FOXBORO -- The Patriots' defense is for real. Through three weeks of the season, it ranked as one of the best in football in a number of statistical categories. Traditional statistics. Advanced statistics. They all agreed that Bill Belichick's group was very good.
But it was hard to separate those numbers from the competition Belichick and the Patriots had faced: Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, Zach Wilson and the Jets, Jameis Winston and the Saints. Not exactly a quarterbacking Murderers' Row.
Then came Tom Brady. And the Patriots cooked up a plan to stop him and his explosive passing attack, even without their top corner Stephon Gilmore. They didn't go with the old dare-him-to-hand-off plan that made some sense since it had been used against Peyton Manning and others. Instead, Belichick asked his defense to do what they do: play man-to-man.
J.C. Jackson got Mike Evans. Jalen Mills got Chris Godwin. Jonathan Jones got Antonio Brown. They went from there. Not on every snap. Belichick mixed and matched his coverages. But he challenged his corners to create tight windows in one-on-one situations, and he challenged Brady to attack tight windows.
Of course, winning one-on-one wasn't the only way for Belichick to close down Brady's throwing lanes. The Patriots used a great deal of three- and four-man rushes, dropping defenders back into coverage to flood the field with color as Brady surveyed. Outside linebackers "butched" slot receivers -- jamming them at the line -- to help disrupt timing and give Patriots corners a better chance to smother routes.
There was the occasional blitz. Emphasis on "occasional." The Patriots brought heat on just eight of Brady's 45 dropbacks. But there was plenty of disguising going on at the line of scrimmage to mess with Brady and his linemen while they deciphered who was rushing and who wasn't.
After a week of wondering what the Patriots would do -- after wondering if they had the talent to match up with Tampa Bay, after wondering if Belichick would even try to confuse Brady -- we got answers. And they worked.
It wasn't until an injury to Jonathan Jones opened up a third-down opportunity for Brady to hit Brown that the Bucs took the lead for good. Justin Bethel took the field for one snap in place of Jones, matched up with Brown, and Brady found him.
But the plan was sound, and the Patriots executed it. That's why the defensive grades are where they are after a Sunday night loss. We'll get to those soon. But first... the offense.
Considering the circumstances, what Mac Jones was able to do against the Bucs warrants a strong grade.
National television. "BRA-DY, BRA-DY," chants. He completed 19 consecutive passes at one point. He navigated the pocket well when blitzed, for the most part. And he was blitzed often, as has been the case for four weeks.
The Bucs blitzed, as is their wont, on over 50 percent of Jones' dropbacks. Per Pro Football Focus, Jones went 18-for-22 for 173 yards (7.9 yards per attempt), one touchdown and one pick when blitzed. And he had the team in position to win on a long field goal at the end. But he appeared to strike short at times when he had time to try shots down the field -- his only throw of 20 yards or more was picked -- and he very nearly threw a second back-breaking pick in the red zone that would've wiped points off the board.
That's keeps this mark from getting much higher. As does not being able to fully take advantage of a secondary decimated by injury (the Patriots went 2-for-9 on third down). But in the rain, when hit a dozen times, what he did was impressive.
Running back: F
Failing grades are typically only reserved for position groups whose mistakes can be tied directly to a loss. Seems fair in this week's edition of the Report Card, since J.J. Taylor's fumble early in the third quarter snuffed out a drive that looked like it was going to result in at least three points.
Brandon Bolden (one hit allowed) and Damien Harris (two hurries allowed) both had issues in pass protection. This group somehow had -4 yards on six carries. Unfathomable, even against a stout run defense.
Wide receiver: B+
Any time a receiver can drop a dime to another receiver, that's going to give the grade a bump. Jakobi Meyers' throw to Nelson Agholor, which helped put the Patriots in position for points, was arguably the best in-a-vacuum throw of the night for Belichick's club.
Both Meyers and Kendrick Bourne benefited from finding themselves covered by newly-acquired Bucs corner Richard Sherman. They combined to catch all seven targets sent their way when checked by Sherman for a total of 91 yards.
Even N'Keal Harry got into the act, picking up a defensive pass interference penalty on Sherman and connecting with Jones on a curl for a first down. This group had space in which to operate Sunday. Jones just didn't always have time to find them.
Tight end: B
Hunter Henry might've been the under-the-radar most important player in the New England attack on Sunday. He was a monster on pick routes, though that descriptor probably isn't all that apt. Was he a silent assassin? A stealth bomber? You get the idea. He was doing damage without being noticed.
He threw a well-executed pick for Brandon Bolden for one third-down conversion. He feigned a pick and slipped toward the goal line on his touchdown grab. He freed Meyers on a stack release "rub" play that would've been a critical third-down conversion late in the fourth quarter, but the pass was batted at the line of scrimmage.
Offensive line: F
Another dozen hits for Mac Jones. Were they all a result of breakdowns along the offensive line? Nope. But they deserve their share of the blame.
Justin Herron allowed four total pressures. Isaiah Wynn was on the scene for three. Mike Onwenu was flagged for two holds and benched in favor of Ted Karras. David Andrews appeared to have some kind of communication breakdown with Jones for the second consecutive week when almost the entire offense jumped for a false start penalty.
When you add the nonexistent running game production, you have another failing grade.
Special teams: C
Nick Folk's missed field goal is hard to hold against him. It was from 56 yards away in a driving rain. The snap was good. The hold was good. The kick looked like it had a chance. And it did. It was mere inches off the mark. But there were other aspects in this phase that needed adjusting.
The Patriots left a punt gunner unchecked that forced return man Gunner Olszewski down closer to the line, which led to a punt that couldn't be returned. Olszewski muffed one that was a pylon's width away from bouncing out of bounds at the one-yard line.
There were good moments, too. Justin Bethel downed a punt around the five. Bethel and Chase Winovich tackled Tampa Bay's kick returner at the 14-yard line to open the second half. But not enough here to pump the Patriots up a grade or two.
Defensive line: B
The Bucs picked up a shade over 4.0 yards per carry with their running backs on Sunday night, but that's not a bad night considering how often the Patriots were devoting numbers to their coverage. With only three- and four-man rushes at times, it was up to the bigger bodies up front to handle themselves when Tom Brady handed off. They did, for the most part.
A Davon Godchaux hands-to-the-face penalty was a tough one. And if the defensive line was at the center of things when there was a 12-men-on-the-field flag thrown, that's a black mark for this group. Particularly since that one came on third down. But Christian Barmore showed up again as a pass-rusher with one quarterback hit and one hurry. He was at the center of New England's "amoeba" fronts when Belichick changed things up on Brady on obvious passing downs.
Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise each came up with run stuffs, and Wise notched a key third-down pass-breakup at the line on third down early in the third quarter.
Matthew Judon was not happy last week when it was brought to his attention that there might've been times when it looked like he was dealing with a knee injury. He said to let him know if it ever looks like he's hurt. He wanted to be shown examples.
It's understandable he'd be incredulous. He's been a maniac for the first month of the season. He racked up another five pressures on Sunday night. He's a one-man wrecking crew. He beat a double-team for a sack. He forced a hands-to-the-face penalty that wiped out a bomb from Brady to Brown. He stuffed a Leonard Fournette run for a loss of two. He also lost an edge that led to a long Fournette run, but otherwise seemed to have a clean game as a piece to Belichick's diverse pass-rush plan.
Kyle Van Noy created one pressure, as did Dont'a Hightower and Chase Winovich. But this was another night in which the 'backer group was carried by their latest big-ticket acquisition.
As it turned out... the Patriots might have had the horses to run with Tampa Bay all along. Jackson took his lumps when matched up on Evans at times. But to allow 64 yards on 10 targets? That's a win for the Patriots.
Jones and Brown traded blows as well, with Brown typically getting the better of the matchup. But even with Brown creating some separation, he still had just 52 yards on nine targets when working on Jones. Mills allowed one long one on a scramble-drill play from Brady when Godwin got free for 28 yards. But otherwise? He allowed two Godwin grabs for 27 yards. He was stout at the line and prevented Tampa's star No. 2 receiver from taking over.
Maybe Brady was being cautious in bad conditions. Maybe he knew the only way to lose to Belichick was to force a pass into an area it didn't belong, an unforced error.
But for him to complete just over 50 percent of his throws (22-for-43) for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt and a rating of 70.8? Again... That's a win for the Patriots. Not bad for a group whose best corner remains on the physically unable to perform list.