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Patriots Unfiltered Wed Oct 27 | 11:55 AM - 02:00 PM

Game Observations: Maybe not a classic, but memorable nonetheless 

2021-GameObservations-16x9

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – "The Return."

Like so many of the NFL's most historic games – The Immaculate Reception, The Drive, The Snow Bowl, et cetera – this Buccaneers-Patriots meeting will forever be known by a nickname all its own. Unlike those other memorable ones, however, which came to be known by something that occurred on the field during the games, this one earned its sobriquet long before kickoff, gradually coming to be ever since Tom Brady signed with Tampa Bay in 2020.

It's safe to say this was the most anticipated regular season game in league history, and while it may not have lived up to the quality of play of some of those other classic encounters, it was a lot more competitive than many analysts (this author included) predicted in recent days.

When Brady, who helped lead New England to six Super Bowl titles in 20 years, came onto the field before the game, he was greeted warmly by the Gillette Stadium faithful, many of whom were wearing jerseys split down the middle – half Patriots, half Buccaneers – to show their support for the legendary quarterback. Once the game kicked off, though, boos rained down, along with the at-times heavy precipitation itself, when Brady joined the Tampa offense on the field for the first time as an opponent in this stadium.

By night's end, after Brady and the Bucs had barely escaped victorious, the middle of the field took on the resemblance of a receiving line at a wedding reception, as Brady shared hugs, smiles, and pleasantries with one former Patriots teammate, coach, and staff member after another.

Then, following a post-game TV commitment, while almost everyone else on the field had departed, Brady said his final goodbyes, soaking up the adulation of those fans in the stands who remained to see him to the very end. He acknowledged them with vigorous waves of both hands while jogging up the ramp back to the visitors locker room.

Appropriately, in this stadium where Brady led so many comebacks, we were just a few inches to the left of celebrating Patriots rookie QB Mac Jones' first-ever come-from-behind victory as a member of this franchise. Jones' precociously composed performance under such highly scrutinized circumstances should not be overlooked, and should serve the young passer and the rest of his teammates well down the road.

What follows are some of the reasons why, from this person's perspective, the Patriots nearly spoiled Tom Brady's return to Foxborough:

* * *

Tampa Bay's opening kickoff sailed out of bounds inside the Patriots' 5-yard line, giving Jones and the New England offense the ball at their own 40 to begin the game. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tried to take advantage of this gifted field position by calling several no-huddle plays, but the drive quickly stalled after Jones was sacked and threw an incompletion on the next play.

* * *

Weather forecasters were predicting all week that there might be showers or light rain by the fourth quarter, but a steady, at times heavy rain started falling before kickoff, during pregame warmups and festivities. Perhaps the inclement conditions contributed to many of Brady's errant passes in the early going. His own emotions may have also gotten the better of him, as many of his throws in the first half looked a bit overzealous.

* * *

The Patriots got lucky on a couple of occasions on their second possession. First, Gunner Olszewski's muffed punt inside the New England 10-yard line wound up hitting the pylon for a touchback. It was just inches away from being out inside the 1.

Couple plays thereafter, WR Jakobi Meyers appeared to fumble after making a catch over the middle, which Tampa then recovered. Upon review, however, the ruling was overturned and the Patriots maintained possession, thus avoiding giving Brady and the Bucs the ball in striking distance of the end zone.

* * *

In what's becoming an all-too-familiar scene, blitzing defenses are forcing Jones into hurried, ill-advised throws. That's exactly how Tampa Bay intercepted Jones in the late first quarter. With an unblocked rusher bearing down on him from up the middle, Jones simply ducked and chucked the ball downfield, where it got tipped and picked by Tampa.

Jones would atone later, though. In the second quarter, he sidestepped an oncoming Bucs rusher to fire a completion over the middle. Later in the half, and even more impressively, Jones threw a TD pass to tight end Hunter Henry, who was Jones' third read on the play. Jones exhibited much better pocket awareness and presence on those two particular throws.

Even more to his credit, Jones protected the slick football very well in these rainy conditions, and at one point in the game had completed 19 consecutive passes. The NBC broadcast noted that this was the longest streak in a game by a rookie QB in 30 years. Jones continues to demonstrate that he's growing each week in his comfort level with this offense, even though he's not always being given a comfortable pocket from which to throw.

* * *

Mac Jones on the day

Table inside Article
Attempts Completions Yards Sacks/Yards TD Long INT
40 31 275 4/25 2 21 1

Incompletions vs. TB

Table inside Article
Total Throw Aways Overthrows Underthrows Batted Passes Drops Passes Defensed INT
9 1 1 0 0 1 5 1

Incompletions in 2021

Table inside Article
Total Throw Aways Overthrows Underthrows Batted Passes Drops Passes Defensed INT
48 4 12 6 2 5 15 4

* * *

Along those lines, New England's offensive line continues to struggle overall. By halftime, the Patriots had just six carries for negative-six yards, and finished with a net of minus-one yard on the ground. Left guard Mike Onwenu committed two holding penalties in the first half, and by the fourth quarter, he'd been replaced by backup Ted Karras. It's unclear if this was due to injury or a coaching decision, but Onwenu was never announced as having been injured during the game.

Meanwhile, without right tackle Trent Brown, Justin Herron and Yasir Durant combined to fill his spot, but as has been the case in the previous three games, the right side has proved more of a liability. When Durant came in for Herron, he almost immediately surrendered a sack of Jones. Herron later came back in and gave up another Jones sack in the middle of the third quarter. Next play, a perfectly executed stunt by the Bucs resulted in Jones being walloped on a third down. This, mind you, from a Bucs defense that came to Foxborough with just three total sacks in its first three games. They brought Jones down four times Sunday night.

* * *

The Patriots' top receivers are becoming more and more reliable for Jones each week. The aforementioned Meyers continues to establish himself as a go-to pass catcher who can double as a trick-play passer (he completed a pair of throws versus Tampa). Meanwhile, Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, the two free agents acquired this past offseason, are making progress each week, as evidenced in their performances against the Bucs. Bourne caught all five of Jones' throws to him, for 58 yards, while Agholor grabbed three of five passes for 55 yards.

* * *

It's not just the receivers, but the tight ends who are starting to become more involved in New England's offense. Case in point: Great call by McDaniels when the Patriots had a first-and-goal situation from the Tampa 1-yard line. The OC brought on Karras as an eligible extra blocker for what looked like an obvious jumbo package running play. Instead, Jones play-action passed to TE Jonnu Smith, who broke free from the line of scrimmage uncovered in the end zone and made the easy scoring catch. Smith bounced back from a forgettable effort last week against the Saints. Smith and Henry provide this kind of red zone threat that has been lacking the past couple of seasons here in New England.

* * *

It's becoming a broken record to say that edge rusher Matt Judon is New England's most impactful defender, but he proved as much yet again versus Tampa Bay. Judon garnered New England's lone sack of Brady on the night, was in on a number of QB pressures, and registered a pair of tackles-for-loss. He also showed great hustle at one point in the second half to make a nice downfield tackle, far from the line of scrimmage.

* * *

Special teams again played a pivotal role in the game, and not for the right reason. After the Patriots recovered a Bucs fumble in Tampa territory during a third-quarter punt return, special teams co-captain Matthew Slater was flagged for an uncharacteristic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

As the gunner on that punt, Slater was blocked out of bounds by two Buccaneers, but continued running down the field while on the Patriots' sideline. When a gunner doesn't immediately try to get back onto the field of play, he is penalized, and referee Bill Vinovich's crew correctly called this one.

The result: New England had to punt again and Tampa eventually drove for a go-ahead touchdown. Patriots special teams units are off to a rough start in 2021.

* * *

Tampa's play-calling in the fourth quarter was a bit perplexing. Brady and the Bucs tried several times to go for long passes into the end zone late in the fourth quarter, rather than work the ball more methodically down the field to pick up first downs and drain the clock before kicking an eventual game-winning field goal. This go-for-it-all strategy nearly cost the Bucs the game, as it left New England with two minutes to operate after the Bucs went ahead for good with a 48-yard field goal.

* * *

It's hard not to feel for kicker Nick Folk. In the fourth quarter, he extended his streak of consecutive field goals made to 36 when he booted a short kick that gave New England its final lead of the night. Folk and Giants' kicker Graham Gano had been in a race to break Adam Vinatieri's NFL record of 44 in a row. Entering Sunday, Gano was two kicks ahead of Folk, but Gano missed a kick early against the Saints earlier in the day, meaning Folk had the longest current streak in the league.

That made Folk's miss from 56 yards even more painful to witness. In a driving rain, Folk had plenty of leg on his kick that would have surely won the game for the Patriots, but it clanked off the left upright. Still, a remarkable effort by Folk that nearly gave Jones and New England a truly cherished win in this historic game.

* * *

Powerful Play/Player of the Game presented by Enel

Jones' TD pass to Henry. It showed not only how Jones is growing in this offense, but also how important the tight end position is becoming once again for the Patriots.

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