Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Tough spot in Tampa

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Things are a bit…uncertain these days in New England.

The Patriots (2-2) are coming off their second home loss of the season.

New England sports the No. 1 offense in the NFL and the…No. 32 defense.

Average it all out and Bill Belichick’s team is very average right now, very much in the middle of the early-season NFL pack.

The second quarter of the season kicks off with a short-week trip to Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers (2-1) on Thursday Night Football.

It’s the Patriots first non-Thanksgiving Thursday road game since 1990.

Oh, and the team will where a white-on-white after Labor Day look to celebrate the Color Rush affair.

Week 5 is a little early for a must-win game or even for a crossroads contest, but a loss in Tampa would certainly leave Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest in strange position. Stanger even than their current standing tied with the Jets (2-2) for second place in the AFC East behind the Bills.

All is far from right these days in Patriot Nation, but a win Thursday night against the upstart Bucs led by former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston could be a nice step toward righting the ship.

But it won’t be easy, because nothing looks easy right now for the Patriots, especially on the defensive side of the ball. New England puts up a lot points and gives them up at almost the same rate.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Thursday night tilt with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

History tells us the Patriots will shake off the shaky start to 2017, figure things out, improve as the year rolls on and end up a championship contender come January. But Belichick cautioned us all to stop thinking about the past and comparing this squad to previous units.

If we do just that, ignore history and focus on the here-and-now Patriots, then Thursday night is a big game for a team facing big questions.

Heading into this critical early-season battle with the Bucs, here are a few potential keys to Thursday night’s action in Tampa Bay.

*Communicate on D - *The word communication has been thrown around all week in Foxborough after last Sunday’s embarrassing defensive performance against the Panthers that had Cam Newton’s targets running wide-open all over the Gillette Stadium turf. Stephon Gilmore has seemingly been at the center of the confusion in the back end, but he’s far from the only problem. It’s been a long time since a Patriots defense appeared so lost on the field. Smart money says things will be cleaned up moving forward and that the Carolina game was rock bottom for Gilmore, the communication and the pass defense as a whole. But until the Patriots prove they can turn things around, on a short week to fix it nonetheless, it will be an area to focus on against a Winston-led offense with plenty of weapons and playmaking potential.

Man up - One possible way to clear up some of the communication issues and confusion would be to use more man coverage against Winston’s troops. It’s not necessarily the be-all, end-all answer but it might offer a short-term solution to boost the back end. Maybe see if Gilmore can run with Mike Evans (scary, I know) while Malcolm Butler handles Desean Jackson (still scary) and the safeties/linebackers deal with the rest. We’ve seen Belichick and Matt Patricia use plenty of man coverage in recent years. This could be a time to turn to it once again. Hard to imagine all the communication issues and confusion in the zone looks got fixed during a couple days of walk throughs. Players said it can’t get much simpler than it already is anyway. Maybe manning up is what it takes to snag a win on the road and get things moving in the right direction for the pass defense.

Pass it on - While things have been ugly for the Patriots pass defense, they’ve been equally tough for opposing pass defenders through the first month. Brady and his receivers are off to a fast start in 2017 and should be able to keep that going against a Tampa defense that ranks 31st in the league against the pass. The Bucs have just one sack on the season, so they don’t bring the same type of fearful front that the Texans and Panthers did. New England’s line should be able to give Brady time to find his weapons. Rob Gronkowski has been running well and making plays, even if he was added to the injury report with a thigh issue. Brandin Cooks has been good and is a couple missed Brady throws away from much bigger production. The Patriots complementary receivers – Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan – and running backs all continue to make plays. The NFL’s No. 1 passing attack should shine in the spotlight and warm weather of TNF action in Tampa.

Balance time? - As good as the passing game should be, mixing in some run against a Bucs front that’s been without a couple starting linebackers might not be a bad idea. Levonte David (ankle) and Kwon Alexander (hamstring) missed practice all week after missing last week’s game. Tampa Bay is allowing opponents just 2.9 yards a carry on the season. New England is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Stats wouldn’t point to a ground-heavy approach, but Mike Gillislee was solid against Carolina and seems to be picking up a little steam. Getting him going would balance out the offense, open up the play-action game for even more passing success and keep Brady from taking any more hits than necessary, even against a lackluster pass rush. Don’t be stunned if the Patriots run the ball a little more often on Thursday night with Gillislee and/or Dion Lewis.

*Spot check - *Long before the Patriots got off to a disappointing start to the new season, this Thursday trip to Tampa had to be considered a tough spot for New England. Road teams are at a clear short-week disadvantage on Thursday night and it often shows in the on-field results. But, the spot now feels like a classis Patriots “everyone is against us,” rally-the-troops game in a hostile environment. Even though New England is actually favored in the game, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way and likely won’t be spun that way in the visiting locker room at Raymond James Stadium. This is a spot where past Patriots teams (the ones Belichick doesn’t want us to think about, talk about or compare the current squad to) would prove their mettle and turn things around. Doubt has often produced success for the Patriots. If this group is going to get back to winning, get back to being thought of as an elite Super Bowl contender, this is a spot where the group stands tall and gets the job done. If.

Prediction: On paper this should be a high-scoring affair with impressive passing action for both sides. But the wild card factor that is ugly, short-week, Thursday night football can’t be ruled out. Either way, the Patriots are a wounded. Not so much in terms of injury, but pride. Devin McCourty and the defense are facing doubts and questions like never before. Can they answer the call? That is the question. For this game, against a quarterback who almost seems in awe of his first meeting with the G.O.A.T., there is certainly an opportunity for New England to turn things around in Tampa. Brady should be able to throw early and often. The Patriots just can’t continue to be as bad as they’ve looked on pass defense. (They can’t, right?) There is no doubt New England is a tough team to handicap these days. History and expectations are clashing with four games of on-field performance. The pick here is for Brady and the offense to continue to carry the bulk of the load, while the defense bounces back enough to get a couple key turnovers to build a lead. Nothing will be fixed overnight, but a 34-24 win over the Bucs will make things seem a little better for now.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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