Before the Patriots took the field in Raymond James Stadium to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I passed along five items that I would be watching throughout the game. The Patriots certainly answered the bell when it came to the questions I posed.
Let’s review what I was looking for and how it played out.
1. Offensive chemistry. While the offense had an up-and-down training camp, they managed to remain in the “up” category during the game Thursday night. Tom Brady looked like he hasn’t missed a beat, playing the entire first half and going 11 of 19 for 118 yards and 2 touchdowns. The running game was also on fire, with Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combining for 114 yards on 16 carries and 2 touchdowns. The offense had a quick pace and kept the Tampa defense off-balance virtually the entire first half. The offense converted 5 of 7 third downs and racked up 235 net yards. The Brady-to-Ochocinco connection still needs work, with Ocho admitting he’s still behind the eight-ball when it comes to the Patriot offense. He caught 2 passes for 14 yards and a touchdown.
2. Safety rotation. Brandon Meriweather started the game with Patrick Chung. Sergio Brown played in 4 of the 7 defensive series in the first half, playing with either Chung or Meriweather. Brown also played a majority of the first-half snaps, playing in 22 of 31 snaps. For a comparison, Pat Chung played in 25 of 31 snaps and Brandon Meriweather played in 15 of 31 snaps. The starting combination is still a bit of an unknown at this point with James Sanders returning to practice Saturday. James Ihedigbo is a bit of a wild card at this point, but I wouldn’t expect him to challenge for a starting job at this point.
3. Defensive line pressure. Talk about answering the bell. The Patriots’ defensive line, in combination with blitzing linebackers, harassed Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson. Freeman was 5 of 10 passing for 33 yards and was sacked twice, while Johnson was 3 of 10 for 46 yards. The defensive line was also able to get penetration in the running game and hold the Bucs to 11 total first-half yards on 6 carries. We’ll have to see if they can do this on a week-to-week basis, but you can’t help but be excited about the potential of this defense if you’re a Patriots fan.
4. Repeat performances. Several of the players who churned out good performances Week One of the preseason were able to do it again Week Two. QB Ryan Mallett struggled at first, throwing a pick-six, but responded well after that. He finished the game going 9 of 14 for 71 yards. Stevan Ridley also had an up-and-down game. He fumbled, but otherwise churned out a strong performance on the ground, rushing for 84 yards on 14 carries (6.0 average). Kyle Love held up well on the defensive line, often playing next to Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle and Mark Anderson showed again that he can be an effective pass rusher in sub packages. Dane Fletcher started the game at middle linebacker and made a nice stop on second down, but injured his thumb on the play and did not return.
5. Special teams. It tough to get a good read on some special teams play because of the new NFL kickoff rules. With the ball being moved up 5 yards, a majority of kicks are turning into touchbacks. The Bucs returned only 2 out of 6 kickoffs for a combined 55 yards and the Pats did not get to return any of the three kickoff return opportunities they had. The punt coverage looked good, allowing only 22 yards on 4 punts. Jeremy Ross was given the opportunity to return punts and returned 4 for 37 yards (9.3 avg) and Buddy Farnham returned 2 for 3 yards, with one he should have fair-caught and paid the price with a hard hit. There were no high snaps from Matt Katula, so that was an improvement over last week, and Stephen Gostkowski was good on his only field goal attempt (44 yards).