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Game Observations: Defense, Gilmore respond

Playing on the road and on a short week, the Patriots and their beleaguered defense traveled to Tampa and came away with a hard-fought 19-14 victory. Holding the high-powered Bucs to 14 points was a major step forward for the defense, and the secondary in general.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots third victory of the season.

-Playing without Rob Gronkowski did little to affect the offensive game plan for the Patriots. New England opened the game with eight straight passes, one of which resulted in Tom Brady’s first interception of the season, and the Patriots moved the ball with a bunch of quick, short throws. Brady needed to get rid of the ball quickly because the Bucs had some heavy pressure throughout the first quarter, and without Gronkowski at his disposal he leaned on Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and James White to things moving. That trio combined for 16 of Brady’s 18 first-half completions on 19 targets, most of which were simple pitch-and-catch throws against the Bucs cover-4 defense that was vulnerable underneath with starting linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander as well as starting safeties T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy out of the lineup due to injuries. The one exception was a perfect 24-yarder to White on a wheel route down the right sideline on a play that White managed to hang on despite almost having the ball slip through his hands.

-The overall defensive effort was outstanding as the Bucs were stymied throughout the majority of the game. The Patriots appeared to go with more man coverage with the embattled Stephon Gilmore taking Mike Evans and Malcolm Butler going against DeSean Jackson. There were times when the secondary was bailed out by some errant throws by Jameis Winston but overall the improvement was remarkable. Gilmore talked after the game about feeling more comfortable playing man coverage and it showed. Patrick Chung also did a nice job on Cameron Brate, limiting the tight end to four catches for 51 yards and a late touchdown, although Brate helped a bit by dropping a few catchable passes. The secondary was much more competitive, allowing just one 20-plus yard play and that came in the fourth quarter when Jackson got free for a 41-yard catch-and-run on a third down. Otherwise the Bucs couldn’t convert on third down (2-11) and as a result couldn’t put any points on the board.

-Brady wound up with a fairl typical night for him, completing 30 of 40 passes for 303 yards and a touchdown but he opened the game in uncharacteristic fashion. On the game’s first drive he sailed a pass over Hogan’s head that was picked off by rookie Ryan Keith. It was Brady’s first interception in 265 regular-season attempts going back to last year. He also was a bit wild throughout the early going, throwing behind his receivers at times even though they were able to make the catch on most occasions. Brady was later strip-sacked by Adarius Glanton and the fumble was recovered by Will Clarke, giving the quarterback a pair of turnovers on the night. Brady was sacked three times against a Bucs team that had just coming in, and he’s now been dropped 16 times on the year – one more than he suffered in his 12 starts a year ago.

-There was an interesting exchange in the fourth quarter that ultimately worked out for the Patriots but was curious nonetheless. First, the Patriots had the ball with about 10 minutes to go leading 16-7 when Josh McDaniels had the offense operating out of the hurry-up rather than trying to milk clock. Brady was under extreme duress on a second down play and was forced to throw the ball away in traffic. The Patriots avoided a turnover, but there seemed to be some unnecessary risk to the approach. On the next possession, the Patriots moved the ball to the Tampa 34 and passed up a 52-yard field goal attempt and had Ryan Allen punt instead. Clearly Bill Belichick felt the Bucs would be hard-pressed to drive twice for scores, especially starting from deep in their own end. It almost backfired when the Bucs hit a big play and moved downfield, only to watch Nick Folk miss his third field goal of the night.

-The Patriots short-yardage offense, in a word, has been abysmal this season. Right from the opener when Mike Gillislee failed to convert a pair of fourth-and-ones, the offense has been unable to move the chains when needing a single yard. Gillislee was stuffed on a third-and-one run two weeks ago against Houston, and the Patriots went 0-for-2 in such situations against Carolina last week. The second attempt against the Panthers came through the air, and the Patriots went with a pass again Thursday night against the Bucs. Brady was sacked by Gerald McCoy, losing 3 yards on a third-and-one in the second quarter. The offense has been otherwise brilliant, but it needs to get these short-yardage problems straightened out.

-Tony Romo, CBS’ lead color analyst, spent plenty of time talking about Nate Solder and the left tackle’s early-season struggles. The Bucs entered the game with a subpar pass rush that managed just one sack all season in their previous three games. But in the first half Tampa put plenty of pressure on Brady, dropping him twice and hitting him on a handful of others. Romo mentioned that Solder looked like he wasn’t healthy, and the tackle was seen wearing a good deal of kinesiology tape on his upper right arm. Solder tore the biceps in that arm two years ago and wound up on injured reserve, so it’s possible he wears it as a precautionary measure. Solder was flagged for a questionable illegal peelback block but replays showed his helmet was actually in front of Noah Spence’s leg.

-The defense enjoyed a strong first half but at times was guilty of some undisciplined play. The Bucs lone scoring drive came when Deatrich Wise was called for illegal hands to the face on a failed third down, allowing Tampa to convert and eventually get on the board on a 1-yard Doug Martin touchdown run. Later in the half things got worse for both Marsh and the Patriots. Jameis Winston was trying to move his team into scoring range but didn’t have the time nor field position, and it appeared as if the half would end without incident. But with less than :10 remaining before the break, Wise hit Winston well after the throw and was called for roughing the passer. That moved the ball to the Tampa 27 with just two ticks left, and gave Winston a chance for a Hail Mary attempt. Winston’s pass fell short of the goal line, but this time it was Cassius Marsh getting there late and drilling the quarterback to add 15 more yards to the Bucs cause. Marsh was actually guilty of lining up in the neutral zone on the play that Wise was called for illegal hands to the face, so both defensive ends were called for a pair of penalties in the opening half.

-Penalties were also a problem on special teams, specifically for Brandon Bolden. The veteran was flagged three times, twice for holding and once for jumping offside on a fourth-and-two punt. That gave the Bucs a key first down, but Bolden was bailed out when the defense was able to get off the field thanks to a couple of drops by Doug Martin and Braite. With a 16-7 lead at the time, the offside penalty could have been damaging to the Patriots had the Bucs gotten their offense in gear.

-The Patriots improved to 44-6 in games following a loss since 2003 and have now won 10 straight road games. … Brady tied Peyton Manning and Brett Favre with 186 regular-season wins, the most ever. … Dion Lewis’ 31-yard run was the longest of his career. … Hogan caught his fifth touchdown pass of the season, establishing a career high. He also set a career best with eight receptions. … Amendola turned in a 40-yard punt return in the second quarter. … Stephen Gostkowski continued his strong start to the season, making all four of his field goals. He’s now 12-for-12 on the season. … Matthew Slater made his debut after missing the first four games with a hamstring injury.

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