The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New England Patriots in Week Four, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tom Brady. There's usually not much point to putting the quarterback on the "players to watch" list because you're always watching the quarterback. This weekend, however, the entire NFL will be paying extra attention to Brady as he makes his return to Foxborough to square off against Bill Belichick and his former team for the first time…and quite possibly the last time. Unsurprisingly, Brady has downplayed the emotional aspect of this homecoming, and convincingly so, but as teammate Shaq Barrett said on Thursday, it's hard to predict exactly how you will feel until you get there. Barrett made his return to Denver last year and said the emotions didn't really hit him until he got to the stadium. Given his famous focus and intensity, Brady will likely succeed in keeping all his attention on trying to win the game, but perhaps there will be time for some reflection after the final whistle. There's also the looming matter of the all-time NFL passing yardage record, which will belong to Brady if he gets just 68 yards on Sunday night. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, that's about as sure of a lock as you can imagine, and when and if the record does fall it will surely be acknowledged in the stadium. That's another very unusual in-game circumstance with which Brady will have to contend.
Shaquil Barrett. Speaking of Barrett, he was rather straightforward with the media this week on what the Bucs' pass-rushers need to do: Bring a 'must-win' mentality to everything they do. The Buccaneers have recorded exactly one sack in each of their first three games and rank last in the NFL in sacks per pass play after excelling in that category last season. Barrett made it clear that the one-sack games have to end immediately, saying, "It won't be a one sack game for us ever again. We'll have more than one sack every game from here on out." With Jason Pierre-Paul's status for Sunday night's game uncertain, Barrett is the clear leader of that pass-rushing group and it's most productive player over the past two-plus seasons. Barrett, who was second in the NFL only to Aaron Donald in quarterback pressures over the past two seasons, has seen his pressure rate dip at the beginning of 2021. After being among the league leaders with pressure rates of 15.4% in 2019 and 15.2% in 2020 – and collecting 27.5 sacks in the process, Barrett is at 8.9% so far in this young season. Barrett could get his starting partner back on Sunday as Pierre-Paul is considered questionable for the game after missing one contest, but he is also predicting a breakout game for rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, perhaps as early as this week. That would be a big help, but it will likely be Barrett who leads the Bucs back to the sort of impactful rush they had last year.
Chris Godwin. Godwin was on the injury report this week with a thumb ailment but he didn't miss any practice time and he may need to pick up some offensive slack if Gronkowski can't play. Of course, Godwin is already the Buccaneers' leading receiver with 19 catches for 241 yards, but in 2019 – the last season before Gronkowski's arrival – Godwin averaged 95.2 receiving yards per game to finish second in the NFL in that category. Godwin is probably the Buccaneers' most versatile receiver and already this season he's logged 100 snaps in the slot, 53 split out wide, 29 lined up tight at the end of the line and even two in the backfield. In last week's game against the Rams he also scored the first rushing touchdown of his career, going in motion from left to right and taking an underneath handoff from Brady before knifing between tacklers into the end zone. That score extended Godwin's streak of consecutive regular-season games with a touchdown to six, which equals the longest such run in franchise history. Godwin now shares that record with Mike Evans and Earnest Graham but could take it all for himself with one more score on Sunday night.
Devin White. In 2020, White and fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David were the rock-solid core of the Buccaneers' defense, and in the 2020 playoffs White emerged as a playmaking superstar and a turnover machine. White and David are still one of the best off-ball linebacker duos in the NFL, but through three games both are still looking for some more splash plays. Neither has a sack yet, though White has hit the quarterback four times, nor does either have a turnover or a tackle for loss, the latter of which has been a career-long specialty for David. Some of this has to do with opposing teams essentially abandoning the run on the Buccaneers and featuring a lot of quick passes to the perimeter. Still, Bruce Arians said on Monday that he hopes to see both White and David make some more big plays in the passing game and that both are capable of having multi-interception outings. This week, White faces a rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, who the Bucs will be hoping to harass and confuse with a variety of pass-rushes and disguised looks. White will likely get several opportunities to invade the backfield, and he could turn in his first few big plays of the season if Jones tries to work the middle of the field with his short passing game.
Antoine Winfield Jr. Winfield is another Buccaneer defender who feels like a big play waiting to happen. He's third on the team in tackles behind the two inside 'backers, but he otherwise has just one pass defensed on his stat sheet through three games. With the Buccaneers' cornerback group thinned by injuries and featuring some new players in key roles, the team needs their safety trio of Winfield, Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards to lead the way in terms of keeping communication tight. After Dean went out last week and some players were shuffled around, some breakdowns in communication helped lead to a big day for the Rams' Matthew Stafford. Last season, as a rookie who played like a veteran from Day One, Winfield contributed 3.0 sacks, two interceptions, eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, playoffs included. Jones has shown poise and good decision-making through his first three NFL starts but he is still a very inexperienced rookie and the Buccaneers defense hopes to take advantage of that on Sunday. If a better pass rush up front can hurry Jones into some mistakes, it could be Winfield who is in position to clean up on them in the backfield.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 2.49. That's the average number of seconds after the snap that is taking Brady to get off his passes this season, and that is down from last year's mark of 2.57 seconds. Brady is getting rid of it quicker but also throwing shorter passes on average. His average air yards per throw last year was 9.3, but it's down to 8.0 this year and it's working. His targets have been a bit more open (average separation from nearest defender of 3.8 yards, as compared to 3.4 in 2020) and the quick passes have reduced the pressure rate on him from 26.3% to 16.3%. This year, when Brady has thrown the ball in less than 2.5 seconds he's completed 78.9% of his throws, tossed seven touchdowns against no interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 127.2
- 45.3/65.5. Godwin, Mike Evans and the rest of the Buccaneers' pass-catchers had better be ready for some man coverage on Sunday night. So far this season, New England's defense has gone to man coverage 45.3% of the time, which is the second-highest rate in the NFL. It's no wonder they're sticking with it because it is working. When playing man, the Patriots have allowed a completion rate of 52.8% (third-best in the NFL), have picked off three passes (first) and have surrendered an opponent passer rating of 65.5 (third).
- 3%/32%. The tight end is back in New England's offense. The Patriots obviously made great use of the position when they had Gronkowski and were fond of two-TE alignments when they had another productive tight end. However, the position basically disappeared from New England's passing game after Gronkowski retired in 2019. Last year, the Patriots used two-TE alignments on just 3% of their plays, which was by far the lowest in the NFL; no other team was below 10%. In the offseason, New England signed the two premier tight ends on the free agency market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and now they are featuring two-TE alignments 32% of the time. Hunter and Smith haven't lit it up yet, with 10 catches each and no touchdowns, but it's just a matter of time before those two start putting up big numbers.
- 64.0%/37.7%/36.5%/17.6%. As the Bucs' week of practice came to an end, Arians praised his team for showing a higher level of intensity and focus this week. He said it had nothing to do with Brady's return to Foxborough and everything to do with the team wanting to avoid consecutive losses. Few would have predicted that the Buccaneers would be a game behind the Panthers in the NFC South race, but Carolina has rushed out to a 3-0 start and has the early edge. Beating the Patriots would avoid that losing streak, possibly let the Bucs catch the Panthers in the standings and put them in a much better spot in the playoff race. Since 1990, teams that started the season 3-1 have made the playoffs 64.0% of the time and won the division 37.7% of the time. However, teams that start out 2-2 have only made the playoffs 36.5% of the time and won the division 17.6% of the time.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- With Jamel Dean out with a knee injury and Sean Murphy-Bunting already on injured reserve, the Buccaneers will go into Sunday's game with four healthy cornerbacks: Pierre Desir, Ross Cockrell, Dee Delaney and Richard Sherman. Carlton Davis is listed as 'questionable'. They also elevated Rashard Robinson from the practice squad. Davis will definitely start at one of the two cornerback spots if he plays but Arians wasn't interested in sharing his plans for the rest of the group, though he did say Sherman would only be active "just in case."
UPDATE: Davis has been listed as 'questionable' for the game
- The Patriots traded with the Raiders to get veteran blocker Trent Brown in the offseason and installed him as their starting right tackle. However, Brown suffered a calf injury in the opener and has missed the last two contests. New England went with guard Yasir Durant at that position in Week Two, and then with Justin Herron in Week Three. Brown did practice this week in a limited fashion and is considered questionable for Sunday's game.
- With Rob Gronkowski OUT on Sunday, the Buccaneers will have to fall back on their excellent depth at that position. Through three games, Gronkowski has played 153 offensive snaps, Cameron Brate 72 and O.J. Howard (31). Neither Brate nor Howard are as accomplished of a blocker as Gronkowski, but both have shown the ability to make big plays in the passing game.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PATRIOTS
New England is in transition on offense, working in a rookie quarterback and trying to put him in the best position to succeed. Jones has responded by having two error-free games before stumbling a little against a heated pass rush from the Saints in Week Three. The Patriots rank in the 20s in most offensive categories but do have the potential to turn into a much more productive group given the pass-catching talent the team added in free agency this offseason. The Patriots' defense is back to being one of the league's best after a brief dip into the middle of the rankings last year, and it ranks fifth in both points and yards allowed, as well as first in interceptions. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson emerged as a star for the Patriots last year, which is currently convenient given that 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore is on the reserve/PUP list. With Jackson and free agency addition Jalen Mills, the Patriots can still field one of the better cornerback duos in the league, and both are off to very good starts this year. Jackson is once again one of the NFL's best cover men this year, so far allowing an opponent passer rating of 60.5 when he is the primary defender. In each of the past three seasons he has ranked in the top six in the league in that category, and he's never finished with a figure higher than 61.6. Meanwhile, Mills has allowed a passer rating of 59.2 as the nearest defender and has only given up five catches for 37 yards on 10 targets. Put them together and the Jackson-Mills duo allows the Patriots' defense to excel in man coverage, as noted above. Strong coverage has forced opposing passers to throw into "tight windows" (with a defender a yard or less away from the target) on 21.0% of their throws. That's the second-highest percentage of tight-window throws against any defense in the league.
Even with all of the pass-catching additions – not only the aforementioned two tight ends but also wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne – it is holdover Jakobi Meyers who has emerged as Jones' most trusted target and the Patriots' most productive receiver. Meyers' 19 catches and 176 receiving yards leads the team and he's been targeted 29 times, 11 more than any other player on the team. His most productive route has been the "in;" since 2020 he's been targeted on 18 in routes (sixth-most in the league) and turned those into 14 catches (fourth) and 209 yards (third). So far, Jones has had a lot more success on shorter, quicker throws than deep shots, and that makes an accomplished underneath target like Meyers a primary threat. However, if the Patriots do choose to have their rookie passer go deep against Tampa Bay's 32nd-ranked pass defense, they have a very good weapon in Agholor, who had a breakout season with the Raiders in 2020 and averaged 18.7 yards per catch. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Agholor has averaged a top speed of 15.94 miles per hour on go routes since 2019, the fourth-fastest mark in the league.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the Buccaneers being motivated to play against the Patriots:
"I think the motivation for us is we don't want to lose two in a row, and they just happen to be the next game. A lot of us have lost up there, you know. Some people have won, not very many. Not many people have won up there. It's a hard place to play but it's the next game."