1. QB Tom Brady (duh)
Ok, here's what I'm going to do given that 'The Return' has been covered six ways to Sunday (literally) and you likely know all the major storylines when it comes to Brady playing against his former team already.
I'm going to give you some stats about the actual matchup.
Novel concept, right? In perusing some of the NFL's Next Gen Stats, I stumbled across some interesting little nuggets when it comes to Brady's throwing success this season and how that correlates with what the Patriots are allowing. Brady leads the NFL in passing touchdowns with 10 so far in 2021. New England's defense currently ranks second against the pass, allowing just 159.7 yards through the air per game. So, it looks like it will already be a battle of wills there.
If, for funsies, you wanted to compare the two offenses, say on a grander scale, consider that Brady's 60 passing touchdowns, including playoffs, since he's arrived in Tampa Bay are the most in that span while the Patriots are tied with New York Giants for fewest passing touchdowns in that same time frame with just… 14.
The way Brady is finding success through the air this season is changing too, even compared to last season and it also bodes well for this game. Though Brady has attempted the most deep passes in the NFL since the start of 2020 with 102, his deep pass percentage has dropped in 2021 to 9.2% of all throws from his previous 14.6% in 2020. He is also now attempting quick passes at his highest rate since 2016, firing the ball quickly 53.9% of the time. His time to throw average is down to 2.49 seconds in 2021 from 2.57 in 2020. That's what finally being comfortable in your offense will do, I suppose.
And that's excellent news for a couple of reasons.
When taking less than 2.5 seconds to throw, Brady has completed 60 of 76 pass attempts for a completion percentage of 78.9 this year. He has 545 passing yards and seven touchdowns against zero interceptions on such throws, the former two stats being the most in the NFL. He has a 127.2 passer rating when getting his throws off within that 2.5-second window, as well.
Furthermore, New England is allowing 8.7 yards per attempt on quick passes. That's the most in the NFL. They are also letting up a passer rating of 127.2 to opposing quarterbacks on quick throws, which ranks as the third-highest in the league.
So, while the Patriots may have the second-best passing defense in the league, they are letting up exactly the kind of throws that Brady is attempting. I like those odds.
2. TE Rob Gronkowski (if he plays)
I feel a little bad for Gronkowski, whose return is getting a bit overshadowed by his tuddy buddy, Tom. It's understandable given that Tom was with the Patriots for 20 years, compared to Rob's nine. But nine isn't nothing.
Especially when they still miss you.
Gronkowski's four receiving touchdowns this season are twice as many as the Patriots have as a whole in 2021. That's right, the Patriots' offense has two touchdowns through the air through three games. More than that, even though Gronkowski sat out the entire 2019 season in a quasi-retirement, since the start of that year and including the playoffs, he has 917 receiving yards and 13 receiving touchdowns, which is more than every Patriots' tight end combined in that span. By like, a lot. New England tight ends have had just 871 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns since 2019.
Now, Gronkowski took an extremely hard hit in Los Angeles and was knocked out for a portion of the game because of it. He didn't practice all week and is officially listed as 'doubtful' for Sunday's game. Should he get in the game, and football gods-willing be able to spike that ball in the end zone on the field at Gillette one more time, I have to imagine the crowd will go nuts. I want that for him.
3. CB Richard Sherman (if he plays)
This game is going to be full of things to watch out for, new veteran presences not excluded. With the news that starting cornerback Jamel Dean has been ruled out for Sunday with a knee injury, it opens the door for the improbable and perhaps downright foolish: Richard Sherman could see the field in this game for the Buccaneers not four whole days after signing with them.
Sherman himself said that he would likely need 'at least a full week' of practice to get comfortable and confident enough to play at the level he expects of himself. But he also didn't rule out playing this Sunday should the Bucs need him.
Turns out, the Bucs might need him. Head Coach Bruce Arians was asked if cornerback Dee Delaney would get the start for Dean but Arians only offered up a 'we'll see.' Again, the door is open. We'll just have to wait until Sunday to find out if Sherman steps through it.
4. NT Vita Vea
There has been a lot made about the Buccaneers pass rush, or rather lack thereof, the last couple of weeks. It burned them against quarterback Matt Stafford and the Rams last week, only managing one sack on him. A lot of that had to do with how quickly he was able to get the ball out in the face of pressure like the veteran quarterback he is, but the team knows that's no excuse.
I have to think that getting Vea the sacks he has been so close to getting will not only directly help him 'eat' (obviously) but also, indirectly help others along the line. If Vea can push the pocket from the interior, the offensive line's focus is going to be stuck there and leave Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who could also be returning for this game, with more of those coveted one-on-one matchups.
Oh, yeah. JPP might be back. He's officially listed as 'questionable.'
But watch what Vea can do on the interior and see how that helps the edge. Especially against a pocket passer like rookie Mac Jones and the confounding fronts the Bucs will likely throw out there against the inexperienced quarterback, there could be a lot of opportunity, despite the fact that the Patriots have let up just 6.0 sacks this season.
5. TE Cam Brate
If Gronkowski's return is going under the radar, Brate's doesn't even register. That's funny because all anyone seems to know about Brate is that he went to Harvard. Did you know he went to Harvard? And yeah, this will be Brate's first return to his old stomping grounds, too.
For a guy who had a Gronkowski jersey (a knockoff from China, at that) in college, this is the kind of full-circle moment that many can't even dream up. Especially if Gronkowski doesn't play, or has a limited role, a lot of that work could fall on Brate. So let's see.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.