After a sloppy 33-30 loss at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, the New England Patriots (2-2) had to quickly get back on the field and prepare for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) on Thursday night.
The Pats defense has struggled immensely this season and had a short week to prepare for the Bucs and their quarterback, Jameis Winston.
New England could potentially fall below .500 on the season and fall behind in the AFC East – so even though it is just five weeks into the season, this game is a must-win for the Patriots.
Besides establishing a solid defense, the Pats must establish their running game. They have had no issue in the passing game – even without wide receiver Julian Edelman – but in order to gain yardage, they will need to be able to move the ball down field by running.
In 2016, New England was a threat on the ground and could rely heavily on their former running back LaGarrette Blount – who led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns.
Without Blount, there is no real threat and it shows week after week. The Patriots are ranked 20 in the league, averaging 95.5 yards per game on the ground with running back James White being the only player to average more than four yards per carry.
The team should utilize running back Dion Lewis more against Tampa Bay. He collected 27 yards on five carries in the loss to Carolina – so he could provide some type of a threat that the Patriots so desperately need.
New England should also use wide receiver Brandin Cooks more frequently – as he played hero in the comeback win against the Houston Texans in Week 3 with 131 total yards and a game-winning touchdown reception.
Cooks only had a mundane 38 total yards on Sunday with no touchdowns and with the potential for him to be the threat this offense needs, quarterback Tom Brady needs to utilize him.
By targeting Cooks more, this could lead the Bucs to put their the team’s best cover, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, on him – which may mean less production, but would allow Brady to target wide receivers Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola down the field.
The defense, however, will need to play its best game of the season. The Patriots can easily put up 30 points in games – but we’ve also seen this secondary give up just as many points.
There has been plenty of blown coverages this season on the pass rush, including leaving two receivers wide open. A lot of defensive problems have come from newcomer cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
If New England plays more man defense, Gilmore would look more comfortable on the field since he is more of a corner man on defense.
However, not every single defensive problem can be placed on Gilmore. There has been a lack of communication in the back field that needs to get straightened out before Winston has a game like Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson did against New England.
The defense will also need to pressure Winston – which may be a difficult task considering Tampa Bay has only given up five sacks on the season. If they don’t find a way to put pressure on the quarterback, Winston will likely destroy the secondary.
This is where the defense will need to come up big – as they are only averaging two sacks per game.
Thursday’s game is a perfect setup to get this New England defense rolling with Tampa Bay struggling with their run game – only averaging 84.7 yards per game on the ground. Although the Pats have struggled to stop the run game, Thursday night’s matchup gives them the perfect opportunity to bounce back and get this defense on track.
They can’t let the Bucs get confident and they can’t let their offense put up 30-plus points. Brady must stick it to the Tampa Bay defense early and often and utilize his receivers and running backs while the defense needs to be on the same page with their communication and not make the same mistakes as Sunday with leaving opposing receivers wide open.
Final score prediction: New England: 28, Tampa Bay: 24