The Patriots lost a last-minute thriller to the Buccaneers but not to be lost in the fallout from defeat were the strides that the fledgling New England offense took. While there is still plenty of work to do in areas like ball security, penalties, pass protection and the running game, the Pats' work in the red zone was a big part of why this was such a competitive game.
Through three games, the red zone had been one of the weakest areas of performance, especially on offense where they came into the contest ranked last in the NFL. Yes, Sunday night's two-for-three performance for Mac Jones and company was only enough to get the offense up to 31st in the league, but their progress was an encouraging sign, with Jones firing two touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, the defense held Tampa Bay's vaunted offense to just one touchdown in four trips inside the 20 and kept the door open for the offense for the entire game.
Let's take a closer look at some of the big red zone moments and how the Patriots can continue to build off of them!
Defense sets early tone
After a six-play first drive that ended in a punt, the Bucs offense found a stride on their second possession, moving down the field in just six plays to get inside New England's red zone. But from there a three-play series kept Tom Brady and friends out of the end zone.
The first-down play, a quick wide receiver screen out of a two-man bunch set, was quickly read by Jonathan Jones, who defeated the point of the bunch and forced Antonio Brown back inside where Jalen Mills quickly closed and forced him out of bounds after a gain of just three yards. On second down the Bucs went to three tight end personnel, in a look that might signal a running play, but the Patriots' pass defense was on it as Brady made a quick throw up the seam off a three-step drop. It was well covered.
On third down, Tampa went spread, with a three-man bunch set to the right and a two-man combo to the left. Brady tried the two-man side but Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips did a good job sorting the receivers and stuck with them, forcing a Brady overthrow.
This first red zone stop was largely a credit to the secondary, especially their communication and tackling.
Defense keeps it a one-score affair
After the defense held the Tampa offense to a field goal, Mac Jones would throw his only interception of the game on the ensuing possession. The Bucs quickly marched down the field, with Antonio Brown's 27-yard reception on third down giving them an explosive play to put them in scoring range. At this point, already down by a field goal, the Patriots were staring down the barrel of a two-score deficit.
After Brown's big play, the run defense got a key stop on first down, holding Leonard Fournette to just three yards. On second down, J.C. Jackson stayed in Mike Evans' pocket on a slow-developing slant as Brady's throw was also a bit high. For the big third down, the defense employed some excellent disguise with just one down lineman and five potential standing rushers in the box. At the snap, Tampa's confusion allowed Matt Judon a free run at Brady, forcing the quarterback to make a hurried check down to Fournette that fell incomplete.
This was total team defense. A run stop. Good coverage. Disguise and rush that forced an offensive mistake. Total effort and a critical red-zone hold at a critical time. Ryan Succop's missed 36-yarder was a bonus that kept the score 3-0.
Following the missed field goal the Patriots offense would put together their best drive of the game but they wouldn't make it easy on themselves, needing to overcome two holding penalties. Kendrick Bourne's two 16-yard catches on the drive were a huge part of getting back the lost yardage. The Pats would pick up their only two third-down conversions of the game on this drive, and would also get another conversion on a penalty drawn by N'Keal Harry.
On their 11th play of the drive, coming from the Tampa 11-yard line, the protection was excellent, as Jones had time to find Hunter Henry on a little crosser over the middle as Henry navigated through Bucs defenders. Henry broke a tackle and stepped into the end zone to give the Patriots their first touchdown of the game.
It was the kind of red-zone throw many have been waiting for, with Jones showing pocket patience and delivering a strike for a score to one of his tight ends. These were the kind of plays fans have been waiting for and there was still more to come.
The defense held the Bucs to just a field goal after they made a long drive just before the half, but couldn't keep Tampa from the end zone later in the third quarter, as the running game came alive and Ronald Jones took an off-tackle run into the end zone for Tampa's only TD of the game. That gave the Buccaneers their first lead of the game at 13-7.
Needing to respond, Jones and the Patriots offense did just that with an impressive seven-play, 77-yard drive that got started with a hard run by Damien Harris that picked up 21 yards off with a few broken tackles. It was just the kind of big play they needed and they'd keep the momentum going into the end zone as Jones got hot and couldn't miss a pass.
After a Brandon Bolden screen was stopped on the one-yard-line, it was the perfect time for play action as the offense loaded up heavy personnel. Jones executed the play and found Jonnu Smith in the back of the end zone for his second tight end TD of the game.
This was a small sample of the Patriots offense finding their stride and not needing penalties or trick plays to produce yardage. They got the Bucs on their heels, picked them apart and finished it off with six just as the fourth quarter started. It gave the Pats back the lead and was the kind of clutch playmaking from Jones that will continue to develop.
Defense gets two last bend-don't-breaks
After the Patriots re-took the lead, the Bucs offense put together a workman-like drive that included two third-down conversions before they arrived inside New England's 10-yard line. A stop-for-loss came on first down, followed by two incompletions forced by excellent coverage on the back end. Tampa settled for another field goal and took a manageable two-point lead.
Again the Pats would respond, with Jakobi Meyer's pass to Nelson Agholor going for 30 yards. But two incompletions and a pass for no gain later and the Pats themselves had to settle for their own field goal to re-take a one-point score. This was a spot where the Patriots really could've used some better red zone finish, which would've really put pressure on the Bucs offense to deliver a touchdown.
Instead, down by just one, Brady was looking to put the game away and executing a seven-play drive that took the clock down to the two-minute warning. They would only get to New England's 30-yard and New England's run defense would hold Fournette to just two yards on first down, before Brady took two shots to the end zone for the knockout blow. Jonathan Jones was in coverage on Antonio Brown on both plays. The first, a bit off the mark from Brady and the second narrowly fell incomplete as Brown got his hands on but couldn't corral.
Sometimes you simply survive and that's a bit of what happened against Brady here at the very end as the quarterback got aggressive. Still, in the critical fourth quarter, the defense forced two field goals when touchdowns would've put the game out of reach. Early on, especially against the Dolphins and Saints, the defense couldn't make one last play. Though New England didn't win this game, the defense certainly gave them the opportunity to.