Brandon Spikes Shines Against Run, Dont’a Hightower Flashes Coverage Skills in Film Review of Patriots-Buccaneers

Brandon SpikesBack in the early 2000s, a win like Sunday’s would have seemed commonplace.

The Patriots seemed to float along during those championship runs, playing slightly better than their opponents. Then suddenly, after 60 minutes of football, they won nearly every game they played. That’s pretty much how New England’s victory over Tampa Bay went.

The Patriots allowed the Buccaneers to beat themselves on several occasions. Some key fourth-down stops by the defense certainly didn’t hurt, nor did the improvement shown by rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.

The 2013 Patriots are still developing, but their progression from Week 1 to Week 3 is obvious. Both the offense and defense had to go against some top-tier players (Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Darrelle Revis, to name a few) and limited the Bucs to just three points. That’s some quality football, regardless of some still-obvious flaws.

I took a look through the coaches tape on NFL Game Rewind. Check out my findings below.

QUARTERBACK

The rookie receivers were the culprits behind some misses in Weeks 1 and 2, but Tom Brady was more to blame in this game. Brady was a little off, throwing two passes at Thompkins’ feet, an ill-advised gamble in the end zone that resulted in an interception and some hard-to-catch balls to Dobson that made the rookie receiver stretch out.

Brady also missed two completely wide open receivers (Thompkins and Julian Edelman) on a dangerous pass that wound up missing Zach Sudfeld. A throw to either open receiver would have been an easy touchdown.

Obviously, there were other times when the Patriots signal caller looked brilliant, but Brady was a little more inaccurate than we’re used to seeing in this game against Tampa Bay.

RUNNING BACKS

The stats would not have looked pretty if not for Brandon Bolden’s 46-yard run, but all three backs took what the offensive line gave them and more. Bolden had some down plays (a missed block on a Brady sack and a “picking daisies in the outfield during tee-ball” moment on a go route when the running back completely stopped paying attention), but he also adds a new element to the offense with Shane Vereen out.

The Patriots aren’t afraid to split Bolden out as a wide receiver, nor are they afraid to pass the ball to him, as they seem to be with Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.

Ridley didn’t get much help from his offensive line at all, but he ran hard and got some extra yards when he probably shouldn’t have. Blount looked especially solid in the fourth quarter as the 2013 version of “Clock Killin’” Corey Dillon. He also had a quality moment in pass blocking early on.

James Develin continues to be a little shaky as the lead blocker. He let McCoy get through on one Blount run but sealed off his blocker nicely on another.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Enough can’t be said about the performances from Dobson and Thompkins. They each had drops (Thompkins’ was more glaring), but they also did a nice job getting open, finding holes in Tampa’s zone defense.

Both players shined a couple of times as blockers as well, which may actually bring a smile to Bill Belichick’s face. Thompkins showed some yard-after-catch ability on his touchdown. That element was sorely missing from Brandon Lloyd’s game last year.

Edelman had a decent game, but he was covered well in the middle of the field. He only averaged 6.3 yards per carry and couldn’t get much going after the catch with Buccaneers draped over him.

Josh Boyce was having a tough time getting open, which is probably why he’s at the bottom of the team’s depth chart at wide receiver right now.

TIGHT ENDS

Zach Sudfeld did a good enough job run-blocking but was having trouble getting open. Michael Hoomanawanui did a better job of finding space in the Bucs’ zone defense, hauling in two passes for 31 yards. Matthew Mulligan didn’t play much but flashed as a run blocker.

OFFENSIVE LINE

There was a wide gap between the good blockers and the not-so-good ones. To start with the positives, Nate Solder and Logan Mankins did not have much trouble protecting Brady and looked strong (minus a couple of plays) in the run game.

Ryan Wendell continues to struggle, though. Tampa Bay was not having much of an issue plowing through Wendell, especially in the run game. The center was better in pass protection but still gave up two sacks. On one run play, Wendell even pushed his defender into Blount, halting the back’s progress. Wendell can only improve from here.

Dan Connolly had up and down moments, but he also had a tough assignment, with McCoy pushing him around and Adrian Clayborn flying around on stunts. Sebastian Vollmer looked good until he got hurt. Marcus Cannon was OK in his stead. He had a nice block on Bolden’s 46-yard run but whiffed a couple times against the pass rush.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Vince Wilfork looked better than he did in Weeks 1 and 2. The nose tackle may still be dealing with the nagging injury that kept him out of some preseason action. He held his ground much better against the run and pressured the quarterback. Wilfork still had some trouble trouble getting pushed out of his gaps, though. He also had trouble shedding blocks to make plays on Martin.

Tommy Kelly had a nice game. He was able to use his length to halt the Buccaneers’ running attack. He also registered 1/2 a sack, one pressure and one quarterback hit. Chandler Jones had 2 1/2 sacks and three pressures. He also had a better game against the run than in Week 2.

Rob Ninkovich, fresh off signing a new contract, generated the most pressure. He had 1/2 a sack, five pressures and one quarterback hit. He had a couple of active plays against the run, as well.

As for reserves, Michael Buchanan played a little more sparingly than in the first two weeks of the season. He only had one quarterback hit. Jake Bequette also had a quarterback hit in mop-up duty. Joe Vellano got pushed around a little bit while filling in for Wilfork and Kelly. Vellano registered his first pressure of the season.

LINEBACKERS

Dont’a Hightower’s top-notch job in man coverage should be one of the top storylines of the young season. The second-year linebacker had a notable play covering Doug Martin down the field, but cameras didn’t catch many other times when Hightower had his receiver locked down early in the game.

Hightower continues to do a nice job bumping running backs and tight ends at the line of scrimmage. He had a decent game against the run but had trouble shedding blocks at times. Hightower allowed one reception on two targets for 17 yards.

Brandon Spikes, playing more snaps than he had in Weeks 1 or 2, had a very nice game against the run. He was able to blow up a couple of plays in the backfield. That is what he does best. The Patriots will have to figure out how to rotate Spikes, Steve Gregory and whoever they choose as their third cornerback (more on that later).

Jerod Mayo had a couple of rough moments in coverage but overall had a decent game against the run and generated one sack and one pressure. Mayo allowed three catches on five targets for 24 yards.

Jamie Collins got more playing time than he had in the first two weeks of the season. He got into the backfield once on a running play but failed to fill his gap on another.

CORNERBACKS

As we saw last week, Alfonzo Dennard was a stud for the first half of the game but tailed off a little as the action wore on. Dennard had stretches when receivers couldn’t get an inch on him. But when the second-year corner was targeted, he was prone to getting turned around.

Dennard saw more action in the slot. He got beat badly on one route by Eric Page but was physical in his press. Dennard allowed five receptions on 10 targets for 108 yards.

Aqib Talib did a really nice job shutting down Vincent Jackson early in the game. He allowed three catches for 34 yards on seven targets, but he also found an interception and was glued to the No. 1 receiver for the rest of the first half.

Kyle Arrington was sidelined midway through the third quarter after he had got beat for the fifth time in the game (by my count). Arrington was flagged for pass interference during the first quarter and seemed to lose his job in the base defense to Dennard after that play.

Logan Ryan filled in for Arrington, first being used outside, then in the slot. It’s unclear whether Arrington got benched due to poor play or just to give the rookie a chance. Ryan was also flagged for pass interference and did not play better than Arrington.

Arrington got beat more than he had in Weeks 1 and 2, but overall still had a solid game, which makes me doubt that he was benched for poor performance. Arrington allowed two catches on six targets for 21 yards. Ryan let up two catches on four targets for 23 yards.

SAFETIES

Devin McCourty had a very good game against his former college coach. McCourty manned center field for much of the game, at times being the only safety on the field. He bailed out his cornerbacks on a few plays. McCourty was never targeted as the lone defender.

Gregory had a down game after a strong start to the season. He missed a couple of tackles and slipped in coverage, allowing Tim Wright to get wide open on a pass to the end zone that Josh Freeman missed. Gregory still had a decent game, playing Cover 1 and Cover 2. Gregory was targeted once. He did not allow a reception.

Duron Harmon filled in for Gregory in the middle of the game. He covered his targets well while on the field. Harmon was not targeted.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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