What to watch for in Patriots vs. Buccaneers on ‘TNF’
New England’s less-than-pristine start to the season is a reminder that every NFL campaign takes on a life of its own.
The Patriots, for eons, have operated as pro football’s most dependable juggernaut. Faced with the occasional sluggish start, Bill Belichick’s charges could always be counted on to round into shape before systematically scattering opponents down the stretch en route to an AFC title game appearance and beyond.
Maybe this year’s troubles are an equal mirage, but evidence points to a different type of season in New England, a journey less certain to lead to another jeweled crown.
This week’s tilt with the Buccaneers will bring fresh answers about our defending champions. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots visit Tampa Bay on Thursday Night Football, which airs live on CBS, NFL Network and Amazon Prime Video at 8 p.m. ET:
1. New England’s stunning issues on defense cannot be shrugged off by the football cognoscenti. The Patriots have allowed 128 points this year, the most in franchise history over the first four games of a season. NFL Research notes that only one defending Super Bowl champion has been blistered for more points over their first four tilts: the 1987 Giants, who played their third and fourth games that autumn with strike-induced replacement players. That’s not news to Belichick, who served as Big Blue’s defensive coordinator that season under an annoyed Bill Parcells.
2. On pace for the worst total defense since the 1970 merger, the Patriots have surrendered 400-plus yards in each game this season and currently rank 31st in points allowed per tilt. Why? It starts with a secondary that has utterly failed to live up to its summertime hype. Free-agent acquisition Stephon Gilmore was torched by the Panthers last week, allowing 71 yards and a touchdown off two Carolina catches. After signing a five-year, $65 million deal, the former Bills cover man has struggled to pick up Belichick’s scheme, acknowledging after Sunday’s loss: “It’s frustrating when it’s communication, it’s not really ability. I have to get better at the communication part. It’s my fault on the communication.”
What’s concerning is that Gilmore — who appeared to be benched for a spell against Carolina — is “communicating” with the likes of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Malcolm Butler, on paper one of the best secondaries league-wide, but in real life a disjointed mess through the first month of play.
“Just being here, especially on defense; in my five years here, we’ve prided ourselves on being a smart and tough football team, especially defensively,” safety Duron Harmon said, per Boston.com. “We’re just not doing it.”