Patriots

Five quick thoughts: Improved performance from Patriots secondary

TAMPA BAY -- Here are five quick-hitting thoughts from what transpired between the Patriots and Bucs on Thursday night. It was, in a word, messy. 

Interesting move by the Bucs to not try hardly any of the plays the Patriots could not stop a week prior. It didn't go well for them. Why there weren't more bunch formations or stacks -- plays that would force the secondary to communicate -- were baffling. (They trotted out one bunch set that we spotted in the first three quarters and three on the final drive) Their first successful screen play in the game came with about six minutes left. Maybe Tampa felt its personnel wasn't able to execute those types of looks, but they could have used tight ends where the Panthers used receivers. That's allowed. Did they not watch the Panthers game? 

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The Patriots secondary was, dare we say it, quite good. Patrick Chung had two passes defended. Malcolm Butler had one. Duron Harmon had one that could have been picked. Devin McCourty had one in the end zone on Cameron Brate. And they didn't cut people loose down the field with anywhere near the frequency they did the week prior. Were there still a handful of plays where the communication went wrong? Sure. But by and large they were solid. Stephon Gilmore, this week's Public Enemy No. 1 in New England, helped hold Mike Evans to four catches for 34 yards. 

The number of penalties called on the Patriots did nothing for Bill Belichick's blood pressure. Offense. Defense. Special teams. The flags were flying from Carl Cheffers' crew -- as they tend to do when that particular group is on the job -- and while there were some questionable whistles, most were simply self-inflicted wounds by the Patriots. We'll delve deeper into the specifics in this space late on, but the lowlight was two roughing-the-passer penalties at the end of the first half that put the Bucs in field-goal range with no time left. Nick Folk missed the field goal, but hard to imagine Deatrich Wise and Cassius Marsh -- the perpetrators on those penalties -- enjoyed the halftime break at all. 

Tom Brady did something he hasn't done since 2015. He threw an interception on a throw that never had a chance of being completed to Chris Hogan over the middle on New England's first drive. Must have slipped. There's almost no other explanation. In the third quarter he was strip-sacked and lost a fumble. Those two things haven't happened in the same game for Brady in almost two full years. 

Dont'a Hightower seemed to have some juice in his second week back from a knee injury he suffered in Week 1. He played both on the end of the line and in the middle. He rushed the passer, dropped into coverage and played the run. His stop early in the third quarter as a middle linebacker helped force a three-and-out and led to a Patriots possession that resulted in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. More Hightower in the middle could benefit this defense and its communication moving forward.

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