks 31st in the NFL and is giving up 248.8 yards per game and allowing opposing offenses to convert 41 percent of their third down attempts.
To make matters worse, the Patriots parted ways with CB Ty Law during the offseason. Asante Samuel has done a decent job of replacing Law, evidenced by his team-leading 13 pass breakups, and will go up against Bucs WR Joey Galloway, who has hauled in a team-leading 67 passes for 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns. Galloway has the speed to get open often vs. Samuel, who is listed as questionable with an infection. That could prompt the Patriots to call on safety James Sanders to help cover him. However, Galloway should be able to get open vs. both defensive backs. The key will be the offensive line’s ability to provide Simms with the time he will need to find Galloway.
Bucs WR Michael Clayton is stuck in a funk and will attempt to break out of it against Patriots CB Ellis Hobbs, who leads the defense with three interceptions. While Clayton should be able to get open vs. Hobbs, versatile safety Eugene Wilson will likely help cover him, which will make it difficult for the second-year receiver to have a breakout game.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden would like to get WR Ike Hilliard on the field more on Saturday since he’s coming off an impressive outing vs. the Carolina Panthers. But that could be difficult since the Bucs will have to play max protect (two TEs, two RBs, two WRs) more often than not. However, if Hilliard does get on the field he’ll go up against Patriots CB Monty Biesel, which appears to be a favorable matchup.
Saturday’s game could be one where the Bucs ask Simms, who completed 74 percent of his passes last Sunday, to lead the offense through the air since New England’s secondary is so banged up. If the offensive line, tight ends and running backs can hold off New England’s blitzing linebackers and buy Simms time to throw and the third-year quarterback can avoid turning the ball over, the Bucs will stand a great chance of winning their third straight road game.
Special Teams Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri hasn’t been as accurate as he has in years past. He’s connected on 17-of-22 (77.3 percent) of his field goal attempts this season. However, four of his five misses were outside of 40 yards. Vinatieri possesses one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the NFL.
Bucs K Matt Bryant’s hamstring appears to be fine after drilling two field goals vs. the Panthers last Sunday. Bryant has made 17-of-20 (85 percent) of his field goals on the season. The Bucs may need his accurate leg as this contest could be decided by a field goal.
Field position will play a huge role in determining the outcome of this game. This contest features two of the best punters in the NFL in the Patriots’ Josh Miller and the Bucs’ Josh Bidwell. Miller is averaging 46 yards per punt and has pinned 18 of his 64 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Bidwell is also averaging 46 yards per punt, and he’s pinned 18 of his 72 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Both of these punters will probably give their opponent’s offense a long field to work with on Saturday.
Patriots kick returner Bethel Johnson is averaging 22.4 yards per return. His longest return this season was a 54-yarder. Punt returner Tim Dwight poses the biggest threat. He’s averaging 8.6 yards per attempt and has the speed to outrace defenders for the end zone, which means the Bucs must be on their game in terms of tackling and taking the proper angles on punt return coverage.
Bucs KR Edell Shepherd is averaging 20.3 yards per return. Punt returner Mark Jones broke off a 31-yard return last Sunday and is averaging a respectable 9.6 yards per attempt this season.
FLYNN’S FORECAST: Buccaneers 23 Patriots 21
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