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OPPONENT: New England Patriots
WHERE: Wembley Stadium in London, England
WHERE THE PATRIOTS STAND: The Patriots are 4-2 and tied for first place in the AFC East division.
PATRIOTS HEAD COACH: Bill Belichick
PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Belichick
PATRIOTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dean Pees PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Scott O'Brien
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 28th (278 ypg) RUSHING: 21st (100 ypg) PASSING: 22nd (178 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 27th (370 ypg) RUSHING: 31st (172 ypg) PASSING: 11th (199 ypg)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS OFFENSE OVERALL: 4th (405 ypg) RUSHING: 13th (116 ypg) PASSING: 4th (288 ypg)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS DEFENSE OVERALL: 6th (293 ypg) RUSHING: 20th (113 ypg) PASSING: 6th (181 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … New England currently is tied for second in the NFL with a plus-8 turnover ratio?
SCOUTING THE PATRIOTS
Quarterbacks The Patriots missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2002, and it's no coincidence that the team was without QB Tom Brady (knee injury) from Week 1 on.
Brady is back, and although he had some rust to shake off in the first few weeks of the season, he appears to have regained his Pro Bowl form, evidenced by his outing vs. Tennessee last week. In that game, Brady completed 29-of-34 passes for 380 yards and tossed six touchdowns en route to New England's 59-0 win over Tennessee.
On the season, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Brady has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,724 yards and tossed 12 touchdowns. Brady is arguably the NFL's best quarterback. He's also a good caretaker. Brady has thrown just two interceptions this year. If the Bucs defense can't produce some turnovers in London they'll be hard pressed to stop the Patriots' potent offensive attack.
Running Backs The Patriots are considered a throw-first football team, but their offense is more than capable of establishing the ground attack against Tampa Bay, which should be expected since the Bucs rank 31st in that category.
New England's running game is led by RB Laurence Maroney (5-11, 220). The former first-round pick has carried the ball 48 times for 222 yards (4.6 avg.) and one touchdown. He also has decent hands out of the backfield.
With veteran RB Fred Taylor sidelined with an ankle injury, the Patriots have been getting backup RBs Sammie Morris (6-0, 220) and Kevin Faulk (5-8, 202) more involved. Morris hasn't been as effective as Taylor, carrying the ball 30 times for 109 yards (3.6 avg.) and one touchdown.
Tampa Bay's defense simply can't afford to allow New England to have the type of success Carolina had via the running game last week. The Bucs will have a chance to win this game if they can make the Patriots' offense one-dimensional. If they fail in that regard, New England could be poised to put a lot of points on the scoreboard vs. Tampa Bay.
Receivers The Bucs have allowed eight plays of 40-plus yards this season, which isn't good news for Tampa Bay's secondary. This unit is charged with the difficult task of covering Patriots wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker – one of the best WR duos in the NFL.
Moss (6-4, 210) has 38 catches for 496 yards (13.1 avg.) and four touchdowns this season. He is a touchdown machine, evidenced by his 34 scores in his first two seasons as a Patriot. Moss is no longer in his prime, but he's still quite an athlete and has a frame that makes it difficult for smaller cornerbacks to cover. Bucs CB Ronde Barber is quite familiar with Moss from their playing days together in the old NFC Central division. Barber is coming off an impressive outing where he helped hold Panthers WR Steve Smith to just one catch for 4 yards. It will take that type of effort to contain Moss in London.
Welker (5-9, 185) has battled some injuries this season, but he appears to be healthy heading into this game. He has 36 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns. Welker isn't the deep threat Moss is, but he's extremely quick and quite elusive in the short-to-intermediate part of the field. Like New England's running backs, Welker is also a player the Bucs must account for on screen plays and other trickery. Bucs second-year CB Aqib Talib will help cover Welker. Talib has performed quite well in recent weeks, notching three interceptions vs. the Redskins and helping to hold Eagles WR DeSean Jackson and Panthers WR Steve Smith to one catch each.
The Patriots will attempt to get Welker and/or Moss in some mismatches with Bucs second-year CB Elbert Mack, who has struggled, especially in defending the deep ball. When New England deploys three-receiver sets Julian Edelman (6-0, 198) will see action. He has 21 catches for 188 yards this season, and has been getting increased playing time due to former Bucs WR Joey Galloway's woes in New England. In fact, Galloway was reportedly released by New England Tuesday. Don't be surprised if the Bucs use some Cover 2 shells in an effort to keep the Patriots receivers in front of them, which would call on speedy linebackers Geno Hayes and Quincy Black to make plays. Safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli will be needed in the deep part of the field as Moss has made a living there during his NFL career.
Brady does a nice job of spreading the ball around to players, including his tight ends. Patriots TE Ben Watson (6-3, 255) has 14 catches for 187 yards (13.4 avg.) and three touchdowns this season. Not only is he a dangerous red zone player, Watson is one of Brady's favorite targets on passing downs. The Patriots aren't afraid to throw the football in third-and-short situations. They do a good job of converting third downs (44 percent). The Bucs, who have allowed opposing offenses to convert 43 percent of their third downs this year, must keep New England in third-and-long situations in order to set up sack and turnover opportunities, and get the Patriots offense off the field.
Offensive Line This unit can at times be considered a weakness on New England's football team, but only teams with relentless pass rushes have been able to exploit weaknesses along the Patriots' offensive line. New England has surrendered seven sacks in 2009, but the Bucs have not produced a consistent pass rush and have at times been physically dominated in the trenches. Should Brady be afforded time to throw and New England break off big runs via the ground game this contest could get ugly for the Bucs.
The strength of New England's offensive line is on the left side, where left tackle Matt Light (6-4, 305), who protects Brady's blind side, and left guard Logan Mankins (6-4, 310) and center Dan Koppen (6-2, 296) help keep defenders out of the offensive backfield. All three players were Pro Bowlers in 2007, but didn't fare well with Brady out of the lineup in 2008. With Gaines Adams traded to Chicago, the Bucs will rely on Stylez G. White to generate a pass rush from the right side against Light, which won't be easy. Mankins and Koppen could double team defensive tackle Chris Hovan, who was held without a tackle vs. Carolina and is part of a unit that has struggled mightily to defend the run.
Bucs DT Ryan Sims hasn't fared much better in the trenches. He has a big frame, but hasn't produced a big enough push up front, especially when he's been double-teamed. Sims will be matched up with Patriots RG Stephen Neal (6-4, 305), who is solid. New England RT Nick Kaczur (6-4, 315) is a seasoned veteran. He will have a key matchup with Bucs DE Jimmy Wilkerson, who is Tampa Bay's best pass rusher.
Defensive Line At one point this year, the Patriots had three former first-round picks starting along their defensive line in New England's 3-4 defensive scheme. But that changed when the Patriots decided to trade right defensive end Richard Seymour, who led the team in sacks (8) last year, to Oakland.
While this unit has struggled at times to defend the run, New England's defense really hasn't missed a beat. It currently ranks 6th overall in the NFL.
Seymour's replacement, Jarvis Green (6-3, 285) has yet to make a significant impact along New England's D-line. The Bucs should attempt to run RB Cadillac Williams at him since he's not at his best against the ground game. However, Green does possess some good pass rush moves that the Bucs offensive line must account for.
New England's biggest weapon along the defensive line is nose tackle Vince Wolfork. This 6-foot-2, 325-pound Wilfork's frame will make it extremely difficult for Tampa Bay center Jeff Faine to help the Bucs run the football and pass protect for second-year QB Josh Johnson, who has been sacked 10 times.
Although the Patriots invested a second-round pick in DT Ron Brace, backup NT Mike Wright has three of New England's 10 sacks. He is sometimes used in obvious passing situations.
Although his numbers don't suggest it, Patriots LE Ty Warren (6-5, 300) might be New England's best overall D-lineman. He has one sack this season, but is capable of shedding blocks to stop the run and pressure the quarterback.
Linebackers The Bucs got a good look at the Patriots' 3-4 defense in preseason, but New England's defense was vanilla compared to what Tampa Bay will see in London. Bucs QB Josh Johnson will get a variety of looks and blitzes from the Patriots defense. He cannot afford to turn the football over in this contest.
Speaking of turnover, the Patriots have had a significant amount of it at this position. New England traded veteran LB Mike Vrabel to Kansas City during the offseason, and veteran LB Teddy Bruschi retired at the beginning of the regular season. In addition to those moves, the Patriots placed Tyrone McKenzie and Shawn Crable on injured reserve. Both players are former third-round picks.
That has led to some mixed results in New England's attempt to stop the run, but this group of linebackers certainly doesn't lack talent. Outside linebackers Pierre Woods (6-5, 250) and Adalius Thomas (6-2, 270) will be matched up quite often with Bucs offensive tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood. Thomas is no longer in his prime, but does have a sack this season. The Patriots at times substitute Thomas and Woods for backup LB Tully Banta-Cain, who has three sacks this year. The Patriots recently released Banta-Cain because of other needs on the roster, but he could be re-signed as early as this week.
Inside linebackers Jerod Mayo (6-1, 242) and Gary Guyton (6-3, 242) are players the Bucs could attempt to attack with tight ends Kellen Winslow, who leads the Bucs in receptions, and Jerramy Stevens. A former first-round pick, Mayo led the Patriots in tackles last season, but is only in his second season in the NFL. Guyton is a former undrafted free agent. He's active, evidenced by him being ranked third on the team in tackles, but Guyton is also inexperienced – he started just two games before the 2009 regular season started.
Secondary This isn't the most talented secondary in the NFL, but New England's gets the job done. A big part of this unit's success stems from the limited amount of time the Patriots front seven gives opposing quarterbacks to locate receivers. As a result, New England is allowing opposing offenses to convert 38.2 percent of their third down attempts.
Patriots cornerback Shawn Springs (6-0, 204) is a seasoned veteran. He has seen action at cornerback and safety during his NFL career. He's no longer in his prime, but Springs has 13 seasons worth of experience and has done a good job covering wide receivers for New England.
New England CB Leigh Bodden (6-1, 193) has played for three teams over the past three seasons, but the third one appears to be the charm for him. Bodden has notched one interception and four passes defensed this year.
Bodden and Springs shouldn't have too much of a problem covering Bucs wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. Neither player posses great speed, which will make it difficult for either one of them to gain separation in time for Johnson to locate them before defenders are in his face. Johnson might have to use his mobility to roll out of the pocket and buy Bryant, Clayton and the team's third wide out, rookie Sammie Stroughter, more time to get open in this contest.
The Patriots will lean on strong safety Brandon Meriweather (5-11, 200) and free safety James Sanders (5-10, 210) in pass coverage. Meriweather is easily the more talented of the two. He's a former first-round pick and currently ranks second on the team in tackles. Sanders is considered a reliable player, but not a playmaker. Meriweather has been forced to play near the line of scrimmage too often due to some of the problems the Patriots have had stopping the run. That could open things up for Johnson and Tampa Bay's passing game. But in order for that to happen, Tampa Bay must find a way to establish the running game early. In addition, Johnson will have to demonstrate the ability to scan the field and throw the ball deep on a consistent basis, which is something he has yet to do as a starter.
Special Teams The Patriots have a reliable kicker in Stephen Gostkowski, who led the NFL in scoring in 2008. He has made 13-of-16 (81.3 percent) of his field goals in 2009.
Gostkowski and punter Chris Hanson, who is averaging 40.2 yards per punt and has pinned six of his 18 attempts inside the 20-yard line, likely will kick to Bucs rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. The former seventh-round draft pick played well in place of injured Bucs return specialist Clifton Smith last week, returning a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Those are the types of plays Tampa Bay will need in order to pull off the upset over New England in London.
Patriots kickoff returner Matthew Slater is averaging 23.1 yards per attempt. Punt returner Wes Welker is the player the Bucs must respect the most. He's an accomplished return specialist in the NFL and is averaging 8.2 yards per return this season.
Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units have been solid throughout the year, but had a few breakdowns vs. Carolina last week. That can't happen in this game since the Bucs simply can't afford to give the Patriots explosive offense a short field to work with. FLYNN'S FORECAST: Patriots 40 Buccaneers 10