The New England Patriots faced off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon in Foxboro, MA. Earlier in the day, news broke that starting defensive end Rob Ninkovich signed a three year extension to stay in New England for $8.5 million in guaranteed money (and bonuses) just four years after picking him off the scrap heap. Despite the Patriots facing injuries to key players like tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Danny Amendola, special teams captain Matthew Slater, backup offensive lineman and preseason starter Will Svitek, and losing their best offensive lineman so far this season (right tackle Sebastian Vollmer) midway through the game, they rode their strong defense and some timely big plays on offense to victory 23-3.
With the Patriots moving to 3-0 for the first time since 2007, they have two division wins over the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets and with their victory over NFC South’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots begin a rough stretch in the next three games on the schedule. Next week they go on the road to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons, then travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals, and then return home to face the rejuvenated on both sides of the ball New Orleans Saints. While the Patriots have some cushion with their strong start, division rivals the Miami Dolphins also sit at 3-0 and the Patriots offense needs to continue to grow while the defense must remain stout in their next three games.
Since 2007, the Patriots have sported one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. For the first time since the days of Chad Jackson, Reche Caldwell, and Doug Gabriel manned the wide receiver position on the then natural grass of Gillette Stadium, quarterback Tom Brady and the offense has struggled to get in a consistent rhythm early this season, and the defense has been tasked with picking up the slack to manufacture tough victories. So far in 2013, the Patriots defense has allowed only 27 points (34 points total, but seven came on a fumble return for a touchdown). One hope that the Patriots had for 2013 on defense was that for the first time having so many returning and quality young players has helped the unit in 2013.
With the pass rush strong behind defensive end Chandler Jones and penetrating inside rushing defensive tackle Tommy Kelly continued to pace the push into the offensive backfield. Mixing in an occasional linebacker blitz from captain Jerod Mayo, rookie linebacker Jamie Collins getting some playing time in the second half, second year budding star Dont’a Hightower all over the field in multiple spots and roles, and hard-charging Brandon Spikes manning the run defense, the Patriots defense continued to shine. Although cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington had some shaky moments, Aqib Talib stepped up and played like a big-time number one cornerback shadowing Buccaneers top receiver Vincent Jackson all over the field until Jackson left with injured ribs.
For the offense, after back-to-back tough inter-division match-ups, rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins bounced back with their best performances of the young season and even fourth round draft pick Josh Boyce got in the game. Dobson pulled down seven catches of which four produced first downs including a huge fourth down reception and even drew a long pass interference penalty. On the other hand, Thompkins only grabbed three catches but two were in the end zone for both touchdown scored by New England. While there were still some miscommunications and dropped passes, there was no doubt that Sunday was a huge step in the right direction for the young Patriots wide receivers.
At this point last season, the Patriots were 1-2 with losses to Baltimore and Arizona before winning nine of their next ten games. While New England put up big numbers on offense last season, this year the defense has been strong. When the injured pass catchers return, the experience the young receivers have gained will prove invaluable in December, January and hopefully February. All these games serve as valuable experience for the team on both sides of the ball, and the fact that the team is 3-0 instead of 1-2 is just a bonus at this point.