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Film review: Why did the Patriots pass defense fall apart in the fourth quarter?

It’s actually not a big deal at all. New England just wanted to drain the clock.

New England Patriots v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The New England Patriots allowed an NFL-record 5th straight 300+ yard passer on Thursday Night, but that doesn’t do justice to how great the defense played. They limited Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston to 109 passing yards through three quarters, only for Winston to uncork 225 passing yards in the fourth quarter.

How did this happen? Did the Buccaneers solve the Patriots defense? Were there more mistakes by New England?

Not really, upon further review of the tape. The Patriots simply stopped playing the same defense they had been playing for the first three quarters as they moved into “clock killing” mode. Here are three pictures to illustrate.

Patriots defense for the first three quarters

The Buccaneers didn’t convert a third down attempt until 44 minutes into the game and the tight coverage by the Patriots secondary was a big reason why. Tampa Bay wanted to throw the football against the Patriots, but Stephon Gilmore, Patrick Chung, and others rose to the occasion.

Look how little cushion the Patriots defenders were affording the Buccaneers receivers. This works out when the receivers are spread apart and the Patriots did an outstanding job of sticking to their receivers and forcing Winston to hold on to the football or attempt a poor throw.

When the Patriots played against bunch formations (the Buccaneers called far fewer bunches than I had anticipated), New England handled them well, but it seemed like Tampa rarely asked Mike Evans- who was shadowed by Gilmore- to be a part of the bunch. If Gilmore was having problems with communications, wouldn’t it make sense for Evans to be in the bunch? That was a real head-scratching decision by the Buccaneers coaches.

But when the fourth quarter came around, the Patriots stopped playing such tight coverage, allowing Tampa to move the ball much more easily.

DeSean Jackson’s 41-yard reception

What is Malcolm Butler doing here? He’s ten yards away from his receiver on THIRD-AND-2 and he’s BACKPEDALING. There’s no one underneath to take away the slant, which Jackson collected and turned into a field-flipping 41-yard gain. But this sort of cushion was not in the game plan for the first half.

Maybe Butler or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia expected Winston to try a home run play to Jackson deep down the field, but there was a safety to help over the top. This was a really weird coverage decision and a sign of the soft coverage that was to follow.

Patriots defense for the fourth quarter

See how much more space the Patriots defenders were giving the Buccaneers receivers? This led to a lot of easy passes underneath with 30 yards on 3 receptions for running backs, along with opportunities for slot receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate in the middle of the field and for comeback routes with Mike Evans.

Jackson made a few incredible grabs, but much of the Buccaneers fourth quarter production came to a major shift in defensive strategy by the Patriots.