You don’t need much of a history lesson to figure out why Sunday night is so important, not just to those in New England, but for the entire NFL community. Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough will officially close the book on the greatest run professional sports has ever seen.
Sure, you can argue that book closed when he signed on with Tampa Bay as a free agent in March of 2020. Or, could also say that it closed when he won his 7th Super Bowl in February of 2021. But this game —a week four matchup in October— is the final chapter, because #12 is no longer your quarterback Patriots fans, he isn’t even the guy that you can root for from afar. Tom Brady is the enemy.
Whether Patriots fans are ready to admit that or not, their team has been preparing for him that way. So on Sunday, when all of the glitz and glamour fades away, it is Tom Brady vs the New England Patriots. Here are the matchups that could decide the outcome.
Agholor vs. Tampa Bay’s Secondary
Mac Jones and Nelson Agholor haven’t been able to overcome their lack of chemistry through the first few weeks of the season. There has been a number of occasions where Agholor was open, but missed by Jones, like the double pass against New York where Jones chose to throw to Jonnu Smith instead of an open Agholor deep down the field, or the miscommunication against New Orleans that lead to an uncatchable ball despite Agholor being alone behind the secondary. These were all things that can and will be fixed with improved chemistry, something that can come by connecting on a couple of easy balls against a bad secondary.
In comes the Tampa Bay secondary, ranked 21st in terms of EPA/Pass and exactly what the doctor ordered for Jones and Agholor. The Buccaneers’ secondary is full of players under the age of 25, and still on their rookie contracts. That group gave up six pass plays of 20 yards or more to the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, one of which went for a 75 yard touchdown to 34-year old DeSean Jackson. They’re not exactly adept at keeping a lid on the explosive plays.
So the question remains, will Mac Jones and Nelson Agholor find a way to get on the same page? Perhaps Josh McDaniels can force their hand by calling his shots to be based towards the boundary, limiting the window for mistakes. Maybe they just call another trick play against this ultra aggressive defense that Jones actually pulls the trigger on. Either way, this is a matchup that can and should be exploited by New England.
Barrett vs. Brown
Following a tumultuous two week stretch where his replacements have been exploited by opposing defenses, Trent Brown is in line to make his return to the field on Sunday. Anyone who has watched the performances of Justin Herron and Yasir Durant in the past two weeks understands just how big (pun intended) of a return this is. The hope is that the addition of a 6-foot-8, 360-pound right tackle will stabilize things along the offensive line.
The Buccaneers —who are known for their intimidating defensive front— have some injuries to navigate themselves. With Jason Pierre-Paul yet to practice on the week, it looks as if Tampa Bay will roll into New England with just one game changing pass rusher instead of their usual pair. Yippee for the Patriots.
Since it still isn’t a sure thing that Brown will be available for this game, Tampa will likely look to attack that right side of the Patriots offensive line with Shaq Barrett, a man with 32.5 sacks in his 38 games with the Bucs. It will be paramount for New England’s offensive line —the same unit who has given up 22 quarterback hits and six sacks— to turn things around and neutralize Barrett on Sunday. If they allow Tampa to get after their rookie, things could get ugly is a hurry.
Godchaux and Guy vs. Rojo and Fournette
Despite consistently beating teams through the air, the Buccaneers best game plan for the Patriots would feature a strong running attack. New England has struggled trying to stop the run this season, despite funneling money into their 26th ranked run defense from a year ago.
The Buccaneers offense features a three man rotation at running back, but could be without their top pass catching option Giovanni Bernard, who has yet to practice this week. That leaves Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, two ground game options that have split reps fairly evenly through three weeks. New England will likely try and force the Buccaneers into featuring those two players as a way to limit the amount of touches that go their star studded receiving corps.
With New England likely trying to force Tampa Bay’s hand, their run-stuffing duo of Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux will need to rise to the occasion to make that decision worth wild.
Brady vs. Belichick
After spending 20 seasons together, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady know each other more than they know themselves. This week they’ll finally be able to put that knowledge to good use in trying to defeat one another. This website is literally called Pats Pulpit so let us stay focused on this matchup from Belichick and the Patriots’ perspective.
There are two ways to beat Tom Brady, by pressuring him up the middle to force mistakes, or by taking the ball out of his hands. Those are the same ways Belichick has approached defending great quarterbacks in the past. Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, etc.
Phil Perry and Matt Dolloff both pointed out an example of how to get the ball out of Brady’s hands on Twitter.
Great recall. Almost word for word!— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 30, 2021
“Peyton's a smart quarterback, man. We knew we were going to come out and show that two-high shell. He sees that two-high shell, he’s going to run the ball. That was our plan, to get him to run it more than he throws it.”
And with pass rushing studs like Christian Barmore, Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, and Josh Uche, the Patriots certainly have the personnel to make Brady uncomfortable.
Being successful in one of if not both of those defensive philosophies should put the Patriots in a position to make this game competitive.